ELDRED, NY — Looking through the door of the Monteleone Gardens greenhouse, you catch a glimpse of a sight we northeasterners are accustomed to seeing only in the heat of the summer—a …
ELDRED, NY — Looking through the door of the Monteleone Gardens greenhouse, you catch a glimpse of a sight we northeasterners are accustomed to seeing only in the heat of the summer—a distinct spot of bright red peeking out through bunches of green leaves. A ripe tomato.
Twelve years ago, when the Monteleone family bought the property across the street for a wood-fired pizza patio, they were breaking new ground. “When we first started that, wood-fired pizza wasn’t a popular thing,” Frank Monteleone explained. He and Phyllis Monteleone, owners and operators of Monteleone Gardens, hope to bring a similar uniqueness with their hydroponic greenhouse in Eldred.
Here, they are growing fruits, vegetables and herbs for anyone who would like to order. Symmetrical heads of butter lettuce and bright-red tomatoes sit on the countertop in a small wicker basket, awaiting their next owners. The foyer of the greenhouse, where you purchase the produce, looks as though the inside is outside: the design on the walls is of siding and red-scalloped shingles. It makes it feel as though “you’re outside, and through the doors you see your garden,” Frank said of the inspiration for the design.
The couple broke ground on their project in August 2020, and had the soft opening for the gardens in September 2021. The entire greenhouse was family-built, and Frank enjoys handling the mechanical side of the gardens while Phyllis, an Eldred native, gets her hands into the planting. They work as a duo, with occasional help from other family members, to grow all the produce from seed to table. One recent weekend, they were getting ready to transplant 600 seedlings.
Kale, arugula, bok choy, basil, and mini cucumbers have all been popular selections grown within their hydroponic system.
“From seed to walking out the door, stay in this building,” Frank said. That means no trucks used for transport, no multitude of people touching your lettuce. Seeds are started in a medium, and when ready are transferred to the boxes where they will grow. The environment is very controlled, without dirt floors or open walls that could let in plant diseases or destructive insects. Frank and Phyllis pride themselves on the cleanliness of the greenhouse, making sure to mop the floors every day.
“Hydroponic is no dirt basically,” said Phyllis, “Because we’re in an enclosed environment and we can control it, we don’t plan on using any pesticides or anything like that.”
Rather than through the soil, the plants receive the nutrients they need through two water systems filled with an “ideal recipe” of plant food.
The beto-bucket system gives a plant in its own box a ration of 1/4 gallon of water per plant per day, spread between the hours of sunrise and sunset.
“We feed the plants right at the roots,” explained Frank, highlighting how the small square footage works.
“The Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) saves even more water,” Frank explains of the other system in the greenhouse, which uses tubes to funnel the water to plant trays from a 575-gallon tank dug into the ground outside. Any unabsorbed water from the plants flows back into the tank.
Frank likened it to an IV infusion for the plants. Each tray of plants gets a liter of water per minute. As the water goes down the tray, the roots soak up whatever they need, and the water carries along to the next plant. The system waters close to 4,000 plants when full, and the Monteleones put in about 20 more gallons of water into the tank every two or three days.
“The system we have monitors how much food they take and will add more food as required. You can’t get more efficient than that,” said Frank. If anything is off in the system, it sends a notification to the Monteleones.
Other mechanics of the greenhouse are also made to self-regulate, keeping the greenhouse warm in winter and cool in summer, no higher than 85 degrees Fahrenheit. “We make it easy because it’s the two of us. We can’t be spending four hours to do a nutrient change,” said Frank. “It’s a super energy-efficient operation.”
Propane heaters kick on in the winter, depending on the temperature outside, and a six-tiered cooling system cools in the summer, with fans and a wet-wall evaporation system.
There are sensors to let different fans and switches know when to turn on. When the heaters turn off, fans come on to give circulation to make the greenhouse feel like the outdoors; “The plants do want a little breeze,” Frank commented.
With such a closed system, there is one flying creature missing essential to tomato growth: nature’s pollinators. In their stead, Phyllis hand-pollinates each plant with a small vibrating wand. She even has one that is shaped like a bee.
The Monteleones value the freshness of their vegetables. “People order online, pick a pickup day and a time,” said Frank. You could order on a Monday and reserve for a Saturday, and your produce will be picked an hour or two before you arrive.” The Monteleones appreciate this method because nothing goes to waste if it’s cut fresh to order. Nothing sits on a shelf for days in a grocery store or goes unchosen at a farmer’s market.
The Monteleones are also aware of the cycle food needs to grow. It takes time to grow a head of lettuce, or a tomato, and sometimes if a crop is popular, it may sell out in a weekend, and there won’t be any more until the next batch matures.
The current tomatoes were seeded on August 18, and the first tomatoes were ready by New Year’s Eve. The vines reach up to 25 feet, trellising up and around the box where their roots start. “We expect the lifespan of one tomato plant to be about eight months,” said Frank. The Monteleones aim to keep a rotation of the most popular crops readily available. “There’s fresh stuff to get here all the time.”
Frank said that when he was first building the greenhouse, a man stopped in and said that he would purchase everything in the greenhouse. The Monteleones decided they didn’t want that. “We were talking and we said we don’t want to grow for one guy so he backs up a truck and we just throw everything in; instead of selling him one hundred items, I’d rather sell a hundred items to 25 or 30 people,” said Frank.
While Frank acknowledged they could potentially support a small restaurant with a standing weekly order, the Monteleones enjoy the interaction and conversation that come from serving the wider community. “It’s nice to make friends, and talk, and that’s what we want to do here,” Frank said. “It may be profitable and less stressful for us if we had two big accounts, but that’s not what we want to do. We want a family to come in, the kid looking in the window… that is payment enough for me.”
The Monteleones could have done many things with their prime corner of land, but the choice for a greenhouse was intentional. “It’s kind of neat there’s a facility like this in backyard,” said Frank, “People aren’t driving miles up some farm road to see a greenhouse they might not even be able to see anyway.”
Coincidence or not, Frank and Phyllis’ wedding anniversary is on Earth Day.
In addition to the water-conserving properties of hydroponics, the couple is considering using geothermal energy in the future to lessen electrical and environmental costs, and may also construct a commercial compost. On their small salad dressings shelf near the checkout, they offer reusable bags printed with “Monteleone Gardens” on them. “We are green-conscious,” said Phyllis.
They hope to be able to offer classes to parents and kids, where kids can come plant a seed in the greenhouse. Tours are available by appointment, in order to keep the greenhouse in its cleanest condition.
Frank said they had a lot of doubters at the beginning. “Everybody said, ‘You’ll never grow vine-ripened tomatoes in Eldred in the middle of January.’”
Now there are not only tomatoes growing in the Eldred winter, but a wide selection of other produce as well. “Nothing like picking a ripe tomato when it’s eight degrees outside,” said Frank.
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