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Ryan T Conway

Food Freedom Experiment! Do Garden Towers Really Work?

Food Freedom Experiment! Do Garden Towers Really Work?

With seeds of hope and dreams of food abundance, my wife, Andrea, and I purchased a 4.5 acre homestead, in south-central Indiana, this Spring. For fun, we’ve gardened together a few times before, at the apartments we’ve lived in and at our city-house (where we were the neighborhood weirdos, killing our grass to build garden beds). But most of our days were spent as research-academics and science-writers (I’m a political-economist and Andrea’s a neuroscientist), so jumping onto acreage has been a real eye-opener about just how hard it can be, to try to grow our own food. But why would we try to do that, in the first place?

 

 Full disclosure: I’m on a serious weight-loss kick and really into smoothies. But, aside from that, and in all seriousness: we’re lucky enough to live above the poverty-line, most of the time, but it’s not like we can casually afford to stock our fridge from the Summer and Winter farmers markets, every week. We were both lucky enough to get scholarships for school but, of course, it’s becoming more evident all the time that degrees aren’t guarantees for jobs or, hence, income. And, a bit forebodingly, both of our parents suffered great losses during the late-2000’s Financial Crisis…and they’re never going to retire, because of popular yet truly-chaotic systems that failed, outside of their control and regardless of their meticulous financial responsibility.

 

So, sure, we’re aware of Tesla’s latest innovations in electric cars, home battery banks, and solar roofing tiles. And we both lead grassroots nonprofits that fight for community rights and community decisionmaking power: Andrea, as president of the Center for Sustainable Living, and me, as chair of the Bloomington Food Policy Council. We’re still, clearly, all-hopped-up on hope that humanity will turn this ship around, get itself together, and make a future we can all live in…But, as critically-minded people and data-driven scientists, we’re not exactly holding our breath, that’s for sure.

 

 

Simple facts: the State of California produces staggering percentages of America’s food supply…and it’s subject to drought, natural disasters, and supply-side struggles related to immigration and union politics far beyond the scope of this note. Also, if domestic or international crisis slowed or stopped the trucking industry, many towns have 3 days (or less) before significant food shortages begin to occur. And, just to add a global perspective to the mix, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the Earth has about 60 harvests left, given the current methods and rates of agricultural production. If finding these facts unsettling somehow earns me my “tinfoil hat,” then somebody please take my money and buy me shares of stock in Reynolds Wrap’s holding-company.

 

Why try to homestead and grow our own food? Well…we have a handful reasons. How did we get a homestead, with meager means? Well, we have some steady income right now and interest rates on mortgages still make some sense. So why not go for it? Anyway…As fate would have it, the “perfect property,” just outside of town, came-up in an email listserv we belong to, so we “carpe”-ed the “diem” and took the plunge. After a month-long scramble to schlep our stuff to the small limestone house and seemingly-endless (4.5!) acres, we could finally get our food game going…But we were a little too late, in more ways than one.

 

We knew we needed plant-starts and we wanted to learn the whole process, so we kicked-off with some seed-germination. As green shoots popped through the loose potting mix, we knew it was time to prepare the crop-rows, both in the back-field and the greenhouse near the house. But, Holy Basil! We were in for a shock: the greenhouse hadn’t been used for years, so the soil had mineralized…and the watering system for the row-crop field had been shredded by a tractor and long-since grown-over with weedy grasses…all while the farm-tools, kindly left by the previous owners, were mostly rusted or busted. Our dreams were decimated and our game was gone, before we’d really begun. Fail! Panic! Chaos!

 

What to do? We busted out the measuring tape, calculators, and graph paper, and we measured the areas of the field and the greenhouse, to make rough estimates of the resources we’d need, to get things into working order…and, well, that would just about break-the-bank. So what now?

 

Well, in 2012, I’d seen a friend’s Facebook post about some foody-thing called a Garden Tower. Being a bit of a local food-freak, I helped back the project and got a Garden Tower 1.0 for myself, and one for my parents. I’d grown some greens and some herbs in it, before, but I was kindof lazy and didn’t put much thought into it, at the time…but, now, when “conventional” food-growing infrastructure was out of reach, despite going all-in on the homestead…what was this thing I had sitting in the carport and what could it really do? Could it grow the food that I needed?

