Published: June 1, 2018 By

cu's greenhouse towers

Drivers on U.S. Hwy 36 zoomed past a new sight at Williams Village this spring — a vibrant purple glow emanating from the second floor of the complex’s Village Center dining hall.

cu farmer in greenhouse The source was CU Boulder’s newest and perhaps most unusual greenhouse, a 3,000-square-foot facility on site that can grow as many as 6,000 plants at once and is on track to become the primary source for the dining hall’s greens.

There’s no dirt here: The plants are housed in 137 eight-foot-tall hydroponic grow towers that deliver water and nutrients to the plants without the need for soil. The greenhouse climate is a steady 65 degrees during the day and 55 at night. Lights automatically turn on as sunlight dims.

“When you see something being grown right in front of you, you have more appreciation for your food,” said CU farm manager Alex Macmillan.

The greenhouse provides lettuce, kale and arugula for the Village Center salad bar and chefs. Each tower yields up to three pounds of food each month. If there’s surplus in the future, the extra greens will be available to other CU dining halls and campus catering units.

“Nothing gets wasted here,” said Macmillan, the sole farmer for the greenhouse. “The appetite for greens at CU is pretty crazy.”

kaleWhen students are on summer break, he’ll experiment with basil, dill and parsley.

He was pleased with his first small batch of crops, in March — about 35 pounds of food in all. He initially grew the greens in small, spongy, foam cubes in the greenhouse, then moved them to the grow towers, where they bathed in continually circulating water and fertilizer. After about a month, it was all ready to eat.

“The kale is getting out of hand,” he said in April, pointing to the flourishing towers. “And the arugula has gone wild on me.”

Photos by Jesse Petersen/University of Colorado