With farmland decreasing at the same time that population numbers are increasing globally, vertical hydroponic gardens may be one solution to the world’s food shortages. Being ecologically and economically sound, hydroponic gardening is one of the fastest growing areas of patenting in the U.S. today. The trend is far from restricted to the U.S. Many innovators across the globe are creating these gardens in urban environments.

Some of these farms are large scale, such as the vertical greenhouse called Plantagon, which is set to be built in Linkoping, Sweden. The concept is a helix system in which plants are transported on a special elevator. The crops grow during the slow ride down the helix, and an automatic harvesting machine allows the food to be harvested in batches.

A smaller scale, grassroots urban agriculture movement was launched in New York City in 2008 by Britta Riley and Rebecca Bray. What started as a simple idea has since turned into a worldwide movement, and a company called Windowfarms. More than 33,000 people now participate in the Windowfarms community.

Vertical Urban Gardening: Personal Window Farming

Their concept was created for people to become more nutritionally independent. Using a vertical stack of recycled bottles in which plants are rooted in clay pellets with no soil, a pump at the bottom sends liquid nutrients to the top. The nutrients then trickle down through the root systems of the plants, and the roots remain compact, requiring less space than plants grown in dirt. As a result, organic vegetables can be grown indoors in any climate year-round using natural or artificial light.

Riley and Bray knew that NASA had been using hydroponics to explore growing food in space, discovering that optimal nutritional yield can be achieved by running high-quality liquid nutrients over plant root systems. So, they gathered some friends and created their first prototype. As Riley said in her 2011 TED talk about Windowfarms, the first systems were “leaky, loud, power-guzzlers that Martha Stewart would definitely never have approved.” She and her team were able to grow enough vegetables for a single salad a week in their New York apartments, but they wanted to work out the bugs in the system and make it better. So, they opened the idea to co-developers in what Riley calls “open source collaboration.”

Britta Riley: TED Talk

In order to encourage this collaboration, they created a social media website that spilled the beans on how the systems are created, as well as what was not working. They hoped people would take the idea and run with it. And run they did. A number of people wanted to become more nutritionally independent, so they each worked on improving and customizing the farms for their own needs.

One Windowfarms enthusiast, for example, discovered that using air pumps instead of water pumps would cut the carbon footprint of the system by nearly half. Another learned by trial and error that he could get his strawberry plants to fruit in low light by simply changing the nutrients in the liquid. A Windowfarmer in Finland outfitted the system with LED grow lights.

As people shared their ideas and discoveries, Riley’s team incorporated the improvements that were most likely to benefit the majority. The end result? Manufactured kits that became available for shipment in the U.S. and a few other countries in the summer of 2012.

Funding for manufacturing was achieved through crowdsourcing. Riley’s Kickstarter.com page was begun with the goal of raising $50,000 in Windowfarm pre-sales. She raised $257,000 instead. Windowfarms is now both a for-profit company with a patent and a non-profit organization. The for-profit company makes the products, and the proceeds fund the non-profit, which focuses on the community, the movement, and education.

Creating A Vertical Hydroponic Farm at Home

Individuals can build their own Windowfarm rather than purchase a kit using the instructions provided on the organization’s website. Setting it up can take from a few hours up to a full day. After that, the system is mostly self-sustaining. Water simply needs to be changed weekly, and some cleaning must be performed monthly.

The systems are 4 feet (1.2 m) tall, fit in different sized windows, and are hung by a hook or sit on a platform below the window (on the floor, a shelf, or the windowsill). Wide windows can handle several columns, while tall windows can accommodate one on top of the other. Some growers use clip-on CFL or LED lights on timers to better control the environment for their plants.

Plantagon: Centralized Vertical Farming in SwedenAfter the initial material costs, maintenance expenses are minimal. If the pump is run on a timer, as suggested, only a small amount of electricity is required to run the Windowfarm. In the U.S., the average electricity cost of even a 4-column farm is just over $3.20 per year.

While these small vertical hydroponics do not grow everything, such as root vegetables or tall grain plants like corn and wheat, most plants like greens and herbs, as well as fruit, can be grown, with heavier plants tied to the metal rack that holds the bottles.

Vertical Is the Future

While Plantagon is centralized, and the Windowfarms concept is decentralized, both seek to grow food in cities as a response to global crowding. Riley says that urbanites rely on others more than rural dwellers. “It’s precisely when we hand over the responsibility for all of these things to specialists that we cause the kinds of messes that we see with the food system,” she said in her TED talk.

As a result of these food system issues, the vertical hydroponics trend is fully entrenched. As more and more people move into urban environments, growing their own food or purchasing from sources like Plantagon may become the norm rather than a novelty.

This article was written by Melanie Votaw. It was originally published with the inline images above in Garden Culture Magazine, Issue 1 under the title, “Window Farming”. You can read this print edition and all others in circulation on the Our Magazines page of our website.