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Monday, December 11, 2023

Want to Grow Your Own Food? Try a Hydroponic Garden

We all became homesteaders during the pandemic. The inability to leave home and disruptions to the food supply chain led a lot people to plant gardens to grow their own food. Upon flexing their green thumbs, though, many found that gardening comes with its own set of issues, from vermin to seasonal shifts. But what if there was a way to bypass those vexations? Say hello to home hydroponics.

How Home Hydroponics Work

To grow something hydroponically is to grow plants without soil. It’s long been associated with growing weed—just saying the word hydroponics will induce smirks—but in recent years, systems like Rise Gardens and AeroGarden have come along to give gardeners a sleek, high-tech way to grow produce like bell peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes from the confines of their homes.

All you need for a hydroponic growing system is a bin filled with water, nutrients, and LED lights, so you don’t need to buy a whole system at all, really. But many of the systems on the market are designed to be aesthetically pleasing and meant to be part of your home, not hidden away.

Most are horizontal and basically have a planter bed that you drop seed pods into. A pump delivers water and nutrients to the seeds, and LED lights mimic the sun. Some systems are vertical, like the Gardyn and the forthcoming Soilless. Large systems typically start at around $400, with plenty of small ones to be found around $100.

What to Know Before You BuyAccess to Fresh Produce

Hank Adams, founder and CEO of Rise Gardens, lives in Chicago where the growing season is short and the summers are hot, he says. A lot of gardening enthusiasts use the hydroponic system to supplement their outdoor endeavors, and he says it's the food lovers that really get a lot out of it. “Everybody knows that fresh ingredients are better. They taste better, and what may be less well known is just how much more nutrient-dense they are,” says Adams. Compared to produce that has been shipped to the grocery store, traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles, freshly plucked lettuce can be more nutritious. It tastes better when it's been freshly snipped too.

The aroma of fresh produce is enough to make Teresa Edmisten, an architect with Tvsdesign in Atlanta, appreciate her hydroponic system. Hers is more utilitarian, she says, but it effectively grows basil, which she and her husband frequently turn into pesto. “Depending on the varieties you do, those leaves are luscious. And the smell is ridiculously beautiful,” says Edmisten.

More Than Just a Garden

One thing that’s certain about modern hydroponic systems is that they are not what they used to be. Manufacturers are being intentional about designing structures that you’d actually want decorating your home.

For Rise, Adams worked with industrial designers to create a system that is made of polished metal and real wood. They went through seven prototypes before landing on a model that can double up as a piece of furniture. Their systems are modular, allowing users to stack up to three tiers of gardens, and the top one has a hard surface that can serve as a table. “It’s minimalist because we wanted plants to be the stars of the show, but it's still a physical structure that has some size to it,” says Adams. “So we wanted people to find it attractive and kind of neutral, so it would fit a lot of different settings.”

A more artful approach to this is the forthcoming system made by Soilless. The company is the brainchild of Westen Johnson and Julie Joo, two graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design who first came up with the system while they were students. The design is simple: “It’s basically a big bag,” says Johnson. He explains that the bag consists of two layers that seal together similarly to a pool float, except instead of being inflated with air, it’s water. The vertical system can grow up to 23 plants. It hangs from a rod with an LED lighting fixture attached and looks like something you'd see hanging in a high-end loft. “It's basically something that a normal person can afford and eat off of that's like a living piece of art in your home,” says Johnson. When the system launches, it’ll retail for around $200.

There's a System for Every Space 

You don't need a suburban house with a lot of space in order to have a hydroponic gardening system. In Atlanta, Greg Crafter founded Produce’d with city dwellers in mind. “For an urbanite, space is very limited and comes at a premium So you want to utilize it and maximize it the best way you can,” says Crafter. People testing his system, which will launch in Atlanta this summer, keep it everywhere from their office to their living room.

If space is just too tight, there are tabletop options too. Rise has a personal garden system that grows 12 plants, but others include Edn which grows 10 plants, down to the petite Sprout by Aero Garden, which grows three plants (perfect for kitchen herbs). These smaller systems won't replace the produce you buy at the grocery store, but they're a good way to supplement things like herbs.

Plants Are Good for Your Mental Health

Spending so much time at home has made us rethink our indoor spaces. We’re surrounded by square shapes and hard lines, which, whether we know it or not, has our brains longing for something akin to nature. It’s why more people are turning to “biophilic” (love of life) design, which focuses on incorporating nature into indoor spaces. “There are certain patterns and forms and sights and sounds that we encounter in the natural world that give us a positive physiological response,” explains Jennifer Bissonnette, the interim director of RISD’s Nature Lab. From the sound of running water to the aroma of basil, biophilic design elements can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve overall happiness, says Bissonnette.

While being a “plant parent” is a familiar Instagram trope, it applies to hydroponic plant owners too. Hydroponic systems don't necessarily require the same amount of daily attention that a houseplant might, but engaging with these plants makes us feel connected to them. “I can't stress that enough: It’s wonderful to have it in your living environment, but there's something about engaging with another living thing and understanding that you're in a relationship with it. I think that's a marvelous thing for us,” says Bissonnette.

In a continuous loop of Zoom calls and reruns of The Office, these systems can also help you feel grounded. For Edmisten, checking on her plants is part of her daily routine. “It’s just a focused escape. The escape isn't going somewhere else, it's getting connected to where you are,” says Edmisten.

Tech Offers Faster, Foolproof Growing

Want produce quickly? Then hydroponic growing is definitely for you. “The plants grow twice as fast, because the nutrients are being supplied right to the roots. You can have a smaller garden and still produce a lot more food with it,” says Johnson.

As an added bonus, many of these systems connect with apps that make it harder to kill your plants. Rise, for example, has users enter which plants they’re growing on the app, and then it tracks the water levels, pH balance, and sets the lighting schedule. “We tell you when to do it, how to do it, how much. You really don't need to be techie,” says Adams.

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