On a bright afternoon early last week, Elaine Granata stood squinting in the sun on a dusty piece of ground behind the Courtyard Café at University of Colorado Hospital. The spot wasn’t much to look at, but the ground just over Granata’s shoulder was: large patches of green formed a budding urban garden.
Granata, a full-time urban farmer, is responsible for tending to some 1,500 square feet of garden space carved out of the previously drab area north of the Courtyard at UCH. Spending just a few minutes with Granata tells you she considers most every moment spent working a garden a good one. But on this day she was especially happy to see she’d gotten a wagon for hauling the tools of her trade around the 29 planting beds she’s sown with varieties of vegetable and herb seeds. Many of those beds now were showing the rewards of her work.
Pete Jamrogiewicz, supervisor with Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) at UCH, seemed just as pleased. “Do you believe how fast this has all come up?” he said, gesturing toward the beds.
No matter how many peas, peppers, tomatoes, heads of lettuce and other produce Granata coaxes out of the garden, the harvest will only “supplement” the quantity FNS needs to turn out meals every day, said Executive Chef Phil Stinar. But having varieties of greens, rainbow carrots, multicolored peppers, sugar snap peas and more on hand serves a broader purpose, Stinar said.
“They help us to dress the plates up,” he said. “Everyone is visual when they sit down to eat.”
“It’s about being on the cutting edge,” added FNS Executive Director Victoria Franklin, RD. She noted that UCH belongs to the Colorado Healthy Hospital Compact, a group that meets monthly to set guidelines for offering patients, visitors and employees healthy food and beverage options. All the plants Granata nurtures are free of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
Urban farmer Elaine Granata examines long beds of sugar snap peas.
“The garden brings us a step closer to our goal of serving healthier food,” Franklin said. “People will be able to watch the food grow and understand where it comes from.”
The garden, now secured by new, rabbit-proof fencing, just makes the place look better, Stinar added. “It dresses up the area,” he said. “The space wasn’t being used for anything.”
The Courtyard plot is actually the hospital’s second. A smaller version went in on the grounds of the Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation (CeDAR) two summers ago. That one is still going and is now under Granata’s care. It produces food for CeDAR’s patients as well as a portion for FNS’s catering service, the Courtyard and Garden View cafés and, to a lesser extent, inpatients.
Franklin emphasizes that she has a team that knows what to do with the food the gardens produce. Stinar, Jamrogiewicz and FNS Inpatient Manager Dave Snapp are among six trained chefs on staff. “The passion, energy and creativity of our chefs and sous chefs turn all of this into reality,” Franklin said.
Kale was doing well by early June.
Like the sprouts emerging from the soil, the Courtyard garden became a reality only after extensive groundwork. The roots trace back to early in 2015, when Margaret Taberna, a groundskeeper with Jones’s crew with an interest in increasing the hospital’s vegetable production, met Amanda Weaver at a Denver-area food-growing symposium. Weaver, a senior instructor in geography and environmental sciences at University of Colorado Denver who also runs an urban farm in Wheat Ridge, further sparked Taberna’s interest in expanding the hospital’s garden space.
Taberna broached that idea with Facilities Management Manager John Morrow and supplied him with information about hospitals around the country that have committed to growing produce. Morrow was persuaded and picked out the space near the Courtyard – formerly home to trailers – as a site for a second garden. When Morrow asked Franklin if she’d be interested in more growing space, she jumped at the chance and joined with Taberna, Stiner, Steve Jones, head groundskeeper for the hospital, and others to develop a project plan.
Jones also worked with University of Colorado Hospital Foundation to secure a $75,000 donation to fund the garden and a greenhouse that will soon be built on the site. The greenhouse, slated for completion by late summer or early fall, will be used to grow vegetables, perennial and annual flowers and possibly medicinal herbs to be used as education by The Center for Integrative Medicine, Jones said. Weaver may also bring in students to visit the garden once it’s well established.
Granata has farmed plenty of urban plots, but never one with a 21-foot-wide air vent.
The project received “incredible support” from management, Jones said. He helped to shepherd it through a long process that required approval from the University of Colorado’s Design Review Board. That was granted at the board’s February meeting.
Even with these pieces in place, however, the project needed someone who could dedicate time to nurturing the garden, Jones said.
“As groundskeepers we were allowed to construct the garden, but we had to find someone else to manage and maintain it,” he said.
Weaver connected the hospital with fellow urban farmer Granata, who fit the bill. She earned a doctorate in strategic planning in 2005, but said she’d long set her sights on the soil. “I know it sounds corny, but I thought of it as a calling,” she said.
Tarragon sprouts in the herb garden. It’s easy to believe that when she describes completing her doctoral defense and being asked what she was going to do next. “I was thinking I was going to go weed the carrots,” she recalled.
She began her new career in earnest with a couple of leased acres at 104th Avenue, then went on to farm lots in the city, including a plot with the Urban Farmers Collaborative in lower downtown’s Sustainability Park. She and others recently lost that land to developers.
The gardens at UCH have allowed Granata to get her hands back in the dirt. She carefully plans the times for plants to go in and pays close attention to detail, right down to sending soil samples off to a lab for nutrient analysis.
Jones and his crew took Granata’s layout for the Courtyard area, which included fitting beds around a 21-foot-wide air vent that sits atop the Outpatient Pavilion’s central plant. They put in hundreds of hours constructing the beds, spacing them, and carting in and placing just shy of 29 tons of top soil and 22 cubic yards of compost – about two dump trucks full – Jones said. They also leveled the ground, weeded, and reconfigured and reactivated the existing irrigation.
Happy to get her fingers in the dirt, Granata goes to work.
The crew also tore down and replaced the old fencing and plans to install pavers for pathways and “to help improve the curb appeal,” Jones added. They salvaged these and other materials, including metal and cinder blocks for tables to be used in the greenhouse, to help manage costs.
Jones sees the garden as a good use of unused space – a rare commodity on a bustling campus. But like Franklin and Stinar, he also finds a higher purpose in the work he’s done.
“I am at an age where I think about what I’m leaving behind on this campus,” he said. “Hospitals can be fairly straightforward, sterile places. Gardens break that up. This one is unique. It’s not something you expect to see and it’s not something that other hospitals do.”