Grow your own

Adrian and Christie Lucas of Sassakala microfarm plant the seed that we can all grow our own vegetables – and eat better for it

Photography by Tina Sargeant

High-quality veggies and herbs — and the passion to educate others about them — are growing at Adrian and Christie Lucas’ family microfarm in Mulberry.
The Lakelander: Sassakala is successfully creating what at first seems like a contradiction — urban farms. How do you persuade people that it’s important to know how to grow veggies regardless of where we live?
Adrian & Christie Lucas: It’s easy to persuade others with fresh-tasting, clean food that you grow yourself. Many of our
conversations start with the produce they’re buying from the supermarket and how far it’s traveled, the lack of taste, and what it may have been treated with. GYO (growing your own food) eliminates these factors, and nothing is more local than your own backyard. Simply put: Food you grow yourself tastes great, and eating something you nurtured and grew from seed brings additional satisfaction that goes beyond flavor.

TL: In addition to the satisfaction of growing something,
what are the advantages of homegrown vegetables, and why do
it hydroponically?
A&C: It’s really convenient having your own food growing in the garden. We cook a lot at home, so it’s nice to have fresh, clean food that’s accessible without even leaving our yard. Sometimes we send the kids down to the garden to pick some fresh herbs if we’re in the middle of cooking and realize we need something extra. It means a lot to us that our kids are growing up in this environment and can recognize quite a large variety of herbs and vegetables. Sometimes we just wander out and see what’s ready to harvest and then figure out a meal from that. There’s nothing better than farm-to-table freshness. We use a combination of hydroponic and organic methods. Many hydroponic systems are designed to maximize space and use automation to minimize labor (watering, etc). One of the most important things for us is to eliminate the need for chemical sprays and treatments, and we use a lot of natural methods like companion planting, live ladybugs, soaps, etc. In addition, we use high-quality seeds (organic, non-GMO).

TL: You are in the vanguard of a movement that wants to know the provenance of our food. What do you think has sparked this movement?
A&C: Education. People are finally opening their eyes and ears and wanting to know where their food comes from.

 We wanted our kids to know what “real food” is and where it comes from. The best way to teach them that lesson was to let them grow the seeds themselves and help cook the meals using what they’ve grown.

Lucas Family-0002Many documentaries are unveiling the gross truths of what happens before the “food” (if you can call it that) reaches your plate, and we’re finally casting our votes by saying “no more” and buying locally at our farmers markets and natural food stores. Even better, it’s getting popular to have your own backyard garden no matter how small a space. Square-foot gardening, raised beds, and vertical growing are all trends that help with this movement.
We’re also part of a movement that’s looking for a simpler way of life. We’re realizing that the price of all this convenience food and industrial food is pretty high when you look at what it’s doing to the health of our nation.
We’re part of a growing movement that is resurrecting some of the common practices of our grandparents and great grandparents who couldn’t rely on the industrialization of food to provide nourishment for their families. They simply planted seeds.

TL: There are some architects and urban planners who envision cities that grow vegetable crops on building rooftops and make creative use of other space for farming. Is microfarming as scalable as they propose?
A&C: We’d like to think so. Urban farming might not completely replace traditional farming, but it could certainly supplement what other local farmers are doing and replace some of the items you frequently purchase from the store. Once people start to cooperate to build community gardens and trade local goods and products, the sky’s the limit.

TL: How did you get started with the microfarm?
A&C: Initially it was to provide herbs and veggies that tasted good. We love to cook, so having a variety of herbs on hand is something we’ve done for many years, as far back as when we were newlyweds and lived in a small apartment in South Florida. Then, with the birth of our two girls within the past six years, the motivation became much stronger to expand what we grew and how much.
When we moved back to Florida from Dallas, Texas, we rented for a while in central Lakeland
and just didn’t have the space or capability to grow in-ground, so we found the vertical towers were a perfect solution. We wanted an easy solution that feeds the family with very few trips to the produce section of the grocery store. More importantly though, we wanted our kids to know what “real food” is and where it comes from. The best way to teach them that lesson was to let them grow the seeds themselves and help cook the meals using what they’ve grown. This was a major focus of our homeschool curriculum last year. The kids’ education played a major role in building our microfarm as well as educating others. We now sell and help set up growing systems around the city in hopes to advance the urban farm movement in our local area.

