Photo by Christopher Devargus

In the Weeds

How gardens grow in our concrete jungle.

The Floral Kingdom

Whenever you need to stop and smell the roses, consider doing it at one of the grandest gardens in Las Vegas: the Bellagio Conservatory.

Five times each year, the massive glasshouse debuts a seasonal floral display seemingly spun from a daydream. Jerry Bowlen, executive director of horticulture at Bellagio, estimates 18,000 to 20,000 people visit the conservatory each day, and up to 25,000 on holidays. Currently, a Japanese spring has overtaken the garden—hydrangeas and snapdragons line the walkways, and preserved roses adorn a 35-foot Kabuki figure.

Kelly Mckeon

While the Conservatory seems to appear like magic to the casual visitor, putting it together is anything but. “There’s an old fairy tale that all this floor drops down in hydraulics, and then the new show pops up and we’re done. That is not the case,” Bowlen says.

To change out a display, it takes six days of 24-hour work for 120 horticulturists. The Bellagio staff doesn’t personally grow anything; it imports most plants from a mass greenhouse in Southern Utah, which grows flowers months in advance so they arrive in full bloom. Other flora, such as the tulips, come from as far as Amsterdam.

Photos by Kelly Mckeon

For each exhibit, which lasts about two months, nearly 80,000 plants are used. Maintaining all that might seem daunting, but for Bellagio’s full-time horticulture staff of 12, it’s a walk in the park. All flowers are hand-watered to avoid overspray, and the larger plants, trees and shrubs are maintained with drip irrigation. “Drip irrigation waters one gallon per hour compared to one gallon per minute,” Bowlen says. “That’s where you see the big volume of savings in water.”

As for those flowers that wilt, they’re turned into mulch and reused. Much care goes into the Conservatory to keep the environment and visitors happy. “We definitely want them to come out and leave and call somebody and say, ‘You gotta come see this,’” Bowlen says. –Amber Sampson

Christopher Devargus

Gardens in the Sky

Would you believe that the largest school garden program in the country is based right here in our desert? Green Our Planet has funded more than 100 school gardens since it began in 2013, and it is credited with creating Nevada’s first garden-based STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curriculum. Last year, Mayor Carolyn Goodman presented the nonprofit’s founders with the 2016 Compassionate Heroes Award for “their commitment to a more compassionate community.”

Not only do school gardens give teachers and students a fresh, hands-on take on STEM subjects, but they also offer kids the opportunity to spend more time outside. Green Our Planet connects the schools with a real farmer who shows teachers and students how to garden. The kids help create and maintain a space, which gives them a sense of accountability. “If you ask the kids, they’ll tell you you have to be patient, that we’re just learning as we go,” says Vanessa Galvan, a teacher and head of the garden team at Robert E. Lake Elementary School.

Photos by Christopher Devargus

A garden cultivates patience, which makes it all the more rewarding when the time comes for the kids to harvest the fruits of their labor. The Chef-to-School program coordinates with chefs from more than 60 restaurants to give cooking demonstrations at the schools. And the Farmpreneur Program teaches fifth-grade students how to create and run their own farmers markets, which, by the way, are way more lucrative than your typical lemonade stand—principal Leslie Brinks of Roger Bryan Elementary school reports a return of $7,800 from their school garden, installed less than a year ago.

Photos by Christopher Devargus

Teaching kids how to garden is no easy task, but for Green Our Planet and the schools that see the benefits, it’s imperative. “Our kids meet an hour before school every Friday, rain or shine, ”  Galvan reports. Green Our Planet co-founder Ciara Byrne cites a teacher struggling with an attendance problem who claims that students never miss school when they have garden class. And the enthusiasm extends beyond the kids: “We’ve found that gardens help parents [who speak a second language] find a way to connect with the school through farmers markets, helping with the garden or painting murals,” Byrne adds.

