Terry Hill's invention wasn't something he planned to do in his retirement. Nor was it a dream the Arcadia resident had from his youth, hoping to one day bring to fruition. It grew organically, so to speak, from the ground up.
The Portable Home Garden, Hill's brainchild, is a mini hydroponic gardening system designed to solve some of the typical problems of home gardening. By growing plants in a coconut-husk medium other than soil, many plant diseases can be avoided. The medium also requires less water. An irrigation system feeds each pot on a custom basis. And the entire installation is built on wheels, so when plants need more sun, less sun, or need to be brought inside during a freeze or hurricane, they can easily be relocated.
"The smallest unit is the Atom-G tomato grower. The single one holds two tomato plants. The quad holds eight tomato plants. Or some people like to grow tomatoes and peppers together," Hill explained. The largest commercial units hold up to 200 pots.
The units, which are made of furniture-grade phthalate-free PVC pipe available in six different colors, are fitted with a hydroponic watering system and built-in pots. Hill built the first one in his workshop behind his house, just tinkering around. But Hill's story actually starts with his retirement.
He grew up in Arcadia, the son of a salesman and a school bus driver. Hill's career began in heavy machinery, building roads, golf courses and citrus groves. In 1996, he started his own citrus caretaking business. In 2005, he and his wife, DeSoto County tax collector Kathryn Hill, also began a cattle operation.
When Hill retired and sold the cattle operation in 2009, he simply got bored. "I worked all my life," said the smiling businessman. "After you sit around and twiddle your thumbs, you try to find something to do. I painted all them pictures up there." He pointed to 10 landscape paintings on the wall of his office.
But the paintings weren't enough. Though Hill had never farmed, his family had always had a garden. He decided to start his own garden. After looking into some vertical hydroponic systems on the market, Hill and a helper drew up some plans of their own and found they liked their own system better. In April of 2009, Hill had a vertical hydroponic garden 105 feet by 105 in his backyard with about 30,000 plants growing in it. "We grew everything from peas to lettuce to broccoli, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and herbs. Green beans," he added.
The farm was thriving, but there was nothing portable about it. That idea came later. "What caused that was after everybody had seen the farm, they liked the idea. They said, 'I want one, but I don't want one as big as yours,'" Hill recalled.
So Hill began tinkering around in his workshop, and after "a lot of trial and error" he showed his portable home gardens at the Orlando Home and Garden show in 2009 and later as a featured product at the October 2010 Sunbelt Ag Expo in Georgia. There was so much interest, the business launched right then and there. Hill arranged distributorships in six states across the southern U.S. and now sells a variety of sizes of portable home gardens and spends much of his time travelling.
As a result, he has sold off most of his own hydroponic farm, and has about a quarter of it left, now producing mostly strawberries.
The Portable Home Gardens are finding a place in the local community as well. Grant money from 4-H and Mosaic has been used to purchase 21 units for the third grade classrooms in three elementary schools in DeSoto County. The kids are growing strawberries and spinach.
The gardens are currently in 40 schools in Georgia, with 24 plants per unit. In 2011, Hill's company designed and built a 220-pot unit for a homeless shelter in Valdosta housing mostly young families with children.
"This year we are actually working with the Love a Child ministries in Haiti," Hill stated. The project is still in the planning stages, but the hope is to create a marketplace facility where locals can grow and trade their own food, he explained.
Hill, a twin who can play piano, lead guitar, bass guitar and steel guitar as well as sing, has sung in several southern gospel groups and has also hosted a radio show.
He also sells his own brand of fertilizer optimized for hydroponic gardens. Said Hill, "My biggest thing is I enjoy teaching people a different method of growing."