TL: I’ve grown vegetables with only modest yields, so I’m sure I’m not the first to ask you if it’s really possible for us weekend farmers to have yields that would actually replace buying vegetables.
A&C: Sure, it’s possible, but it’s quite a big commitment. We always suggest starting small, and once you’ve had some success then do a little more each season. Look into local workshops where master gardeners offer great tips, and don’t be afraid to ask questions from farmers in your area; they’re usually happy to offer guidance. Florida is a perfect place to grow year round with a lot of trial and error. After a few seasons of expanding like this, you’ll have built it into your routine and it won’t seem quite as daunting. Growing your own food is contagious.

TL: What did you try that failed, and what makes your crops so bountiful now (what is the growing media, planters, etc.)? How does
the hydroponic process work?
A&C: There are a few crops that we still find challenging or that are short lived either because the bugs got a hold of them or some other animal came into the garden for a snack.
Hydroponic growing basically means “grown in the absence of soil.” There are many variations and methods, but no soil means you don’t get soil- borne diseases and the problems that come with them. We use coconut fiber in our vertical garden systems. We mix a nutrient solution that feeds the plants a couple of times a day (it’s on an automated timer, so we don’t have to be present 24/7). The coconut fiber absorbs the water really well and feeds the roots of the
plants continuously. Water usage is minimized and there is very little waste.

TL: As anyone who has been amazed by your Living Walls (such as the one at Catapult) could attest, your work is not always just practical but aesthetic. What was the inspiration for these Living Walls, and are there plans for more of them in town?
A&C: Healthy living spaces, whether indoors or out, inspire us. Surround yourself with beautiful, natural things that make you happy. Christie has her degree in fine arts and education with former careers as mural artist, teacher, and photographer, and Adrian’s degree is in business with expertise in IT, so the Living Walls seemed like a perfect marriage of his technical skills and her design. The plants we use in indoor spaces are either edible or air purifying, and the goal is to beautify and enhance the environment where they’re placed. We’re passionate about food, growing plants, education, and design, and this business is the way we combine all of those into one that we hope will benefit our community.

TL: Not only do you grow great veggies, but you also teach how to grow great veggies. Where can readers learn more from you? Can they visit the microfarm?
A&C: At the moment, friends, family, and neighbors frequent the farm to get veggies and learn how to GYO food, because we’re still a private residence. But we’d like to offer workshops in the community where we set up our systems. We’re at the Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market each month, where we talk with locals about how to get started growing their own food, and we offer simple solutions to get them growing.
We’re glad to have started a partnership with VISTE to provide fresh produce for their volunteers through their urban garden which has both hydroponic towers and self-watering containers, and we’re educating volunteers on how to maintain the garden at their urban location. We’re also educating students about gardening at Magnolia Montessori Academy where our daughters attend this year. The students help to plan and develop their organic and hydroponic garden through fun gardening activities. We’re grateful that our girls attend a school where the faculty and administration are excited to include this as part of the curriculum in years to come.

TL: Final thoughts?
A&C: We hear so many Lakeland citizens come to our stand at the farmers market and say they “can’t grow anything” or they “have a black thumb” and kill everything green. We’re here to say that no one has it perfectly figured out. We’re all in it together just trying to figure out what works best and to offer each other guidance to help put fresh, healthy food on our tables. We’ve met so many like-minded people at the market who want to know where their food comes from and understand the importance of buying local produce. We’re optimistic that this movement will gain strength in the community and more and more people will have their own urban gardens and buy local.
If anyone would like to see more of what we’re working on or have further questions about getting started creating their own healthy living spaces, they can visit our website,hsassakala.com, or like us on facebook.com/sassakala.