Farming for Apartment-Dwellers

Jori Lewis talks to Britta Riley, co-founder of the Window Farms movement in New York City, and learns how to set up a hydroponic garden in even the smallest of apartments. After the jump, check out the interview and a slideshow of Window Farms — plus basic instructions on how to start your own.

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Artists Britta Riley and Rebecca Bray want to take urban agriculture to a whole new level with their window farm projectWindow Farms. The idea? Grow your vegetables in vertical farms in your windows. Once they developed a prototype for Riley’s apartment they workshopped the idea with some nascent New York window farmers to see what worked and what didn’t. I spoke with Britta Riley about the project at the Eyebeam Gallery where a sample window farm was on display.

Jori Lewis: So, tell me what this window farm thing is all about.
Britta Riley: What we are doing is basically trying to start a window farming craze in New York City and other densely packed areas where it’s difficult for people who live in apartments, for example, to be able to grow some of their own food. We’ve come up with an initial seed design for a way to do this with a vertical hydroponic farm.

JL: How did you guys first develop and start working on this project?
BR: So what happened was I went to [project partner] Rebbecca [Bray] with this kind of crazy idea just because I was thinking about how I really wanted to do some gardening, but I lived in this four story building that had no access to dirt whatsoever. I couldn’t grow anything on my fire escape and of course horizontal space is in really short supply in New York and most dirt-based growing requires like a lot of horizontal space because the dirt is heavy. It made sense to just go with a vertical hydroponic system and to use the existing light in a window. So I went to her and I said let’s just monkey around with this and see if we can get something working and we did.

JL: Why hydroponic? BR: The thing about hydroponics is that you can basically grow a lot bigger plants in a lot less space. You can get much more productivity because when you have dirt, the plants roots need to go out to find water and nutrients. So they need a lot of soil in order to grow a large plant whereas in hydroponics you can have actually a very small root ball because you’re delivering all the water and nutrients that the plant needs to it’s root ball. So it doesn’t have to spend as much energy growing this big root system Instead it can actually absorb a lot more of that water and nutrients much more quickly and devote all that energy to the top part of the plants and so then you’re not occupying as much space, but you’re getting a lot of fruit or vegetable out of the top.

JL: Let’s back track. Tell me about how it’s set up. I see a bunch of bottles. BR: Yes. The two big components are four-inch diameter sewer pipe. There is one at the top and one at the bottom. Basically, those are reservoirs. They’re acting as reservoirs for the water that has the nutrients mixed into it. So we fill up the bottom reservoir and once this particular big system is full, it’s about eight and a half gallons and then attached on this end of that sewer pipe down there is a really industrial grade pump that’s only because it has to pump so high in this particular system. It’s on a timer and once every three hours that pump turns on for a couple of minutes and sucks all of the water out of the bottom and sends it up to the top reservoir. Then the water in the top reservoir trickles down through these little valves that go into the top of each column of water bottles and then it trickles down through these columns of water bottles from one to the other. There’s a hole in the cap of each bottle so it always makes it all the way down to the bottom and then it goes back into the reservoir and then the cycle starts again.

JL: So it sounds like the set up cost is a little bit high maybe with the pipe and the pump? BR: To do one of the full reservoir systems in your apartment window, the most expensive component is the pump, and that’s usually $60 depending on the height of your window. Then the total system costs about $100.

JL: I see. So how would you set it up on a smaller scale?
BR: If you want to do experimentation mode and you are also not the world’s handiest person, we also came up with another design that actually uses an air pump and it’s on continuous cycle and it’s on three water bottles. So one freestanding column of them essentially and it’s kind of cool because it’s way cheaper. The air pump you can usually just buy an aquarium pump that you would get at your local pet store or whatever.

JL: What kind of water bottles? Any specific water bottles?
BR: Yeah. They’re actually – we tried out a lot of different things, but these particular water bottles, they’re just one particular brand. It’s the Deer Park or Poland Springs 1.5 liter water bottle. And they’re really common all over the place like people throw them out all the time. It’s just the right design so that this hydroponic component just drops right in and just fits in there perfectly and so it just makes it easier for you. You don’t have to do as much monkeying around to get something thrown up in your window.
JL: Right. Then there are light bulbs?

BR: Yeah, I did in my window it faced in on an interior space in a multi-family building and I was on the fourth floor of a six or seven story building so it only got one hour of direct sunlight per day into that window. So I had the lights also on a timer which is the case with these also and so they basically turn on at the same time as the sun comes up and turn off as the sun goes down so that I didn’t have the lights blaring in my face at night when I was home.

JL: For someone who wants to set it up at home or something, what do they do?
BR: Between your pet store and your hardware store you’ve got pretty much everything except for a few components to buy from a hydroponic supplier. Honestly we’re trying to come up with a kit right now because one of the things is that we’re heard is that it takes people too long to run all of the errands to go get these things from different spots and then sometimes they’ll be like, “I wasn’t sure if this was exactly the right thing to get or not.” Then they get frustrated because they’re like, “Oh, I have to make another trip to the hardware store or whatever which is how it is.” So I think we’re just going to assemble all of those pieces for people, but it’s still totally possible to do it yourself. You just have to be willing to put a little more labor into it, as is always the case with any kind of DIY project.

