Intelligent Design

Great planning and an eye to innovation reap garden bounty at Frog Bench Farms.

I’m a permaculture enthusiast cursed with an English garden aesthetic. The duality doubles down once you factor in my love for gadgetry and technology. Often I find myself in the company individuals of one persuasion or another: barefoot raw vegan naturalists with no email addresses, or tech geeks growing lettuce under lights in shipping containers.

However, recently I found myself among two kindred spirits, Paula and Joe Sargetakis, when I visited Frog Bench Farm. Located on the east bench of the Salt Lake Valley, their acre-and-a-half urban farm is the definition of forward-thinking ecological stewardship in an urban setting, all done with an eye for design.

Those values, coupled with a careful use of space, are apparent the moment one approaches the ornate iron gates at the front entrance. No ordinary gate, the vegetable silhouettes relief-cut into steel rides high above dozens of metal leaf rake heads.

The entire property is landscaped with generous amounts of beneficial insect-attracting perennials, native shrubs and medicinal herbs. A permeable concrete driveway interplanted with wooly thyme allows rainwater to infiltrate the soil while also greening and cooling the area. In fact, the careful use of rainwater is a focus at the farm.

The farm collects a heroic amount of rainwater from the roof of the residence that sits at the top of the property. Salt Lake City code requires this large volume of water to be stored in tanks located below ground. These storage tanks are housed in a massive concrete room beneath the house. The tanks are accessible and easy to monitor. The impressively clean and cool room also doubles as the perfect place to grow micro greens. Frog Bench produces a wide variety of micro greens. Rack after rack of trays are pampered with ideal temperatures and lighting.

Paula was fond of family stories about her grandma’s farm, long ago located at a corner of Seventh East and Fourth South in Salt Lake City. The idea to start her own urban farm came in 1999 after seeing a show about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). The CSA is a marketing and sales model common with small farms. Customers sign up and pay for a season’s worth of fresh vegetables at the beginning of the season. Then they receive a regular assortment of fresh seasonal produce. This model helps to provide investment at the beginning of the season, when the farmer needs it most, and the customers benefit from a direct relationship with the grower. Knowing where your food comes from is valuable information; being directly involved with where it comes from is priceless.

Once inspired by the concept, it didn’t take much convincing to get her husband Joe on board. They spent the next 10 years researching and planning what was to become Frog Bench Farms. Frog Bench, as it turns out, is not a CSA, but instead provides produce for area restaurants.

The careful and calculated design of the farm is nothing short of luxurious. From the large underground vault, we wandered out into a storage room that housed their electric side-by-side ATV which doubles as the farm’s tractor. The entire property is solar powered with a massive array on the roof, and using the electric ATV for muscle when needed helps keep the farm clean and green.

We then wandered through one of the most impressive on-farm harvest rooms and kitchens I have yet to witness. Its purpose, says Paula, is to host classes, to “teach the teachers” about harvesting, preparing and preserving locally grown produce.

Then there’s the greenhouse.

While most greenhouses in the hot Salt Lake summer sun are nothing short of unbearable  mid-summer, Frog Bench maintains theirs like a cool and cozy spring that never goes out of style. Shade cloth is automated overhead to filter out excess solar gain as necessary, and a massive “cool wall” utilizes the power of evaporative cooling to keep temperatures low while consuming a minimum amount of power. A thin gauged bug mesh filters all incoming air to keep out unwanted pests. Spinach and arugula relax without an ounce of stress in their greenhouse beds, months after the rest of us kicked their heat-stressed assess out of ours.

Outside the greenhouse the farm continues with raised beds, outdoor growing areas, another small greenhouse, and the couple’s personal vineyard. The grape vines, trellised high off the ground to access more heat, are high-altitude cold-weather short-season hybrids that bud later and mature earlier than other varieties.

Trees cleared to make room for the farm are now “pavers” for pathways and a patio. All around, self-seeding herbs and perennials are allowed to wander.

Farm manager Stacy Sembroski keeps things tidy and productive, with early tomatoes cranking out fruit from single leader string-trellised vines in the lower high-tunnel greenhouse. In intensive production, growers commonly plant quite close together and trellis a single “leader,” training it with specialized clips to a piece of twine suspended from an upper support. All other side shoots and “suckers” are pruned off of the plant. While labor intensive, it produces far and away the most yield per square foot, while also providing maximum support and airflow around the plants.

The farm is now six years old. Standing next to the almond trees while admiring the chicken coop that I would more aptly describe as a “chicken mansion,” we discussed how exciting it is to be able to share so many ideas with fellow growers.

“We’re not open to the public, but when people to come, we hope they find ideas to help them find solutions to whatever problems they face. Every farm is different, every one of them valid. By learning from one another each one only becomes stronger,” Paula said.

James Loomis is the Green Team farm manager for Wasatch Community Gardens.