Archive for category Windowfarm

Windowfarm Harvest

So, my Windowfarm has been growing for 3 months, with middling success and it’s time to make some decisions.  What to harvest?  What to start for the next round?  With such small amounts, harvesting the kale and arugula will decimate the farm and the yield is so miniscule, it would seem appropriate to cook it up on the toy kitchen in my daughters’ room.  Lesson number one:  start your next round of seeds earlier, so they are ready to transplant at the time of harvest.

Having just figured that out, I couldn’t wait for my next round of seeds because I needed to harvest my parsley for our seder plate – you see, I like to source my bitter herbs locally.  I chopped off the whole lot and we passed them around and ate them dipped in saltwater.  Delicious!  Parsley is definitely going into the second round of the Windowfarm.

Lesson number two:  unless you have a gigantic Windowfarm, you are better off growing herbs that you can clip a little at a time when needed. One thing I regret not growing the first time around is basil – who wouldn’t love some fresh basil in the wintertime?  So, basil seeds are on the list.  We only have six slots, so we have to choose carefully.  My tomato plant grew wildly out of control trying desperately to get enough light.  It made me feel bad: all that straining and no flowers.  My plan with tomatoes is to transplant them into traditional window boxes in our sunny stairwell and see how they fare, leaving the more delicate herbs for the Windowfarm. That is, except for our biggest success so far:  Shishito Peppers!

Shishito peppers seem to love the Windowfarm environment, and perhaps I should just make it all about them, but I am inclined to diversify.  Last night, I started a new round of seeds: Basil, Parsely, Cilantro, and Shishitos.  We’ll see what transpires.

In the meantime, I have been reading Harriet Fasenfest’s delightful book, The Householder’s Guide to the Universe. It is an almanac for the city farmer – at least for the city farmer with a yard – starting with January and guiding you through the seasons.  The beginning through March is all about seed selection and garden planning, then it moves on to the actual gardening, harvesting and food preserving through the rest of the year.  There is a lot to ponder in this book and I have been trying to adapt it to my own landless version of householding, by planning my indoor garden.  Here is what I have so far:

Windowfarm (6 hydroponic slots): herbs and shisitos

In window pots  :  tomatoes, mint, scallions and pea shoots.

Under the bed:  shiitake and oyster mushrooms

If I’m feeling particularly adventurous: ginger, quinoa and maybe I’ll throw in a rice paddy!

It’s planting season! What are you growing this year? Indoors or out!


Newsflash: Midtown Manhattan not the best place to set up an urban homestead.

by wilhelmja on Flickr Some rights reserved.

Last Week, Apartment Therapy posed a Good Question to its masses:  What are the best cities for young, urban homesteaders on a budget?  There were over 70 responses to the question, extolling the virtues of various chicken-coop friendly cities.  The rust-belt featured prominently, with Pittsburgh taking the lead and Detroit (a personal favorite) coming in a close second.  But the rapturous descriptions of Buffalo, Minneapolis (my hometown), Indianapolis, St. Louis, and even Dallas, made me want to jump in the car for an epic road trip to see what the hell these people are up to out there!

Needless to say, Manhattan didn’t feature high in the budget-friendly urban homesteading category.  There were a couple of shout-outs to Brooklyn (Bed-Stuy, not Park Slope), but it goes without saying that NYC isn’t exactly teeming with inexpensive outdoor space.  That is not to say it isn’t urban farming friendly, what with upwards of 25,000 acres suited for exactly that purpose and rooftop farming on the rise.  Such is the topic of next week’s Urban Agriculture Conference at the Horticultural Society of New York.  On Friday, March 16th, the Society will be addressing the issue of urban farming: is it merely a trend? The kind that goes hand in hand with an economic recession? Or does it reflect a deeper shift in how we view our food production?  The keynote speaker will be Thomas Fox, author of Sustainable Living in your Backyard, your Community, and in the World, who will talk about the upsurge in urban farming in an historical context.  Afterward, there will be a Q&A with an impressive panel including Annie Novak and Britta Riley, discussing various community projects specific to New York City.

It was also about one year ago that the fracas over the term Urban Homesteader blew up the web (at least the part of the web I hang around).  Since then, there has been an increase in discussion about all things related to raising food in an urban environment and has had me thinking about what that term actually means. By definition, it is an alternative lifestyle. And of course, there are different degrees of urban – there is the urban of Novella Carpenter (my hero), raising pigs, ducks and chickens in her decidedly gritty Oakland neighborhood.  And the Urban of Harriet Fasenfest (another hero) in Portland, Oregon, using the confines of her city lot to sustain her family. And then there is midtown Manhattan: the end of the road on the urban spectrum.

