Over the last few months, we’ve been experimenting with a menagerie of indoor food-growing systems at our office: a vertical garden, a hydroponic system and an aquaponic system. While the versions we’ve installed won’t revolutionize the local food landscape in our neighborhood, if scaled up, these alternative growing methods have the potential to help urban areas meet the growing demand for food. We wanted to get hands-on with a few of these methods to learn more and to provide a showcase of what’s possible.
So far, we have gotten our hands dirty and lost a few plants, but we recently reaped the benefits of our first successful harvest! Here’s a look at our experience with each method. If you’re ever in Stamford, you’re welcome to stop by our office and check them out in person.
VERTICAL GARDEN: MOVEABLE EDIBLE WALL UNIT
Maintenance: Minimal. Daily watering and weekly pruning to remove dead leaves.
Good for growing: All types of herbs and small greens (chives, basil, spinach, dill, parsley, mint, rosemary, etc.)
Capacity: 72 planters. Plants take 6-8 weeks to produce harvestable crops.
Growing Medium: Soil
Additional Supplies: Watering can or hose, plants
Our first growing system, and the most conventional of the three, is a Movable Edible Wall Unit — a three-tiered, vertical wall on wheels with the capacity to grow more than 72 plants at a time in six removable sections. The wall is engineered for water to trickle down from the top and irrigate each section, but we had a hard time keeping everything hydrated. We experimented with a couple of different soil types and planting densities, but in the end we settled on watering each of the three tiers by hand and have had happy plants ever since.
We also discovered the importance of strategic planting so that larger plants, such as mint and basil, do not crowd out smaller ones, such as dill and cilantro. Placement matters in a traditional garden as well, but particularly so in a vertical one where you see the plants physically turn up and reach toward sunlight.
HYDROPONICS: THE VOLKSGARDEN
Maintenance: Minimal. Refill water tank 1-2 times per week. Disassemble and clean water pumps every 6-8 weeks.
Good for growing: Flat, broad plants and plants with a thick root base. Lettuces and baby bok choy.
Capacity: Accommodates up to 60 plants. Triples plant growth.
Growing Medium: Rock wool
Additional Supplies: Nutrient solution, timers, seeds or seedlings
Much less traditional, and designed for quick, efficient yields, is our Volksgarden. This cylinder-shaped hydroponic system rotates around a timer-operated light, dipping plants through a water trough situated below. We started seeds in rock wool in a plastic tray. Once they sprout and roots are visible from the bottom or side of the rock wool, they can be safely relocated to the barrel. Once clipped in, our plants grew up to three times faster than the sprouts left in the plastic tray feeding off of natural sunlight.
Although the plants require minimal maintenance, we have learned that broader, flatter varieties, such as baby bok choy and lettuce, thrive in the Volksgarden while taller plants, such as basil, can break at the root or can suffer burnt leaves from the light bulb. We are also trying to mitigate overcrowding inside the barrel. As the plants grow out rather than up, it creates a space challenge and limits the 50 to 60 potential plants to around 40. In order to maximize output we have been starting plants in the Volksgarden, allowing them to grow quickly for a couple of weeks, and then transplanting them into our aquaponics system before they encounter any of these issues.
Maintenance: Intensive. Water testing twice a week, clean filtration system daily, add water to pond once a week, clean algae from bamboo shoots every 2 weeks.
Good for Growing: Plants with vines, lettuce, hearty herbs that can handle fluctuations in nutrient levels such as basil and chives.
Capacity: Accommodates up to 100 plants. Takes at least 8 weeks for a seedling to become harvestable.
Growing Medium: Rock wool or other soilless options
Additional Supplies: Fish, fish food, pumps, water filter, grow lights, seedlings, timers, hose for adding water (should include a water filter), and a fish net.
Our aquaponics system combines aquaculture and hydroponics to establish a complete biological system. A tilapia pond holding upwards of 40 fish produces the nutrients to feed up to 100 plants growing in vertical bamboo shoots. Fish waste is filtered out and pumped, along with water, up to the top of the bamboo shoots where it trickles down, feeding and watering the plants before dripping back into the pond. Artificial lights, situated above the bamboo shoots, draw the plants upward and keep them from growing down into the fish pond.
This system requires the most maintenance and has presented the most challenges in producing a harvestable crop. Balancing fish and plant care means monitoring pH and ammonia levels to ensure the healthy growth of both. Additionally, we have tinkered with the filtration system to eliminate clogging. If everything flows correctly, the plants only require pruning. However, if something clogs that means the plants get nothing and after a couple of days will wilt. We ran into this a couple of weekends ago when our tinkering backfired and the filter was unable to pump water up the system. Luckily we were able to revive everything! As with the other systems, strategic planting is instrumental in yield potential. Thriving basil and has blocked light from reaching lower spaces on the bamboo shoots, making them unusable. In order to increase our potential we are looking at adding vertical lighting so that the plants have more light to feed off of. (We’d like to thank Fresh Farm Aquaponics for their support of our system.)
Our recent harvest included basil, purple basil, chives, two lettuce varieties, mint, parsley, and a few bundles of dill and rosemary. Each of these had only been growing for six to eight weeks by the time of harvest. The vertical wall produced some of the basil, the bulk of the chives and all of the other herbs. The Volksgarden yielded most of the two lettuces, and the aquaponics system gave us some additional lettuce, all of the purple basil, one bunch of chives, and almost all of the remaining basil. We still have a variety of food growing that hasn’t been harvested, including kale, spinach, mustard greens, squash, Swiss chard, baby bok choy and cilantro.
We did not weigh or otherwise quantify this first harvest but it was enough to share herbs and greens with 10 people. Salads, Thai basil chicken, pestos, teas, and roasted vegetables have already been enjoyed as a result of the harvest. Now that we have overcome some of the challenges associated with each of our systems, and once we get a healthy regrowth, we plan to partner with a restaurant to supply them with organic, local microcrops of greens, vegetables and herbs. Once the tilapia reach maturity we will do the same with them.
We are working to start a series of workshops designed around our growing systems to educate others about their use and functionality. Subscribe to our newsletter to find out when they launch.
Sustainable America Administrative Assistant