Justin Cucci's Root Down garden is about to expand -- big time

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Justin Cucci, owner of Root Down and Linger, has been gardening near Root Down since it opened three years ago. But he'll be the first to deny credit for what grows there.

"I'm a city person," he says. "I have no green thumb in me. We have some great people on staff, and they spearhead it. I benefit from it."

He also says he planted those first beds out of jealousy. "When I was in New York, it fascinated me that only super-wealthy people had the space to grow things," he recalls. "So when I moved to Denver, I had this opportunity at Root Down to grow stuff. That was a super luxury for me. I thought it was so cool to be in an urban setting and growing stuff. Then it became in vogue for chefs to plant gardens, but that wasn't the motivation. The motivation, really, was jealousy."

A few members of his kitchen staff have tended those beds for the last three years, growing mostly herbs like rosemary, mint and Thai basil. The restaurant also plants tomatoes, peppers and zucchinis, but the produce doesn't come anywhere close to fulfilling Cucci's menu needs. "We'll incorporate them into specials when we have them," the chef explains. "They're not something we have enough of to use for the whole summer. So we're looking for what's next, what else we can grow."

What's next, it turns out, is a major urban garden project at Linger and a house behind Root Down that will allow the chef to vastly expand what he's growing.

"We're trying to step it up about ten levels," Cucci says. "In two weeks, we're putting in a skylight in the front of the restaurant at Linger. We'll grow herbs there that hang down over the hostess station." In addition, one wall of the staircase to the roof will be transformed into a grow wall where Cucci will pot tomatoes in reused two-liter bottles. And, he says, when he builds out phase two of his patio next year, he'll add beds -- plus a frame behind the Olinger sign that will allow him to plant produce there, too.

But that additional produce pales compared to what he has planned for a plot next to Root Down. "We took over the house next door," he explains. "We're going to tear up the yard and plant a 1200 square-foot garden." That project will be managed by Perpetua Systems, which also works with the Grow Haus, where Cucci hopes to rent some space so he can grow lettuce year-round.

He brought the urban farming group to his own space to get higher yields. "At the level we want to do it at, it's not just do-it-yourself," he says. "We need irrigation and drainage and fertilizer. We want to do this in a much bigger way that specializes and gets high yields. So Perpetua Systems will get us started, and then we hope to start to learn how this works."

While the chef says the group will also dictate what gets planted, it'll certainly be some combination of the root vegetables, tomatoes and herbs that the restaurant uses most. "They've done soil studies and can say 'here's your best yield with smallest amount of square inches,'" he says. "We're really relying on them to plan it." Still, he admits, "peppers would be great. So would carrots, beets, corn and maybe some squashes."

Controlling his vegetables this way has the added bonus of helping the chef control the vegetarian and vegan nature of what he's using. "A lot of organic produce is still grown with animal-based fertilizer," he says. "We'll use plant-based fertilizer to make sure our food is truly vegan."

And while Cucci is having fun learning the ropes, he's also hoping that his extensive urban farming product will help cut some expenses: "If we can make a dent in the shipping and expenses, I'd be really happy."

The homegrown produce should hit menus next summer.

Read about restaurateurs with farms this harvest season:

- Marilyn Megenity at the Mercury Cafe

- Olav Peterson and Melissa Severson at Bittersweet

- Eric Skokan at Black Cat

- Yasu and Toshi Kizaki at Sushi Den, Izakaya Den and Ototo Food and Wine

- Dan Landes at WaterCourse Foods and City O' City

- Elaine Granata and her partnership with Olivea

- Kelly Whitaker at Pizzeria Basta

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