Stepping onto Joy Kelly and Sandy Campbell’s rooftop is like stepping into the extremely healthy version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Its downtown location makes it a double-take kind of surprise; and the scene is every bit as psychedelic — lush, fragrant, and colorful, with a kaleidoscopic array of basil, kale, tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, chives, tomatoes, onions, and lettuces bursting from tall white towers. And while you’re unlikely to spot an everlasting gobstopper, the soil-free garden provides Kelly, Campbell, and their daughter/chief farmer Jake with an everlasting supply of fresh, organic veg. (Rather than trekking to Whole Foods, Kelly only has to climb a flight of stairs to pluck the ingredients for her daily green drink.)
“It’s like gardening for dummies,” Kelly said, pointing to the flourishing kale, which has not succumbed to the bagrada bugs that have wreaked havoc on so much of the soil-grown kale in our area this year. “We have a sophisticated method for dealing with bugs,” she explained with a mischievous smile, giving the tower a shake, and then miming her highly organic, DIY pesticide with a stomp of her foot: “Shake and stomp!” (Just don’t try it barefoot.) Actually, though, the lack of soil and the reflective material of which the towers are made both act as pest-repellents.
Kelly comes from a certain amount of farming stock (her grandfather was a farmer in North Dakota, and, growing up one of five children to a single mom, “Gardening was the only way we got fresh produce”) and always wanted a farm, but, she says, “I never thought I’d do it in the heart of Santa Barbara.”
Nor do so many of us. Real estate is spendy in S.B.; land for a garden is a rare and lucky treat. Even if you do score the space for it, not everyone is blessed with a green thumb. There’s soil pH to master, weeding, bending over, dealing with pests, and the occasional cat who mistakes your garden for his own personal litter box (Hi, Mr. Kitty). That’s why, according to Kelly, tower gardens are “such a good answer for a place like Santa Barbara.”
The towers are modular, and can accommodate up to 11 stackable pots per base, each of which contains four slots for separate plantings. Seeds are germinated in cubes made of spun volcanic rock; after they’ve grown into seedlings, the cubes can be transplanted directly into the tower. Water is continuously recirculated up the middle of the tower (and then gravity takes over, as it cascades down again over the plants’ roots) via a 14-watt pump controlled by a timer that kicks in every 15 minutes. A submergible heater warms the water during chilly seasons. All of which translates to a ton of year-round veg from not a lot of space, using not a lot of water or electricity.
Kelly learned about the towers via Juice Plus (made by National Safety Associates), the company she worked at for 17 years, when it trademarked the Aeroponic Tower Gardens. She and Campbell got their first two towers in the spring of 2011, and couldn’t resist running upstairs to check on them constantly. “It was so exciting,” she said, “like having babies!” Today, there are 37 towers in their garden (all powered by one 15-amp circuit); six comprise their personal grocery store, while the others produce the goods they sell as Chapala Gardens at the Sunday Farmers Market, and lettuce they sell directly to Adama restaurant.
Their goal “is to be an example of what’s possible,” Kelly said. To that end, they work as distributors for the systems, sell produce directly to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays (call to arrange a visit), and hold regular open houses to turn people on. They envision all kinds of applications, including at schools, shelters, retirement homes, and hospitals (it’s absolutely possible to harvest tower crops from a wheelchair). Elsewhere, restaurants are getting in on the game: Bell Book and Candle, a Manhattan restaurant, grows its produce on its rooftop; so does Playa in West Hollywood. With eating local becoming such a priority, it’s not surprising the towers are catching on; it’s hard to get more local than growing your food on your roof. But the proof is in the pudding. Or the cherry tomatoes. “Nature’s candy,” I say, biting into the one Kelly hands me. Willy Wonka would approve.