Farms Finest: Sustainable living is common sense |

Farms Finest: Sustainable living is common sense

Joni Keefe
Special to The Aspen Times

They say that history repeats itself, and this rings especially true when referring to gardening trends. Yet there is little that can compare to the exploding interest in producing food and becoming more sustainable.

The media cover every step of the way with new heirloom varieties, creative methods to grow food and even how to prepare the most basic of vegetables.

But if you look closely, there is little that is really brand-new, and we often are recycling practices from the past or giving them “new” words. Look at the terms “permaculture,” “sustainability,” “vermiculture” and “aeroponics” as examples. These scientific words are slowly slipping into our daily vocabulary.

These “new methods” to raise food are simply updated versions of ancient ways. Using aeroponics (a form of hydroponics, which grows plants without soil) has been in existence since the Egyptians and also was used by Inca and Aztec tribes.

Greece and Egypt valued and encouraged the role earthworms played in soil quality, which we now refer to as vermiculture. The Egyptian queen Cleopatra considered the soil-building earthworms to be sacred in the rich Nile Valley. And in more recent times, during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Sydney, a vermiculture process helped take care of tons of waste produced during the event.

Innovative ways to produce food and manage increasing volumes of trash have brought these words and phases to the forefront. Being “green” is now the “in” thing for nearly everything, including businesses. Creativity in marketing is ripe with these green words, and often there are huge financial incentives for a company to “go green.”

One method that has come in and out of the news recently has been aeroponics. This method is where a solution of nutrient-enriched water is sprayed on the roots, using a precise timer. Hydroponics is when the roots are maintained in a circulating solution of water and nutrients. Both are methods to grow plants without using soil.

Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is placing big bets on being a leading example of urban sustainability. There’s a space-age-looking food garden located in the rotunda mezzanine level over Concourse G. This 928-square-foot “farm” is complete with 26 8-foot-tall towers (offering more than 1,100 planting sites) and has its own special grow lights.

This high-tech garden provides food to the airport’s restaurants. Steps away, fresh greens are picked for the chefs at Tortas, Frontera, Wicker Park Sushi and Seafood, and the Tuscany. Swiss chard, habanero peppers and nearly 42 other varieties of herbs and vegetables are used in their pastas, sandwiches, salads and many other flavorful dishes.

These space-saving towers are constructed out of a water-holding plastic composite. Tiny seedlings are germinated and rooted elsewhere in cubes using a volcanic rock or “rock wool.” When ready, they are transplanted into the holes along the sides of the towers. Some crops can be harvest-ready as quickly as in four weeks. These tower gardens claim to be the first airport aeroponic garden in the world. This sustainable project is a joint effort between the aviation department and HMSHost, the company that runs many of the airport concessions. Future Growing, of Florida, designed the system. This oasis of green has a glass railing to discourage any impromptu harvests or sampling.

At the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, N.C., vermiculture is now being used. In January, a long-awaited permit was finally received so the airport could start on plans that were proposed back in 2011.

Vermiculture (earthworm farming) will reduce the volume of food trash from the airport and also produces “castings” as an end result. This byproduct will be used to fertilize the airport’s green spaces and is nearly as valuable as the primary objective of trash reduction.

Although the words “vermiculture,” “aeroponics,” “sustainability” and “permaculture” may sound new, they are referring to methods from the past. Returning to proven methodologies and finding ways to become more sustainable are just good common sense.

Joni Keefe moved to the Roaring Fork Valley after a career in landscape design. She is passionate about local food and agriculture. For more information, her website is, or follow her on Twitter. Connect at joni@farms

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