Ladies and gentlemen, we have a hoop house! I had the chance to chat with Lori Smith, our farm educational specialist, about the ins and outs of the hoop house. It is educational, it is sustainable, and provides fresh local food for our kitchen. In just a year, we transformed dream to reality. Here is the hoop house story…
Construction broke ground for the hoop house back in August 2011. Fairmont Minerals sent a wonderful group of volunteers, and the funds, to get the hoop house project started. These volunteers, along with National Park Service maintenance staff, constructed the metal framework for the hoop house’s skeleton and the plastic wall covering.
Next came the plotting of the ten planting beds. The beds and trellises were all designed by park volunteer Dan Kriegr; he helped turn the ideas into drawings and the drawings into reality. Bed plots were measured, and marked with stakes and string, by a group of middle school students from St Hilary School in Fairlawn, Ohio. Having students help with the building process provided a great educational aspect.
The actual plant beds were constructed, in part, by college students on their Alternative Spring Break program here in the park. The second half of the beds, and the trellises, were built by Akron Leadership Volunteers Group, Key Bank, and volunteers from Deloitte. Many of these volunteer groups funded the projects they worked on. Beds were filled with compost sheet mulching by Hawken School 8th grade students. As you can see, the whole process was definitely a team effort.
Summer farm campers helped with the planting phase. The kids learned about companion planting; plants in the same vicinity that help each other grow. They also learned about the amount of space different plants need. Each student was able to plan out two square feet of the garden and then plant the vegetables or herbs they chose.
Deloitte volunteers came back to help build the drip irrigation system in the house. Drip irrigation prevents over-watering, while still maintaining a healthy amount of moisture in the soil. Currently, the drip irrigation system is hooked up to the regular spigot, but the future goal is to fuel the drip irrigation with collected rain water.
Although we’ve made significant progress on the hoop house construction, the rest of the building process is still underway. In the future, we hope to finish the last two planting beds, add some hanging baskets, and potentially build a work table for use during inclement weather.
Everything about the hoop house is sustainable. The whole idea behind having a hoop house is to have local foods. It’s hard to be more local than growing food right behind the kitchen. Today, most of the food we get from the grocery store has traveled hundreds or thousands of miles before it reaches us. Growing food locally cuts down on the energy and fossil fuels used for transportation and processing.
Not only is our hoop house providing local food, but the food is grown using sustainable methods. The heat inside the hoop house is all from the sun. We do not use any additional heaters beyond the solar heat trapped underneath the plastic walls. Sustainable plant beds were constructed out of black locust wood. Because this wood is invasive, it is rot resistant, and is therefore expected to last at least forty years.
Most of the soil in the planting beds came from our own personal compost, made from grass clippings, fruit scraps and napkins from the CVEEC. Since we did not have enough of our own compost for all of the beds, the local Mustard Seed restaurant donated food scrap compost, Kurtz Brothers donated worm dirt, straw, and leaf compost, and Sunset Gardens donated grass clippings and straw. All of the compost is layered above ground in a “lasagna garden” fashion. These raised beds allow for food to be grown in rich, nutrient filled soil, regardless of the state of the soil on the ground. The lasagna garden concept can translate to urban gardens, and resonate with students who live in cities.
Including flowers among our hoop house vegetables attracts beneficial pollinators to the plants. Trellises over the plant beds maximize our square foot to vegetable yield ratio. Most of the seeds planted are organic or heirloom varieties. Every element included reflects sustainability.
IN THE KITCHEN
At this point in time, the hoop house is up and running. We have already harvested over 125 pounds of produce for our kitchen and catering services. Students in our resident program have enjoyed salsa with fresh tomatoes and jalapenos, basil pesto pizza, and fresh cucumbers on their veggie trays. Chef Larkin was able to utilize some of the patty pan squash for her catered meals in the park. Because we are growing a wider variety of herbs than we had access to in the past, the kitchen staff has the challenge of incorporating these unique herbs, like lemon balm, into our regular menus.
Although the hoop house is currently unable to fully fulfill the kitchen’s produce needs, it’s certainly providing more than before; which was none at all. As we move further along with our plans, and finish the rest of the beds, the percent of provided produce can only improve. The short term goal is to meet one hundred percent of the kitchen’s need for herbs. For now, it is still a work in progress.
While the hoop house is expected to increase our herb and vegetable yield over time, it will not be able to produce the full capacity of needed produce. This is where the idea of a kitchen garden comes in to play.
While one purpose of the garden will be to increase the vegetable yield for the kitchen, another is education. Students attending EEC programs would be better able to learn about ecosystems, sustainable growing, and local food systems. What better way to learn these concepts than to see them in action. Having a garden on site will infinitely increase the opportunities for our farm curriculum.
Currently, the EEC is in collaboration with both students and faculty, from Cuyahoga Community College and the University of Akron, to turn the land around the hoop house into a fully functioning garden. The college students involved have expertise in areas ranging from landscape and construction engineering, to dietetics and nutrition, to STEM education. There are high school students, from the new STEM school in Akron, involved in the project as well.
Several engineering students have already been out with survey equipment taking measurements for their development plan. They will work collaboratively within their departments and ultimately create a presentation for Conservancy and National Park Service staff. The winning design challenge proposal will then be installed over the upcoming months. Hopefully, we will be able to utilize volunteers from the Alternative Spring Break team 2013. We will all have to wait in anticipation to see what our design students come up with.
Of course all of these plans require a large amount of time and manpower. Luckily, we already have Coventry Middle School 6th graders scheduled to plant our last two beds. Deloitte is scheduled to come flip the beds after the fall harvest. However, beyond that point, we are certainly seeking volunteers for help.
Especially once the kitchen garden design project is completed, we are searching for a volunteer interested in gardening for the center on a regular basis. Interested parties may contact our office manager at any time.
When I started working here two years ago, this hoop house only existed in our imaginations. We are deeply appreciative of all the hard work and funding from our volunteers for making this dream become a reality. We couldn’t have done any of it without the dedication of Lori Smith, the farm education specialist. The valuable, hands-on learning experience children can have in our hoop house is wonderful.