The Science Barge

A few weeks ago I talked about the idea of converting urban rooftops into urban farms. The benefits go beyond just having more locally grown food, a reduction in transportation costs and mitigating the urban heat island effect, it helps people understand how food is grown, something too many of us have lost in a world of packaged foods, fast foods and ready to eat everything. But learning to grow a garden, let alone an urban farm can be a big jump for people. There is the issue of working in small, sometimes confined spaces, and how do you set up irrigation systems and get the energy to run them. These are challenges that got some people thinking a few years ago at an organization called New York Sun Works, and so they set out to create some prototypes for urban gardening that would help them and others understand how to create agricultural systems that work in an urban environment. They created the Science Barge.

The Science Barge was launched in May, 2007, and over the course of the next year or so, was moored at several spots along the Westside of Manhattan on the Hudson River. It is now run by Groundwork Hudson Valley and has found a permanent home in Yonkers. Visitors and schoolchildren are welcome to visit and learn about urban farming and sustainability, enabling them to create a vision for urban living that so far had been reserved for their rural neighbors, namely growing their own food. The barge is powered by two raised solar panel arrays, some micro wind turbines on the roof and bio-fuels. Water for irrigation is gotten from rainwater collected in a 1,200 gallon cistern, and Hudson River water that is run through a reverse Osmosis filter that purifies it for use.

The day I visited, I saw greens, lettuce, tomatoes and melons growing from a variety of Hydroponic and Aquaponic systems along with a few examples of vertical farming. Aquaponics is a bio-integrated food production system that is a combination of Aquaculture and Hydroponics, which basically means that the waste products of one biological system serve as nutrients for a second biological system. The first bio-system contain fish, the feces of which are broken down by algae in a second tank which then distributes the nutrients to the plants, the second bio-system. The plant system filters, cleans and recycles the clean water back to the fish in the first tank. The fish and algae create the nutrients the plants need, and the plants prevent a toxic build up of nutrients that would eventually harm the fish, essentially recreating a nutrient cycle normally found in nature.

Nearby was a table of greens being grown using the Nutrient Film Technique, a hydroponic system using a shallow stream of water containing nutrients that continually recirculates past the bare roots of the plants which are held in channels or gullies. There were also a series of plastic pots containing cucumber plants using another hydroponic system, a drip process call the Dutch Bucket system.

The Science Barge had over 3100 students visit last year  as part of the barge’s formal education program. They also have a High School internship program that employs students from Yonkers. The general public can visit on weekends, here are their hours. Educating others on the benefits of urban farming is going on in many places around the country, including a number of Master Gardener Programs that bring this information directly to communities, but the Science Barge is a particularly assessable way to witness and explore this growing trend. The systems employed on the barge also happen to be high yield, and low impact as far as it’s carbon footprint, and maybe most importantly because it utilizes greenhouses, it is climate independent in that it can yield crops all year round. I keep saying it, but imagine a city of green roofs and greenhouses feeding the residents of the apartment complexes below them, what a site and what a step forward that would be.

School Gardens

I recently spent a few weeks shooting gardens at some local elementary schools here in Los Angeles for a magazine article I was working on. Growing up in New York City suffice to say I wasn’t exposed to many gardens, certainly not at school. Some nice house plants maybe, but the closest thing I got to growing produce was the ever present avocado pit that my mother would stick in a jar on the kitchen window sill, hoping it would sprout into a tree one day.  I can safely say that the 20 or so pits she tried to grow did not bear fruit. I hope my son gets more of an opportunity to learn about this than I did, and with some of the school gardens I had a chance to visit, the prospects look good.

Young girls and their mother explore their school garden.

At one time LA had over 70 or so school gardens, now there are much less, school budgets probably, but hopefully they are back on the rise. I have actually been photographing a lot of gardens and gardeners  lately and I had no idea how extremely popular it is here in Los Angeles, and just about everywhere. It makes sense, with economic times being what they are, people are looking for ways to be more self sustainable, and nothing is more self sustainable than growing your own food. I saw the coverage of Michelle Obama planting an organic vegetable garden on the lawn of the White House and I think that helped send a message to folks across the country that growing your own food is both cool and sensible.

Young girl watering the strawberries.

One young mother invited me to photograph her and her two daughters at their school garden in Laurel Canyon. The girls picked up watering cans and immediately went to work, obviously comfortable with the routine and all too enthusiastic to show me the several planting beds in the school yard that were growing strawberries and a variety of greens, beans and herbs. The fact that their mother is in the Master Gardener program at UC will probably make gardening second nature to these two girls, much like growing up in a bilingual household will enable a child to have a lifelong proficiency in a second language.

Young boys collect food for the worm compost bin after their class mates eat their lunch

Underneath the intersection of the 10 and the 110 freeways is the Downtown Value School, a public charter school serving low income neighborhood schoolchildren near and around downtown Los Angeles. Over the years they have built a garden that goes around almost the entire perimeter of the school and even includes a small greenhouse. The gardens act as an outdoor classroom, and the day that I was there, three boys collected the discarded food leftover from their classmate's lunch and emptied it into the school worm composter.

Re-planting snow peas in the vertical garden at their school.

In the schoolyard they also have vertical garden with a variety of greens, beans and berries growing out of the small pouches of soil. This vertical garden was supplied by Woolly Pockets and is a great way to plant a garden in a small area; it is made up of rows of soft breathable pockets, stacked on top of each other so you literally have a wall of plants. In addition to having a very cool product, Woolly Pockets also gives back to the community through its Woolly School Garden Program, which helps schools raise donations to start these vertical gardens.

The Woolly Pockets vertical garden at the Downtown Value School

A few weeks earlier I had attended a Big Sunday Weekend event, the largest annual citywide community service event in America. A few hundred children, parents and teachers all came out to help plant and fix up the garden at the 24th street School in the West Adams District. There were kids shoveling mulch, families weeding out planting beds and people generally having a really good time. It was encouraging to see communities coming together to do service, for schools to be teaching kids about growing food, not only for the practicality of it, but for the beauty of it as well, and for parents to pass down perhaps a renewed tradition of growing your own food and eating healthier because of it. Childhood obesity is through the roof, and I can see nothing more contrary to junk food and fast food than what I saw at all these schools.

Students, parents and teachers work on the garden at the 24th Street School garden on Big Sunday.