Meet the Cork-based duo bringing a space-age food growing system to Ireland

A space-age food growing system has landed in Ireland thanks to two innovative women, writes ELLIE O’BYRNE , in her monthly Green Women column, in WoW!
Meet the Cork-based duo bringing a space-age food growing system to Ireland

Jenny Twomey and Jill O'Brien. of Green Towers

IT might not be exactly a “giant leap for mankind,” but when Jenny Twomey bought some excess luggage weight for her journey home to Cork from the U.S for a very unusual import, she knew what she was doing was probably a first for Ireland.

Jenny, born in Missouri but married to an Irishman and settled in Crosshaven, was bringing home a so-called ‘Tower Garden’ to try her hand at cultivating salads and vegetables in her home.

Vertical tower gardens are a space-age innovation that many say may hold the key to the sustainable city food production of the future.

First tested by NASA in the 1990s, the towers are vertical growing systems that feed and water plants through ‘aeroponics’, where nutrient-rich water is pumped over the plant roots in the tower’s interior at regular intervals. They take up very little space, use over 90% less water than traditional farming, and even result in 30% more plant yield. They can even grow year-round if lights are used.

The first tower farms emerged in the States 15 years ago, but to the best of Jenny’s knowledge, she was the first person to bring the idea to Ireland.

She’s not a horticulturalist; she had worked as a medical rep before being introduced to Tower Gardens.

“I’m a foodie,” Jenny explains. “I saw Tim, the developer of the US company Tower Gardens, talking about the future of food at a conference in Florida. I got it immediately. I was saying, ‘when do we get them in Europe?’ For my 40th birthday, I bought myself a tower and paid for excess luggage for the flight home.”

Jenny had become friends with Jill O’Brien, from Fountainstown, at the school gate: Jenny has four children while Jill is a mum to two.

“I was watching Jenny growing food with her tower for a couple of years and I got more and more interested, and then addicted,” Jill says.

“What got me involved was love of food and wanting fresh, healthy chemical-free food at my fingertips. The more I learn about what gets sprayed on supermarket veg, the more it gives me nightmares.”

Jill followed suit, investing in a tower of her own for a birthday she laughingly describes as “more than Jenny’s 40; a significant birthday.”

She says she’s never looked back: “I haven’t bought any greens or salads in a supermarket for a year and a half.”

Having accumulated growing experience and wowed friends and family with fresh produce from their own towers, the pair started a business, Green Towers Ireland, just a year ago to sell, install and maintain Tower Gardens and Tower Farms, which are collections of towers designed for commercial growing.

 Jenny Twomey with one of their Green Tower products.
 Jenny Twomey with one of their Green Tower products.

First, they invested in their own farm, which they installed in The Pavilion garden centre near Ballygarvan.

“The traditional horticulturalists were pretty bemused,” Jill says.

“At first they really didn’t seem to think it could work. People can be quite sceptical about anything new in Ireland, I think. And there we were, installing the towers and planting seedlings in the coldest week of November!”

“But the garden centre was closed for two weeks at Christmas and by the time we got back, everyone was just amazed: the growth was incredible.”

Jenny and Jill may have had the first Tower Farm in Ireland, but they have quickly been joined by a second: Cork Rooftop Farm, the fledgling hyper-local producers who have set up on the roof of a premises on Dalton’s Avenue in Cork city have recently ordered 60 towers.

Vertical growing systems have been hailed as a sustainable way to grow food in cities as well as in countries with poor soil or no rainfall. But two of the biggest advantages, according to Jenny, are reductions in food waste and food miles.

“You have a connection to the food and you don’t want to waste it when you’ve grown it,” Jenny says.

“It changes how you think about it. Instead of going to the supermarket and buying things that have come from Kenya, that cost a euro so you don’t feel bad when you throw it away, you really care about it. And you can pick it exactly when you need it so it’s always fresh.”

Making growing accessible to people without the space, or who don’t feel confident in their growing abilities, is another plus.

“I was always intimidated by farming and growing,” Jenny says.

“My grandparents always had a patch of land, and when I was little, I would be out in the garden with them, but I saw that it was a lot of digging and bending and weeding, so I was intimidated by that. And I killed a lot of plants.

“The towers are so easy; they just grow. There’s no digging, bending or weeding. It tastes good, it’s simple: anyone can do this.”

Like many technologies, there’s room for more innovation and change and there are areas that could be more sustainable: currently, the Tower Gardens system uses a plug of rockwool as a growing medium to get seedlings started in before transplanting to towers.

Rockwool is a synthetic, non-biodegradable fibrous material used as an insulator in the building trade. Jenny and Jill are keen to move away from using rockwool as a growing medium but it’s still the material supplied by Tower Gardens, the U.S company that Jenny and Jill’s Green Towers Ireland is a franchise of. They hope to partner with UCC to research an alternative growing medium.

Jill O'Brien of Green Towers.
Jill O'Brien of Green Towers.

On top of this, even though home growers may cut down on buying single-use plastics in the supermarket by installing a Tower Garden, the towers themselves, which are manufactured in the U.S, are made of plastic: a heavy, food-grade polycarbonate.

What happens to the tower at the end of its life? Polycarbonates are not recyclable by putting in the green bin.

“If you broke a pot or tank, I suppose you could recycle it,” Jenny says.

“But the only thing I’ve had to replace is a pump. They are commercial quality and there are farms that have been producing food for 15 years now. They’re designed to last.

“There’s waste in agriculture too,” Jenny points out. “So I suppose it’s all steps; it’s not perfect. It’s a piece of the puzzle.”

A Tower Garden for domestic use is around €650, or €950 with a set of lights that enable you to grow indoors.

With the Covid crisis raising awareness of food security and a massive boom in interest in home-growing underway, Jenny and Jill are expecting Tower Gardens to grow in popularity in coming years, even though the Covid restrictions have caused set-backs for their fledgling business too.

Both Jenny and Jill are firm believers in technical solutions to environmental problems, and they believe their towers are one such solution.

“We can’t ignore how far we’ve come and how far we have to go and I think we have to embrace technology to turn things around,” Jenny says.

“There are places in the world that don’t have water, or the soil. There’s a gap that we can’t ignore; we have to bridge it. It’s baby steps.”

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The towers are so easy; they just grow. There’s no digging, bending or weeding. It tastes good, it’s simple; anyone can do this.

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