The International Space Station and your 500-square-foot studio have more in common than you might think: Both environments are a great place to experiment with hydroponics.
Hydroponic systems grow plants not in soil but in water that is enriched with nutrients. The process is water-efficient and can be done easily in tight quarters.
Gene Giacomelli, a professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at the University of Arizona and director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, said that for those interested in commercial agriculture, incorporating hydroponics into large-scale production seems the way of the future.
But is it possible to create a hydroponic system at home?
Absolutely, Giacomelli said.
“If you understand the fundamentals, what the plants need, and you have some practical use of tools, it can be just a kiddie pool filled with water and a floating piece of Styrofoam board with holes cut in it,” he said.
There are six kinds of hydroponic systems, the most basic of which is called a deep-water culture. This is what Giacomelli is referring to. It’s essentially a container of nutrient-filled water, with plants floating on top of it. You’ll need an air pump to introduce oxygen into the water, but it can be simply made with Ikea storage bins, a foam cooler, a bucket or any other container, as long as it sits in a place that gets a lot of light.
There are benefits to using hydroponics in small spaces, just as on the International Space Station.
“You don’t have to haul around the heavy soil or artificial soil mixes, which are dirty,” Giacomelli said. “You don’t want these things floating around your apartment.”
You can grow your plants year-round, increasing productivity by eight to 20 times as much as if you were subject to seasonal changes. Most important, Giacomelli said, all the water is recycled, so you’ll use a lot less than when watering traditionally.
“Every drop that you put into the system, if you’re careful, all of it is used to grow the plant,” Giacomelli said. “In our hydroponic indoor closed systems, we might use, easily, only 10 percent of the water you would use outdoors.”
It sounds appealing, especially for those in urban areas where gardening is not an option. But who wants a bunch of buckets or foam coolers in their apartment? Michael Zick Doherty, a permaculture designer from California, said that once you’ve got the basics down, it’s easy to transform a hydroponic system into something that adds to your home decor.
He designs hydroponic systems by taking into account the surrounding environment, whatever it may be: architecture, cabinet color, kitchen tiles. He’s a fan of using innovative materials: On a research residency in Singapore, he experimented with systems made of clay.
“I think hydroponics has gotten a pretty negative image because they aren’t aesthetically pleasing a lot of the time,” he said. “I think it’s easy to take that next step. Even pipes: Something as simple as making a wood enclosure around them would totally change the feel of them. Find ways to obscure the more mechanical parts.”
While living in New York in 2013, Doherty was part of a small team that designed a hydroponic kitchen island. It’s a sleek piece of furniture with drawers that pull out to reveal trays of microgreens. The water reservoir is hidden at the bottom.
They also built a window system that uses the nutrient film technique, where the water is pumped up and trickles down over the roots of a plant. These systems cost more to create, but if they look nice, they can become a seamless part of a well-designed home or office.
Beautiful doesn’t have to be expensive. Britta Riley is the founder of a social enterprise called Windowfarms, and its first designs used water bottles to create a similar window system. She started an open-source website, on hiatus for this summer, so designers all over the world could share their designs.
If you’re interested in hydroponics but not ready to build your own system, there are plenty of ready-made ones to buy, Doherty said. Some are aquaponic systems, which put fish in the water to create the nutrients the plants need. Windowfarms has created a product to purchase, though the designs are available (at bit.ly/2b9kVhF) for those who want to take a DIY approach.
Online, there are hundreds of instruction sets and designs, varying from low- to high-end. Doherty created a Pinterest board (pinterest.com/neufuture/designer-horticulture) where a hydroponics novice can browse and get inspired.
You don’t have to grow food plants in your system, though many people in the hydroponics community are part of a growing urban agriculture scene.
“The past 15 years, I’ve seen this tremendous movement to locally grown food and an interest to know where the food comes from,” Giacomelli said. “They say, ‘Hey, I’ll grow it myself, and I feel more comfortable eating it knowing exactly how it’s grown.’ ”
Riley emphasized that using hydroponics in your apartment does not mean you will stop going to the grocery store. It won’t save you loads of money on food, but it will provide you with a small supplement to your diet and insight into the life cycle of a plant.
Doherty said that if it’s your first time, take it easy. Try an herb, such as basil or mint.
“Mint is a weed, and it loves hydroponics,” he said. “Just see how it works, and then once you’ve grown that mint and you’re happy and you understand a little bit about the system, then start branching out, grow some basil, but just don’t grow tomatoes.”
He laughed and said that tomatoes, often a first inclination for new indoor gardeners, are one of the hardest plants to grow.
“Don’t even think about it — just grow mint,” he said. “Everyone loves it. You can make so many mojitos from all the mint you grow.”