A New Kind of Garden

If you care about what you eat and where your food comes from, perhaps you buy produce from farmers markets and join CSAs. But another way to feel connected to what you consume is to experiment with producing it yourself. Consider the idea of a suspended window farm, a do-it-yourself method for bringing gardening and small-scale food production into your home—whatever the size. If you have a window, you can have a window farm.

Britta Riley and Rebecca Bray designed their first farming model in a 4’x6’ New York City apartment window this past February. They were given a stipend from Eyebeam, an art and technology center in New York City that gives innovators and technologists a physical space and resources to conduct projects. A window farm, in the words of its creators, is “a vertical, hydroponic, modular, low-energy, high-yield edible window garden, built using low-impact or recycled local materials.” If you unpack that description, you come up with a suspended multi-row unit of liter water bottles that are hollowed out to hold a pot in which small plants can grow.

Each row of water bottles is held together by fishing wire and then attached on top and bottom to a reservoir containing nutrient-filled water. Four times a day, water is pumped from floor to ceiling, and then trickles down to each plant. The contraption is a closed circuit, slow-drip system. There is little maintenance required. You flush out the water once a week to start the cycle over. The method is hydroponic because there is no soil involved, only clay pellets for root reinforcement. It is low-impact because of the metered pump. And it is high-yield because it can hold up to 25 plants. If you grow lettuce, you can produce about a salad a week.

Riley estimates that the total cost to install the device and keep it running is about $115—$100 for set-up and $15 in maintenance. She is even in the process of making DIY kits for amateurs all over the world. In Johannesburg, South Africa, an NGO is trying to bring this farming technique to densely populated areas with low crop output.

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In its current stage, the project produces a modest yield, hardly relieving a city dweller from dependence on local food production. But on a long-term basis, Riley sees this farming technique as an experiment in micro-scaled projects that encourage the generation of ideas and solutions, powered by ordinary citizens. “Gathering all of this data on how ordinary people can collaborate—the unique languages and tools they use—will inform future crowd-sourced design projects like this that I’m certain will emerge in the future,” Riley predicts. A do-it-yourself advocate, she uses her design prowess to prove that “we are innovators and we don’t have to wait for big institutions to take care of problems for us.” DIY benefits aside, window farming is also an experiment in high-yield hydroponic plant growth.

Riley hopes that by next year, 100 window farms will be built in homes and offices, 25 actualized alternatives will be implemented by curious city dwellers, and 15 more idea submissions will be actively discussed on Window Farm’s community blog. To date, there are about 10 window farms that Riley knows of, but many more people are interested in the idea. The window farm blog is more than just a social networking forum; it is a functional website with how-to manuals and detailed instructions for getting started.

At Eyebeam, Riley and Bray installed a large window farm this summer and grew cherry tomatoes, peppers, basil, bok choi, okra, chives, flowers and a bunch of herbs. They experimented with growing sweet potatoes but with less success; root vegetables do not seem to like the soil-less conditions. Still, their “R&D-I-Y” project (research and develop it yourself) proves that we can bring ourselves even closer to our meals.

“Our society is thinking,” says Riley, “and expectations of what is realistic are largely constrained by current centralized infrastructure set in place in the last century by big institutions.” So when Britta Riley meets people who are curious about what to grow, her response is practical but suggestive: “Grow whatever you like to eat” and let others know about it.

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