Graduate student Paula Butts got up extra early Monday to harvest carrots from a strange-looking garden at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Vegetables are growing from holes in black, polypropylene mesh tubes that line a deck outside the second-floor restaurant at Morris University Center.
“It’s been raining so much, (the carrots) just come right out,” said Butts, 24, of Troy, kneeling on the aggregate-rock deck, her long blond hair tied back in a ponytail. “It’s not too difficult.”
Butts tossed the carrots, leafy green tops and all, in a white bucket and carried them inside for weighing and measuring.
The “rooftop” garden is part of an experiment by the SIUE biology department. It consists of 90 tubes, each containing one of three compost mixtures. Student researchers are trying to determine which work best for different vegetables.
“We’ve been growing lettuce, carrots, bush beans and cucumbers,” said Bill Retzlaff, 56, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who is overseeing the experiment.
Butts earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Eastern Illinois University in Charleston before entering the environmental science master’s program at SIUE. She will analyze data on the carrots later this month for her thesis.
“My mom has a huge garden, and my grandmother does, too,” she said. “I guess that’s where I got (my interest in growing things).”
Retzlaff and Butts were joined Monday by Rob Carrothers, a representative of Filtrexx Sustainable Technologies, the company that makes the mesh tubes.
Officially known as “soxx,” the tubes are 3 feet long and eight inches in diameter. Black hoses run down the middle for irrigation.
“By concentrating (compost), we use less of it to grow the crops,” said Carrothers, 65. “And because we encapsulate it in the soxx, it prevents weed penetration, so it’s more efficient.”
Butts planted about five miniature-carrot seeds in each of 10 holes in each of 24 tubes, for a total of about 1,200 carrots. She harvested half at a time.
The first batch went to the SIUE dining hall last month. Some ended up on the salad bar and some were served as side dishes, sauteed in butter and brown sugar.
“Everybody who ate them told me they were really sweet,” Retzlaff said. “I told them that it was because my students took such good care of them.”
During the second round of harvesting, Retzlaff sat at a table next to undergraduate Research Assistant Kayla Tatum, 23, of St. Louis, who showed up on her birthday to help with record-keeping. Retzlaff wielded a ruler and caliper.
“We’re measuring the length and diameter of the top of 20 carrots from each tube so we can evaluate the performance of the (compost mixtures),” he said. “We want to know if it had any effect on the size.”
After all the carrots were harvested, Retzlaff put them in plastic tubs, rolled them to the dining hall on a metal cart and turned them over to Eric Ruhmann, dining services chef.
“(The carrots) are so fresh, we don’t even have to bother peeling them,” said Ruhmann, 46, of Smithton. “We just wash them. The peels are really thin and fine.
“For the salad bar, I like to leave the tops on. They look a little nicer. They just really present well. They’re very tender and sweet. They’re excellent.”
Ruhmann has his own garden at home where he grows tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, sugar snap peas, lettuce, spinach and herbs.
“It’s only about 4-by-12 feet, but I get a lot out of it,” he said. “You can do a lot in a small space when it comes to gardening. It also gets the kids involved. I think that’s the best part.”