Vertical gardens: large yields from small space

On the roof of the Northside Senior Citizens Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., residents have been growing and harvesting their own fresh produce -- principally tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and strawberries -- for the last five years. They have brought a touch of the country to the city by converting an otherwise bleak patch of asphalt into a minifarm using a unique container growing system known as ``tuboponics.''

The system involves vertical growing beds made from 6-inch (in diameter) polyvinyl-chloride (PVC) drainage pipe, the sort you can buy at any good hardware store.

Marc Cathey, director of the National Arboretum in Washington D.C., has established a remarkably productive garden of mixed flowers and vegetables using another vertical growing system that goes together with the ease and versatility of an Erector set.

By stacking specially formed containers from the Living Wall Garden Company of Naples, N.Y., he has formed ``walls'' in which annual flowers and vegetables (other than root crops) are readily grown.

In effect, both these systems have taken the conventional garden bed and stood it ``on end'' so that much more growing space can be crammed into a given area. Vertical beds

A few innovative gardeners have been putting up homemade versions of these ``grow walls'' for decades.

Generally they involve two parallel wire-mesh fences about a foot apart and closed at each end. These are lined with black plastic (to convert the fences into one giant container) and filled with soil, peatmoss, or other growing mediums.

The gardener plants these vertical beds by poking a hole in the plastic and inserting the young plant or seed.

New soilless mixes that hold moisture yet drain well make it much simpler to grow plants in this unconventional but space-saving manner.

The availability of complete (hydroponic-type) fertilizers makes it possible also to use totally artificial growing mediums such as rock wool.

Organic gardeners, on the other hand, would use a compost-enriched starting medium and thereafter feed the plants with a fish-seaweed emulsion (readily available at garden centers), which supplies all major and minor elements to plants. Tuboponics

Tuboponics was developed by Tuvia Spector, an agriculturist at the Volcani Institute in Israel.

Essentially it is a form of hydroponics in which the upright-standing tubes with evenly drilled holes in them make up the growing ``beds.'' Spector developed the system to get more production in the limited space of greenhouses.

When Brooklyn Union Gas Company officials -- looking for ways to provide gardening opportunities for their largely landless clientele -- heard of the system, they asked the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens to help them adapt the technology to the out doors -- specifically the flat rooftops of New York and Brooklyn, ``those thousands of acres of fallow farmland,'' as officials at Brooklyn Union like to describe them.

A pilot project atop the company's headquarters proved the concept worked well in an outdoor rooftop environment. The 20 tubes, each five feet tall, produced in excess of 300 pounds of produce in each of the two seasons they were operable.

Almost immediately the Northside Senior Citizens Center had a Tuboponics unit erected on its rooftop. More recently the idea has been embraced by Catholic Charities and the Magnolia-Tree Earth Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Now Brooklyn Union wants to spread word of this readily constructed system to anyone who might be interested.

To this end the company has produced a Tuboponics manual which it will send free on request to anyone in the country. Stack options

No handyman skills are needed to erect a Living Wall garden. The containers are such that they can be suspended or stacked to form pillars, walls, or arches, and variations on the theme are almost limitless.

Naturally the ground, patio, or rooftop on which the containers are stacked should be level to avoid a ``Leaning Tower of Pisa'' effect. Flowers and vegetables grow equally well in the system and, as with Tuboponics, produce comes in at pennies per pound in fertilizer costs.

For more information write to Tuboponics, Brooklyn Union Gas, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11201 and Living Wall Garden Company, Naples, N.Y. 14512.

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