Mercyhurst Tower Gardens to bloom in Erie community
University creates new program to lend gardens to local groups
They say money doesn’t grow on trees, but in the case of the Tower Garden (TG) project that Mercyhurst University is piloting to raise fresh produce indoors any season of the year, another funding harvest is on its way.
Out of the university’s original TG program, established in early 2021 to test the feasibility and sustainability of using TGs to address local food insecurity, comes a $9,900 grant from Erie Insurance to fund an outgrowth initiative called the Tower Garden Lending Program.
The money will be used to purchase eight Tower Gardens with growing supplies and accessories and loan them to interested Erie County K-12 schools and local organizations, said Mercyhurst alumna and Healthy Futures AmeriCorps VISTA Shannon Meyers, who is overseeing the TG program.
“The university will also provide resources and support to assist with the implementation, set-up, maintenance, and overall facilitation of the program,” Meyers said.
Meyers’ work is in collaboration with Public Health Department Chair Dr. Beatriz Torres and Colin Hurley, executive director of community engagement and sustainability manager.
“This initiative that Shannon has developed is a very good example of how public health works,” Torres said. “We engage different community members, students, and professionals to identify assets and challenges that exist in our community; collectively set goals on ways we could improve the health of our communities, and creatively think how we could address those challenges together.”
Tower Gardens are vertical garden structures that utilize aeroponic technology, which is the process of growing through an air or mist environment. They can be used year-round, either indoors or outdoors, and can grow a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and herbs.
Started through a Mercyhurst Sustainability Grant, the university purchased three TGs, which average five-to-six feet tall and are surrounded by LED lights on timers. Each TG is equipped with a lower reservoir holding water that, through use of a pump motor and tube system, rains water onto the plants. Collectively, there are 92 ports through which the plants grow. The process takes around 30 to 40 days from seed to harvest.
Meyers said providing produce to those on campus through a Tower Garden Campus Supported Agriculture (CSA) program was well received last year. “We will be continuing it this fall and a student worker from public health will be assisting me,” Meyers said. “My hope this semester is to get more students involved and have some activities throughout the semester to promote healthy eating and nutrition on campus.”
The overarching goal of the project, however, has always been to introduce the towers into the community – including organizations serving the poorest segments of the local population – and use them in the fight against food insecurity.
“We imagine these eight new tower gardens being loaned to community-based organizations and schools for the short-term, even renewable like a library book,” Hurley said. “What is different than a book, though, is that Mercyhurst would offer customized support from a knowledgeable staff member and from students who can gain hands-on learning experience helping children and youth in our community learn about growing food, nutrition, culinary skills, and perhaps entrepreneurship and how aquaponics/aeroponics has emerged as a viable and scalable opportunity.”
Organizations that are interested in the lending program can complete a short application, which can be found on the Tower Garden Lending Program webpage. All applications will be reviewed by a Mercyhurst panel. If chosen to participate, a small fee will be charged to cover the cost of upkeep materials such as seeds, rockwool, and plant nutrients. For more information, contact Shannon Meyers at email@example.com.