Last year, perhaps the coldest summer on record before this one, Deloss Webber harvested so much food he donated to food banks, shared with friends and family, canned, froze, made stock, soup and gallons of caponata.
photographed by Steve Ringman
IT TOOK A sculptor to dream up a 3D vertical system to grow more plants in less space, and a foodie-farmer type to make sure it really works. Deloss Webber, originator of the Vee Garden, is an artist, chef and entrepreneur as well as an environmentalist who fashioned all parts of his efficient system from repurposed and recycled materials.
When a developer cut down hundreds of trees above Webber’s Kirkland property a couple of years ago, he lost privacy but gained light. “I love the saying, ‘Barn’s burnt down, now I can see the moon,’ ” says Webber, who took advantage of all that new open sky by setting in to grow food.
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Webber grew up a Navy brat, trying out unusual foods, herbs and spices around the world. By the time he was 14 he knew he wanted to be a farmer, and at 21 bought 160 acres in Minnesota. Between those initial acres and his new vertical-gardening endeavors lie 40 years of cooking, running a restaurant and building a career as a noted sculptor represented by major Seattle galleries.
“I’ve always been looking for the perfect widget,” says Webber, who was inspired to move forward with developing systems for growing food when Michelle Obama dug up the White House lawn to plant a vegetable garden.
Webber’s 3D garden pots started with the concept of the old-fashioned strawberry pot with pockets on the side. “I started riffing on that idea, but with pipes,” Webber says of his tower pots in which he grows vegetables, herbs and fruit. Because Webber thinks sculpturally, it wasn’t such a stretch for him to conceive of growing raspberry canes in a spiraling doughnut-shaped row rather than the usual configuration.
In the sunniest spot on his Kirkland acreage and up on the garage roof, Webber has set up dozens of tall pots crafted from recycled plastic bottles and sewer pipe. Fat red strawberries dangle down the sides of the pipes, lettuces fluff out everywhere, and eggplants and peppers grow next to raspberries, blueberries and basil.
The tall, slim pots can be set on any surface from asphalt to gravel. They’re portable, modular, expandable and customizable. The containers lend shape to the garden, and the soil drains well and heats up earlier in the spring. The system is ideal for disabled or older gardeners, because the pots are so easy to tend and convenient to harvest from.
“This plant-layering system provides a metric for gardening so you can calculate how much you’ll harvest . . . I like to think of it as square-foot gardening in towers,” explains Webber.
He’s invented three kinds of 3D containers, all of which he hopes to get into production soon:
One hydroponic system looks like a soft sculpture sprouting a bouquet of slim white pipes; a reservoir at the bottom wicks water back up into the soil.
The Green Tower style offers in-house composting. The capped center pipe holds compost; as you pick off dead leaves, just stick them in the pipe, and they slowly decay and slough down and out the bottom to enrich the soil. “It’s about gravity and a symbiotic relationship, like nature would do it,” says Webber, who has simply sped up the process a bit with his convenient constructions.
Tomatoes and squashes grow large in the third style of container Webber calls the Deep Green, which provides 20 gallons of soil for these larger plants.
Last year, perhaps the coldest summer on record before this one, Webber harvested so much food he donated to food banks, shared with friends and family, canned, froze, made stock, soup and gallons of caponata from all the eggplant and peppers ripened on his roof.
“You can double and triple your production with the right strategies,” he says. It’s all about how vertical gardening can produce a greater variety of food with less work and fewer resources. Webber, who continues to experiment with systems, shares his strategies and ideas on his web page at www.vee-garden.com.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “The New Low-Maintenance Garden.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.