Water from AC unit, basement keeps rooftop garden thriving at Middle Way House

On the rooftop of Middle Way House’s South Washington Street complex, a scarecrow named Hocus Pocus keeps a watchful eye over a garden of fruits, vegetables and herbs.

Even this late in the year, tomatoes, pumpkins and peppers grow on the rooftop, alongside waist-high barrels and more than 200 feet of PVC pipe — Middle Way House’s own water collection system that has nurtured 120 pounds of produce this year.

Middle Way House director Toby Strout said the organization has been growing its own fruits and vegetables for two years. The food is given to residents to eat, and the garden also acts as a learning experience for Middle Way interns and local children.

When planning the project, Strout said, an obvious and early concern was how they could possibly afford to keep the garden watered.

“If you’re growing vegetables, you’re using a lot of water,” she said. “And I really wasn’t interested in growing our water bill.”

For a solution, Strout turned to Middle Way House’s site superintendent Eric Wainwright. “I asked what we could do to get water to the garden that wasn’t city water,” she said. “And I mentioned the air conditioning, and I left it there.”

Wainwright said the air handler on the roof of the adjacent Food Works kitchen is about 20 times the size of the average air conditioner.

“With a regular-sized condensing unit outdoors or a window unit, you see how much water drains out,” Wainwright said. “I knew this would be quite a fair amount of water during hot and humid times, so I designed a way to get that water down off the roof.”

But the garden’s primary source of water doesn’t come from the air conditioning above, but rather the basement below.

When Middle Way House began restoring the old Coca-Cola bottling building that now houses Food Works, Strout said she and project development coordinator Cindy Brubaker observed a large amount of water in the building’s basement.

“We could see there were successive attempts to stop this water,” Strout recalled. “But water finds its way.”

Brubaker worked with an engineer to design a pumping system, and this water now flows to the rooftop garden. The combination of both sources has created an overabundance.

“During a hot and humid a day, which we had our fair share of this summer, we were collecting a gallon of water every five minutes,” Wainwright said.

The water travels through hundreds of feet of PVC pipe to the roof, through more pipes that line the outer fence of the garden and into blue, black and white barrels. The barrels are open at the top, allowing them to collect rain water, an added bonus that has so far proven unnecessary.

There’s already so much water, Wainwright said, that there is often overflow even after watering the rooftop garden and the entire grounds, which include trees and smaller gardens of squash and blueberry bushes.

Even during this past summer’s historic dry spell, the fruits, vegetables and flowers did not go thirsty.

“We never wanted for water during the drought,” Strout said.

Tomatoes grow in front of water collection barrels in Middle Way House’s rooftop garden. The water in the barrels is collected from an air handler and the basement.
Jake New | Herald-Times
Originally published in the Bloomington Herald-Times.