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Local Seniors Convert Basic Rooftop Greenhouse Into Hydroponic Powerhouse

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Dec 15, 2014 9:45PM

Photo by Cindy Kurman

“Lots of people of my generation don’t get hydroponics, much less people in their seventies and eighties, so you have a lot of the seniors wondering how plants can grow without soil. It’s a little bit of a learning curve, but I just explain to them that soil is just a medium that holds nutrients, one that water replaces in this system. After that, the process is very similar,” says Samantha Lewerenz, production manager at Concord Place Retirement & Assisted Living Community in suburban Northlake.

Transforming a traditional greenhouse into what residents, who have an average age of 82 years old, term their harvest rooftop garden came into full flower last spring when F&F Realty, owner and operator of Concord Place, hired Topiarius to make this senior residence more sustainable, substituting recirculated water for bulky bags of soil.

“It was a year from inception to building the garden to running at full capacity. But we’ve been talking about doing this for the last three or four years. It’s a really eclectic group here—we have gardeners, doctors, engineers—so everything is resident-driven,” asserts David Pokorny, Concord’s director. “The people here wanted this, and we’ve definitely seen a shift to a greener diet since the garden has taken off. Residents now lean toward what we grow versus produce we have to purchase.”

Photo by Cindy Kurman

Lewerenz has trained residents to plant, harvest and increase production that spills over into feeding patrons of neighboring suburban restaurants. The rooftop is currently rife with herbs like parsley, oregano, cilantro, thyme, mint, basil and a variety of lettuces, including a gourmet blend that Lewerenz and Pokorny both say has garnered an avid following in the dining hall. Lewerenz is also leading experiments with Swiss chard, kale and microgreens. Seniors here, she says, typically harvest approximately 30 pounds of lettuce at a time, along with a couple pounds of aromatic herbs.

And spry as many of the residents here may be, Lewerenz and team have ensured that all garden tables stand waist high to minimize the aches that come with repeated bending.

“The garden is really easy to manage and harvest. We’re working on making it accessible for people in wheelchairs also. A hydroponic garden also means there’s no heaving heavy soil loads, making the work easier for all of us,” Lewerenz notes.

The harvest rooftop garden uses 90 percent less water than those dependent on traditional irrigation while reducing the pests that often come with soil, all within an environment that allows for more temperature control than typical open-air gardens. A compost system that incorporates kitchen waste is also in the works. So are Lewerenz’s favorite woodland strawberries.

“Right now we’re trying our hand at sugar snap peas, tomatoes and cucumbers. Beans also make for good cold-weather crops. But I really want to see us grow Alpine strawberries, which are wilder strawberries and just reproduce nonstop—they’re also unbelievably delicious. We’re also looking at edible flowers like violas and nasturtium, anything that looks pleasing to the eye and makes residents want to eat them more.”

And the fringe benefit of your own rooftop greenhouse, regardless of its yield?

“As most of us know, there’s real benefit in escaping to someplace green in winter alone, just seeing sunlight filtering through the plants while it’s cold and gray outside,” reflects Pokorny. “It’s so alive up there.”

Concord Place is located at 401 W. Lake Street in Northlake.