As he stood on top of his business’ roof and looked out over downtown Iowa City, Mark Ginsberg saw only one thing — potential.
The roof of MC Ginsberg, a jewelry and design company, is filled with 35 square feet of hydroponic plants — produce and vegetation growing without soil. But Ginsberg’s idea is much bigger than his rooftop garden — it includes all of downtown Iowa City’s empty roofs.
Ginsberg said business owners could turn the entire urban area of downtown Iowa City into an agriculture-producing environment with a system like his. He said businesses such as Mexican restaurants grow enough jalapenos for themselves or bars could grow herbs to make new kinds of drinks all by harvesting their empty roofs.
“The whole thing could be irrigated so you have plants up and down. as opposed to a roof that’s just a roof — wasted,” Ginsberg said. “At the very least we’ll get people think about ‘Are we utilizing all the materials and the resources that we have available to us or are we letting some go to waste?’”
Ginsberg isn’t the first to put plants on rooftops in Iowa City — buildings at the University of Iowa as well as Iowa City’s East Side Recycling Center have some vegetation on top. Jen Jordan, the city’s recycling coordinator, said that while the center’s roof isn’t meant to grow produce, it does help absorb rainwater and create a habitat or wildlife.
However, Ginsberg does hope to be a leader in urban agriculture by creating a system that is cheap and easily adaptable to each roof in downtown Iowa City. He’s well on his way as he’s expecting his first crop from the prototype system this year.
In a hydroponic garden, the plants get all of their nutrition from the flowing water of the irrigation system. The plants depend on a fertilizer from worm castings put into the water to grow and an agent such as vinegar to prohibit bacteria growth.
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Ginsberg’s plants are held in old food buckets filled with lava rocks, which are porous and allow plants’ roots to get air, Ginsberg said. He said that while some question whether hydroponics is organic because of the lack of soil, they use no pesticides or inorganic materials.
Krista Osadchuk, a University of Iowa student working toward a master’s in biology, is involved with maintaining the rooftop garden and noted that the advantage to using a hydroponic system is that food can grow anywhere if it doesn’t need soil. Each day she measures the ph — the acidity of its water — of the irrigation system so the plants can continue to grow properly.
“I think that having rooftop growing operations all over the city is something that will really skyrocket Iowa City’s name,” Osadchuk said.
Ginsberg said his entire system is made from cheap materials such as food-grade tubs, PVC pipe and wood. He eventually hopes to move to bamboo pipes for his irrigation system to make it more sustainable.
The irrigation system is run completely from solar panels Ginsberg placed on the roof of a neighboring building he owns to ensure it’s a sustainable garden. He said the plants live off 25 to 30 gallons of water, which is less than what soil plants would demand.
Ginsberg said he hopes eventually to create a plans for rooftop hydroponic gardens that he can sell to other businesses cheaply — about 99 cents. He wants to develop a system in which customers can plug in the dimensions of a rooftop or plot of land and download the correct plans to fit their space and maximize their gardens.
“Once we figure out how to build, it should be pretty easy and pretty inexpensive. So whether you’re six years old and you’re doing a weekend thing with your dad or mom or you’re 60 and want to build hydroponic gardens or 80, you should be able to do that,” Ginsberg said.
Ginsberg said he plans to give away his initial crop to local restaurants and bars. Ginsberg eventually wants to sell the crop, but it depends on the taste, dependability and amount of crops that can grow on his roof.
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The first crop includes vegetables such as peas, cucumbers and tomatoes. He said the restaurant Oasis already has asked for all his cilantro plants.
“We’re trying not to get too excited because we don’t have fruit yet. But it all is going really well, better than we expected,” Osadchuk said.
Ginsberg not only has found support from the restaurants and bars that want to use his project but also from the downtown officials. Nancy Bird, executive director of the Iowa City Downtown District, said sustainability is a priority for the area.
She said the board of directors is looking to support more projects such as Ginsberg’s.
Greening up the districts rooftops presents long-term advantages such as keeping operating costs down, providing alternative energy resources and reducing energy usage, Bird said. In the short term, it allows businesses to get into the local food market — which doesn’t really require large transportation costs or fuels to get to its consumer.
“It’s a value of the downtown district and it’s a value of this community to be not only sustainable but bold with how we approach things,” Bird said. “This is a really great opportunity to model something that we hope can grow.”