TORRINGTON – How does your garden grow?
With fish and water and ... nope, that's about it.
It may seem odd to be growing food without soil in one of the top ag producing counties in the state, but that's exactly what's happening at four demonstration "garden walls" in local communities through grants from the Wyoming Business Council and the Goshen County Main Street Program.
It's called the Community Cultivation Project, the brainchild of Travis Hines and his Pinedale-based company, Biologic Designs. The walls are free-standing, self-contained hydroponic or aquaponic gardens, using nutrient-rich water instead of soil to feed and nurture plants.
Hines got the idea for CCP when he worked for Bright Agrotech, now called ZipGrow, in Laramie. The company specializes in hydroponic grow systems and the garden walls are adapted from their designs, he said.
"It all kind of started in Laramie there, working there, building indoor farms," Hines said. "I started to spend more time in the farms themselves, learning how to grow and I got the idea a community outreach program would be a good thing," he said. "It didn't really fit in line with that company's goals, but I realized it fit in with mine, so I went ahead and started doing it myself."
The idea is simple: ZipGrow designs and builds the towers, composed of a mesh material which holds the roots of the plants and a felt-like material that traps the water – which flows in from distributors at the top at a measured rate – in contact with the roots. It's all contained within a square tube framework which can be attached to walls, either under specialized lighting indoors or direct sunlight out of doors.
Hines's adaptation involved making the units freestanding and, ultimately, somewhat portable, he said. Instead of being mounted to a wall, for example, the tower units hang within a custom-built framework. The water tank in the bottom of the frame, which supplies the nutrients, is larger and is designed to also support fish and aquatic plants. Waste from the fish ultimately provides the nutrients for the growing plants above, while the aquatic plants in the tank clean the water, removing carbon dioxide and other byproducts that could harm the fish, keeping the whole system in balance.
"We'll use fish in the troughs to create nutrients for the plants in a symbiotic relationship, where the plants clean the water for the fish," Hines said. "A pump moves the water to the top and trickles it down through each tower. It works out really well."
Hines came to Goshen County last week to install four of his Community Cultivation Project garden walls: One each at the Presbyterian Church in Lingle and outside the Community Center in Fort Laramie. There are two in Torrington, at the Goshen County Senior Friendship Center and in front of Torrington City Hall.
Along with the installation, Hines planted a variety of herbs and vegetable plants in each of the four garden walls, joined by county and municipal workers and a few elected officials from each community. In an interesting twist not typically seen when planting seedlings, some of the volunteers were charged with washing the soil off the roots of plants before they were set into the towers.
The vertical gardening systems have several advantages over traditional, horizontal gardening in soil. Because it's a closed system, the vertical garden is constantly recycling the water with minimal additions to compensate for loss by evaporation. A vertical hydroponic or aquaponic system actually uses just a fraction of the water – about 10% of the amount used to raise the same amount of produce in a traditional garden, Hines said.
And given the small footprint of the garden wall – just 2-feet by 7-feet – it can grow about seven times the produce that could be grown in the soil of the same size piece of ground, he said.
"I really dig these systems," Hines said. "These systems can be a small, introductory version for people to see and experience, to get a little taste and hopefully dive in for more.
"It's especially great for kids," he said. "Traditional gardening can be kind of boring, but it's exciting to build a system that can get them interested and excited about gardening."
And that's one of the goals of the local project, said Sandy Hoehn, Goshen County Economic Development Corporation Community Development Coordinator, and Dennis Estes, this year's president of the Goshen County Main Street committee. When they conceived of applying for one of the Wyoming Business Council grants for the CCP, one of the first things they wanted to do was make the program cross generational.
To that end, they've worked with the University of Wyoming Extension Service and the Goshen County Master Gardeners to get children in the Goshen County School District involved in the project. All this was planned well before the onslaught of the current novel coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools and put most community projects in limbo, Hoehn said.
But that doesn't mean the partnerships they'd started working on went away. Plans are, once the community garden walls are established, to get the Master Gardeners group into classrooms across the district, teaching young people how to propagate seeds and ready plants for the aquaponics towers for the second growing season, next year, Hoehn and Estes said.
"That's the hope of the cross generational thing with our Master Gardeners," Hoehn said. "To teach our kids in the classroom and to carry on that tradition. Goshen County is the number one agriculture producing county in the state; this may spur the desire to keep gardening or even to go into farming in the future."
Hoehn wrote the grant for the garden walls in February, and Goshen County Main Street received notification they'd been approved in March. She originally requested one garden wall out of the total 13 that were available in this first go-round but was told some of them hadn't been requested.
"They asked me how many I wanted," Hoehn said. "I said, 'However many you want to give us.' Then I asked all of the municipalities (in Goshen County) if they wanted one but, because of budget cuts, some didn't."
Through the WBC grants, the approximately $4,000 cost of the walls was reduced to just $600 per wall, Estes said. And Goshen County Economic Development paid half of that fee, reducing the outlay by the communities further, to just $300.
"What we want to do is make it a community-based program," Estes said. "Anyone in the community can come and pick stuff off the walls" once its ready to harvest.
"It's all about building sustainable food," he said. "And we'd like to see more of these if this works out."
Hines agreed. He's all about sustainable food. The beauty of the garden walls and the Community Cultivation Project is they can be a springboard for so much more, he said.
"There's only so much you can do with a small system like this," he said. "We hope to build educational programs around it so anybody who's interested can participate, can learn how to do it.
"We're also hoping to make more impact by growing herbs that propagate well, for example," Hines said. "Then we can have these walls be a 'mother wall' we can propagate plants from, teach people how to clone plants to create small kitchen gardens. Rather than just consume what comes off the wall, we're teaching how to grow more food off that."