 

Since I live in Bloomington, Indiana – the birthplace of the Garden Tower – I’ve been hearing stories from friends and neighbors, for years, that their Garden Towers are great food-growing planters: growing 50 plants in 4 square feet sounds pretty darn convenient (way more than I had tried, before) and lots of folks tell me they’re making their money back, in fresh-food cost-cutting. So, as a world-aware scientist and community-autonomy advocate, what am I to do? Test! Study! Experiment!

 

After talking it through with Andrea, we contacted the Garden Tower Project, to see if they had a bulk discount or something…but when we told them our story, it seemed that serendipity was at work: they were looking for a 3rd party to independently test their new towers and, here we were, two scientists-turned-farmers wanting to test-out some new food-growing infrastructure! It was a win-win: Garden Tower Project would donate some Garden Tower 2.0’s, if we would agree to share all the data from our experiments.  Hence, we got 6 Garden Tower 2.0’s and the first adventures of Fable Farms Indiana (the name we gave our homestead) truly began: 2 towers for 100 veggies, 2 towers for 100 artisanal herbs, and 2 towers for 100 of those irresistible summer-strawberries…and we’ll be measuring all the produce that comes off of them, right down to the gram!

 

And, thus, our Food Freedom Experiment was born…and Fable Farms Indiana got a fresh start.

 

I can’t pretend to know what’s next, but I can promise to let you know how it goes. I’m no Garden Tower expert, so if you’re just starting out, like me, we’re bound to make some similar mistakes and learn some lessons together. And for you folks who are still deciding whether or not to take the Garden Tower plunge, I hope the data from my experiment can be useful to you. If the rumors are true, we’ll be rolling in produce and cutting-back our grocery bill.

 

Who can say, for sure? All I know, right now, is that my towers are off to a good start: blooming with greens and herbs and berries…But I’m also hunting-down cabbage-beetles on my kales, deterring berry-stealin’ deer, bushing-out the bolting basils, and navigating local nurseries to be sure I keep our towers full, budding, and blooming, now and for months to come!

 

So, if you want to see what a Garden Tower can do in the hands of an amateur homesteader, then join me on the great adventure of my Food Freedom Experiment!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frank Tecklenburg

Pathways to Food Security

Pathways to Food Security

Earth Connections Garden Centre is about 20 minutes west of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada, on 40 acres of land mostly made up of natural prairie grasses. Although beautiful to look at, the land is mostly sand (89%) which makes growing a variety of vegetables very difficult. 

 

As our community was looking for a way to grow healthy food, one of our members came across the Kickstarter campaign for the Garden Tower 2. We placed an order for 3 Towers and eagerly awaited their arrival. They arrived in April of 2015, and within 5 weeks of starting our Garden Towers we were harvesting fresh food. It was amazing!

 

 The Garden Tower 2

 

Holistic Mission

My background includes working with First Nations and organic gardening, as well as, 25 years as an Executive Chef in the hotel and restaurant industries. After seeing the wonderful results of growing with the Garden Tower 2 (GT2), my partners and I contacted Garden Tower Project and enquired about becoming a Canadian Distributor. Our timing was right, and in May of 2015, Earth Connections Garden Centre was established as a holistic business integrating social impact for all our members and clients as part of the model. 

 

From the beginning, the focus was to incorporate the Garden Tower 2 in First Nation communities, schools, food banks, seniors residences, health care facilities, community groups, and in individual homes in urban areas. We had both successes and failures as we embraced the 3-dimensional, vertical growing in the Towers.  As we learned, we became better at the method and began to look for like-minded groups to try the Garden Tower, or as we say, "Give it a spin!"

