Uptown freight train garden set to grow community food

The garden can grow up to two acres of food in a controlled environment


On the corner of Lafayette Street and East 18th Avenue, Metro Caring has partnered with Saint Joseph Hospital, planting the seeds for a small but powerful garden that the entities hope will become a new tool for community members.

The garden is housed in a former freight train car, which is 40 feet long and sits in one of the parking lots at the hospital. The hospital provided the location to Metro Caring, a nonprofit at 1100 E. 18th Ave. Metro Caring provides a food pantry for the community as well as education on food and nutrition. Saint Joseph is also paying the utilities for the garden.

Sister Jennifer Gordon, the vice president of mission integration at Saint Joseph, said it was “a very easy decision” to join in with Metro Caring on the freight garden. She added that since the hospital’s foundation in 1873, it has been in the heart of the city working with other organizations to help the Denver community thrive. Saint Joseph already works with Metro Caring, offering small garden plots for community members to grow food. The freight garden was the next step in a growing partnership with the nonprofit, she said.

“We need partners like Metro Caring who have expertise in something other than healthcare,” Gordon said. “We’re dipping our toe into food.”

Inside the freight are long rows of lights and thin metal towers where the plants grow. Sisi Dong Brinn, the chief impact officer with Metro Caring, said the garden can grow about two acres of food. The plants are held by pieces of foam, instead of soil, which also means the freight can recycle the water it uses to water the plants.

“It’s water that can go back into the ground uncontaminated,” Dong Brinn said.

Jess Harper, a gardener and community activator with Metro Caring, said the freight car has four rows of towers in the garden. Each plant tower can grow between 10 and 13 plants, she said. The tower rows will grow in rotations, with a quarter of the plants being fully grown. This means that Metro Caring can grow between 500-600 plants every week.

Harper is able to control everything inside the freight car, from temperature to humidity, even the type of light shining on the plants. A humidifier in the freight car pulls 6-7 gallons of water out of the air and puts it through a drip system that waters the plants. In addition, Metro Caring staff will bring in 10 gallons of water every day for the plants.

The water loses its nutritional value for the plants after six weeks, Dong Brinn said. At that point, Metro Caring will give the used water to a nearby Denver Urban Gardens plot.

Eventually, Harper said the freight car will be connected to an app and she will be able to control everything from her phone. People can also watch the plants’ progress on the Metro Caring Instagram account, Harper said.

“There’s lots of ways for people to be able to plug in,” she said.

Freight gardening is a “growing movement in the food world,” Metro Caring CEO Teva Sienicki said during a ribbon cutting for the Saint Joseph garden on March 5. The Morgridge Family Foundation provided the freight to Metro Caring, which is valued at $98,000.

Attendees for the ribbon cutting helped plant seeds for butter head and red fire lettuce that day. Harper said leafy plants and herbs grow better in the towers since they are not very deep. She added that Metro Caring may experiment with some of the smaller root vegetables such as radishes. Learning what plants grow well in the freight environment will be part of the community experiment in Uptown.

Dong Brinn said the goal of the garden ties into the mission at Metro Caring. The nonprofit has been around since 1974, and provides food to people in need. But more recently, the nonprofit began looking into educating the community on food as well. In addition to its food pantry, Metro Caring has garden plots all over the city that its users can apply to grow food in. It also offers cooking classes. Education and hands-on growing experience allows Metro Caring to work “with our community instead of for it,” Dong Brinn said.

“We want to dream with our community,” she said.

For the new freight garden, Dong Brinn said the community already sees a lot of potential. Users at Metro Caring have suggested creating a farm stand with plants grown in the garden. This would could bring business training to people using services at Metro Caring as well, Dong Brinn said.

Harper added that using new farming technology is something she is excited to share with the Denver community. The clean environment and strict plant control ensures that people can pick a plant from one of the towers and it eat it right away.

“It’s such a cool branch of what we do,” Harper said. “In the city you just don’t have the opportunity to grow clean, local food at this scale.”


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