I just started throwing together this year’s hydroponic garden. Last year was a test to see if I could even do it. It was so successful that this year I’m going all out, fully documenting it and showing exactly what’s involved.
I realize there is a lot to go over so I will break this into three main parts:
Why, What, and How.
First today I’ll break down the Why I’m doing this and why I think it will appeal to others, next I’ll show exactly what I’m making and what it takes to get it done, then finally over the summer I’ll post updates on how to do it and how it’s all going.
I’ve always had a general interest in hydroponics; it’s just an interesting science to grow plants without needing a big open piece of land to put them. And growing up in an arid climate it was even more amazing that not only did it only use water, but it used less water than traditional gardening. This month’s National Geographic Magazine is dedicated to the limited resource of fresh water; while studying at University my geological professor (and the state’s scientific adviser to geologic water issues) pressed upon us the importance of fresh water, and the fact that it’s already in greater scarcity than oil (run out of oil no cars, run out of water, no food or drink). Although the only people feeling the pressure now are farmers if the Geographic is right you and me will see stresses all too soon.
The second interest of mine is in general gardening itself. I grew up in the suburbs and my family had a decent garden in the backyard, some years it was a great source of vegetables, others it was a giant neglected patch of weeds. One thing that the family always agreed on was that it was much more satisfying when we had a nice garden going full of plants.
There’s just something about growing things that appeals to people, whether it’s your own home garden or just a tiny plant brightening up your cubicle in the office. I think the appeal is that you made something live; maybe one part god complex of sustaining life, and another part knowing that for whatever negative impact you’ve had at least there’s something that you’ve made a little greener and a little more alive. Being surrounded by growth and life at your own hand is a very satisfying thing.
There’s also the appeal of creating something useful from the empty dirt. While growing flowers is nice it’s especially nice to grow vegetables that you can eat yourself. And the effect of making virtually free food isn’t imaginary. JD Roth and his wife over at Get Rich Slowly always document their garden and quantify it into actual money saved by having his own fresh vegetables and not buying imported stuff from the store. This effect is such a big deal that there is a term for it, a “Victory Garden”. Coined during World War 2 a victory garden was encouraged by the government as a way to help the war effort. By converting your yard into a garden you could supply your own vegetables and fruit, thus commercial produce could be shipped to the troops fighting overseas. Check this old war era government PSA, 20min so I won’t embed it. These days the reasons are more conservational and economic but the idea remains the same.
Home gardening is all nice but for anybody living in the city it’s just a dream, and with housing prices constantly getting further out of reach less of us have the ability to get the house in the ‘burbs with the white picket fence and room for a victory garden. In a world of concrete and asphalt there isn’t space to put a garden to augment your groceries. A few lucky communities may be able to convert rooftop space or setup a community garden in an abandoned lot. But all it takes is some quick rezoning or a jerkhole landlord to end it all.
I came up with the solution while in Japan. I was walking past a large apartment complex and looked up wondering how anybody could make use of the tiny balcony space each apartment had. Some people had set out chairs to sit and look out at the city after work, some had equipment for outdoor cooking, many used it simply to store junk. But one apartment had filled every square inch with plants. There were easily 20 large potted plants in an 8×3ft area creating a tiny bright green forest in the middle of a wall of concrete. And as a nice side benefit the plants blocked the view into their apartment and kept the hot summer sun from streaming into their window.
I thought what greater way to make the most of the small space given than to turn it into something pleasant and less sterile than the rest of the city. While thinking of how many pots it would take to create a green barrier between your home and the rest of the city I thought of the hydroponic setups I’d seen. It would be perfect, a small self-watering system that didn’t need any soil and made use of the fact that you didn’t need a large flat space to work.
Now the idea isn’t really that new, others have done similar things before. But almost everything I’ve seen is small and not productive enough to be of any interest to me. Either the system is a tiny window full of plants no bigger than a foot, or it’s simply a potted plant like Ficus that is self watering. I want a “Pocket Victory Garden” that will grow me vegetables at a rate that I can actually plan more than one meal a month with my produce.
I had a decent knowledge of hydroponic methods so I figured what would work best in the small narrow space of an apartment balcony. After all you still need to be able to go out on the balcony to harvest and monitor the plants. Even better if the garden grew vertical to create a green summer sunshade while you relaxed in a chair on the balcony with a nice cool drink.
I figured the best method is a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) hydroponic setup. Not only did it look coolest and fit most closely with what people picture as hydroponic but except for the nutrient reservoir nothing is wider than 4-5 inches. The plants will be wider than the growing area. So you can save as much floor space as possible while still having a nice little garden to call your own and even provide you with some fresh home grown ingredients to go with your home cooking.