Good Advice

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Garden apartment: How to grow your own veggies year-round

Michael Pollan inspired many New Yorkers to become dedicated locavores and to grow as much of their own food as possible. But then circumstance—such as rules forbidding window boxes on fire escapes—thwarts us from our dreams of a homegrown kale salad. This was artist Britta Riley’s experience, and, more recently, her professional challenge.

Riley lived in a small, fifth floor walk-up in South Williamsburg when she created WindowFarms, a hanging hydroponic growing system that produces way more veggies than your average window box—and forgoes soil altogether.

Riley and Bray with their first WindowFarm

A self-described “creative technologist” who specializes in environmentally conscious projects that inspire public participation, Riley started WindowFarms in February of 2009 with co-founder Rebecca Bray as part of an artist’s residency. “I started learning about hydroponics, and I was like, ‘It’s got to be vertical, and it’s got to go in the window!’” An indoor gardening solution was born.

WindowFarms are really just five 1.5 liter plastic water bottles (they’re the best shape for the plants to sit in) strung together vertically. A small plug-in air pump connects to a plastic tube that runs through a small reservoir to the top bottle and down through each consecutive one. The reservoir is filled with an organic nutrient mix that circulates through the tube, feeding each plant in a trickle-down liquid loop.

“It’s like you’re bottle-feeding the plants’ roots directly, so they get super-concentrated nutrients,” Riley says. The hydroponic system allows the plants to use the energy they would normally dedicate to growing complex root systems in the ground. “So you can grow a more productive plant in a smaller space,” she explains. And the growing season is year round.

A WindowFarm can hold up to 25 plants in a 4’ X 6’ window. You can grow almost anything, except root vegetables. Chard, herbs, and strawberries (although you’ll have to pollinate those by hand) do especially well in the WindowFarm landscape. And you’ll have ready-to-eat kale in just a month and half. Don’t blow off your Park Slope Food Co-op shift just yet. Even Riley, who has 40 plants in two windows, still has to go to the farmers’ market for produce staples.

On the online community at www.windowfarms.org, you can download instructions to build your own and learn from over 14,000 other farmers around the world. For the less handy, Windowfarms recently started selling kits that range in price from $39.95 to $749.95, depending on the size, volume, and attractiveness. There’s even an installation service. As for time commitment, expect to spend an hour or so a week tending to your hydroponic garden.

“The theory that we want to test is: Can we beat the carbon footprint of industrial agriculture?” says Riley. “It’s about giving people a way of participating in the green revolution as innovators.” A seed worth sewing even if your indoor crop doesn’t yield more than a salad or two every few weeks. —Lisa Elaine Held

Photo credit: Lindsey Castillo

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