Getting Fresh

Green scene: Dr. Robert and Phyllis Sweeney stand among the herbs.
Green scene: Dr. Robert and Phyllis Sweeney stand among the herbs.

Urban hydroponics is a growing field. New York City boasts the nation’s first commercial urban greenhouse, Gotham Greens. Covering just 15,000 square feet in an area where space is at a premium, the greenhouse efficiently cranks out produce, providing local grocers and chefs with fresh goods year-round.

Asheville has its own hydroponic grower, Fresh, located downtown on Coxe Avenue. Xpress wrote about the urban farm in December 2011, and, as the word spread, Fresh has expanded, adding another grow room and a wider selection of herbs and produce.

The organic-herb farm is a project of Liberty Corner Enterprises, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities lead normal lives with minimal assistance. Clients served by LCE can be affected by disabilities that are physical or mental — or both.

Fresh is a soothing, comfortable and safe place that allows clients to pick up job skills. In warm and moist air scented with fresh basil, oregano and thyme, workers pour pitchers of water over suspended plastic containers sprouting nasturtiums from silver-dollar sized holes while classical music plays softly. The water trickles through the cylinders, sluicing through layers of plants below before before settling in a basin for reuse. Other trainees plant seeds, build hydroponic systems, nurture plants and make deliveries to the restaurants that Fresh supplies.

At Fresh, the herbs grow large without the addition of fertilizers. Ladybugs buzz from leaf to leaf, providing natural pest control. Hydroponic rafts of arugula with an incomparably peppery bite and trays of baby leaf lettuce will feed seriously ill children and their families at Little Tree Café in Mission Children's Hospital. The greens are also sold at the French Broad Food Co-Op. “They’ve been a big supporter of the Fresh program since the beginning,” says Dr. Robert Sweeney, who manages the project with his wife, Phyllis. 

Flat-leaf parsley also grows nearby. The chefs prefer it over the curly type, Phyllis says. Next to the parsley, the chervil requested by Posana Café is starting to get tall. Phyllis points out Cretan oregano, an especially strong variety Fresh has started growing by request. The Sweeneys have also added additional rows of cilantro to keep up with local-restaurant demand. Fresh also offers several types of basil (opal, Thai and holy), chives, sage and also has Early Treat and Bistro tomatoes growing — they'll fruit within a couple of months. Attention bartenders: Fresh also now offers a mint called Kentucky Colonel, ideal for mint juleps. "It's a thicker, heavier leaf that you can muddle," Phyllis says.

The duo is in the process of deciding what varieties of hops to grow, and is looking for input from local brewers. "We don't want to grow something they don't want to buy," she says.

The Sweeneys have also started growing bachelor buttons and marigolds, and they're considering selling them as starts in the future. The marigolds, says Phyllis, are great for container-growing. "If you put them on your patio, they'll keep the mosquitos away," she says. Fresh hopes to branch out into other retail outlets, she adds. "We have not gotten into a farmers market yet, but we definitely are interested in that."

"The demand for fresh herbs is growing," adds Dr. Robert. "The other thing is that we're talking to various and sundry grocers that are concerned about the quality of the stuff coming in from Columbia and the Philippines — they're not sure what the heck's been sprayed on it." Additionally, he says, the program is looking into providing mini-gardens to veteran's hospitals. Both the cultivation of the herbs and the ingesting of certain varieties promote relaxation, he says. "We're finding more and more in terms of the medicinal value of the herbs for calming anxieties."

In development at Fresh are tabletop hydroponic kits for home use. Packages will include organic growing solution, seeded rock wool, lights — the whole setup. Kits are still being priced, says Phyllis. For more information about kits or to purchase herbs, email rsweeney@libertycornerent.com or call 254-9917, ext. 311.

Mark your calendars: Liberty Corner Enterprises will host a fundraiser on June 30 at the Crown Plaza Expo Center, featuring music from Lisa Biales, food and beverages. For more about LCE, visit http://www.libertycornerent.com.

— Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at food@mountainx.com

SHARE

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.