Every time Alex Young sinks his hands into the soil on the roof of Red Bank High School, he likes to think he is contributing to something big.
As he and other students tend the peppers and tomatoes, all grown on the school's "green" roof, Young hopes it teaches valuable lessons about sustainable agriculture and gives students a better understanding of where their food is grown.
"I think change is coming, but it's getting a slow start," said Young, a recent Red Bank graduate.
Green roofs are springing up all across Chattanooga. Atop Girls Preparatory School and the Creative Discovery Museum, just to name two, the roofs' plants and dirt absorb rainwater that might have flooded the ground. They also cool buildings by absorbing sunlight.
In Red Bank's case, the garden does all that, but it also provides a space to grow vegetables. Just a small, 1,600-square-foot portion of the school's roof is planted with row crops and other water-absorbing plants.
Advanced placement biology students maintain the Red Bank gardens and also use the space as an outdoor lab, said teacher LuShan Webb.
"It gives the students valuable hands-on experience outside the classroom," Webb said. "It teaches them how you can do sustainable agriculture in small areas."
Webb wants city dwellers to realize they can grow some of their own food, even in unconventional places. Doing so is better for the environment because it takes produce-delivery trucks off the road and uses otherwise dead space.
Young, who plans to study horticulture and environmental engineering at the University of Georgia this fall, said he already sees some changes in attitudes.
"We have a teacher who lives in an apartment ... and she's taking the idea of a green roof to the management," said Young, who split time between his Red Bank home and his family's Middle Georgia farm as a kid.
When he graduates college, he wants to be the first person to implement "skyscraper agriculture," turning big-city buildings into multistory farms.
"I live in an apartment, and we have plants hanging off our balcony," Young said. "You can do a lot in a small space."
It cost Red Bank about $2,700 to establish the garden, which was paid for with grants from the Junior League of Chattanooga, Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and the Red Bank City Commission. The school also received a donation of plants from Hickman Greenhouse in Middle Valley.
This is the second summer for the green roof. Webb hopes when the plants are at their peak, he can invite the community to enjoy free produce. Until then, students will take home the veggies.
"I think the takeaway is that something like this is possible in a lot of urban landscapes," Webb said. "Even if you don't have actual land, you can propagate vegetables."
Contact staff writer Adam Crisp at email@example.com or 423-757-6323. Follow him online: www.facebook.com/crispreporter and www.twitter.com/adam_crisp.