By Morgan Rogers
I recently discovered two incredible things – Convivium Urban Farmstead and working with pallet wood, which I did at Convivium. Emily and I were lucky enough to get connected with Mike and Leslie, the kindest, coolest people, and founders of Convivium. They not only put us up at their place, but gave us full use of their wood shop where we had planned to build a couple of things, but ended up building other things based on our experiences there. We arrived just in time for the grand opening of their space, two 1920s-era greenhouses, with a commercial kitchen, a coffee house, and wood shop/learning center, dedicated to creating community around food.
It was there that we learned more about hydroponics and aquaponics from Korrin who was designing and installing these systems in Convivium with her husband, Sean. I heard about this way of producing food before in Maine, but never saw it up close and had never thought about using it myself. It is a system in which the waste produced by fish supplies nutrients for plants grown hydroponically and they in turn purify the water. Hydroponics is a system that grows plants without soil. They get their nutrients from mineral nutrient solutions mixed in water.
Inspired by what we were seeing at Convivium and wanting to take a piece of the landscape to incorporate into Michi Zeebee, while looking for more ways to live sustainably on a boat, we of course had to have a hydroponics garden on our boat. We talked to A.J. who manages the urban farms for Convivium. He thought it was a great idea and totally doable so he connected us to Korrin after generously donating fishing poles and a tackle box so we could pair fresh caught fish with our new garden. Korrin walked us through the steps of setting up a rooftop hydroponics garden as well as donated some PVC pipe and seeds for veggies. Mike gave us the run of the wood shop, a couple of bikes to get around town on (one was a gigantic fat tire bike and the other a tiny bmx – hands down the raddest way to cruise), let us use any scrap wood laying around, and donated a water pump. I can’t say enough how great the folks are at Convivium.
In the style of shantyboat and using sustainable practices we used reclaimed pallet wood to make our hydroponics garden. I love pallet wood. If you ever worked with pallet wood you know that you get a hodge podge of woods from around the world ranging from mahogany to oak to purple heart to pine. The thing with pallet wood is you need to be patient as there are many steps involved for getting it to a usable stage, but I even enjoyed this whole process.
First you need to pick a good pallet where you can salvage at least a few solid pieces. Once you pick a couple you need to remove the rusty nails. There are a couple of ways of going about it. You could swing around a crow bar and use a hammer to pull the pieces off or take a skill saw to the edges and just cut the sections out that are free of nails. We did the latter. It is a heck of a lot faster. I have done the former in the heat of the day with Joe at The Apprenticeshop earlier this summer. Thanks again Joe for volunteering to do that!
Okay so now you have all these pieces cut out, but of course they are not square and are different sizes and thicknesses. Also, they are usually pretty grimy so you need to take a wire brush to them first and maybe run a metal detector over them to make sure you did not miss any nails before running them through the planer to get them to the same thickness. After you get the same thickness you want to make sure they are all the same width and are square. After planing them Emily would run them through the table saw then I would take them to the chop saw to cut a little off each end. It took us a couple of days, but it was well worth it. The colors of all the different pieces formed a beautiful pattern.
Now we had all these pieces that needed to be joined together to form a longer plank that would go between each of the PVC pipes to be a support structure for the garden. Emily came up with a lock and key system, which consisted of cutting a section from each pallet piece and connecting the pallets together with these pieces using dowels. We ended up with even more patterns, but to our dismay when we held up our new planks they bent and threatened to fall apart. The pieces were just too small and too thin, but it didn’t matter to us. We liked the look of it and just slapped some plywood on the back to give it more structure and presto we have a support structure for the garden.
The last step was making holes in the PVC pipe to hold the plants. Emily took a hole saw to the pipes and made neat rows along each. It produced some pretty cool shop detritus:
In the middle of all of this we also managed to build and install the aft wall with a 3D river topography pattern. This was an idea that we had for sometime, as we wanted to capture the river’s topography both through sonar scanning and through a 3D structure on Zeebee, but got an extra push when the last thunderstorm ripped off the aft canvas wall. I looked through Navionics and studied the patterns of the river bottom around the Dubuque area. I took these patterns and cut them out of plywood using a combination of a jigsaw and bandsaw. Then I layered these pieces and fastened them with glue and a nail gun.
Leslie and Mike were patient and very supportive of the project even as we kept extending our stay and raiding the café bakery at night for those delicious muffins they make in house. In the morning we would buy coffee in their café and sheepishly pay for the muffins we had consumed the previous night and would take another for the road.
After many long nights and muffins we had a hydroponics garden installed on the roof of Michi Zeebee. We are installing the pump soon to draw water from the river to grow the veggies, even though we can’t technically eat the vegetables since the Mississippi River water is not clean enough for that. It will be an interesting experiment and perhaps more folks will build gardens on their boat or start an urban garden of their own.