Last Friday I wasn’t having the best morning after a restless night. I had intended to take the public tour at the GrowHaus in north-central Denver (north of I-70 on York) but had just realized I didn’t have time for the hour-long bus ride. Car2go to the rescue! But I couldn’t remember if the “home area” extended that far north. Luckily, the home area ended half a block from the GrowHaus. I parked the car and tried to find the place, but a train was in the way—there are lots of structural barriers to neighborhood movement in Elyria-Swansea, such as train tracks and I-70. Finally I realized the corrugated metal building with a mural under its roof was the GrowHaus, but the sign above the door was just about impossible to read.
I was a bit late, but Shannon Harker, one of the hydroponics farm managers who was leading the tour, invited me into the meeting room and continued her presentation. The building in which we were sitting, at 4751 York, used to be Lehrer’s greenhouse. In 2009, Denver food-justice activists Ashara Ekundayo and Kendra Sandoval wanted to buy the property and approached Paul Tamburello, a developer for Root Down and the Olinger Mortuary property in Highland. Tamburello (now the Growhaus board chair) brought in Adam Brock, who enlisted his friend Coby Gould (the current executive director); Elyria-Swansea resident Maria Campos was also one of the founders.
Most of the tour was spent on our feet, moving around the large central space called the GrowAsis, with permaculture beds around the edges, work areas where two people were filling seed packets and others were holding a meeting, compost bins, rabbit hutches, and a sunken class/gathering/party area. The hydroponics and aquaponics farms were off to the right, and we could see the greens and other plants growing there through the windows and clear plastic walls.
Hydroponics is a farming method in which plants grow in a nutrient solution, without soil; the GrowHaus currently uses a synthetic fertilizer but is “working toward organic.” In aquaponics, plants growing in clay pebble beds and in solution are fertilized with fish poop; in turn, the plants clean the water for the fish. Colorado Aquaponics built and maintains the farm at the GrowHaus with help from staff and volunteers.
Both methods are suitable for a neighborhood like Elyria-Swansea, where the soil has been polluted by years of industrial activity, including the Xcel Cherokee power plant. Another method would be to build a raised bed and line it to prevent heavy metals from working their way up into the bed. But hydroponics and aquaponics have the advantage of speed: from seed to harvest, lettuce takes 52 days, and the GrowHaus produces more than 1,000 heads of lettuce per week.
The GrowHaus offers classes and other programs to the public, such as Seed to Seed, a summer program for teens; a micro-farming program for people in the neighborhood; an herbal medicine program (suggested by the Promotoras, staff liaisons to the community); and permaculture classes. The year-old Mercado de al Lado at the front of the building, closest to York, sells bibb lettuce grown on the hydroponics farm as well as vegetables, fruits, and dry goods, as local and organic as possible. Denver residents can buy food there or purchase one of two sizes of food boxes.
We ended the tour at the three beehives in back of the building, currently a demonstration site used in the micro-farming and permaculture courses. Before the hives were set up, staff held listening sessions in the neighborhood to discuss what it would be like to have bees next door.