JL: OK. So what did you grow when you first started it?</b
BR: The first batch we started in February of this year. So it was like the dead of the winter. The micro climate of your window changes throughout the course of the year so that point in time we strategically basically tried to grow plants that were good in colder weather. So we grew a lot, a lot, a lot of lettuce and different varieties of lettuce. The Black-seeded Simpson was really crazy because it grew slightly differently than it does in the dirt. It kind of vined, but it was still producing these really big leaves. So basically I was getting a salad a week out of that. Grew lots of beans like long kind of like French green beans, some chard, and some kale. Obviously the best thing about that salad was how fresh it tasted. And it was a very pleasurable experience to be eating something I had grown myself.

JL: So when you had it in your apartment and you were growing some lettuce and things is it more prolific than if I were to grow stuff in on my stoop?
BR: If you’ve got a garden, you should be growing in your garden. There are lots of other places in New York where people can’t grown in their dirt because it’s actually toxic. So yeah, I totally advocate using soil and dirt and everything if you’ve got it, but for those of us who don’t – but it’s definitely not going to be replacing your food, your trips to the grocery store by any means whatsoever.

JL: So you started doing this and then you told other people like friends? How did you get other people to do it?
BR: We decided that we wanted this to be this kind of like mass collaboration of all different people beyond the ones that we could reach. But in order to figure out how to set that site up and do a test, we advertised through the Eyebeam website that we wanted to bring in a group of pioneers, “window farmer pioneers” we call them, and so 16 people showed up for our first meeting and they wanted to build their own window farms and some of them were super handy, some of them were graphic designers who were like, “I don’t know how to build anything.” So it was really interesting. There were people in the group who were like super geeky guys who were like I’m going to have a windshield wiper pump that’s only $12 and figure out – and they did. They figured out how to make a $12 windshield wiper pump work as a water pump. So this one guy totally got a $12 windshield wiper pump going. Another guy had kids so he didn’t want to have something that was hanging or that he thought they might crawl on. So he designed another system that was like zigzags of gutter pipes basically and I think her never ended up building it, but he designed it.

JL: So all 16 of these people were working on it?
BR: Yeah, and so we would all have meetings and we would talk through each one of their designs and what direction they wanted to take it and why. Was it an aesthetic decision or did they have certain constraints? So it kind of helped us get an overview. We took what we learned from that and put it into the creation of this website and we used it also to create our how to manuals. So we’ve now published the how to manuals and people all over the world have downloaded them and they’re now making posts about their own projects; “This is my window, these are my constraints, this is the design I’m using, this is one thing I want to try implementing in my window” or they’ll just be, “I’m going to do it exactly like it says in the how to, but I really want to try out these kinds of plants that nobody has tried before.” So that’s the kind of conversations that we’re really interested in and having people get some of the results of their testing and designs up and finding out the things that work and don’t work. It shouldn’t always be about the stuff that’s good. The really cool stuff is really when you encounter a problem and are working through that problem.

JL: What definitely doesn’t work?
BR: I can pretty much say definitely now that root vegetables don’t work. We didn’t figure they would like hydroponics are not really designed for root vegetables, but we gave it a try. We tried some sweet potatoes in here and it’s just the plant is growing differently. It’s not growing a bit root ball. More of its energy is just going towards growing leaves and branches and its still got a pretty small root ball.

JL: Is it art or is it design?
BR: Honestly it’s an art project. That’s just where the source of it is. But I don’t want to say that it’s only an art project because there isn’t any other framework or institution that can really account for it. I think our particular focus is on the experience that people have while participating in these things. This is more about innovation and the culture of innovation in our society and the fact that we were at some point founded – our country was founded by a bunch of people who all saw themselves as innovators. They were pioneers. They went out on the front and they didn’t have anything but themselves, their family, and whatever they brought with them. They had to figure out what tools they had around them locally to make it work. But somehow through the last couple of centuries we’ve gotten to a point where we don’t see ourselves as innovators anymore. That’s a job title. That’s like something that somebody in an R&D department does. So one of the triggers for this project was that I read this article by Michael Pollan where he was making his typical claim that growing some of your own food is one of the best things you can do for the environment. I was looking at one of the comments on his blog and a lot of people were writing things like, “Yeah right, I can’t grow food. I live in a New York City apartment building.” My first inclination was to agree with them and be like, “When are those people, whoever they are, the city planners or whoever, when are they going to figure this problem out for us?” Then I was kind of like, “Is that really how I’m going to be about this? To let somebody else take care of this problem for me because then I’m totally relying on somebody in a totally institutional context to try to predict what kind of changes I’m willing to make?” I think individuals are actually a lot more able to create inspiring change than any institution is ever going to be able to be.

For a related story about “vertical farms,” click here.

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Tags: new york cityurban farmingcommunity gardens

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