Helen Babbs meets three people who are tending crops inside rather than out, and shares some ideas about how to (stylishly) make your own home a productive one. This feature was originally written for City Planter.
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 growth when you arrive is a faint glimpse of some bushy plants hidden behind high-up sash windows. It turns out that the elegant white townhouse I’ve stopped in front of is a bit of a fake – a folly that disguises a greenhouse that otherwise wouldn’t have got planning permission in this conservation area.
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. As well as helping to maintain the correct temperature in the greenhouse during the day, this innovation has halved Charlie’s heating bills. At night, it’s the building that keeps 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 like schools” he explains. Not only would such greenhouses provide fresh food and heat, they’d also be educational and fill carbon dioxide heavy air with oxygen – 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. Take a look at window farms for instructions on how to make a hydroponic system that will hang in your window.
The commercial indoor grower
Not far from Charlie’s incredible creation, is FARMshop – a verdant cafe and event space in Dalston Junction. Paul Smyth from Something and 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 are 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 wee is full of nitrates and so removes the need to add fertiliser to the water that’s pumped through the pipes. “We’ll eat the fish as well when they’re big enough – we’ve found somewhere in London where they can be smoked” says Paul.
There are challenges and expenses. “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 cafe, our workspaces and meeting rooms.”
Again, FARMshop is an ambitious project on a scale that only the most dedicated would try at home, but it is possible to buy small-scale aquaponics kits. The shop isn’t flooded with sunlight so they have to use artificial lights for their indoor growing – their expense is justified by making sure the light has a double use. You could do the same – plant lights could provide background lighting for a well-used living room perhaps, rather than an empty spare bedroom.
The domestic indoor grower
It is possible to grow indoors without fancy pipe-work, fish wee 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 miniature 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 and ripen 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. “Miniature 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 eye-catching design features.
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 your living room. Ceramic hanging air plant pods by mudpuppy are beautiful to look at.
So now you’ve picked your planters, what should you grow in them? High value, attractive and compact crops are the best bets – try bush tomatoes, chillies, sweet peppers, tender culinary herbs and salads.