Solar-powered garden to feed vegan deli and neighbors

Dennis Comer photo

Dennis Comer, owner of Urban Buggy Vegan Deli in Seattle, takes a break from weeding what will become a vegetable garden powered by a solar and renewable energy system designed by Shoreline Community College students an faculty. Comer wants to use organic produce from the garden for his deli an to sell to residents of Seattle’s Central District neighborhood. Photo gallery

The sun provides the energy vegetables need to grow. So it makes sense that when a farmer needs electricity to give those veggies a head start and then sell nature’s bounty, he might also turn to the sun.

Urban-horticulture convert Dennis Comer says that while he appreciates the potential for cosmic alignment, his motivation was much more pragmatic.

student and solar pathfinder photo

Shoreline Community College Jay Wilson student uses a Solar Pathfinder instrument to determine how much sun the lot will get and from what angles over a year.

“The City of Seattle said ‘you can lease the land and we’ll get water to you, but no power,’” Comer said. “The land” he’s talking about is a small, abandoned plot at 1415 East Yesler Way. Comer won the right to lease the lot for $150 a year for three years in a lottery run by the City of Seattle.

“I said I’d take anything, but you could indicate a preference so I said this one and that’s what I got,” said Comer, who owns and runs the Urban Buggy Vegan Deli just a few blocks away at 308 22nd Ave. S. His plan is turn the overgrown lot into an urban vegetable garden and then use the produce at his deli as well as sell it to neighborhood residents.

“We’re in a bit of a food desert here,” Comer said. “Having fresh vegetables available and close by would be nice.”

The problem was power.

“I’d like to have a little greenhouse to get plants started and I’d like to sell the produce right here at the lot, just a fresh as possible,” he said, adding that having some electricity available would help both efforts. “I was thinking maybe solar would be a way to go so I just Googled it.”

And that’s how he found the Clean Energy Technology Program at Shoreline Community College and Louise Petruzzella.

“I got this phone call and Dennis starts telling me what he wants to do and where and why and I just said, ‘Yes,’” said Petruzzella, the lead faculty member for Shoreline’s program. “It just sounded so awesome, of course we would help.”

What Comer needed was a way to generate electricity without being tied to the grid, the one thing Seattle officials had nixed.

“Students in our program learn how to do site assessments and then design a solar-electric solution,” Petruzzella said. “Dennis’ problem was perfect for a class project.”

In mid-July, Petruzzella and a group of students met Comer at the lot to gather technical data and get details about Comer’s needs and vision. “The lot has some shading issues, which is fairly typical for an urban setting,” Petruzzella said. “The solution will likely be a combination of solar and renewable energy sources.”

The next steps will be for the students to finish the design, present it to Comer for final approval and then address the all-important money question. Because Comer has a limited budget, Petruzzella said she and the students will approach solar energy, or photovoltaic, equipment manufacturers to sign on as project sponsors.

“This is just such a great project, I’m hoping that some of the suppliers we work with will see this as an opportunity like we do,” Petruzzella said.

The Casual Gardener

Dennis Comer runs a vegan deli, works to raise organic vegetables supported by renewable energy, is married to a woman who runs a vegan/gluten-free bakery, has authored two books available on Amazon – one on personal finance, the other on business finance – and none of those are his day job.

“Yeah, I’m actually a federal government employee; I just do this on the side,” said Comer as he trimmed grass and pulled weeds from his fledgling garden on a recent Saturday. “I got into vegan because our child had some food allergies.”

And he got into urban gardening because his brother-in-law had worked for Seattle Tilth. Comer went along for a few classes and got hooked.

“I’m just a bean-counter,” Comer said. And now, he can count the beans he grows.

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