Produce from parking lot garden helps cancer patients

Group photo on top of parking garage with vegetable garden

The largest vegetable and herb garden in the University of Chicago Medicine's history, on top of Parking Garage B, raised close to $200 for charity during a farmers market Aug. 29, bringing the total amount donated over the years to roughly $1,000.

It's just one of the ways this year's garden — double the size of last year's — used its hundreds of pounds of fresh food for good.

This year's bountiful harvest went to:

  • The hospital’s cancer and bariatric patients, who can take what they free of charge.
  • Nutritional presentations by hospital dietitians, who gave it out to participants, along with recipes.
  • A farmers market in the hospital's Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine (DCAM) atrium, with all proceeds donated to the American Heart Association's Chicago Heart Walk.

This marks the third year UChicago Medicine's nutrition services and grounds teams have maintained a giant vegetable and herb garden on the 8th floor of the parking garage, as well as a small garden outside Wyler Pavilion.

“It’s been way more successful and productive than we had ever imagined,” said Doug Daudell, manager of real estate operations, who helps build and water the garden each year. “Everything grows well up here.”

The unobstructed sunlight, the heat-absorbing concrete, the lack of garden-destroying critters, and daily watering by the grounds crew helps the garden on the parking garage thrive.

Starting in August, the nutrition services volunteers picked crates-full of vegetables every day. Licensed dietitian-nutritionist Jessica Schultz, who is on the garden committee, estimates each harvest yielded about 40 pounds of produce.

Holding carrots in the veggie garden

The garden idea was born after members of UChicago Medicine’s nutrition garden committee successfully planted a few vegetable plants outside Wyler Pavilion. It led the committee to apply for — and get — a $10,000 sodium-reduction education grant from the Illinois Hospital Association to build UChicago Medicine’s first real garden in the Wyler courtyard in 2016. That garden is still thriving.

Inspired by the book “The Farm on the Roof” and with help from vendor/gardener Anne Roberts, the committee decided to expand the garden to the often-empty garage rooftop. They set up planters along the perimeter of the open lot, which occupies roughly a full city block (bordered by 56th and 57th streets and Cottage Grove and Maryland avenues).

They hauled in four semi-trucks full of soil and used it to plant basil, parsley, carrots, eggplant, tomatoes, lettuce, arugula, kale, cucumbers, onions, beets, Brussels sprouts, squash, peppers, corn, edible flowers, kohlrabi (a little-known veggie in the cabbage family), green beans, jalapeños and more.

They even utilized the landscaped areas that divide the parking spaces, filling them with vegetable plants. One section now contains 6-foot-high corn stalks.

There is already talk of expanding the garden next year, maybe even adding fruit trees and a greenhouse.

Daudell is looking to partner with others across the University of Chicago campus to convert more rooftop spaces into vegetable gardens. Not only does it reduce the hospital’s carbon footprint, it’s relatively inexpensive. He said the money now being spent for other landscaping in these spaces can be used for vegetable plantings instead.