There are three key ingredients to making a garden grow: earth, water and light. Although we are familiar with the typical garden variations to maximize that combination, thinking outside of the proverbial boxed garden can inspire us to take advantage of our home, land or neighborhood’s unique attributes. Utilizing a body of water on our property, collaborating to get the most out of our garden space and taking advantage of basement space are all possibilities forgrowing produce.
Time is of the essence is a saying that applies directly to planting and harvesting. For those who struggle with finding the time to research, build and maintain what fits their land and food needs best, a Ridgefield-based company has stepped in with custom at-home garden designing and upkeep in Connecticut’s Fairfield and Litchfield Counties, and New York’s Westchester County. John Carlson, an entrepreneur and committed environmentalist certified by the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) as an accredited organic land care professional, started Homefront Farmers in 2011 with the goal of helping people produce their own food organically.
Carlson originally thought the main part of his business would be design and construction. However, he found there was more business in the maintenance of clients’ gardens. “Most of our clients want to learn how to do it themselves; it’s not just people that don’t have time to maintain the garden but those who want to learn but are overwhelmed. We therefore try to plan our maintenance visits for when they are available to enable them to ask questions and work with us in the garden,” says Carlson. Homefront Farmers schedules weekly visits under a maintenance plan—similar to a lawn service—to do everything from planting to harvesting, depending on how much the client wants to be involved. The garden design/construction, the flat fee or ad hoc maintenance plan, and the number and types of plants are the three cost variables for clients.
Homefront Farmers’ gardeners utilize the best practices they have learned from managing hundreds of gardens and NOFA’s organic standards to create the crop rotation, companion planting and succession planting that best fit the client’s land, resources and wishes. With the program’s success and the increased need for organic seedlings, Homefront Farmers even recently purchased its own 11.5-acre plot in Redding to source some of its plant needs.
Vincenzo Torcasio, owner of Bethel-based Aqua-Scapes (AquascapesPool.com), emphasizes utilizing plants to clear up water features on the property. “Excess nutrients outside—such as fertilizers in our lawns—get washed into our waterways. Plants have the ability to soak up these nuisances and phosphates,” he explains. If there are low nutrient levels in the water, by incorporating water plants that are high-nutrient seekers—such as cattails, irises or water mint—gardeners can achieve better filtration for better water quality. Torcasio, whose company creates natural pools utilizing the self-cleaning power of plants, says that a water garden can offer more than grasses to gardeners; banana trees, water lettuce, exotic flowers, lotuses, lilies and other plants can be included in design.
Creating a floating garden which uses the water beneath it and access to full sun is one of the ideas behind the Swale barge project (SwaleNY.org). The 110-foot by 30-foot floating edible forest is being collaboratively designed and tested by a nautical engineer, landscape architects, gardeners, artists, educators, students and the United States Coast Guard. Set to float up and down New York’s Hudson River, the barge will include a growing dome with tree crops such as quinces and apples, a range of food and herb production spaces, and an aquaculture component. The floating garden also will act as a river water purifier to help clean the waterway. If the water has nitrogen and phosphorus washing down from communities and factories upstream, the barge plants can pick up the extra nutrients. Acting on a much larger scale, the barge is mimicking the small water ecosystems Torcasio sets up for his clients’ pools and aquaspaces. By engineering a customized filtration system, the river water can also be desalinated and chemical and biological contaminants removed to help irrigate the Swale barge’s plants.
One of the many collaborators on the SWALE project is Jono Neiger, a founding partner of the Massachusetts-based Regenerative Design Group with 25 years of experience in conservation, restoration, land stewardship, permaculture, and landscape planning and design. “One of our goals is to have an educational component and community outreach,” he says. “In addition to sharing surplus, we would like to do some commercial production and have the opportunity to grow the culinary or medicinal herbs that area restaurants, herbalists and health food stores would like to carry.”
Neiger explains that, similar to designing a home garden, the barge’s planners are matchmaking by putting plants in combinations where they support each others’ activity. Some may excel at attracting pollinators, while others make more nutrients available or provide great ground cover that reduces weeding. With the barge’s shallower soil levels—similar to rooftop gardens—plants such as Dutch clover or crimson clover could be used under a fruit tree for ground cover. Yarrow or bee balm would not only provide visual beauty but also act as a pollinator supporter.
Moving production inside and year-round is the goal of Steve Domyan, who founded Metrocrops with his wife and partner, Nancy. The high-density urban indoor farm, which began in 2011 with the help of a USDA research grant in a University of Connecticut location, focuses on reliably growing indoor salad greens with the use of artificial light. Now located in an 8,000-square-foot factory space in Bridgeport, the growroom produces 400-500 pounds of baby arugula, dwarf kale and baby leaf lettuce a month for area restaurants and consumers across the country. “Our USDA-tested lettuce has been found to have twice the nutritional value of field-grown leaf lettuce because they are not dependent on weather conditions with set room temperatures and a lack of plant-eating insects,” explain Steve.
Although Metrocrops utilizes a commercial-size tray system, there has been an increasing demand for the smaller tray models that are sold to individuals or small businesses. A $600 tabletop unit—which holds two 3-foot growing trays and utilizes LED growing lights —can produce ½ to one pound of salad greens a week with only 18 days until the first harvest. The seeds are grown on food-grade burlap with a pump circulating fertilized water every few hours through the water reservoir and plants. “Our dwarf kale leaves are thicker and softer—no bigger than a half-dollar—with a milder taste than farm kale. Our arugula is high quality and extremely spicy; vendors charge $45 a pound at farmers’ markets and they still sell out,” boasts Steve. With four- and eight-tray options available as well for $1200 and $2200, respectively, he has clients who have started to grow the salad greens to sell to local restaurants, netting several hundred dollars a month in some cases.
These out-of-the-ordinary ways of growing our own food can provide inspiration to us to reach out for help with gardening, to look to our local waterways as a food source, and to bring our greenery inside for year-round production. You can get your hands in the dirt or in the water no matter which way you choose to garden.