Once a garden finds a home in a school, the positive impact on the students, the community and, ultimately, the kids’ connection to the environment takes on a life of its own. –Shannon Miller

Courtesy of Roger Bryan Elementary

Learning to Grow

Rooftop gardening is a trend that started in places like Chicago and New York City, where room is limited and sprawl goes upward, not outward. On top of that skyscraper towering above traffic is unoccupied space where sunlight is plentiful.

The movement has taken off in the last five years, and now there are full-scale farms operating on roofs in large cities. (Brooklyn Grange, which has two locations in New York City, is the largest rooftop farming and intensive green roofing business in the country, generating more than 50,000 pounds of organic produce annually.) While the trend isn’t that popular in Las Vegas yet, places such as the Freight Farm vertical garden near Bunkhouse Saloon and the back patio herb garden at Evel Pie pizza shop hint at the growing interest.

Downtown Grand implemented a rooftop garden in 2016 to coincide with the launch of Citrus Grand Pool. The rooftop garden was meant to complement the pool’s citrus theme. Ten new lemon and lime trees have been planted, and herbs, veggies and fruits—to be used in the cocktail and food menus—are also sprouting. Sunbathers can find tomatoes, cilantro, mint, parsley and basil—all chosen specifically to withstand the heat—in the garden. Manager Kevin Glass says he often sees swimmers plucking a tomato right off the vine and taking a bite.

Courtesy of Roger Bryan Elementary

There are many factors to consider before undertaking rooftop gardening, including wind, rain, cost, storage, the structural integrity of the building and acquiring the proper permits. But for city dwellers who may not have access to a convenient grocery store, produce an arm’s reach away is just one of the many benefits of growing greens high in the sky. –Jessie O’Brien

Krystal Ramirez | Vegas Seven

Marijuana and Agricultural Innovation

There has been much discussion about the business end of the cannabis industry: money to be made, jobs to be created, laws to be rewritten. But marijuana’s biggest impact may be scientific, as grow facilities have also become laboratories where agricultural innovation and experimentation take place. “That’s why I think a lot of the folks that work here are really excited,” says Armen Yemenidjian, CEO of Desert Grown. “If you have an idea, let’s try it out. No one has a monopoly on good ideas.”

Since every marijuana product sold in Nevada must be derived from a plant grown here, marijuana cultivators have been springing up all over the state. However, they are restricted to industrial areas and windowless buildings—you wouldn’t even know they were there unless you got close enough to smell. Once inside, past several security checkpoints, you find vast facilities with staff in coveralls and lab coats moving down long white hallways between climate-controlled rooms. And like any devoted gardener—or scientist—each has added their own twists to the formula.

Krystal Ramirez | Vegas Seven

Of course, the two chief necessities for growing plants are light and water. Electricity is the largest expense for many grows, as the plants require intense, high-wattage light, and that light creates heat, adding A.C. and ventilation costs to the bill. There has been some skepticism about the effectiveness of using LED lights for marijuana cultivation, but The Grove dispensary has been using these bulbs with success—and savings. Elsewhere in Vegas, at Reef Dispensaries’ enormous plant-filled cultivation, much of the irrigation is done with water reclaimed from the grow rooms: Condensation is gathered into enormous vats and returned to the plants, an extra step to nature’s water cycle, if you will.

Photos by Krystal Ramirez

A plethora of computer monitors is ubiquitous at modern grows. “Everything we do here is computerized,” Yemenidjian says. “They pull a report and it’ll tell us if a room overnight went above or below a certain humidity or a certain temperature. It’s making sure that every nutrient that’s sent to plants is measured.” Those nutrients are administered in house-made solutions added to carefully filtered water, which then flows to the grow rooms and the plants via an elaborate system of pipes. Not only does it allow Desert Grown to tailor its solutions for specific strains, but not having heavy, premixed bottles shipped in from elsewhere decreases environmental impact.

Cannabis is an industry that attracts iconoclastic thinkers, and it’s profitable enough for its pioneers to be able to invest in new ideas. Many of the innovations made in this space can be transferred to more conventional crops—a way for marijuana to benefit even those who never touch the stuff. –Lissa Townsend Rodgers