Sontag Rooftop Garden Withers Without Student Attention

The Sontag rooftop garden at Pomona College offers sweeping views from its subtle, peaceful home atop the residence hall. Athearn Field sits to the south, and the terrace provides panoramic visions of the other 5C campuses, set against the backdrop of softly blue mountains. And yet, the terrace is often quiet, populated by tin containers filled with gray, pebbly soil supporting meager plant life. 

Sontag Resident Adviser Cristian Monroy PO ’14 was given a watering can by his predecessor in hopes that he would continue to care for the Rooftop Garden. However, this tradition has little student movement behind it: For the most part, the Sontag Rooftop Garden has been a forgotten space and resource on campus. 

Pomona’s sustainable residence halls, Pomona and Sontag, were completed in fall 2011, along with the Sontag rooftop garden and solar panel installations atop Pomona Hall. The buildings were the first college residence halls in California to earn the platinum level of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, making their construction a significant accomplishment for the college in terms of sustainability. 

“It’s nice to say I live in Sontag, one of the only green buildings in the nation,” Monroy said. “It’s a huge achievement for the school, moving forward and creating our own sources of energy, specifically because of the solar panels on Pomona Hall.”

Despite this achievement in sustainability, the rooftop garden has not necessarily played its expected role as a gathering place and community-builder. Although it is used by a community service group and other clubs on occasion, the garden often fades into the backdrop. 

Monroy said that at the beginning of the year, the garden was essentially abandoned and dead. The plants were unlabeled, making it difficult for those not acquainted with gardening to properly care for them. There is no requirement for Sontag residents to tend to the garden, though Monroy tries to take care of the plant life with pockets of extra time. 

Pomona students “might know we have a rooftop garden, but do they care?” Monroy said. “No, not really. It is a gathering space, and I think to a certain degree, people take it for granted. People don’t notice it for its original purpose.” 

For Monroy, the rooftop garden has definite appeal. 

“The first time I toured here, I came up here and it looked beautiful,” he said. “Since that moment, I’ve seen the rooftop garden to be something very special.” 

While students may not regularly tend to the garden, other groups have left their mark. 

The Draper Center for Community Partnerships offers Team Green, a program supporting high school student involvement with the garden. The group aims to expose students to environmental
issues and sustainability from an early age. Students come from the Pomona area
and learn to plant seeds and harvest vegetables and plants from their Pomona mentors.

Sometimes these kids, known as “mentees,” even partake in fun
activities like scavenger hunts at the Pomona Organic Farm. Through these hands-on ventures, mentees learn about environmental justice issues that
affect people on both an individual and community basis. The program also gets kids, many of whom are on the road to
becoming first-generation college students, onto a college campus, getting them excited about the university experience. 

Monroy remembers one project that Team Green students contributed to this year by creating clay art pieces with hand imprints and connecting them to nature. The mentees placed the artwork around the plants, making their presence and work at the garden known. 

“They were unconventional, really different, and interesting,” Monroy said. “The presence of students makes a difference.” 

The lack of student involvement, apart from Team Green, could be because many
students, especially those who do not live in Sontag Hall, are not aware of the garden’s function, or even that it exists.

are invested in their own dorm, and are not going to go out of their way to
tend to something in another dorm unless they really care about it,” Monroy said. 

Compared to the Sontag rooftop garden, the Organic Farm is much more frequently used and enjoys a significantly larger group of student volunteers.

“There’s no core group here, and that changes things,” Monroy said. “It provides a contrast to what the Farm is.”

The Organic Farm, a 1.5-acre space consisting of fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, bee hives, an Earth Dome, and chickens, was founded in 1998 and aims to engage the college community in organic agriculture and promote debate on what sustainable food systems look like . 

“Our mission is educational rather than production-focused,” Farm Leader and Education Coordinator Jennifer Schmidt PO ’14 said. “A
lot of people have asked whether we supply produce to the dining halls and
assume that that’s our goal, but that’s not the case. We’re interested in
teaching people and the personal development that can occur when people are
learning to grow their own food, and we don’t want to sacrifice that in order
to grow enough to supply the dining halls.”

Through its compost program, the Farm makes use of food and waste from the dining halls. The program saves over a ton of food waste per week from
going to landfills and allows the Farm to grow food organically, without
chemical fertilizers.

Although the Farm has a variety of programs available for students to participate in, such as Farm Club and a weekly farm stand, it is easy for the Farm, too, to hide away in Pomona’s southeastern corner. 

“I hope
people realize that they’re always welcome at the Farm during daylight hours,
so they can come down just to read on the Hammer Throw field or do a little
weeding,” Schmidt said. “It’s my favorite space at Pomona, and I hope more people come just to
spend time there and get away.”

When compared to the Farm, the Sontag rooftop garden has played a somewhat different role. Though it may be less noticed, the Garden is cared for by a small but dedicated group and also offers a space for students seeking to briefly escape from the bustle of thoughts and to-dos. 

“You can stand on the northern ledge and look out onto Athearn Field and appreciate everything—where you are, and why you’re here,” Monroy said.

Julia Thomas contributed reporting.

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply