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Spending summer hours tending the ‘Growcery’

Jenna Hubbard uses a product from Lettuce Grow and says she's happy with its mix of farming and technology.

Photos and text by MEREDITH FORREST KULWICKI

Published August 5, 2022

Editor's note: Summer Hours is a photo series focusing on UB staff members who use the longer days to pursue interesting hobbies, causes and other endeavors outside of their day jobs.

Step into the basement of Jenna Hubbard’s Niagara Falls home, and you’ll see a LED glow coming from a corner of the space. Tucked between the dryer and a refrigerator, a vertical farming stand carefully nurtures 30 heads of lettuce.

Hubbard, the brand and experience strategy lead at the Career Design Center, was so inspired by a book her team was reading to help students that she opened Growcery. She has grown nearly 400 lettuce plants in the past two years, and uses a second kitchen in her basement to process her harvests. The operation has saved 7,740 gallons of water and 155,396 pounds of plastic, Hubbard estimates.

Hubbard continues to experiment with her vertical farming. Lately, she's been staggering her planting, so that all the lettuce doesn’t mature at the same time.

Hubbard’s essential supplies: gloves, snippers, some vegetables and the book that inspired her adventure into vertical gardening.

The book that inspired Hubbard, “Designing Your Life: How to build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life,” takes readers through a process of self-reflection to identify their talents and passions. Hubbard’s personal takeaways were to focus on gardening and technology.

“When I got out of college, if you would’ve told me I would be designing packaging and growing lettuce in my basement and actually getting joy from that, I would’ve said you were crazy,” Hubbard says.

Since getting her business certificate in December 2020, she has experimented with two different vertical farming systems and countless lettuce varieties, and has even developed her own unique packaging.

“I really enjoy this hobby of growing all sorts of vegetables, but in particular lettuce,” Hubbard says. “These varieties that I have now, they’re different and they stay fresher, longer.”

The lettuce grows in water, rather than soil, and takes about five weeks to go from seedling to a harvestable size. Hubbard doesn’t use pesticides and packages the lettuce with the roots, so it stays fresh for up to two weeks. She says her passion for growing lettuce grew out of her frustration with grocery store lettuce being shipped from California and rotting quickly.

“I was doing this whole thing because I was mad about the food system being broken. And then here I was, I had all this extra produce,” Hubbard says. “That’s mainly why I started Growcery as a business.

“I couldn’t eat it all.”

Hubbard describes her space as an urban garden. Her neighbor grows grapes, which sometimes expand over the fence into her yard

“I get the edible flowers, which are beautiful,” says Desiree Palka, owner of Grazed in the 716.

This summer, Hubbard is working to expand her outside garden to handle demand from local charcuterie customers and private chefs who love her unique vegetables and edible flowers.

“I get the edible flowers, which are beautiful,” says Desiree Palka, owner of Grazed in the 716. “I did a grazing table two weeks ago and I put them in the goat cheese. They looked really, really pretty.”

Palka says she gets ingredients for the charcuterie boards every few weeks during the summer, and is always impressed with the variety and freshness of the products that Hubbard provides. Palka says it helps her business produce more unique products, too.

“She has purple basil,” Palka says. “I didn't even know it existed until she had it and I was like, wow, this is awesome.”

Two heads of lettuce are packed in the wooden box designed by Hubbard. She was inspired to create packaging that would take up less space in the refrigerator.

In building her lettuce business, Hubbard has also built her network of friends and supporters. She attended a 10-week virtual startup course led by one of the best in the business. She regularly reaches out to other farmers and gardeners for tips, and has the support of her UB colleagues as well. Co-worker Kristy Strough helped her develop the Growcery logo and was the first person to buy lettuce.

“She was doing a sale for, I think it was Mother’s Day. I was like, heck yeah, I want this,” Strough recalls. “When she talks about it, she just shines. I love it.”

Hubbard says the gardening takes about three hours a week, but the marketing, social media and sales make running Growcery almost like a second job. She also works with “testers,” a group she developed to guide what products would do best with customers.

“Almost exclusively, everything I grow is edible,” Hubbard notes. “Originally, Growcery started as lettuce and then, as I started talking to people and I was growing these other unique vegetables and herbs and edible flowers, people wanted them.”

Jenna Hubbard has worked at UB for nearly nine years. She plans to expand her gardening experience by using a second vertical farming system to create nurseries for her own lettuce seedlings. Follow Growcery.Farm on Instagram for her latest lettuce updates.

Editor’s note: UBNow is looking for faculty and staff members who pursue interesting hobbies, causes and other endeavors outside of their day jobs. Contact University Communications photographer Meredith Forrest Kulwicki.