By Meagan McGone
BREVARD -- Theresa Riley's vision for a hydroponic farm reached fruition after lots of love, labor and water - but no soil.
Mrs. Riley, who co-owns Rockledge Gardens with her husband, Kevin, planted the seeds at The Farm at Rockledge Gardens in January 2012, after visiting the innovative "Living with the Land" attraction at Disney's Epcot and witnessing its simple, yet effective, hydroponic vegetable production system.
"Hydroponics means water does the work," Mrs. Riley said. "All of the nutrients are carried through the water, rather than soil. It was kind of a dream and vision for my husband and me."
The couple spent more than one year researching hydroponic farming systems, attending classes and visiting other farms along the way. They implemented vertical towers, which are made up of stackable Styrofoam pots and allow for a larger production, while using less space.
Now, one year later, The Farm at Rockledge Gardens is in its second season, producing more than 20 different types of vegetables, and within that, about 50 varieties of those vegetables. Additionally, the farm grows fresh herbs.
"We planted our first towers in January and had our first harvest last March," Mrs. Riley said. "This is our second season. We started our seeds in August, planted them in September and started to harvest at the end of October."
Another advantage to hydroponic farming is that it uses about 10 percent of the water that conventional farming uses, Mrs. Riley said. Instead of using soil, the plants spread their roots in a nutrient-valueless medium of coconut fiber and perlite, with all of the nutrients brought to the plants through the water.
"The garden is irrigated three times per day for three minutes each time," Mrs. Riley said. "It's a very efficient use of water - it uses about 99 percent of the water. Our goal is to not have any water run off."
Mrs. Riley said that perhaps the greatest efficiency of the farm is the use of space, with its vertical tower system.
"We can grow 27 plants on one square foot," she said. "If you did that conventionally, you would need at least 27 square feet, so it's a very efficient use of space.
And the delicious, freshly-farmed produce from The Farm at Rockledge Gardens ends up on various tables throughout Brevard.
Currently, chefs from a few restaurants in Brevard visit the farm to pick out their produce, as well as provide feedback on what the farm should grow.
"It's kind of this blossoming trend of restaurants wanting to use local fruits and vegetables," Mrs. Riley said. "They're becoming very conscious about where their food comes from, which is a really good thing."
Mrs. Riley's first farm-to-table restaurant experience in Brevard County was at Merritt's Table, on Merritt Island, before she had started The Farm at Rockledge Gardens.
"They list all of the local farms they get their food from, and I told my husband that my dream would be for our produce to be featured on their menu," Mrs. Riley said. "Then, we went, and our name was listed on their menu, and it was a really happy moment for me."
People can purchase produce from The Farm at Rockledge Gardens at its Farm Market on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
"That's part of why we started this farm," Mrs. Riley said. "We know people are concerned about the health of what they eat and where it comes from. Plus, environmentally, it's much more sound to buy things locally and eat what's in season instead of having things transported from country-to-country, or state-to-state."
Rockledge Gardens is located at 2153 U.S.1 in Rockledge.
For more information, visit www.rockledgegardens.com.