Garden adds hydroponics to help fight food insecurity

Photos by Tegan Johnston/The Herald
Memorial Hospital Foundation Executive Director Mike Jones pulled out a pod from a hydroponic tower during Thursday’s tour of the Hope Garden at the Memorial Hospital Lodge in Jasper. The new hydroponics towers will allow the Hope Garden to grow fruits and vegetables year-round.


JASPER— Memorial Hospital Foundation’s Hope Garden is building a year-round operation.

Hope Garden added ten hydroponics garden towers to the Memorial Hospital Lodge at 2590 S. Newton St. last fall to further their mission of providing fresh produce to the area. Hydroponics is a relatively new farming technology that grows plants without soil. Hydroponics towers — vertical gardens — can be set up indoors, allowing food production year-round, rather than just in the warmer months. Superior Ag donated 10 towers and all the related equipment to Memorial Hospital’s Hope Garden.

“We thought, why stop the growing season just because it gets cold?” said Mike Jones, executive director of the Memorial Hospital Foundation.

The Hope Garden was established last year when the foundation teamed up with the Purdue Extension to fight food insecurity in the hospital’s service area — Dubois, Spencer, Pike, Daviess and Martin counties. Food-insecure families have trouble obtaining healthy foods, like produce, for all or part of the year, but don’t necessarily qualify for government assistance programs. People who don’t have easy access to a grocery store that sells fresh fruit and vegetables, for example, are considered food-insecure. According to data from 2013, 11 percent of Dubois County’s population is considered food insecure. In Spencer and Pike counties, that percentage rises to 13 percent. The Memorial Hospital Foundation’s goal is to give the food-insecure population access to fresh fruits and vegetables by leveraging the land around the lodge as a community agriculture space. Last year, master gardener Jill Knies and community volunteers yielded more than 3,000 pounds of produce from a two-acre swath — enough to feed 1,836 individuals and 83 families.

Although the Hope Garden isn’t certified-organic, Knies said the food is all naturally grown — no chemical pesticides or fertilizers.

“I believe that the reason people are sick is because of all the fake ingredients and pesticides in our food,” Knies said.

Memorial Hospital Foundation executive director Mike Jones gave a group from Pike County a tour Thursday of the hydroponics at The Hope Garden in Jasper.

She plans to plant marigold and nasturtium flowers around the vegetable plants. Apparently, the flowers repel bugs. She’s also going to use farmer’s almanacs and companion planting­ — the idea that some plants work together in the garden to create ideal conditions — to give the garden the best chance for a successful harvest.

While Knies is planning for the outdoor growing season, she’s focused on the hydroponics towers for the last few months. There’s a learning curve with them, she said. The process started with a couple towers and grow lamps that just didn’t have enough power. When Knies saw that the plants weren’t thriving, the foundation purchased high-powered grow lights and positioned them above the plants so that every pod on each of the 10 towers gets light. The lights mimic the sun, giving off enough heat to create the feel of a warm spring day.

Knies also had to learn some chemistry. It’s her responsibility to add the nutrient solution that comes with the towers to the water supply and to keep the pH of the water balanced. The water Knies mixes is pumped to the top of the towers and trickles down the sides over the plants’ roots. Without the proper balance in the water, the plants don’t get the nutrients they need to grow.

As the plants grow, their roots fall down the inside of the columns, and their green, leafy parts spill over the sides of the pods, covering the towers in green. Every so often, Knies has to trim the roots so the water pumps don’t clog.

“You wouldn’t believe how long some of the roots grow,” she said.

Hope Garden has yet to yield a harvest from the towers, but Knies currently has seedlings for lunch box peppers, a variety of lettuces, kale, peas, cabbage, broccoli and herbs in the pods. Now that she has the light and the water balanced, the plants should take off.

Knies is looking for volunteers to help with both the outdoor garden and the hydroponics. Interested parties can call 812-996-8428 ext. 8428.

As the Hope Garden enters its second year, Jones said he only sees the operation growing. Eventually, the foundation would like to add an orchard to the property and open up some of the land for community members to use for their own gardens.

“It can only grow,” Jones said. “And I don’t mean that as a joke.”

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