 

 

Increasing Availability

 

In October 2015, we were given the opportunity to present at the Indigenous Ag Summit. This opportunity led to a wide variety of others. One was making contact with the Regina Food Bank who, in February of 2016, piloted 2 Garden Towers and later went on to secure generous funding through a Co-op Community Spaces Grant.  With the grant, the Regina Food Bank purchased and installed 48 Garden Towers! Each Tower was set up with two extra rings, casters*, and the Aquajet watering system*. Lighting* and stands for each Tower were also installed. 

 

*Products listed & linked above are through Canadian distributor, Earth Connections Garden Centre. See here for U.S., here for U.K., and here for Australia.

 

     

 

 

Over 9000 people access the Regina Food Bank on a monthly basis. During the winter months, the availability of produce is inconsistent. The Garden Towers are already creating a positive result helping to fill the gaps. The Food Bank is now working on a six week rotating schedule and is supplying produce to both their hamper and culinary programs. 

 

 

Education, Nutrition, and Therapy

The benefits of Garden Towers in schools around Saskatchewan are threefold. First, when used with STEM curriculum, teachers are able to use Garden Towers to assist hands-on learning of science and math. Second, students prepare and taste food they have played a part in growing on site . Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the students experience therapeutic effects when working with the plants.  The Garden Towers allow preschool/kindergarden to high school students unwind and focus on the nurturing of the soil, worms and plants. I have witnessed the wonders of this "horticultural therapy" first hand!

 

    

 

Earth Connections is also working with the Ottawa Network for Education in Ontario. Our goal is to have 2 Garden Towers in every school over a 3 year period. We have also partnered with Challenge Disability Resource Group in Whitehorse, Yukon. They are using the Garden Towers, as well as other mediums, in educational programs and workshops. Our most recent partnership is with Athabasca Health Authority as part of the Nutrition North program. The ability for the residents to empower themselves to grow fresh produce themselves allows for better health outcomes, as well as, the satisfaction of knowing exactly where their food comes from. It's a win-win!

 

One other area we see significant impact is among senior citizens. Many seniors are making their way to live in urban areas. The Garden Tower allows them to still have access to gardening.  We have also placed several GT2s in senior care homes and assisted living facilities. Those with mobility issues are especially pleased that the Tower rotates and is easily accessible. Again, these opportunities provide folks the chance to put their hands in the soil which has profound therapeutic effects. 

 

 

Supporting Others

We have found that it is not just the Garden Tower 2 that people want, it's also support through first-hand experience and knowledge sharing. Three-dimensional growing is a little different from typical gardening and raised bed methods. We have had numerous plants die and that is all part of the learning. To share our knowledge and achieve our mission, Garden Connections Garden Centre provides Canadians a complete package of tools and support - Garden Tower 2s, seeds, germination stations, and on-site education and follow up through Skype and email.  

 

 

As many communities are remote and have limited access to quality produce throughout most of the year, Garden Towers can make a significant impact. Working with so many groups and individuals, discussing food security and implementing the Garden Tower 2 as a part of a plan, has been amazing! We are very proud and honored to have been recently recognized by the Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development for our work.  

 

   

 

We are very happy to have discovered the Garden Tower 2, and even happier to be serving Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast, shipping to the Yukon, British Colombia, and Newfoundland, and helping to change lives!

Aiyo A. Jones

The Protein Salad Diet

The Protein Salad Diet

As a fitness trainer, part of my job is to help people lose weight. People are generally good at exercising, but when it comes to diet many people fail. In order to lose weight, you need the right combination of exercise and good nutrition.

One type of diet I recommend to my clients is what I call the Protein Salad Diet. Instead of a wimpy, rabbit-food salad with nothing but iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and low-fat dressing, the Protein Salad is a heavy salad consisting of greens, protein and fat. This salad is so heavy (literally) you'll struggle to eat the whole thing. It has a good combination of leafy greens, fruit, and protein. You can eat this salad all day and get some great nutrition! It's a great meal for bodybuilders and those trying to lose weight.

The best part is, you can easily grow many of the ingredients yourself!

Easy plants to grow for your salads are highlighted in sections below.

