Urban farming: the inside track
by Helen Babbs
Rooftop Greenhouse, credit: Helen Babbs
When it’s cold outside and the supermarkets are packed with harassed shoppers, what could be cosier than growing and harvesting your food indoors? Helen Babbs meets three people who are tending crops inside rather than out, and shares some ideas about how to (stylishly) make your home a productive one.
The experimental indoor grower
I had an idea how the Rooftop Greenhouse might look before I arrived. I was imagining a little glass house, perched precariously on top of a building. I was wrong, of course. The only hint of greenery, when I arrive, is a faint glimpse of some bushy plants through high-up sash windows.
I’m welcomed in by the owner – the ever-enthusiastic Charlie Paton. He gives me a guided tour of the building where he runs his family business and also grows an impressive array of fruit and veg. It’s an old bakery that he bought in the 1970s and has recently transformed into an incredible workshop and office by extending upwards.
The top floor of the building has been designed and built specifically to grow food. There’s a glass roof and many windows, so it’s full of the sunlight needed to grow plants. It looks like a futuristic garden laboratory, with pipes running through it, various busy control panels and huge plants shooting up to the roof.
“2011 was our first growing season – we had cucumbers, peppers, strawberries and lettuces in the summer. We’re still getting red tomatoes and ripe chillies now,” says Charlie.
The Rooftop Greenhouse makes use of hydroponics – a system of growing plants in water that has nutrients dissolved in it. In this instance, a series of pipes have been customised into planters. Nutrient-rich water is pumped through them, straight to the roots of the plants.
No compost is needed, although the plants do need a growing medium to take root in – clay balls work well.
“It can get really hot in here, especially in summer, so we’ve developed a system for pumping the heat around the rest of the building” says Charlie. This innovation has halved Charlie’s heating bills. And at night, the building helps to keep the greenhouse warm, as it releases heat that’s been stored up in its bricks during the day.
“It’s been expensive and time intensive to set up, but now it’s all in place it’s a lot less work. I see this as an experimental pilot project, which could be the model for similar installations in community buildings such as schools,” he explains. Not only would such greenhouses provide fresh food and heat, they’d also be educational and add extra oxygen to the air – important for young minds to stay alert.
The ambitious Rooftop Greenhouse is something only the very committed indoor grower would recreate at home, but there are ideas to steal from this project. You could invest in a readymade hydroponic kit that’s suitable for small spaces (there’s a huge variety to pick from online), or even fashion your own system out of some drainpipes and a pond pump. Or, take a look at www.windowfarms.org for instructions on how to make a hydroponic system to hang in the window.
The commercial indoor grower
Not far from Charlie’s incredible creation, is FARM:shop – a verdant café and event space in Dalston Junction. Paul Smyth from Something & Son is one of the brains behind the project. “We were interested in urban agriculture, and especially indoor growing because there’s not much land on high streets, but that is where people buy food,” he explains.
It’s an oddly-lit space with a faint whiff of the sea, full of green shoots and fat fish. A combination of aquaponics and hydroponics is used to grow high-value crops such as micro greens, herbs and lettuces, as well as tomatoes in the summer. The harvests go straight on to customers’ plates – 80% of the leaves sold in the cafe are grown on site.
For the aquaponic system, pipe planters are connected to fish tanks. Fish waste can be broken down into nutrients for the plants and so there’s no need to add fertiliser to the water that’s pumped through the pipes. “We’ll eat the fish when they’re big enough – we’ve found somewhere in London where they can be smoked,” says Paul.
There are challenges and expenses though. “Lighting uses the most electricity, and energy use is something you’d need to be very careful about if you scaled the project up. We have secondary uses for ours – they light our café, our workspaces and meeting rooms,” he says.
Again, FARM:shop is an ambitious project on a scale that only the most dedicated would try at home, but there are some useful ideas. The shop isn’t flooded with sunlight so they have to use artificial light for their indoor growing – this expense is justified by making sure the light has a double use. In the home, grow lights could provide background lighting for a well-used living room perhaps, rather than an empty spare bedroom. Focusing on compact crops that are expensive to buy in the shops such as herbs and micro greens is also a good idea if you don’t have much room for growing.
The domestic indoor grower
It’s possible to grow indoors without fancy pipework, fish waste or artificial light. Sarah Stinton, for example, has grown many things on a humble windowsill. An allotment holder, she decided to start cultivating crops inside so she could extend the growing season well into the winter.
“I’m lucky – I have four south-facing windowsills. Last winter, I grew a long tray of cut-and-come-again mixed winter salads. I also tried dwarf French beans in narrow but deep pots and courgette ‘Parthenon’ in big round pots – neither needs insects to pollinate it. I planted them all in early January, along with tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. I always start at this time of year indoors,” she says. Anything that got too big for Sarah’s windowsill was moved outdoors in the summer, but size shouldn’t be a problem if you seek out dwarf varieties. “I planted a second lot of small tomatoes inside this June and they’re still going strong. My indoor chilli plants are also continuing to produce despite low light levels. Both look gorgeous too,” she says.
Although Sarah has had lots of success and heartily recommends that we all give indoor growing a go, she’s honest about some of the problems she has encountered. “The courgette plant was slow to grow, probably because of low light levels, but I did harvest a few vegetables in March. The dwarf French beans did much better – the pods began to grow in March. Sadly, I had a plague of sciarid fly, which lives on top of the compost. I think sciarid fly is the worst thing about growing indoors – it drives my husband insane!”
A sunny windowsill may well be all you need to start growing indoors successfully – just beware the bugs. “Dwarf bush tomato plants, salad mixes and herbs are probably the easiest crops to start with,” Sarah says.
Doing it with style
Indoor farming has the potential to look a little messy. But there are ways to grow inside that look, as well as taste, good and crops can even make for an eye-catching design feature.
Boskke’s upside-down planters would look great hanging from a kitchen ceiling, while Urban Allotments have an indoor vertical planter, which you can use to create an edible work of art for the living room.
Helen Babbs is a London based writer. Her first book – My Garden, the City and Me: Rooftop Adventures in the Wilds of London – was published in the summer. It’s about the glory of growing things and urban nature.