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Donation brings hydroponic gardening to women's shelter

Hi-Rise Harvest donates vertical aqua gardens to Orlando's Women's Residential and Counseling Center

Photo: Joseph Grey, License: N/A

Joseph Grey

Snap peas picked right off the vine have a crunchy texture and savory flavor that reminds your tongue what good health is supposed to taste like. Few pleasures match the simplicity of eating raw veggies you grew yourself on a sunny day.

That's what residents of the Women's Residential & Counseling Center, located just off Magnolia Avenue downtown, will learn to do this year. In one corner of the bright, landscaped courtyard of the facility, which offers housing for women and children escaping from domestic abuse, homelessness and poverty, fresh peas are just one of a multitude of fresh vegetables that will be harvested there due to a donation that could make the WRCC one of the most productive and sustainable emergency shelters around.

Plants and seed pods are embedded in a series of vertical hydroponic planters, made of seven plastic containers stacked one on top of the other. A sprinkler pours water into the highest container, which then drips through a perlite medium (a volcanic glass rock that helps retain water) into the containers below, finally landing in a green water basin that houses a pump. The water contains nutrients for the plants, so they can grow without soil. (It's a system about which there has been some debate: Can this be considered “organic,” since it does not use bacteria in the soil to convert the nutrients?) Most of the columns house mere sprouts placed here within the last few weeks, but a couple are already growing long vines of tomatoes or squash or even watermelons.

They're called “vertical aqua gardens,” and they were donated to the shelter by local businesswoman Barrie Freeman and her new venture, Hi-Rise Harvest. The idea is to use these curious structures to educate the facility's residents, many of whom have little experience with fresh produce, much less gardening, on the value of better diets and modern techniques for growing. The seven units, each of which can produce hundreds of pounds of veggies in a typical season while taking up only a couple of square feet of space, were installed in March.

“This is the growing of the future,” Freeman says. “We are one of the last industrialized countries that doesn't grow this way.”

The short-term goal is home-grown food. But Freeman says the long-term goal is to give the women who live here confidence and new skills.

“It was so exciting when we heard,” says Muffet Robinson director of communications and community relations for the Coalition for the Homeless, which operates the WRCC. “For us, it's such a win-win. We get all this good food, and we have a new partner.”

Barrie Freeman is a familiar facein Orlando. She was a major force in the Orlando nightclub scene in the '90s - she owned fondly remembered spots like Yab Yum Coffeehouse, Kit Kat Club, Harold & Maude's, Go Lounge and the Globe Restaurant.

Though she had grown up around and spent most of her adult life running restaurants, she says that organic gardening wasn't something she'd considered in the 1990s. “It wasn't the same trend that it is now,” she says. “I didn't go out of my way to source organic food. I probably couldn't have found any retailers if I did.”

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