Once you have got the indoor-growing bug, there is almost no limitation as to where you can actually set up your indoor garden, and if you do it in the right place, the endeavour can even be quite profitable too. Just ask the founders of Growing Underground, who have recently set up an indoor farm over 30m below the streets of London in a disused World War II air-raid shelter of all places. Crucial to its success is its proximity to lots of food markets and eateries allowing them to carve out a niche in London’s fresh produce market by producing ultra-fresh produce that tastes better and is more nutritious since only having been harvested just a few hours earlier. Growing Underground is the creation of Richard Ballard and Steven Dring, two entrepreneurs that spotted a gap in the London fresh produce market but they also have some pretty impressive directors on their board including Chris Nelson, a consultant well-known in the horticultural arena, and Michel Roux Jr., the chef patron of the Michelin-starred Mayfair restaurant, Le Gavroche. The growing tunnels themselves are located underneath London Underground’s Northern Line where the farm remains isolated from changes in seasonal variations in surface climate allowing produce to be grown year-round. In addition, the underground location is not accessible to typical farming pests and diseases so pesticides are unnecessary making the produce even more desirable. Unsurprisingly, the founders have opted for using hydroponics to make the system as efficient as possible and to dramatically reduce their water requirements, and LED lighting is used to optimise growing conditions while keeping energy costs down. So far, Growing Underground has been successful in marketing Watercress, Thai Basil, Red Vein Sorrel, Pea Shoots, Mustard, Red Amaranth, Garlic Chive, Coriander, Mizuna, Rocket, and Radish, and the company is doing so well that it just recently secured further funding to expand into yet more underground tunnels.
A recent report from NASA has seen the International Space Station (ISS) occupants eating some ‘home-grown’ red Romaine lettuce which has been cultivated as part of an experiment aboard the space station. Unsurprisingly, they are growing under a mix of red and blue LED grow lamps, but interestingly, they have also included some green LED lights in there too! The green LEDs however are there apparently for aesthetic reasons – to make the ‘indoor garden’ seem more natural to the astronauts. One has to wonder though, whether the green light might be actually detrimental to the growth as has been documented in some studies, and which might be an important factor when you are trying to optimise limited resources as any indoor gardener knows. Fortunately, this is just the beginning of a whole programme of experiments of in-station growing, which will see NASA engineers working on ways to boost the growth yield, and which might provide valuable information to us back on earth trying to grow indoor gardens. Another interesting feature is their use of a form of hydroponics that includes a synthetic growth media once again demonstrating, what we’ve known all along, that LED Grow Lights and Hydroponics are the way forward. The primary objective of the ISS experiment is to test systems that could eventually enable astronauts to cultivate vegetable gardens aboard spaceships and other extra-terrestrial structures especially since future space expeditions will be long-term affairs requiring the need for space travellers to grow their own food. In addition, fresh foods are needed for health and nutrition since many vitamins, minerals and importantly, anti-oxidants start to degrade once fresh produce has been picked limiting the time for which it can be stored.
Yet another company to enter the domain of indoor vertical farming but with a twist is the appropriately named Freight Farms. They have opted for a more portable version of the indoor farm by housing it within the common shipping container. The containers use hydroponic technology, and as we know, this can bring about savings in water and plant feed when compared to traditional growing systems. The containers also employ LED lighting for maximum efficiency. The indoor farm environments are all controlled electronically through an app (isn’t everything these days !?) maintaining container temperature and air quality at ideal levels for growth. The Freight Farms’s containers are divided into two main sections for different phases of plant development, including a seed-starting and early growth section as well as the main growth area for mature plants which are grown in vertical columns to maximise container space. Unfortunately, the container farms are too expensive for the amateur gardener at just over $70,000 a piece but they may be appropriate for someone looking to get into the business of small-scale local farming. More recently, an established traditional Greenhouse supplier, Williamson Greenhouses, has just announced its own version of the shipping container farm, the CropBox. The Cropbox has less capacity than the container farms of Freight Farms but they are more affordable and can even be leased on a monthly basis.
Philips, the big electronics manufacturer, has just opened a research centre in the Netherlands that will study the optimal LED lighting requirements for different food crops, in particular, ‘leafy vegetables, strawberries and herbs’ as well as ‘wheat and potatoes’. It is pretty clear that different plant types have different lighting requirements for optimal growth. Even in our own (amateur) grow diaries, we noticed that different plant species grew with differing degrees of vigour (or not) under identical LED lighting conditions and it was clear that there is much more to growing under LED lighting than just simply sticking a plant under an LED light. Interestingly, they say that their lights will contain ‘blue, red and far red’ which is not unlike many of the more amateur (and cheaper) LED lights available (although the video clearly shows white LEDs as well!?). One can only hope that their ‘light recipes’ will be freely available as a public resource as more and more of us switch to growing plants under LED lighting.
For more information, see their press release.