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ND research center going green

In this Monday, July 6, 2009 picture, Lowell Machart, the maintenance supervisor at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, checks the watering system that he rigged up for watering the second floor patio planters in Grand Forks, N.D. The idea for flowers and vittles on the roof was cultivated by Tom Vilsack, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, who sent a note around to all USDA offices urging that they find ways to "green" their buildings. (AP Photo/The Grand Forks Herald, John Stennes)1 / 2
In this Monday, July 6, 2009 picture, Kay Keehr, one of 21 Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center employees with a patio garden patch, holds a rubber rat she found in her planter in Grand Forks, N.D. The idea for flowers and vittles on the roof was cultivated by Tom Vilsack, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, who sent a note around to all USDA offices urging that they find ways to "green" their buildings. (AP Photo/The Grand Forks Herald, John Stennes)2 / 2

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) -- It may appear to the casual observer approaching the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center that one of the experiments is trying to escape.

Don't be alarmed. It's neither mutant nor experimental -- just a healthy, adventuresome vine reaching from the second floor of the U.S. Department of Agriculture building toward the ground, where no doubt it will root soon and bring forth pumpkins by Halloween.

And the bewhiskered rats in two planters on the second-floor patio? Relax. They're rubber.

"Somebody snuck a rat into my box to make it look crummy," Kay Keehr said with mock outrage. A biological sciences technician, she is one of 21 lab employees with garden patches on the patio.

"It's been a great boost for morale," she said, parting purple salvia to get a better look at the fake but still intrusive rodent. "But we're going to have a contest to decide who has the best planter, and it has become very competitive."

The idea for flowers and vittles on the roof was cultivated by Tom Vilsack, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, who sent a note around to all USDA offices urging that they find ways to "green" their buildings.

Employees at the Human Nutrition center knew that the knee-level brick borders on the patio's exterior walls originally were built to hold planters. "They were here in the building, but they had never been used," Keehr said.

With planters located and installed and a supply of peat moss laid in, Keehr sent e-mails inviting the 80-some employees to claim a spot.

The 21 available boxes were gone in a flash, and in early June, senior scientists got their hands dirty planting alongside clerks, technicians and maintenance workers. Lowell Machart, the maintenance supervisor, rigged up an irrigation system that uses "reject" water from the lab's water purification system.

Lisa Jahns, a research nutritionist who just moved here from Tennessee, brought hyacinth bean seeds from home. She was nervous when they didn't pop right up, but someone reminded her that North Dakota is not Tennessee and gardening here requires patience. Sure enough, the exotic plants are waving in the breeze now, luxuriating in the July heat.

Other box planters hold dill, basil, rosemary and thyme, while others sprout tomatoes, strawberries, radishes, beets, peppers and onions. Boxed beds of marigolds, petunias and dainty dianthus deltoids offer color to complement Keehr's purple salvia, black-eyed Susan and moss roses.

Nobody is measuring the presence or potential of trace minerals or otherwise conducting government research in the garden, the employees insist, though Charlene Kuntz, a dietary clerk, did speak with zeal Monday as she proclaimed, "I'm going to feed the world, one zucchini at a time!"

The veggies, USDA-grown if not formally USDA-approved, may be harvested for salsa for a rooftop picnic this fall.

"It is something we all have in common," said Brenda Ling, an information officer at the research center. "It's usually hard to get everybody together on a project here. We work in different labs, with different schedules."

The garden may be extended to a third-floor patio next year, Keehr said, allowing more employees to take part.

"It's amazing to see how much you can grow in a small plot," she said. "Maybe this will give other people ideas of their own."

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Information from: Grand Forks Herald, http://www.grandforksherald.com

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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