 

 

Leafy Base

To start, you'll need a leafy base. Growing leafy vegetables are perhaps the easiest vegetables to grow. They sprout quickly and, depending on the variety, can produce a harvest in a matter of weeks. If you plan ahead and stagger start these leafy vegetables, you could have at least one salad a day for a week.


Leafy vegetables are best grown in the Spring and Fall as they are cool-weather plants. Growing leafy greens during the summer is possible, as long as they have plenty of water and a bit of shade. Since leafy greens have high water content, be sure to water them at least once a day.

 

Leafy Greens: Lettuce, spinach, kale, mustard greens, bok choy, Swiss chard, leaves of beets.

 

Peppers Growing in GT2

Fruit

Salads often have leafy greens and fruit, typically tomatoes and the non-sweet fruits like peppers and cucumber. If you want to eat these Protein Salads on a regular basis, I recommend growing indeterminate grape tomatoes. I once grew more than 70 grape tomatoes on one plant! If you do grow cherry or grape tomatoes, you’ll need to keep them trimmed so they don't get out of control.

If you want to make Mexican-based salads, grow some hot peppers. I've had a lot of success with growing Hungarian wax peppers in my Garden Tower 2. I planted my hot peppers on the top of the GT2 so I could stake them. Hungarian wax peppers taste mild when green, but hot when red. You could use them to make a Tex-Mex Protein Salad (Recipe below).

 

Fruits: Apples, avocados, berries, cucumbers, peppers, oranges, pumpkins, summer squash, tomatoes

 


Basil growing on top of GT2

Herbs

 

What better way to reduce high calorie dressings and flavor up your salad than to grow and add your own herbs?


Basil has been among my most successful herbs to grow. It grows fast and abundantly. It’s an ideal thing to add to a salad if you have a taste for something Italian. We've grown so much basil in our Garden Tower we’ve had to give it away!

 

Another herb that I've successfully grown is cilantro. If you have a taste for something Greek, Italian, or Persian, use cilantro to make a Mediterranean Protein Salad or Persian Salad (Recipe below).

 

Herbs: Arugula, basil, cilantro, thyme, oregano

 

 

 

Fat

If a salad has left you miserably hungry, it's because it had no fat. Fat will give your salad some substance and, believe it or not, fat actually signals your brain to make you feel full when a hormone called "leptin" is released.

Now, you're thinking, "But it’s fat!" But it’s not the fat that makes you fat, it's excessive carbs. I lost 12 lbs. in 8 days by reducing carbs and increasing fat and protein content in my diet. I didn't even need to lose any weight! This Protein Salad, depending on how you make it, will be naturally low in carbs. It’s perfect for you diabetics out there.


Fat Sources: Cheese, sour cream, whole-fat yogurt, olive/avocado/flaxseed/coconut oil, nuts, seeds, avocados



Protein

Unlike fat, protein doesn't really make you full. Instead, it is used to maintain and build muscle in your body. In fact, protein is the building block of your body. If you were to strip away all the cells in your body, you'd be left with connective blocks called protein. Yes, you are simply a statue made out of protein.

Protein Sources: Red meat (yes, red meat!), chicken, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, peas, quinoa

 

 

How To Construct A Protein Salad


This salad is ideal for those who want to lose weight and for those who want to build muscle. The fat and protein will make you full for a lengthy period and also supply you with important vitamins and minerals. 


1. Start with a base of 1 cup chopped leafy greens - lettuce, kale, chard, bok choy, etc.
2. Add protein - 1/2 cup meat, chicken, fish, egg, beans, nuts, or seeds
3. Add fruit - 1/2 cup chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, etc.
4. Add fat - 1/2 cup oil (olive/avocado/coconut)
5. Add toppings such as herbs, sour cream, cheese, etc.

Mix everything together. If the amounts I've given are too low, just increase them, especially if you're a hungry lion!

 

 

Protein Salad Examples

These are general guidelines. Play up the ingredients however you like!



