Taking the Garden Inside

Posted by Jamie

Written by Tim Fetter, CEC, General Manager, Highmark Pittsburgh 

With the popularity of “urban gardening,” many chefs are preparing plans to begin planting seedlings in their rooftop or other onsite gardens.  Once the threat of frost passes, they will start planting and taking care of their herb & vegetable plants with the same passion they prepare their beurre blanc, duck liver or prime rib.

Here at Highmark, we bring that passion and must get creative with our growing techniques. Since we don’t have the luxury of a usable outdoor or rooftop space to plant a garden, we are trying something different. Thanks to Grow Pittsburgh, our location, along with some of the PNC locations and Google, were given the opportunity to use a Tower Garden. Tower Gardens are vertical aeroponic growing systems that have a basin of nutrient fortified water which is then pumped to the top of a tower and trickles down to the roots of whatever is planted. Grow Pittsburgh conducted experiments using the tower gardens and once they finished, began looking for a home for them. Jamie Moore was glad to take them off of their hands.

Our first go-around with the tower came last summer where used seedlings from Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance, We planted an assortment of herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, and even curry. To successfully plant them, we had to wash off all of the dirt to expose the roots to the nutrient dense water.   Most of the plants started off promising, but slowly started dying off and never produced any usable products. We had it situated next to our windows and rotated it daily, but we think that the UV coating on the window blocked part of the light spectrum that is needed for successful growth.

Grow Tower - Highmark

This year, our goal was to sustain a better garden that can produce items that we can use in our café and caterings. So, after doing some research, we purchased a grow tent and grow light. The tent is made up of a reflective mylar material and has rods at the top where we mounted our grow light. We started our plants from seeds under a small LED light, and have moved on to a fluorescent light which produces the light spectrums necessary for all parts of the growing cycle. We are starting with only herbs as we feel that we can yield the most product in the space we have.

To start the seeds, we plant them in rock wool cubes and cover them with vermiculite that we kept moist until we saw sprouts.

SproutsWe then placed them into the pods on the tower and let them grow. All that we have to do is keep an eye on the water level and make sure its ph is at the appropriate level.

So far, our cilantro seems to be doing the best, followed by parsley, oregano and basil. We were already able to use some of the cilantro for dishes made for our Guest Chef segment with Encarnacion Rios, from PNC in Kalamazoo, MI.


Our hope is that we keep this going year round and growing enough herbs to cover all of the needs of our operation. We don’t know if it is possible yet, but we are certainly giving it our best shot.

Google Pittsburgh has also taken the garden inside, turning a whole room into a grow area where they have Tower Gardens and other hydroponic growing systems. They’re producing micro-greens, lettuces, tomatoes, miracle fruit, and ghost chilies.

Google's Indoor Garden
Google’s Indoor Garden

Kind Regards,

Tim Fetter