Tower gardens can extend Routt County growing season through winter |

Tower gardens can extend Routt County growing season through winter

Teresa Ristow
Lettuce grows inside Tera Johnson-Swartz's Steamboat Springs home.
John F. Russell

— The early morning temperatures in the upper 30s last week didn’t scare green thumb Tera Johnson-Swartz, who operates a year-round garden from the comfort of her townhouse dining room.

Johnson-Swartz’s indoor tower garden is able to escape the elements and produce leafy greens, herbs and other veggies in winter and summer alike, using an aeroponic watering system, electric lights and plenty of nutrients to keep plants thriving.

“It grows like crazy,” said Johnson-Swartz, who learned about tower gardens after trying to brainstorm a vertical gardening structure that might work well in her Steamboat Springs townhome.

“In my head I tried to think of a name of what I was looking for, ‘A garden that’s like a tower? A tower garden.’ I Googled it and saw it online,” Johnson-Swartz said.

Intrigued, Johnson-Swartz kept the idea on the back burner, but held off purchasing a starter tower, which can range in price from $500 to $1,000 depending on which extra features are included.

After seeing the setup in person at a client’s house during a massage therapy session later that week, Johnson-Swartz decided to give it a try.

“I marveled and drooled a bit while I placed my own order and since then I was sold,” she said.

The standard tower has about 20 pods to grow plants, though more can be added. Plants are watered through a fountain-like system that recycles water from a 28-gallon reservoir.

Johnson-Swartz said that she still planted root vegetables — which can’t grow in a tower garden — in her outdoor gardening space, and was in disbelief at the amount of water traditional gardening uses in comparison.

Her potted, outdoor root vegetables would take about 10 gallons per day of water to keep hydrated, she said, compared with two to three gallons per week that had to be added to the 20-pod tower garden.

“[Traditional gardening] felt like such a waste of water for the small amount of crops I was getting out of it,” she said.

Since getting her first tower garden last year, Johnson-Swartz has made a small business out of selling the gardens to others and helping them set up. She said local schools — including Soda Creek Elementary and North Routt Charter School — have embraced tower gardening, as well as local businesses and even amateur gardeners with no experience.

The garden has proven to be worth the upfront costs in the long run and easier than regular gardening, said Andy Kennedy, who purchased her first tower garden last summer.

“It’s cleaner — there’s no pests, no dealing with animals, in general it’s just an easier process,” said Kennedy, who is the program and marketing director for the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council.

She said food grows in half the time of traditional gardening, something she tested this summer by planting Brussels sprouts both in tower garden pods and in her in-ground garden.

She said that, as of last week, the tower Brussels were healthy and about an inch in diameter, while the outdoor Brussels were about a centimeter in diameter and “demolished by grasshoppers.”

The attached lighting system allows artificial sunlight to strike the plants for 13 hours during dim winter days, costing only about $8 monthly in added electricity costs, Kennedy said.

“There’s the upfront costs of the tower, but I think I made that back in the course of a year,” she said.

The gardens are gaining popularity locally in part because an integrated lighting system was introduced as an accessory during the past year, according to Jackie Brown, another avid tower garden user and distributor in Steamboat Springs.

Brown, who is the executive director of the Routt County Council on Aging, said she uses one tower garden at home and another at the Steamboat Springs Community Center, where the fresh herbs and veggies are used as part of senior meals four days every week.

“When we first got it, the seniors loved it,” Brown said. “They would come down and help harvest, and it was the talk of the lunch table.”

Brown, who doesn’t fancy herself a green thumb, said the tower garden is easy to use, self-sustaining and convenient.

“For me, personally I think the best part is just being able to have so much produce at home — organic, really healthy produce. And the taste is so much better than what you can get in the store.”

More information about tower gardens can be found by visiting or by contacting Johnson-Swartz at 970-819-0728 or or Brown at 614-403-5433 or

To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email or follow her on Twitter @TeresaRistow

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