Haute Horticulture

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After seeing a friend’s mobile art gallery—outfitted in an 18-foot diesel box truck with completely clear walls—26-year-old Fort Greene resident Nick Runkle had a vision: a greenhouse on wheels that he could drive across country—fueled only by recycled vegetable oil and solar and wind energy, of course—and thus bring the sustainable agriculture gospel to the masses.

Runkle, who grew up in Iowa, called up childhood chum Justin Cutter, 27, who at the time was working at a bio-intensive mini-farm in California. Together they perfected the “Compass Green” greenhouse-on-wheels plan and this spring they launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $27K to make their dream a reality. In a beguiling video, the two dudes—who could easily have stepped out of a Pendleton for Opening Ceremony ad—describe their plans to drive their fully functional mobile greenhouse to educational institutions across America.

By the end of April, 335 people donated, catapulting Runkle and Cutter past their goal and into mobile greenhouse reality. They wasted no time converting their truck’s engine to run on veggie oil, installing two deep garden beds along each wall, inserting Plexiglass windows into the truck’s sides and roof, and outfitting it with two enormous barrels to catch rainwater, provide irrigation and keep the plants at a regulated temperature. Solar panels on the roof will provide electricity for ventilation, heating pads under the roots, and a projection screen on the side of the greenhouse.

At press time, the duo were growing vegetables in a farm parked curbside in Brooklyn, but by the time you read this they’ll be at large in America, teaching both kids and adults easy, practical steps toward a sustainable future through biointensive sustainable agriculture presentations, greenhouse tours and gardening workshops. Compass Green will visit summer camps, summer programs, parks and farmers’ markets. “It’s remarkable how unifying this project is,” says Runkle.

While the two share experience in agriculture and construction, they’ve happily accepted help from friends and neighbors. Complete strangers—from ranchers in Idaho to teachers in Georgia—have already offered Cutter and Runkle places to stay along the way.

“It’s not at all about us,” says Cutter. “We’re trying to carry something forward that a community of people in Brooklyn—and across the country—are doing for the Earth.”

Bob Hyland is living proof that you don’t need to be a tattooed 20-something to be an urban farming rock star. The 77-year-old Bay Ridge resident has become a city sensation for spreading the gospel of sub-irrigated planter systems, or SIPs.

“SIPs are not rocket science,” says Hyland, who studied at Cal Poly Graduate School of Environmental Design and ran an interior “plantscaping” company in Los Angeles. “The self-watering containers are more of a plumbing system.”

Hyland says in-ground growing is great—if you’ve got farmland. But SIPs, first developed in Europe and perfect for urbanites, are containers with a twist: Rather than watering them daily, you set up a reservoir at the bottom. Plant roots drink periodic “sips” as the water wicks into the potting mix via capillary action. (Though SIPs are a simplified form of hydroponics—a method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions—Hyland resists the term because of its association with marijuana.)

The EarthBox, a SIP you can purchase readymade, was invented by a Florida farmer in 1992 after 19 inches of rain destroyed his tomato crop. Today Home Depot and Lowe’s sell their own versions, called City Pickers and Patio Pickers respectively, for about $30, but DIY solutions can be built for under $10. Hyland’s blog shows how.

It’s a concept that goes back at least a century. The problem, says Hyland, is education. Or lack thereof.

“Europe is far, far ahead of us in consumer horticulture education. No institutions [here] teach modern methods for growing plants,” Hyland says, clearly exasperated with gardeners who won’t get with the times. “Our horticultural institutions teach only in-ground gardening and drain-hole planters. Clay pots were modern in the time of Egyptian pharaohs.”

When Frieda Lim stumbled upon Hyland’s blog in 2009, her Gowanus rooftop farm plan used traditional containers. But she was won over by SIPs’ promise of greater yields, water conservation and portability. Soon Hyland was consulting—free of charge—as she made 75 SIPs out of Rubbermaid tote boxes.

Last summer Lim’s 225-square-foot Slippery Slope Farm yielded mountains of produce, and this year she’s growing chard, kale, mustards, spinach, zukes, cukes, beets, carrots, hakurei turnips, radishes, goji berries, melons, strawberries, herbs, 16 varieties of tomatoes, eight varieties of peppers, six varieties of beans, and a half dozen basils.

“I can’t think of a more beautiful rooftop garden—right above the F train,” Hyland says proudly.

Slippery Slope isn’t the only convert. Last year, Sixpoint started a rooftop garden using recycled beer kegs, and Hyland and Lim are helping retrofit them into SIPs. (Hyland is also experimenting with how much spent grain from the brewery can be added to the soil mix.) This spring Lim launched a SIP project at Park Slope’s P.S. 39. She and Hyland are working with Melissa Ennen to create a rooftop garden at The Commons on Atlantic Avenue. And they’ve just set up Four & Twenty Blackbirds with SIPs window boxes—the sweet bounty is bound for their signature sodas and pies.

Britta Riley kept a saltwater aquarium in her five-story Williamsburg walkup, but it was Michael Pollan’s 2008 Times Magazine essay, “Why Bother?” that inspired her to start growing her own food.

“I had learned a good bit about hydroponics”—the soil-free approach in which plants live on liquid nutrients—“because aquarium-keeping shares so much of the gear,” she explains. “So I started exploring. I quickly learned some of the engineering hurdles that make it capital- and infrastructure-intensive. I thought I’d try to do something in my own space and maximize use of my window light.”

The result was Windowfarms: a compact column of modified plastic bottles that transform any window into a teeming mini tower of urban agriculture. A simple aquarium pump sends water from the bottom bottle to the top, from which it trickles down, from bottle to bottle, through the plants’ roots, burbling like a fountain. Plants grow faster than they would in soil and urban locavores can raise anything from cilantro to collards, reducing the farm-to-table journey to the distance between window kit and kitchen table.

After mastering the system, Riley decided to go pro. She exceeded her $25,000 Kickstarter goal and, drawing upon her experience building websites for the Smithsonian, launched windowfarms.org in August 2009. Since then, 500 Windowfarms kits have been sold (available in two- or four-column systems, they hold 16 or 32 plants and sell for $139.95 or $239.95), and a whopping 19,000 DIYers have downloaded instructions to make their own.

Anti-plastic? Alternative systems are in development. Meanwhile the bottles in Riley’s kits are collected from dumpster dives in city trashcans and recycling facilities, and each one is painted, cut, drilled, packaged and shipped by workers at the nonprofit foundation Mid-Hudson Workshop for the Disabled. Now 34 and living in another five-story South Williamsburg walkup near her store’s shared space with Spacecraft on Bedford between S. Fourth and S. Fifth, Riley insists that there is no such thing as a green thumb.

“I used to say ‘I must have a black thumb; I kill every plant I bring home.’ But just like cooking or riding a bike, caring for plants takes practice, experimentation and a willingness to learn from failure. The reward of having lush healthy life around you can be enough to keep you going once you get the hang of it. Neither magic powers nor folk knowledge passed down from elders are required. All it takes is to keep planting and talking to others who are doing the same.”

Scores of retrofitted Rubbermaid tubs transform a Gowanus rooftop into an urban Eden.

Totes! Frieda Lim planned to use traditional containers on her Gowanus rooftop but she was won over by SIPs’ greater yields, water conservation and portability. Soon Hyland was consulting—free of charge—as she made 75 SIPs out of Rubbermaid tote boxes. This year she’s raising everything from raspberries to turnips.

Photo credit:  Compass Green and Frieda Lim.

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