Tex-Mex Protein Salad

2 cups chopped Romaine lettuce

1 cup meat, chicken, shrimp or black beans (if vegan)

1 cup chopped tomatoes and hot peppers 
Alternative: 1 cup of salsa (grow your own salsa garden)

1/2 cup sour cream or guacamole (if vegan)

1/2 cup shredded cheese or rice (if vegan)

1 handful of crushed tortilla chips

Photo Credit: https://eatrunwritelove.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/img_6851.jpg

 

Persian Protein Salad (no leafy base)

2 cups chopped cucumbers

1 cup meat, chicken, or chickpeas (if vegan)

1 cup chopped tomatoes and peppers (hot or mild)

1 cup feta cheese or olive oil (if vegan)

1/2 cup parsley or cilantro

1/4 cup onions or garlic

1 teaspoon of black pepper

 

 

 

Asian Stir-Fry Protein Salad


2 cups chopped bok choy

1 cup steak, chicken, shrimp, or edamame (if vegan)

1 cup chopped broccoli

1/2 cup chopped mild or hot peppers

1/2 cup rice or quinoa

1 minced clove of garlic

Pinch of salt

2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil (to sauté)

2 to 3 tablespoons of additional olive oil to use as a dressing

1 or 2 tablespoons Asian sauce of your choice

 

 

Aiyo A. Jones

Beginning Urban Gardener

Beginning Urban Gardener

I’m from New York City, having little gardening experience. All I used to know about gardening was that if you planted a seed in the ground and watered it, then something was supposed to happen. 


Now, I’ve grown so much food, I've had enough to give away! 

 

Bowl of Banana PeppersBack in 2015, my wife and I purchased the Garden Tower II (GT2). My wife wanted to purchase this vertical container garden mainly because you can grow root vegetables in it. The GT2 has 50 pods to plant in and a vermicomposting system. It didn’t take much for her to convince me that we needed to invest in this product, so after getting our tax return money, we bought the GT2. 

To start growing, we purchased seedlings. Growing from seed hasn’t been my strong point, and we wanted some quick results. I had already done lots of research on growing plants, but I wanted to test some of the conventional gardening wisdom to see what was true and what wasn’t. Being willing to experiment on my garden was a big eye-opener.

For starters, we discovered that we didn’t need to spray our garden with anything, not even with organic sprays. I spent a few moments every morning inspecting the garden for pests and picking them off. I later discovered that wasps loved to eat cabbage worms! So, instead of looking at wasps as my enemies, I saw them as my allies. Whenever the wasps raided my garden, I just stepped inside the house and let them do their thing!

 

Comparing Garden Containers

Eggplant growing in GT2 next to eggplant growing in small container

2 large eggplant fruit next to 2 small eggplantsAnother discovery was seeing how important composting was for the plants. I did an experiment using eggplants in the GT2 and eggplants in conventional pots. The eggplants in the GT2 grew much larger and healthier than the ones in conventional pots.

 

The eggplant fruit produced by the eggplants in the GT2 were actually edible and nearly free of blemishes, whereas the eggplants in the conventional pots produced small, hard, and ugly fruits. The eggplants in the GT2 had access to compost, whereas the other eggplants did not.

 

 

Discovering Compost Critters

Perhaps the biggest discovery was the black soldier fly larvae. For a few days, I noticed that the compost contents were quickly reducing in size. Then I’ve discovered these maggots in my compost tube. After researching about them and seeing them in action, I fell in love with these guys! Unlike red wigglers or European night crawlers that eat veggies and fruit scraps, the black soldier fly larvae ate almost anything, including meat and cheese (two of which would usually be forbidden to add in a compost pile).

 

Success!

Because of my success with the GT2, I started a Facebook page called “The Back Deck Harvest.”  The page has a ton of photos of my experience with the GT2. I simply post what I’m doing in the garden. No silly memes, no articles, nothing but my work in my vertical garden.


The GT2 was a great investment. We have grown tomatoes, lettuce, eggplants, squash, peppers, basil, kale, mustard greens, bok choy, cilantro and parsley, and have even revived a few dying marigold plants I bought. We have eaten the fruits of our labor and have shared our fruits with others. We went from growing barely anything to growing a big crop of food on a small deck of 90 square feet.