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Vertical Gardening in the 21st Century

The Smithsonian Associates’ March program, “Vertical Gardens,” sold out in advance. About 120 gardeners of all ages spent two hours in the S. Dillon Ripley Center with three young, highly educated, tech-savvy farmer-entrepreneurs who are leaders in the burgeoning urban agriculture movement here in DC, and nationally.

These folks are the farthest thing from the back-to-the-land hippies of yore. Niraj Ray, founder of Cultivate the City (www.cultivatethecity.com/), and Mary Ackley, founder of Little Wild Things City Farm (https://www.littlewildthingsfarm.com/), practice their craft with the help of others in urban pockets including small leftover urban lots, rooftops, restaurant basements, and public school grounds.

Vertical gardening helps make this possible by maximizing space and minimizing the need for water, soil, and mulch. These farmers are also organic, abstaining from herbicides and pesticides. Vertical gardening is scalable and adaptable to smaller spaces like Capitol Hill front or back yards, porches, or even rooftops.

You may want to add vertical gardens to your repertoire, building on information presented here. If not, you may easily share in the bounty these two farms produce by joining Cultivate the City’s CSA (community supported agriculture) program (with shares beginning distribution on April 15) or buying Little Wild Things’ microgreens and edible flowers at local grocers listed on their website.

Cultivate the City
Tempting as it is to share the many fascinating details about Niraj Ray’s training and international agriculture experience, let’s just say that this man loves growing strawberries and is committed to fostering resilient communities where people of all ages are familiar with and have access to locally grown organic food.

Niraj’s Cultivate the City is a for-profit company that he characterizes as a social enterprise. This former National Wildlife Federation Emerging Leader Fellow and EPA staffer’s website has a mission statement and a host of impressive statistics related to the farm’s output and populations served. There is also a map of the dozens of urban farm sites under cultivation, showing many in and around Capitol Hill. These include Barracks Row, Nationals Stadium’s rooftop, J.O. Wilson Elementary School, Gallaudet University, and Union Market. The sites specialize in certain crops, depending on site conditions, which are then pooled and distributed in weekly CSA shares.

Cultivate the City has a newly opened rooftop retail garden center and farm called H Street Farm above the W.S. Jenks & Son hardware store on Bladensburg Road (www.wsjenks.com/). Here you can purchase many of the innovative vertical gardening systems and supplies Niraj uses in his production. They include lightweight fabric flower pouches and balcony-rail saddlebag planters by Root Pouch (http://rootpouch.com/urban_gardening); VEG towers (www.cultivatethecity.com/overview-five/); stackable, high-density, food-safe polystyrene pots slid onto anchoring poles; Zip Grow towers, which are lightweight narrow channels that look like high-tech rain gutters, great for lettuce, spinach, and other greens; and farm walls, which may be mounted on brick or sturdy wooden fences.

Niraj uses primarily super-lightweight growing media, favoring coconut coir, which is a waste product that comes in bricks and is fluffed up to fill planters. Because this PH-neutral medium is free of nutrients (and therefore pests), small amounts of water-soluble nutrients are added to irrigation water such as compost tea and worm-casting compost tea. With the VEG towers, minimal water is required. Overhead drip emitters run for just two minutes a day.

Squirrel Interlude
Squirrels are known garden varmints, but the good news is that they don’t like strawberries. VEG towers also deter squirrels by not offering enough space for them to sit and dig. Furthermore, if VEG tower pots are left their native white, squirrels think it’s water and tend to stay off them. Providing a bird bath is also a way to distract squirrels, says Niraj, who reports seeing native bees, hummingbirds, and even tree frogs on his various DC rooftop farms.

Little Wild Things City Farm
A very different approach to vertical gardening is employed by Little Wild Things City Farm, which grows 50 varieties of microgreens and 15 types of edible flowers in shallow, soil-filled trays. As you may have read in my earlier column on microgreens (www.capitalcommunitynews.com/content/micro-plants-macro-taste), these highly nutritious and tasty plants mature in 9-14 days. Mary Ackley, founder, and Chelsea Barker, farm manager, wanted to farm without the potential risks of longer-season crops. They wanted a high-value crop where they could specialize and quickly learn from each short growing cycle. They correctly reasoned that higher turnover provides great opportunity to sell.

Little Wild Things Farm is organic. It offers micro-produce to wholesale buyers and restaurants. It also grows microgreen centerpieces for weddings and other events, an ecological alternative many prefer. Check the website to see where the products are sold.

Little Wild Things Farm’s produce is more horizontal than vertical, but what qualifies for the vertical category are the stackable tray sets for growing greens under lights indoors. The indoor operation is housed in the 300-square-foot basement of the The Pub & the People restaurant on north Capitol Street (www.thepubandthepeople.com/). Ackley and Barker also grow greens outdoors, on a one-fourth-acre urban monastery site that had been left untended after the gardener monk died. Now that space has been brought back to life, and its small size poses no impediment to the micro-crops growing there.

Real garden soil is used to grow the microgreens. And the soil is generously amended with compost provided through a partnership with another local business, Veteran Compost (www.veterancompost.com/). Veteran Compost is a veteran-owned and -operated company serving the DC metro area by collecting and composting food scraps for delivery to folks who want it. They also make compost tea bags, worm-casting compost, and veggie garden-soil mix. Ackley finds this partnership a great fit with the local-business model.

How It’s Done
During the Smithsonian presentation, farm manager Barker walked attendees through the indoor micro-green process. First, fresh amended soil is scooped into a shallow plant tray. You can use the same plastic trays your nursery plants come in. Any sticks are removed, and the surface is smoothed over evenly, creating a nice seed bed. Next the soil is gently and evenly watered. The seed is then scattered over the surface, not one-by-one but like seasoning with salt, with seeds in bulk poured from a small plastic dish. Some seeds are distributed more densely than others. The seeds are watered. They are not covered with soil, only a layer of damp paper towel or a humidity dome. Ambient temperature should be 68-70 degrees F. After initial overhead watering, the trays are bottom-watered for two minutes a day to reduce the risk of mold. After sprouting, the paper towels are removed. The lighting is a combination of fluorescents and LEDs run on timers for 16 hours a day.

Ackley and Barker use a special commercial blade for harvesting the microgreens, but for home growers a sharp pair of scissors will do. Once the green tops are cut off the plants don’t grow back, so the cycle is over and the trays are replanted.

Ackley, a civil engineer by training, and Barker are both former Peace Corps volunteers, First-generation farmers, they recommend the website Farm Hack (http://farmhack.org). They jokingly told their Smithsonian Associates audience, “We totally taught ourselves to farm on YouTube.”


Cheryl Corson is a licensed landscape architect and writer serving Capitol Hill and beyond (www.cherylcorson.com). She learned to grow vegetables in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in the distant 1970s.

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