Just grow up! A schoolyard taunt, maybe, but the phrase is also advice to any gardener — especially the urban type — who has limited space in which to cultivate a garden. On Saturday, June 14, Wil Crary of VertiFarms explains the concept of vertical gardening at a free talk hosted by Parkway Partners.
“A vertical garden can be useful in a lot of different applications,” said Crary, a newly minted Tulane University grad and garden manager for VertiFarms. “Maybe you don’t have space for a traditional in-ground garden, or maybe you want a different kind of growing environment for your edibles than you do for your ornamentals.”
VertiFarms was founded by Doug Jacobs and Kevin Morgan-Rothschild, who partnered with a Florida company that makes a patented tower for growing herbs, vegetables and even flowers aeroponically. “Aeroponic” means the roots of the plants are surrounded by air (as opposed to hydroponic, in which they are growing in water) rather than soil. Each tower assembly stands nearly 9 feet tall and includes a reservoir for water at the base and a tubular tower above. The circular tower is punctuated by a series of 44 slots in which seedlings are inserted. The towers — made of a specially engineered plastic — cost about $600 each, installed.
“The towers don’t just save space, but the aeroponic approach avoids having any soil contaminants taken in by the plants, so they are healthy to consume,” Crary said.
But since most plants draw nutrients from the soil, what nourishes plants grown aeroponically?
“Mist,” said Crary. “But not just plain mist. The reservoir at the base of each tower holds 20 gallons of water mixed with a compound of nutrients. The mix is pumped up to the top of the tower through a tube, then sprayed out at the top so that it descends like a very fine rain, delivering the moisture and nutrients the plants need to thrive. That cycle is continuous.”
Crary said that the process conserves water because water recirculates through the system. The nutrient levels in the water are monitored regularly.
“Sometimes, after we get a lot of rain, the mix can get diluted,” he said. “We like to change out the water and add fresh nutrients about once a month.”
If the idea sounds a little space age, it isn’t. The Rouse’s Market in the Central Business District, known for its “Roots on the Rooftop” garden, has 60 of the towers in which herbs and leafy greens are grown for its network of stores around town. Dominique’s Restaurant on Magazine Street Uptown combines the towers with other vertical growing techniques to generate most of the herbs and leafy greens that the restaurant uses.
And two schools — Isidore Newman and Joseph S. Clark — use their towers to supplement their dining hall options and to educate youngsters about plants’ growth cycle and the nutritive value of fresh produce.
Crary’s goal at the talk is to introduce the idea of aeroponic towers to residential gardeners and to demystify the idea of “grow your own.”
“The talk will be oriented toward explaining the value of aeroponic growing and how simple the towers are to use,” he said. “Everything you grow does not have to be herbs and lettuces. Ornamentals like nasturtiums, which are also edible and delicious, are a good choice, as are marigolds, because they attract beneficial insects.”
Tomatoes, eggplants and peppers have been successfully grown in towers, and Crary said more are being tested.
Recently, VertiFarms has allied itself with Garden Thyme, a new plant nursery on South Broad Street that is one of several businesses helping to revitalize that commercial corridor.
“Garden Thyme is where we are based now and where you can buy plants for the towers,” said Crary. “Seeds are started in a special rock fiber base and develop until roots are visible and they are ready for the towers.”
Learn more about vertical gardening at the Parkway Partners’ “Second Saturday” program, Saturday, June 14, beginning at 10 a.m. at 1137 Baronne St.
Margee Green of NOCCA’s Press Street Gardens and Patrick Ellis of CRISP Farms will demonstrate vertical gardening techniques they have developed.
The greenhouse will be open from 9 a.m. to noon. Admission to both the talk and greenhouse plant sale is free.
Call (504) 620-2224 for moreinformation or visit www.parkwaypartnersnola.org for more information.