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8/25/2018
Pioneer Home residents embrace hydroponics
Jane Cowan holds a basket of vegetables grown hydroponically on location at the Pioneer Home. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek


By ALAINA BARTEL
Daily News Staff Writer

A lot of the elders at the Ketchikan Pioneer Home used to garden as a pastime, but living at a senior center means not having access to their own yard and garden. So, a garden has come to them. The residents have been gardening out of a box since the end of June with a hydroponics system funded by a grant from the Ketchikan Community Foundation.

Hilary Koch, activities director at the Pioneer Home, wrote a grant for the hydroponics unit and the organization received the funds in May. The KCF awarded almost $26,000 worth of grant money to seven local nonprofit organizations, and $7,420 was granted to the Pioneer Home for the project.

Koch said Shin Berkey, a chef at the Pioneer Home, advocated for the system and encouraged Koch to write the grant.

“The idea was to make it a complete project for everybody, for the preschoolers when they come back — maybe we can have a unit on growing our own vegetables and eating them,” Koch said.

The system is from VH Hydroponics out of Anchorage, and it arrived in Ketchikan with seeds and nutrients for the gardeners to begin their work. It is capable of holding 114 plants, and there are no weeds or slugs. All they have to do is mix nutrients in with the water that feeds the plants.

The residents have been planting the seeds and harvesting the vegetables a few times a week, and kitchen staff has been using the greens in meals. So far, they have grown swiss chard, lettuce, bok choy and dill, among other vegetables.

Berkey has used the dill for tartar sauce, the basil for pesto and the bok choy in soups.

“I think the green salad is wonderful,” Berkey said.

Ernie DeBoer, a resident and known carrot gardener, cannot believe there is no soil involved in the system. DeBoer said the system is a bit small.

“Ernie’s a gardener,” Koch said. “Ernie thinks this is just not possible.”

But he saw that it is indeed possible on Tuesday afternoon, when Berkey walked over to the hydroponics system and harvested some swiss chard. The roots for the vegetable stretched quite long, to most everyone’s surprise.

“It’s been really fun because it grows so fast; you can really see the results,” Koch added. “Even our biggest skeptic is kind of impressed.”

“Yeah, I am,” DeBoer replied.

Another Pioneer Home resident, Norma Copeland, cheered as Berkey placed the swiss chard on the table next to their other fresh greens harvested from their greenhouse on the roof. Copeland has particularly been enjoying the basil, which Berkey has been using in soups, and said she’s enjoyed the gardening “immensely.”

Whether it’s enjoying the cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, thyme and mint from their greenhouse, or eating the lettuce in the hydroponics system in a fresh green salad, Arlene Williams, the food services manager at the Pioneer Home, said she believes gardening has been very satisfying for the residents.

“They really enjoy when you take fresh stuff to their table and say, ‘Smell this mint,’” Williams added.

Williams explained that their kitchen runs on a “farm to fork” theory, where everything is made from scratch. The chefs bake bread and donuts from scratch and there is rhubarb growing out the back door, in addition to their two gardening systems.

“The Pioneer Home is an Eden Home,” said Koch, “and the Eden philosophy is all about living in a garden, having live plants, having animals, having children, just to make it a life worth living. This really fits into it.”

The hydroponics system isn’t able to feed everyone in the Pioneer Home, so it supplements the food they already have. They no longer have to buy large quantities of dill or lettuce, and Williams said they can get 40 portions out of a good harvest, which takes about six weeks.

“For us, it’s super important because fresh herbs are expensive  … and it’s hard to get good, fresh herbs here,” the food services manager said.

They are still learning the ins-and-outs of gardening out of a box and hope to get into a harvesting rhythm instead of waiting for all of the vegetables to be ready at once, so the residents can stay busy harvesting different items on a regular basis.

Not only that, but the preschoolers are returning to the Pioneer Home soon. Williams said she wants the children to learn the process of seed, to plant, to table.

“I think we’ve lost that as a society — kids now go to the store and think milk comes in a carton versus an actual cow,” Williams said. “I think it’s just really educational for them.”