By: Chrissy Benoit
When I recently walked into the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), the first thing that struck me was that the latest sustainable progressive food program was right in front of me.
Multiple towers of greens, growing vertically, were not hidden in a secured back area of the country’s second-largest convention center, but up front – to greet visitors to the Westwood Lobby.
Dozens of white towers covered in lush, nutrient-dense greens are so beautiful, they almost look like designer décor pieces. Joining others already photographing them, I realized that people are genuinely drawn to the “living” towers.
I spotted Candace Stottle, who, with the support of her husband, Tim, founded Urban Smart Farms, the company that created and installed the towers. She offered me a tour.
First, however, she sent me to wash my hands, as she did not want me unintentionally getting her plants sick. Being a farm geek myself, I was happy to scrub up.
Candace took me into the small nursery where the plants begin. It was simple, clean, and only about the size of a walk-in closet. Open trays of what looked like florist’s foam were teeming with various tiny sprouts.
Crops will vary
For the first harvest, which was June 24, they focused on growing herbs and several types of greens and lettuces. Upcoming crops include kale, tomatoes, peppers, celery, and edible flowers.
Candace explained that this is a four-stage nursery: seed, sprout, root development, and leaves. Then these little babies are transplanted into the towers.
The system is ideal for growing tender lettuces in the summer – they like the temperature between 68 and 73 degrees – while the outside temps are soaring toward the three-digit mark.
Candace explained that the foam-like growing medium is actually spun lava rock. This is the sturdy, clean vessel that nurtures the plants, while they get established during their first week and before they are moved to the towers.
This “rock wool,” as it’s known, allows the plants to drink the special proprietary aeroponic plant food, and to become established in the ionic mineral solution.
There are 81 towers made of food-grade PVC, each about 10 feet tall with 44 spots for plants and with a 2½-square- foot footprint. The towers work with a pH-balanced, gravity-fed water tank, and the towers are piped independently of each other to contain and to prevent the spread of any problems to other towers.
Urban Smart Farms, which manages the tower gardens at the convention center, is planning on 26 annual harvests from the towers of greens and herbs. The produce will be used by Centerplate, the food-service operator for the convention center.
Each tower is hand-harvested by Manager Diego Dutra, who works in the gardens daily.
While the food takes only three weeks to go from seed to supper, making these garden dreams a leafy reality has taken much longer. Molly Crouch, director of sustainability with Centerplate, explained the birth of the garden.
“Chef James Katurakes is our executive chef for Centerplate here at the Orlando Convention Center,” Crouch said. “‘Chef’ has wanted his own herb garden off the kitchen for over 10 years. He and Candace are now working together to grow items that will be utilized in both our current menus and in menus yet to be developed.”
The garden was mainly a combined convention-center-and-Centerplate concept. Urban Smart Farms came along at just the right time to actually give the idea legs to stand on. The timing wasn’t planned, though it does seem like it happened this way on purpose.
Convention guests will benefit. The Centerplate group plans to take advantage of the fast growth cycles in the towers so chefs can create special dishes, upon request, from convention visitors.
The tower system also holds promise as a new farming reality: It will provide a constant supply of nutrient-dense food that can be grown in any season or weather, and in very small spaces.
Think of it as a kitchen cupboard for growing greens.
About the tower gardens:
- The liquid plant food used is a two-part, nitrogen/sodium system that all of these particular plants like.
- The towers control fungus and parasites with a product called Neem, an oil extracted from the Indian lilac tree, which is in the mahogany family. It is a natural product that is used by humans for various physical discomforts as well.
- They use only Johnny Seeds, which have a proven rate of sprouting and are primarily organic.
- There is a 24-hour time-lapse video of the towers at urbansmartfarms.com/visions-gardens-at-occc.
- Only 1 percent of the crop is lost, on average. The tower system uses about 95 percent less water than if the plants were growing in soil. With zero nutrient loss, these plants take one-third the usual time from seed to harvest. One tower, which costs $500 with the nutrient system, can feed a family of four (humans) year-round.