Clearly, I find this topic compelling. What does it mean to participate in urban homesteading in the context of high-rises and limited outdoor space?  Does growing a few plants in your apartment, composting your building and making your own deodorant qualify?  I’m guessing probably not. There is not much about my life that is alternative: we are your run-of-the-mill two-working-parent family trying to subsist in the center of the largest metropolitan area in the country.  We’re busy. Manhattan is about convenience. About delivery. Some days it feels overwhelming. But despite my back-to-the-land fantasies, I love being part of this urban community and exploring ways to incorporate the values of the urban homesteaders into the laboratory of my tiny apartment and busy schedule.  I think it is about examining our routines and questioning our consumption and I am inspired by the fact that it’s a growing topic of conversation in general. How many of you are out there, working 9 to 5 and doing some kind of kooky, sustainable project the other 9-5?  Urban folk, how are you changing up your food gathering and production?  I’m not talking big projects, but small ones – and I would love to hear from you!


Ich bin ein Windowfarmer!

Over the past few weeks, after adding nutrients to my seedlings, they started to grow startlingly fast.  They went from this:

To this:

And finally, to this:

The arugula even began to flower, which -although beautiful –  may not be such a good thing:

I knew it was high time to install them into the Windowfarm, but – frankly  – I was stalling.  The plants were thriving in their little grow-light world, and transferring them to the window would introduce a whole lot of unknowns:  what if the winter light wasn’t sufficient? What if it was too cold and drafty in the window? What if the whole contraption just didn’t work?  I was kind of waiting for my dad to come back and help me set it up, but his next visit wasn’t for a few months.  I was on my own and this past weekend was the time.  I set aside Sunday afternoon and lowered my expectations.

Because the bottle set up had already been done months before, there were only a few steps left to go  – all thoroughly outlined on the Windowfarm site.  The first task was to transfer the seedlings to their netcups and secure them with clay pellets.  Easy enough.

Installing them into the plastic bottles was really easy – they just popped right in. Next up was attaching the air pump to the bottom bottle reservoir.  Also easy, as it connected with this snap-lock.

The bottom tube connects easily to the air pump, which in turn connects to a timer, which plugs into an outlet.

I filled up the bottom bottles with nutrient-spiked water, turned on the pump and – lo and behold – water made its way up the tubes, dripped into the top bottle (watering the first plant) and then made its way down through the subsequent bottles back down to the reservoir!  Awesome!

It ran for 15 minutes, stopped for 15 minutes and kept on going.  This was definitely going to be an improvement over making sure my seedlings were watered frequently enough in this dry climate (which sometimes had me getting up in the middle of the night – I was obsessed).  But then I noticed a little something.  Drip. Drip. Drip. Slowly but surly, water was leaking out of the bottom bottle.  Shit.  I took a break to eat dinner and the little drips had turned into a tiny lake on my windowsill.  Sigh.  At least I was expecting something along these lines.  I doctored it up with duct tape and set containers underneath to catch the flow.  Oddly enough, the first night quite a bit of water leaked out, but the subsequent nights it stopped.  I have no idea why.

So this is day 4 of my Windowfarming experiment and so far so good.  Of course, it’s too early to tell how they are adjusting to their new environment, but I’m starting to think about the next phase. Questions like: how does one hand pollinate tomatoes? And how soon can you harvest each type of plant?

The “farm” is installed in my daughters’ room and is a funny Rube-Goldberg like contraption.  For city kids, this food-growing experiment is a novelty, one I am hoping will make them into gardeners sooner or later.

In the meantime, I’m thinking about other “crops” we can cultivate indoors: pea shoots? Mushrooms? Ginger?  And I’m having fun on Sprout Robot, a web service where you put in your zip code and they will help you plan your garden – everything from watering reminders to actually sending you the seeds!  You can choose between a garden plot or containers but, alas, there is no option for the indoor farmer.  Yet.


Windowfarm update: tiny sprouts!

They’re growing!  After my last failure with seed starting, I was beginning to think I would never succeed as an urban, indoor, landless farmer. Yet, here they are.  Clockwise from the top left: cilantro, shishito peppers, kale and parsley.  The tomatoes, arugula, and basil didn’t make the photo shoot (in truth, the basil may end up a casualty here).  The secret? Grow lights on a timer and the proper amount of nutrition.  It’s that simple.  Except it’s not because I have also become mildly obsessed with their well-being, to the chagrin of our poor cat.  Upon waking, the first thing I used to do was feed her, but now she has to wait while I check the plants.  Do they need more water? How much did they grow? Like any baby, when something is so tiny and fragile, every change is noticeable.  In a few weeks, they will be ready for transfer to the Windowfarm, but I say this with trepidation like I’m sending them to preschool.  The windowsill is cold – what if they don’t survive?

One of the best things about participating in this Windowfarm endeavor is the crowd-sourcing, both for the information provided and the camaraderie.  Once my seeds had sprouted, they grew to a certain point – about 1 inch – and then seemed to stop thriving.  Beside myself, I uploaded their sad photos to the Windowfarm site and asked for help (which came almost immediately).  The answer? Nutrients.  As the grow plugs are not soil, they only supply a support to the seedlings, nothing more.  So, I was advised to add some liquid nutrients to their water supply in the form of  Botanicare Pure Blend Pro which is a hydro-organic vegetative fertilizer custom blended from organic and natural sources of the essential major, secondary, and trace minerals that plants would normally find in good soil.  Within a day of adding a tablespoon of this magical liquid to a gallon of water the seedlings sprang to life! Growing plants from seed has so far been an exercise in wonder – when (and if) the time comes, will I actually be able to eat these plants? I’m only half kidding here.

