With its bright lights and clusters of verdant lettuce leaves, the 6-feet-tall hydroponic garden is a flourishing fixture on the first floor of the Student Union. It’s one of 16 indoor and outdoor tower gardens on the main campus and at UCF Downtown. The tower is an important part of the university’s thriving FreshU initiative, which aims to increase students’ access to fresh food.
“If you look at the data, our students are eating zero-to-one fruit or vegetable a day,” says Jonathan Carr, sustainability and food production coordinator with UCF’s Wellness and Health Promotion Services (WHPS). This startling revelation planted the seed for fruit trees and vegetable gardens to sprout up across campus over a decade ago.
“We brought the tower gardens to campus as a way for students to have gardening at their fingertips,” says Stephanie Spies, assistant director at WHPS, a division of Student Development and Enrollment Services. “We wanted students to see where their food is grown.”
By volunteering in the gardens or attending a tower garden workshop, students can do more than see where fruit and vegetables are grown — they get to take some home, too. With free, fresh produce, plus cooking classes and meal kits to go, FreshU is part of a large effort to promote a culture of well-being at UCF.
The Dirt On Hydroponics
Instead of soil, tower gardens use a material called Rockwool, a spongelike fiber made from volcanic rock. Leafy greens and herbs get their start in Rockwool cubes on a greenhouse seeding table and are transplanted to the tower gardens when they’re about an inch tall. Since the plants aren’t receiving nutrients from traditional soil, essential elements, including nitrogen and phosphorus potassium, are added to the tower’s water system to balance the pH levels and ensure a healthy and healthful harvest. And while this supplementation means the plants are not able to be certified as organic, they are still grown organically without the use of pesticides or herbicides.
An Abundant Harvest
Carr, along with a team of work-study students and volunteers, cultivates and harvests fruits and vegetables in dozens of raised garden beds and tower gardens, and manages more than 100 fruit trees spanning 25 varieties across campus. Lettuce, kale and herbs grow quickly in the tower gardens and are well-liked by students for being versatile and easy to enjoy, while the community garden yields a wide variety of seasonal crops ranging from tomatoes and sweet potatoes to broccoli and Brussels sprouts. And while you won’t spot any orange trees on campus (that’s on purpose), you might stumble upon a shrub that’s loaded with golden loquats or a so-called strawberry tree, with tiny red fruits that taste like cotton candy.
As tempting as it may be to just pluck some parsley or grab some guava, students should go through the proper channels before taking home their fresh finds. UCF students can get involved by attending tower garden workshops and volunteering in the gardens.
“Once a week, we have community garden volunteer shifts,” says Carr. “That’s a really good opportunity for students to learn how to grow their own food and harvest it directly from the ground.”
Students can also snag fresh-picked fruit and veggies for free at the Knights Pantry in Ferrell Commons and the FreshU To-Go market inside the Recreation and Wellness Center.
“We donate hundreds of pounds [of produce] a week to Knights Pantry, but students just didn’t know what to do with it,” says Spies. “That’s when we started to build the FreshU program and offer cooking classes and demonstrations.”
The FreshU mobile kitchen piques culinary curiosity all over campus, providing passersby with food samples and recipe cards. For a more immersive experience, students can turn those recipes into a real meal while gaining skills in a FreshU cooking class.
“We developed our cooking class program to teach students how to cook it, eat it and enjoy it. And not just think of it as, ‘Oh gosh, I’ve got to eat another green thing,’ ” says Spies. “Our goal is for students to be able to be nourished to do well in school.”
To learn more about the tower gardens, cooking experiences and student volunteer opportunities, visit go.ucf.edu/tower-gardens.