Locally produced fresh vegetables are sometimes hard to obtain in cities, particularly northern cities, such as Detroit, Michigan, where the growing seasons are short and there are few local growers. Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, located in the Detroit area, is helping to solve that problem with a 1,500-square-foot greenhouse.

Since it opened in 2009, the hospital has purchased as much locally grown produce as possible for its patient meals and hospital café menu. One of the hospital’s primary produce suppliers, Michelle Lutz, was an obvious choice to oversee the greenhouse development and manage crop production upon its completion. Today, the greenhouse is contributing substantially to healthier food supplies, reducing hospital food costs, and providing education on healthy foods to area residents.

The layout of the greenhouse at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital allows space for visitors to view growing plants.

Greenhouse design

The hospital greenhouse was designed by Dr. Howard Resh, who researches, writes about and practices hydroponic growing, and manufactured by Nexus Corp. (http://www.nexuscorp.com).

The organic hydroponic system is unusual. Organic growing methods focus on feeding the soil, while hydroponic growing is essentially defined by its lack of soil. Many organic inputs are meant to work in soil-based systems and do not necessarily lend themselves well to hydroponic systems. Nevertheless, the Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital greenhouse is the only hospital-based organic hydroponic greenhouse in the nation. It received organic certification in early 2013 from CCOF (http://www.ccof.org), a certifying agency based in California.

The system utilizes the nutrient film technique (NFT), which incorporates a shallow stream of water that contains the dissolved nutrients required for plant growth. Nutrients are mixed into the water in an adjacent tank. An electric pump is used to pump the water into the watertight channels over the plant roots, and the water is continually recirculated. The hospital greenhouse uses Botanicare nutrients (http://www.botanicare.com) and water from the city’s public water supply.

The greenhouse is monitored year-round to provide the best growing temperatures. Throughout the cold months, the greenhouse is heated by forced air from overhead propane heaters, with the thermostat set at 70 degrees. To accommodate changes in temperature, wind and light throughout the day, there are automated vents and window shades; they close at night to retain daytime heat. Strategically placed fans help to keep temperatures at the desired level during the hot summer months. An alarm system sends a signal to Lutz’s cellphone if a power failure occurs or if temperatures climb higher than preset parameters.

During the construction of the greenhouse, Lutz and hospital administrative personnel visited Epcot at Walt Disney World in Florida, which features advanced hydroponic gardens. Their goal was to view the hydroponic gardens’ operation, as well as look at ways to attract visitors to the hydroponic greenhouse.

Greenhouse growing

“We work with the chefs to learn what is needed. The menu changes four times a year, and we like to match the crops we’re growing for the time of year,” Lutz explained. Produce from the greenhouse is usually served in patient meals within 24 hours of harvest, guaranteeing freshness and the highest nutrition. Additionally, produce is used in the food served in Henry’s café, and when there’s extra produce it’s sold at the seasonal farmers market.

Tomatoes and peppers grow in Bato buckets in the hospital’s greenhouse.

Lutz noted that demand for the produce outpaces her ability to grow it. There are three 26-foot-long rows of Bato buckets, supplied by CropKing (http://www.cropking.com), in which plants such as peppers and 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes are grown. About 15,000 heads of lettuce are produced each year; the lettuce is reseeded weekly. Additional crops include beans, peas, cucumbers, eggplant, strawberries, kale, broccoli, peppers, Swiss chard and cabbage. Parsley, basil, thyme, sage, cilantro and mint are among the herbs grown. These are used to enhance the flavor of the food served at the hospital without added sodium, a significant concern in patient meals.

Crops are started from seed and then transferred to the growing channels. Herbs and other plants are grown in plant towers, which provide an adaptable growing system that can be used in a variety of settings. Tomato vines are removed and replanted after one year.

“My biggest challenge is not having enough space,” Lutz said. Controlling diseases and insects really isn’t an issue. She said that they occasionally have issues with aphids and powdery mildew. “We release beneficial insects,” she noted, adding that any disease issues are controlled with products approved for organic growing.

How has the greenhouse reduced costs for the hospital? The lettuce alone has an estimated annual value of approximately $12,000, and about 1,000 pounds of additional organic produce has a projected value of around $15,500.

Organic growing background

Lutz, who was a commercial organic grower before taking the position as resident farmer at the hospital, credits her childhood with spurring her interest in organic growing. “When I was a child, we had large gardens. My parents would have a load of manure delivered every spring, and they pulled weeds instead of using sprays that others used,” she said.

Lutz raised her three daughters with an emphasis on healthy eating. When she began growing produce commercially, the foundation laid in childhood guided her toward organic growing. She operated an 8-acre community supported agriculture (CSA) farm and also sold organic produce at farmers markets in Detroit for 16 years. Her move into the position of resident farmer for the greenhouse was a natural progression, given her knowledge of the hospital’s needs and organic growing.

Michelle Lutz, the resident farmer, examines plants in the greenhouse at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.

Community focus

Lutz sees the greenhouse as a way to ensure that patients and others associated with the hospital have an opportunity to eat better, healthier food. Paralleling the interest in locally grown food, the greenhouse provides the freshness not always found in produce at large supermarkets.

The greenhouse is also a source for educating the community. “I work for a health care organization, and we use education to work on a program to address obesity and influence people toward healthy eating,” Lutz said. Customized workshops, school field trips, general tours and gardening classes are offered at the greenhouse. In addition, greenhouse produce is used in a 90-seat demonstration kitchen that offers healthy cooking classes to the community.

Local residents can learn how to grow organically, and last year the greenhouse grew plants for projects at 47 Detroit schools.

Lutz noted the benefits of greenhouse therapy for patients who often visit the facility. “We want to expand into some soil-based growing outdoors,” she said. She cited plans to develop a “Path to Wellness,” which will feature raised-bed landscapes at different heights. By enhancing the walking paths with organic produce, those using the paths will become more attuned to produce and its health benefits.

Lutz said, “The greenhouse is a great opportunity to strengthen local food production so we are no longer dependent on food that is shipped great distances.”

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor. She resides in Mount Zion, Ill.