From concrete stairwell to market garden

September 15, 2015

Tower Gardens pilot project aims to grow a bounty of veggies in underused spaces on campus

Empty stairwells and unused corners on campus could soon provide a bounty of garden vegetables for students, departments and on-site food service providers. The six-month Tower Gardens pilot project is converting an empty space seven feet in diameter at the bottom of the spiral staircase in Building 6 into 270 square feet of growing space that uses aeroponic technology to grow produce without soil.

“We are always looking for ways to bring more local food on campus,” says Kris Bruckmann, director of Retail and Hospitality Operations. “This pilot is an opportunity to test our theory that aeroponics could be an innovative way to do that. Instead of the 100-mile diet, this would be more like the 100-foot diet.”

While a space seven feet in diameter might not sound like a lot, it’s enough room to place three aeroponic units with seven growing layers each. And a single unit could yield 400 pounds of tomatoes in a single growing cycle.

A growing return on investment

Generating revenue is also a goal for the Tower Gardens project, so in addition to growing herbs the Aboriginal Education Centre can use in their smudging ceremonies and partnering with the Students’ Association of MacEwan University to grow strawberries for students in the winter, the pilot’s three towers will grow produce that on-site food service providers can purchase at fair market value.

“Aramark and our other on-site food service suppliers are willing to purchase produce from this pilot—a mix of herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, hot peppers, edible flowers and Swiss chard—which turns Tower Gardens into a functional business with a return on investment,” says Kris.

Executive chef Michael Roloff used the first harvest of kale, chard, dill and sage, in a series of side dishes sold in the C-Store.

“I am very fortunate to have the privilege to have fresh grown produce just steps away from the kitchen,” says the university’s executive chef who is already looking forward to the next harvest, although he’s not exactly sure what it will contain. “I like the element of surprise. The excitement builds while you are walking to the garden not knowing what you will find.”

The student connection

Bachelor of Commerce students in Leo Wong’s new Sustainability and Responsible Marketing course being piloted this Fall will also be looking at the business side of Tower Gardens, developing a marketing plan for this and other Retail and Campus Services projects with a sustainability focus, including the Car Share program.

While the immediate goal is to get through the pilot and work out any kinks, Kris says that the potential to grow food on campus is huge—and something that could happen fairly quickly.

“We would like to see 50 aeroponic units in underutilized spaces on campus within the next two years,” he says. “If we are able to partner with our food service contractors to purchase what we grow, it could turn us into the only campus I’m aware of in North America that grows its own produce on site.”

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