On a recent morning, Jed Schenkier stood on the parking garage roof at Weiss Memorial Hospital, staring at a four-foot-tall stack of wooden boxes. To anybody else, the mismatched yellow and green boxes might look ready for the recycle bin. But look closer: Bees climb over each other on a little ledge at the bottom of the stack. They lift off and fly away into the city, or return on a wind gust and slip inside the lowest box.
Schenkier might look like a random 20-something at first glance—in shorts and a t-shirt with dancing vegetables on it, his shaggy hair in tangles. He is one of two beekeepers and the volunteer responsible for starting the rooftop garden at Weiss.
“I have to give that to Alderman [Helen] Shiller,” said Schenkier, who learned to garden from his parents. From the rooftop, he pointed to the building where he used to live, one that overlooked an empty lot. He had drawn up community garden plans for the open space, taking them to Shiller’s office. “She laughed and it didn’t happen, but that’s why I’m here,” he said. Last spring, he saw Shiller at another community garden, and she mentioned that Weiss was looking for a volunteer to start a rooftop garden. His plans could become a reality.
Shiller considered Schenkier an ideal candidate and recommended him to Terry Tuohy, director of volunteer services at Weiss. Working with hospital leadership, Tuohy led the charge in finding a way to bring the garden to life.
Weiss administrators decided to start the garden in order to bring the ideas behind “Health for Life,” the hospital’s new initiative, to the community. Health for Life operates under the idea that maintaining key health factors (such as body mass index, blood glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol, exercise and diet) will lead to a healthier life.
“What could we do to get thinking outside the box?” Tuohy asked herself. Before long, she found an answer: “Being healthy starts with food.”
Schenkier’s motivations run along similar lines. “I didn’t want to eat all this crazy food out there anymore,” he said. “People shouldn’t have to eat profit-driven food. They shouldn’t have to choose between Whole Foods and fast food.”
In April, he got to work, along with friend Will Pool and aunt Donna Buyer. Weiss invested $2,500 in the initial growing boxes, soil and tools. Within the first six weeks of the Uptown Farmers Market, held in the Weiss parking lot, Schenkier sold $500 in rooftop produce. He also met people at the market interested in helping with the garden. One man lives nearby, and stops by on Tuesdays and Thursdays to water the plants.
The 20 growing boxes mounted around the rim of the rooftop—each roughly eight feet long and three feet deep—contain dozens of different fruits and vegetables. From one box, corn stalks reach three feet high into the air. In another, watermelon vines cascade down the sides. There are also berries, beans, beets, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, herbs and okra. “The conditions up here are perfect,” Schenkier said. “There’s uninterrupted sunlight, and rabbits aren’t a problem.”
The wind, though, dehydrates plants. And when he’s not working as a bellhop at the James Hotel downtown, Schenkier visits the rooftop two to five times a week to water his crop.
He credits his success to a common sense understanding of what it takes to grow. “It’s easy. You put a seed in the dirt, and it grows. You don’t cut at the stem because the plant has a whole root system, and if you put [the plant] in a new place, it’ll be unhappy for a few days because that was a huge shock to its system.”
That morning on the roof, Schenkier pulled a stepladder from the corner and climbed up to look at the bush beans. Pulling one off, he took a bite and smiled, then moved down a few feet to the next box, where a two-centimeter watermelon dangled from a vine. The fruit, he said, “will be baseball size in three days and basketball size in two weeks.”
Back by the beehive, Schenkier lifted the top of the highest box. Inside, bees climbed over each other and flew up into the edges. “There are 50,000 of them in there,” he said, and those 50,000 bees pollinate throughout the city—including the boxes mounted along the rim of the parking garage roof, playing an integral part in the growth process.
Sometimes, Schenkier visits the roof to sit and watch the bees, and sometimes people who don’t know about the garden call security on him. “There’s lots of open space up here. It’s a cool little place to hang out.”
“It’s dangerous not to know where your food comes from or how,” he said, adding that he continues to garden because “it’s political, but it’s not entirely that. I just like to grow things. One rooftop garden is not going to change everything, but it’s part of a movement. We’re part of a movement.”