A New Kind of Garden | Civil Eats

A New Kind of Garden

Window 1

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.

window 2

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.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

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.

Today’s food system is complex.

Invest in nonprofit journalism that tells the whole story.

Stacey Slate is the former deputy managing editor of Civil Eats and community manager for the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, CA. She is currently helping to build edibleschoolyard.org, an online network to connect teachers, parents, and advocates of the edible education movement and to encourage them to share best practices and curriculum. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

  1. I love this idea and feel encouraged to try it myself. Thank you for spreading the news about these DIY city farms!

More from



‘It’s Impossible Not to Feel Like I’m Part of the Flock’

In an excerpt from her new book, ‘Under the Henfluence,’ Tove Danovich discusses her ongoing fascination with chickens and the challenge of reconciling the backyard trend with today’s industrial practices.


The IPCC’s Latest Climate Report Is a Final Alarm for Food Systems, Too

PAJARO, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 14: In an aerial view, floodwaters fill the streets on March 14, 2023 in Pajaro, California. Northern California has been hit by another atmospheric river that has brought heavy rains and flooding throughout the region. The town has been inundated with floodwaters since Saturday after a levee was breached along the Pajaro River. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

This Farm Bill Really Matters. We Explain Why.

a trio of illustrations showing a black farmer, corn growing in front of the US Capitol Building, and a white woman with a baby paying for groceries with a SNAP-enabled card

Supreme Court Case Could Reshape Indigenous Water Rights in the Southwest

A close-up view of center-pivot irrigation watering corn on NAPI farmland. (Photo courtesy of NAPI)

All Eyes on California as Fast-Food Worker Rights Land on the 2024 Ballot

Fast-food workers and activists protest McDonald's labor practices outside a McDonald's restaurant on March 18, 2014 in Oakland, California. (Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)