Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Why Window Farming?

Why Window Farms?
Many people think I am crazy when I start talking about growing food producing plants in my front window (especially during the winter!). Disbelief overtakes people when I dive into my list of veggies and greens that I am growing/ plan on growing. This is when I launch into my schpeel about window farms and all the magic that they contain. Unfortunately, when I get to the part that describes the hydroponic method used in Window Farms, I see many an eye begin to glaze over. Usually it is the very mention of hydroponics that sets people on edge. I hope to sway those who are wary of hydroponics to change their opinion of such things and maybe even realize the environmental, nutritional and educational benefits of window farming.

My biggest fault as a gardener is my forgetfulness with regards to watering. I have seen many a plant crisp up and turn brown, never to grow another leaf again. Fortunately for my charges, I discovered Window Farms. This system uses a vertical hydroponic setup, involving an airlift and a column of bottles that contain the plants. In principle hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil, using an inert medium for root support with nutrient solution that is constantly bathed over the roots. Your plants get as much water as they need, when they need it! None of the stressful desert to flood plain trauma for my plants any more.

One of the perks of window farming is that there is no soil and therefore a lot less mess. Because the plants are grown in inert medium, there is a far smaller risk of plant disease and bug infestation. A window farmer’s biggest foe is algae, which is not a huge issue and is quite easy to control by simply ensuring sunlight does not reach the reservoir and tubing.

The nutrients that exist in soil are often not available to the plants. They usually need to be dissolved in water for the plants to have access to them, and sometimes the compounds are confined to the dirt in salts and other molecular arrangements. When you add nutrients to your Window Farm water, they are readily available to your hungry tomatoes and peppers. The nutrients come in varying concentrations and compositions, but generally they are sold as a three-part system. You use parts one and two for the vegetative growth of the plant, and parts two and three when the plant begins to flower and produce. This makes it very easy to control the minerals and elements that are essential to plants. Electronic meters can be used to measure the content of your solution if you want to be really precise. They are expensive, however, and really not necessary. Changing out the solution weekly is sufficient.

It is common knowledge that a veggie or fruit loses nutritional value after being picked. When you have a Window Farm conveniently hanging in your living room window (as I do) or even better, in the kitchen, you have direct access to the freshest produce available. This means you no longer have to eat peppers that have been sitting in the grocery store for an inordinate amount of time. On top of that you can grow food year round, and are not restricted to seasonal foods.

Because you are able to reduce your dependence on grocery stores you are benefiting in many ways. Firstly you are reducing your carbon foot print; all that produce is trucked in to the stores, and if you drive to go get it then you are burning fossil fuels. Secondly, if there was ever a shortage of fresh food you would not be as affected by it. Thirdly, you keep more of your money! Who really wants to pay $3 for a cucumber that doesn’t taste like anything, or tomatoes that have more in common with tennis balls? And lastly, on that note, you get to eat delicious fruit and vegetables that you have grown yourself. You can even grow unusual varieties that normally are not available in a store. Check out Tomato ‘Garden Peach’.

I really enjoy having my Window Farm right next to my desk. The sound that the water makes as it drips from each bottle to the next is soothing, and is way more productive than a water fountain. It is extremely entertaining to watch your plants grow, flower and produce fruit. On top of that those plants are photosynthesizing and producing oxygen, as well as absorbing various carcinogens and toxins from the air. All in all this makes for a very habitable work environment.

I’m sure children would enjoy all this as well! When I was little I really disliked bugs and getting dirty, let alone the terror of discovering a caterpillar. This is a great way to introduce fussy children to the fascinating world of gardening, without the nasty surprises that spiders and other critters can bring about. The daily and weekly responsibilities are not overwhelming, and can be compared to keeping fish. With a little adult supervision, kids can help set up the column, germinate seeds, plant the seedlings in the system, prepare the nutrient solution, keep the reservoir levels up, and tend to the plants. It also provides practical education about where our food comes from and how plants grow. It is really easy to lift a net pot out of a bottle and see all the roots sticking out, and they get to watch the plants mature and reproduce.

There are drawbacks, as with anything, however I can only think of a few. One is that you are dependent on your air pump to keep the plants roots moist. With previous versions of Window Farms, there was a reservoir at the top, but this had a lot of problems. Water pumps tend to clog and break down with the little bits of nutrients, and if they run dry they are doomed. Some people find the airlifts a little difficult, and they do require a certain level of tinkering to get working. Another is that it does require a bit of time to set the system up. Many people choose to spray paint the bottles to provide protection from the sun for the roots, and this does take time to do a decent job. You also need a few basic tools (a hole saw to cut the holes into the bottom, for example) but you can MacGyver it if you need to. Some people do not want to set up the system themselves and prefer the ‘plug and play’ approach to things. This is unfortunate because by building the system you become very familiar with it and troubleshooting becomes less of a problem. I hope you will agree that the benefits far outweigh the negatives.

The website is full of amazing information about the Window Farm project, and there are new users signing up almost every hour! If you are intimidated by the R&DIY, there is a lot of community support. The plans are available for free, but you are asked to help by being active on the website and posting your successes and failures. I have found that this is a very welcoming group that is a diverse mixture of people from all around the world.

I hope at least a few of you have considered the value of a Window Farm. It has a very small footprint, and is basically an interactive art piece. Please give the website a visit, or visit the main page for the general idea and kits that are available for purchase. How can you go wrong with fresh lettuce, chilis, tomatoes and basil growing in your front window, waiting to be picked, and cleaning the air around you?

- Melissa


  1. Awesome article Melissa! You hit on all the reasons why home hydroponics systems are the wave of the future.
    I would also add that listening to the constant trickle of your drip system can be very calming; hearing dripping water must be a primordial healing sound.
    Are you going to post pictures and how to do it to share with others?

  2. I am starting from english bay, vancouver :)

  3. Just curious what the ongoing costs are...Are you actually saving money vs. buying at the store?

    1. Really good Question Anonymous. According to the "Window" farms Website you can get roughly a cup of salad greens a day which is NOT sustainable. I think this is a Hobby/Experiment that is good for introducing People to growing their own Food and Great for Foodies that want fresh herbs for their cooking. There are much better ways and systems for growing in an Urban environment. Like Community plots and ROOFTOPS!!! One can get alot of Potato's Grown in a 5 Gallon Bucket!!! (WindowFarms are not generally good for any root vegetables.) You can also utilize indoor lighting, your fire Escape (just make sure it is easily movable etc.) Also, Aquaponics and Vertical grow tubes produce more serious amounts of food. You can utilize a 5 Gallon Bucket with holes in the side for MANY plant sites. I don't mean to piss on the WindowFarm Parade and I applaud the recycling of materials to make Window Farms but now they are YuppieFarms and expensive Kits.