Growing knowledge and sustaining a legacy at Seeds on 36th

100 Gardens introduces Seeds on 36th 

By Lindsay Kosma

October 25, 2016

In our fast growing world, local farming and sustainable food production are becoming hot topics. Organic, non-GMO and all-natural are the buzzwords on everyone’s lips as the concern for healthy and honest produce production increases. Seeds on 36th, Charlotte’s new community-farming and gardening supercenter, is here to address all of these concerns and more. Seeds, which opens in April of 2017 and is an extension of the 100 Gardens program, will offer equipment and classes to make even some of the more advanced techniques, like hydroponics and aquaponics, more accessible. We had a chance to catch up with Sam Fleming, VP of 100 Gardens, and Ben Smith, Manager of Seeds on 36th, to talk about this exciting new project.

FYI: It may be helpful to note the difference in the following two terms for the readability of this article:

Hydroponics: Growing plants without soil, using chemical fertilizers that are not necessarily harmful, just made of different chemical compounds that are found in nature.

Aquaponics: Replacing those chemical fertilizers with nutrients produced by fish. The plants use the nutrients and return clean water back to the fish. It becomes a closed loop cycle and you can control all of the inputs yourself as far as how much water, water quality, feed quality, etc. You also don’t leech excess nutrients or waste into streams so there is no agricultural runoff.

Ron Morgan founder of 100 Gardens passed in May of 2016. Photo by Drea Atkins

CLTure: 100 Gardens and Ron Morgan— that’s where this all started. It began as an effort to help feed Haitians by connecting Charlotte and Haiti using aquaponics to grow food. Can you tell me about how that all began?

Sam: So Ron was a famous architect who brought Discovery Place to Charlotte in the ‘70s, was responsible for all of Fourth Ward’s improvements, designed the greenway system in Greenville, SC and a bunch of other awesome projects. He was retired and went to post-earthquake Haiti in 2010 to create a new town but came to the conclusion that food was a more critical issue. He learned about hydroponics, which is growing plants without soil using chemical fertilizers, and came back to Charlotte to team up with a hydroponics expert named George Powell who was a former hydroponic lettuce producer for Harris Teeter. After constructing the first hydroponic system to send to Haiti in Ron’s back yard, George ended up passing away from eye cancer. That’s where I came in. Ron found me working at Beewell Hydroponics and soon after I quit my job and we got started.

CLTure: There are a lot of gardens located in schools. How did this come about? Has involving youth always been an important part of the mission?

Sam: When we started building the prototype aquaponics system for Haiti at Ron’s house, kids in the streets would come by to play with the foot-long Koi and started asking a lot of questions about how the plants grew. Then their parents would come back the next day and ask why their kids were talking about pH and dissolved oxygen. Ron thought maybe there is something to this. During this time, I learned of Stonewall Jackson Youth Development Center and I mentioned it to Ron. He thought we should try to build an aquaponics garden there and do a program at the jail to inspire kids to learn something useful and turn their life around. We pitched it to the state, got funding, and started on our first big project in 2013. After that we got a bunch of press and notoriety other schools began contacting us and we went from there.

CLTure: How many schools/gardens do you have? How many in Haiti?

Sam: We have eight full, aquaponic gardens including two in Haiti.

Photo by Drea Atkins

CLTure: What is Seeds on 36th and how is it different than 100 Gardens?

Sam: So Seeds is a non-profit whose goal is to teach people about aquaponics and other techniques, and help them install their own systems. What we are trying to do is engage the rest of the population by teaching and also use the retail environment as a way to inspire people to grow food and address future food issues we are going to have when the planet’s population increases… we’ll have less fish in the ocean, more pollution, etc. It would be a discovery place for urban agriculture. It’s the next step in a bigger plan. By engaging kids in schools at a young age (100 Gardens) and being the main source for gardeners in Charlotte (Seeds) it creates a community that is interested in growing more food. That’s powerful.

CLTure: Okay, so Seeds is going to be a place where people can go to learn how to do this themselves? You will both teach classes and provide materials?

Ben: We saw the interest emerging from what we were doing with 100 Gardens and the conversation always goes to “Where can I get this equipment?” or “How can I do this myself?” Local farming is a hot topic and people are interested. Organic is a buzzword right now and you can totally grow things as organically as you want by controlling what you put in your aquaponics system, so that is a huge draw. It is all in what you feed the fish. So, yes, we want to offer all of the technologies, old and new, and teach people how to do it right. You can google twenty ways to grow a tomato but we can teach you the tried and true method and show you why it works.

Sam: We already do two full aquaponics workshops a year that are a full day long. Additionally, we will have hydroponics classes and urban farming classes.

CLTure: You mentioned being able to control what you put in your aquaponics system by what you feed the fish. So that is referring to nutrient levels, but what about types of nutrients? Different types of plants require different nutrients and in different concentrations. So can you grow anything in these systems?

Sam: Great question. Hydroponically you can grow anything you want because you are just assembling a solution of different nutrients. That is why flowering plants, tomatoes or cannabis, are almost always grown hydroponically.

Aquaponics is a niche technology mostly focused on growing leafy greens and herbs, plants that don’t flower or fruit. It is such a high-nitrogen system that those crops really thrive.

Photo by Drea Atkins

CLTure: Do you only monitor phosphates and nitrogen?

Sam: That and potassium. Those are what you call macronutrients in plants…NPK. There are about 10 other micronutrients. We test for nitrogen, ammonia, nitrite, and iron as well as dissolved oxygen and pH.

CLTure: The fish obviously don’t live forever. Do you have to cycle them out? How do you do that?

Sam: If you have one big tank with different age groups there are inherent problems with that so usually in schools we have several different fish tanks and each one has a different age group. If you remove all the fish at once or all the plants at once there will be either no nutrients or no clean water so you have to stagger that process. When you are harvesting you don’t harvest more than 25% on either side so you keep the balance.

Photo by Kurt Shackelford

CLTure: What is your vision for how this will fit into the community? Do you have thoughts on connecting with local restaurants to provide produce or fish?

Sam: As far as we know we don’t have any plans of selling produce or fish. Our job is to get other people growing produce and fish. We do want to partner with other organizations and have things like guest speakers and community outreach programs like sponsoring community gardens around town with equipment and supplies. We want it to be a tourist destination. We will have plants growing all over this place, floor to ceiling, as an exhibit of the future of Charlotte’s food scene.

Ben: There are technologies out there to grow food that many people have never heard of or thought about. We want to showcase everything from the simplest ways to do things to the most technologically advanced.

CLTure: How can people get involved?

Sam: Check out our IndieGoGo campaign. All the perks on there are designed to get you gardening and we have a range of incentives from a system that allows you to grow salads on your countertop all the way to a full-size aquaponics system. We want the community to have skin in the game: invest in Seeds and we, in turn, give a good yield back to the community. It is the people’s garden center.

Photo by Drea Atkins

Seeds on 36th aims to open to the public in April of 2017. Anyone who donates at least $36 to the IndieGoGo campaign will also be invited to their pre-grand opening party in March, which will feature breweries and local culinary students catering the event with food grown in schools. Everyone can come be a part of this community movement. There are just over two weeks left in the campaign so if you’re looking for a great way to invest in your city this is it!

Follow 100 Gardens for updates and contribute to the Seeds on 36th campaign.

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