Speaking of gardening, I came across this amazing article via MNN about the town of Todmorden in the UK that has landscaped its public spaces with edible gardens.  Residents can harvest what they wish on an honor system and…. it seems to be working!  The town of about 15,000 residents has the goal of becoming self-sufficient in communal food production by 2018.  Love.

And last but not least, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden has a lovely exhibition on….Terrariums! running until February 26th.  The perfect winter outing.  Click on their banner below for details.

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Windowfarm Update:

After my last failed attempt at starting seeds for my Windowfarm, I had only one set of grow plugs and a few seeds left, so I decided to step it up for round two and invest in grow lights (they came in a box helpfully labeled “GROW LIGHTS!” which caused the front desk staff to raise their eyebrows when we picked it up in the lobby).  But lo and behold, they work!  At first there were just a few sprouts – the arugula is very eager.  But with 16 hours of indoor light a day and the near constant spraying of the sponges in this dry weather, we now have tiny sprouts of kale, tomatoes, shishitos, cilantro, parsley, arugula and basil.  It’s really amazing to watch something this closely and now I’m afraid I will be bereft if they die on me.  But I’m optimistic for a 2012 full of indoor bounty.

Happy New Year!


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Adventures in Windowfarming

Last May, I took a course at 3rd Ward the title of which I could not resist.  Urban Food Production for the Landless is a workshop taught by Brooklyn Homesteader, Meg Paska.  The course covered all of the things one can grow indoors in a small urban space, including sprouting beans, starting seeds, making edible pea-shoot terrariums, and – most intriguing – growing mushrooms in coffee grounds.  Although I like watching them grow, I’m not much of  a sprout eater, but growing young pea shoots is easy and delicious. The mushrooms are on my list to try.  While the workshop was fun, I wouldn’t say we are “living off the fat of no land” here in Manhattan.

It did, however, give me the momentum to pursue building a Windowfarm, something I’ve been wanting to do since learning about the project created by artist, Britta Riley, in February 2009 and first shown at the Eyebeam Center for Art & Technology.  Windowfarms are indoor, hydroponic gardening systems made out of recycled materials – mostly plastic bottles- designed to operate in low-light urban environments.  Riley, an artist whose work deals with crowd-sourcing solutions to environmental issues, was inspired to design an accessible way to promote  urban food production after reading Michael Pollen’s 2008 New York Times article, “Why Bother?”. Originally, the Windowfarm project consisted of an open source web platform developed by Riley called “Research and Develop it Yourself” that posted instructions on how to build your own kit and created an online forum for early windowfarmers – there are now 22,000 of us online – to share their experiences and innovations on the plans.  Unless you’re MacGyver however, the truth is, building a windowfarm is a somewhat complicated process and the plans were intimidating.  Until I learned that you could purchase a windowfarm kit: all the parts are included, you just have to put it together.  Easy peasy.  Except when the kit arrived, I realized it was a little more involved than spending a few minutes hanging it up. So it took me a good, long while to work up to taking all the pieces out of the box.

Installing a windowfarm is best done with two people.  Luckily, my dad is sort of like MacGyver, so over a visit this fall we (mostly he) put the kit together in the only sunny room in our apartment (not that you could tell by this photo):

When fully installed, an electric pump is attached to the reservoir at the bottom of the bottles, forcing nutrient-enhanced water  to the top of the bottles where it trickles back down in a closed hydroponic system.  Of course, before you get to that stage, one must have plants to grow. Based on the experiences of more experienced window farmers and our light situation, I ordered a variety of seeds to try: basil, arugula, kale, cherry tomatoes, cilantro and parsley.  With the seeds came grow-plugs, a spongy, soil-free, seed-starting medium that my daughter was disappointed to learn were not actually the chocolate brownies they appeared to be. Before planting the seeds in the grow-plugs, I was advised to soak them in a solution of 10% Hydrogen Peroxide which is supposed to help the little seeds break through their casings:

After a few minutes, I planted the seeds in the grow-plugs and placed them in an egg carton to germinate.

The first 24 hours were spent – as directed – in a dark closet.  After that, I set them on the windowsill where my windowfarm is installed.  After the second day, I was thrilled to see the arugula sprouting!  I felt awesome.  Like maybe this will actually work.

But it was only the arugula.  Nothing else.  And it didn’t last long, I think the windowsill environment was too cold for the little seedlings and the next day they were dead.  I’m thinking this indoor agriculture endeavor has a higher learning curve than I previously imagined.  But I still have seeds, and I still have grow-plugs and now I have a new indoor grow-light system to help my next batch of seedlings along.  I don’t want to be deterred, because I think this is one of the coolest ideas to come along in the past decade and I would love to see it catch on.

In the meantime, WindowFarm design has evolved to a new level and has a Kickstarter Campaign for their groovy new high-design models that will make it even easier and more beautiful to install in your apartment.  If you support their cause in the next 4 days, you can have one of your very own!  Click on the image below and they’ll tell you all about it. In the meantime, I am starting my second round of seedlings today.

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