Donation brings hydroponic gardening to women's shelter

Hi-Rise Harvest donates vertical aqua gardens to Orlando's Women's Residential and Counseling Center

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Donation brings hydroponic gardening to women's shelter
Joseph Grey

Snap peas picked right off the vine have a crunchy texture and savory flavor that reminds your tongue what good health is supposed to taste like. Few pleasures match the simplicity of eating raw veggies you grew yourself on a sunny day.

That's what residents of the Women's Residential & Counseling Center, located just off Magnolia Avenue downtown, will learn to do this year. In one corner of the bright, landscaped courtyard of the facility, which offers housing for women and children escaping from domestic abuse, homelessness and poverty, fresh peas are just one of a multitude of fresh vegetables that will be harvested there due to a donation that could make the WRCC one of the most productive and sustainable emergency shelters around.

Plants and seed pods are embedded in a series of vertical hydroponic planters, made of seven plastic containers stacked one on top of the other. A sprinkler pours water into the highest container, which then drips through a perlite medium (a volcanic glass rock that helps retain water) into the containers below, finally landing in a green water basin that houses a pump. The water contains nutrients for the plants, so they can grow without soil. (It's a system about which there has been some debate: Can this be considered “organic,” since it does not use bacteria in the soil to convert the nutrients?) Most of the columns house mere sprouts placed here within the last few weeks, but a couple are already growing long vines of tomatoes or squash or even watermelons.

They're called “vertical aqua gardens,” and they were donated to the shelter by local businesswoman Barrie Freeman and her new venture, Hi-Rise Harvest. The idea is to use these curious structures to educate the facility's residents, many of whom have little experience with fresh produce, much less gardening, on the value of better diets and modern techniques for growing. The seven units, each of which can produce hundreds of pounds of veggies in a typical season while taking up only a couple of square feet of space, were installed in March.

“This is the growing of the future,” Freeman says. “We are one of the last industrialized countries that doesn't grow this way.”

The short-term goal is home-grown food. But Freeman says the long-term goal is to give the women who live here confidence and new skills.

“It was so exciting when we heard,” says Muffet Robinson director of communications and community relations for the Coalition for the Homeless, which operates the WRCC. “For us, it's such a win-win. We get all this good food, and we have a new partner.”

Barrie Freeman is a familiar facein Orlando. She was a major force in the Orlando nightclub scene in the '90s - she owned fondly remembered spots like Yab Yum Coffeehouse, Kit Kat Club, Harold & Maude's, Go Lounge and the Globe Restaurant.

Though she had grown up around and spent most of her adult life running restaurants, she says that organic gardening wasn't something she'd considered in the 1990s. “It wasn't the same trend that it is now,” she says. “I didn't go out of my way to source organic food. I probably couldn't have found any retailers if I did.”

As for growing her own, Freeman says, she found trying to coax food out of the Florida soil frustrating. So about two years ago, she began looking into hydroponics, semi-closed systems in which plants are raised with nutrient-rich water running continuously over their roots. Hydroponics has a number of advantages over traditional gardening: Elevated containers mean no kneeling on the ground, which means less pressure on gardeners' backs. The gardener controls the amount of moisture and, in the case of indoor units, light. And since hydroponics allow you to grow only what you plant, there are no weeds to contend with and fewer pests.

It's a not a new idea. It has been in practice in one form or another since the 18th century, but it's only recently become recognized as a possible replacement for conventional farming, as overcrowding in countries like Japan and South Korea have left growers with little land to farm, forcing innovation in food production.

After taking a couple classes at Urban Sunshine Organic and Hydroponic Gardening, which has stores in Daytona, Altamonte Springs and Orlando, Freeman had an idea. “Once I saw how easy and productive this was, I said, ‘We could do that,'” she says. She and her husband Tommy, a carpenter, started hammering out the details for their own vertical hydroponic prototype. They wanted to improve on the models that already existed, especially their looks. “It's just as easy to make them pretty as to make them ugly,” she says.

She also wanted to make the growing units better. She says that most of the systems she found would only allow users to grow small plants, like cherry tomatoes or hot peppers. If a hydroponic system was going to make a dent in the average person's food budget, she says, it would need to support larger, more productive plants.

In March 2011, Freeman began manufacturing gardens of her design, and she placed them on the roof of the restaurant she runs in DeBary, called Genuine Bistro. She also put units on the roof of 100 E. Pine St. downtown, a building owned at the time by her old friend Cameron Kuhn. The result?

“We grew just over three-quarters of a ton of food in one year,” she says. Much of that went to the bistro, but some went to local food harvests and charities. The experiment was such a success that Hi-Rise Harvest plans to sell units in retail stores beginning this summer. The estimated cost of the system is $400, but Freeman says that it has the potential to easily pay for itself.

“To eat right is expensive,” she says. “You watch your produce bill at the grocery store, cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching. There has to be a better way.”

Marty Vevera, director of volunteerservices for the Coalition for the Homeless, was the first to be contacted by Hi-Rise Harvest about the donation. “I was intrigued when Barrie came to my office and explained about hydroponic gardening,” she says. “When she said she wanted to donate a vertical aqua garden to the Coalition, I immediately thought of the residents at the WRCC. I thought the area right outside the kitchen, near the playground, would be the perfect place for the garden.”

Indeed, it's a pretty place for the garden - Freeman and Robinson inspect the towers under the clear, blue sky and the trickling sounds of the water in the vertical aqua gardens is calming. It's hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm they share for this project - though some WRCC residents needed some coaxing to get into it.

“For the majority of these women, this is something they haven't been exposed to,” says Stacy McKenna, director of the WRCC, so it's taken some work to get the women interested and invested. Freeman says she did get one resident working on the garden, but she has since found a job and moved on. (Appropriately enough, she's now building green “Earthships” in the Southwest.) All of the other people involved in the garden since then have been staff, mostly from the kitchen.

Still, no one involved in the project seems discouraged. “We work with clients to get into healthy activities,” Robinson says. “We also work on self-concept. ... This is something where they can say, ‘I can see the fruits of my labor.'”

Robinson and Freeman say the center harvested some squash and tomatoes last week to serve with residents' meals. It's empowering, it seems, as much to the administrators of the program as it is hoped that it will eventually be for the residents. Freeman, in particular, is eager to see the next big harvest the towers will bring.

“We're all looking forward to when there's enough here to put a salad on everyone's plate,” she says. “There is something so ancient to this. … It's that sharing of the heart.”

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