Adjacent to the players’ parking lot at Amalie Arena and next to an industrial-looking area with a chilled water storage tank, electrical servers and boilers, a 14-by-80 foot wooden deck hovers 20 feet above a grouping of large, black pipes that run from a pair of cooling towers into the arena.
On top of the deck, stacks of white pots, seven pots high in some places, are lined up neatly into four rows.
In each pot, a different herb or vegetable grows. One stack has long vines spilling out of the sides, tiny cucumbers early in the growing season interspersed throughout. Another stack is punctuated by the unmistakable smell of fresh rosemary.
PVC pipe an inch in diameter runs above the row and down through each stack providing water and nutrients to the plants.
In an area Lightning staffers once branded the Rock Garden due to the copious amount of gravel on the ground between the industrial machinery, the Tampa Bay Lightning have turned an eyesore into an innovation.
Over the summer, Amalie Arena general manager Darryl Benge began brainstorming ways the facility could improve the level of food and beverage quality throughout the organization. During one of his chats with Lightning vice president of guest experience Mary Milne, Benge learned that Milne had started purchasing hydroponically-grown vegetables from Urban Oasis, a local farm on Linebaugh Avenue.
Milne, in fact, was so impressed with the quality of produce being grown, she decided to build her own hydroponic system in her backyard.
Benge was intrigued.
He started searching for space around Amalie Arena where a hydroponic garden might fit.
“(The garden) kind of goes in line with being best in class and having something that differentiates us between Raymond James Stadium and Tropicana Field and the (MidFlorida Credit Union) Amphitheatre,” Benge said. “In talking with the culinary side of it, it’s like, ‘What can we do?’”
At first, Benge searched for an area that the public would be able to view so fans could see the produce they would eventually be consuming. But, with land around the arena in short supply, that idea wasn’t feasible.
“We just didn’t find anything on the exterior of the building that was visible by the public that would look good and feel right,” he said.
An under-utilized, fenced-in area where Lightning players park their cars was an attractive option, but a deck would have to be built to raise the garden high over the industrial equipment also occupying the space.
“Once we figured that we had the space but needed to build a deck, it wasn’t as hard as we thought,” Benge said.
That summer, the arena hosted the District Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The religious group offered to help with maintenance and construction projects around the building in return for a reduced rental rate.
Benge took the group up on its offer and purchased the necessary materials.
“They came in, and, in two weekends, built the deck for us,” he said.
Urban Oasis assisted with the installation of the hydroponic growing system. Plants went in the soil -- which actually isn’t soil at all but a dirt-like growing medium that does not restrict root growth – in mid-August and plants were harvested in mid-September, in time for the Lightning season opener on October 9.
Herbs and vegetables being grown include: butter leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce, romaine, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, micro green mix, arugula, spinach, turnips, eggplant, basil, cilantro, lemon balm, dill and rosemary.
“We’re going to start growing strawberries here in the very near future too,” Benge said.
In all, the hydroponic garden takes up only 1,120 square feet (.026 acres) of space but has the growing capacity of an acre thanks to the vertical stack farming. Depending on the plant, it takes six to eight weeks for full maturity. The area underneath the deck can be utilized for storage as well.
“We’ll plant a few stacks of new stuff every week so we have a consistent growing season,” Benge said. “We’re in Florida, which pretty much means you can grow year round. And actually the time of year we struggle for growing is during the summer months, but that’s during a lower event base for us.”
Right now, the hydroponically-grown produce is used in premium areas such as the Chase Club and Firestick Grill. Plans are to incorporate the food into player meals.
The hydroponic garden uses a closed system for watering and fertilization, which means all water and nutrients not used by the plants or lost to evaporation are returned to the tanks below the deck and used in the next watering.
“I’m really excited about (the garden) because if you think about it, everybody is starting to go back to growing their own vegetables,” Benge said. “When you taste a fresh vegetable, it just has a better taste and quality than something that’s store bought and been frozen or refrigerated for a period of time before it arrives. Being able to provide our fans with that high-quality product, I think, differentiates us. It’s also what more people are starting to expect.”