Hello, fellow Windowfarmers!
It’s my inaugural post on these pages, to share the story of my three-month-old farm.
An advance warning: this will almost certainly be a little lengthy… For the visually-inclined, I’ve uploaded some accompanying pictures
Chapter 1: Seedlings
We decided to build a Windowfarm at my workplace last summer, and were one of the first on board when the kits first went on sale. The kit (Classic 4-column and bottles) arrived in August, and I ordered a huge selection of seeds from Burpee to coincide (at the time I didn’t realize the kit itself comes with enough seeds to start the farm).
Growing seedlings… is not the easiest thing in the world. The first time around I set myself up with an ice cube tray, where I put maybe an eighth-inch of hydrogen peroxide and filled the rest with water. I made little labels for each variety of plant I was growing (all leafy things — a few types of lettuce, chard, bok choy, basil, spinach…) and dropped a few seeds for each into the mix.
Unable to find any real instructions for how long to leave the seeds in the mixture, that first time I left them in for almost the entire workday, then inserted them into Flora Plugs
and put the tray in a cupboard (seeds like the dark). A few days later, I started to see some green!
As the sprouts sprouted I moved them to a second ice cube tray on a windowsill, and watered accordingly.
Well… until the weekend.
I somehow naïvely had it in my mind that these little seedlings were a little more resilient than was actually the case, and didn’t stop by the office to tend to them on Saturday. When I finally dragged myself in on Sunday afternoon it became apparent that the window I’d chosen absolutely baked in the early afternoon, and the entire tray was bone-dry and quite dead.
So, a bit of a failure there.
By the time I managed to try again, it was early January. This time I decided to grow the seeds at home to make it a little easier to be at their beck and call, and this was when I hit my stride.
Two main changes here: leaving the seeds in the hydrogen peroxide mixture all day seemed a little excessive (these things grow all on their own in nature, right?), so this time I stuck with about a half an hour — and found no difference at all in sprout rate (both times I planted 16 plants and got 15 sprouts). I also bought a daylight-colored compact fluourescent lamp and reassigned my desk lamp to grow-light duty.
Keeping the seedlings under close light for roughly 18 hours each day, after about four weeks I had some short, bushy little plants that were ready for their next phase of life.
Chapter II: Farm Building
This was… an adventure.
The kit makes the assembly of the farm fairly straightforward and easy, so I’m only going to touch on the points where I struggled or had to improvise.
First of all, mounting. This is about the only area where the kit leaves you hanging (no pun intended!), as there are about a million different variations of how best to do it, depending largely on what you’re drilling into.
Instead of putting the hooks directly into the ceiling of the windowsill (crumbly sheetrock, in my case), I ended up buying a piece of 1×4 wood the length of the window and mounting that with screws (and wall anchors) and L-brackets on either end. (I do not want this thing to fall. Ever.) This method allowed some flexibility (and room for error) in the placement of the hooks, which can be screwed directly into the wood.
I highly, highly recommend taking on this phase of the project with a second set of hands, and ideally one of you will be somewhat familiar with the basic construction-ish type skills that such an endeavor requires. I managed to get through it on my own (with a couple of consulting calls to a friend with more experience hanging stuff than me), but it probably took two hours longer than was actually necessary, and I was a cursing, sweating mess by the end of it.
Chapter III: Time to Turn it On
So. The thing is built and mounted. Transplanting the seedlings is pretty dang simple (especially if you’ve used the Flora pods and don’t have to worry about washing soil off), and they’re now nestled their net cups and bottles. Things are looking good.
I go to add water to the reservoir bottles, and every single one of them starts to leak. Profusely.
Bummer. Major bummer. Taking apart the needle mechanism and tightening every piece helped, but didn’t completely stop the leak. I went out and bought some supplemental sealing washers (probably not the technical term…) to seal it better, which helped a little bit more but still fell short of a complete fix. Finally I ended up using silicon sealant and applying it to the outside of the mechanism (it probably would be more effective inside the bottle cap, but I didn’t really want it leeching into the water supply), and after letting it dry overnight the leaks finally stopped. Were I to do this all over from scratch, I would probably spend a bit of time tweaking that part of the design.
I then ran into trouble getting the water in each column to make it all the way to the top, even after playing around with pump pressure. More specifically, three of the four columns needed a bit of romancing to actually start working. For two of them, just messing around with the alignment of the tubes ended up working — once they were a little straighter or adjusted just… so… they were fine and allowed the water go all the way up.
For the third nitpicky column, I ended up finding that the tubes can have two different ends: either it closes off a little from the full diameter (I imagine these ends were melted slightly by the manufacturer to get a clean, easy cut), or they are completely open, exactly the width of the tube diameter. For my last column, this slight narrowing of the path was enough that none of the water was making it through the top of the tube, where pressure is lowest. By flipping it around so the tube was open on top, I was able to fix the problem and get the water flowing.
Chapter IV: Thoughts of a “Seasoned” Farmer
First of all, this is not exactly a “green” endeavor. CFLs have turned out to make the difference between a lackluster, limp, disapointing farm and one with vibrant, viable plants. I have two columns of two lights and really could use a third set for the bottom row of plants, and all of these are on for 18 hours a day. It uses a fair amount of energy. Whether it’s really offset by the leafy greens you’re bringing into the world and the more sustainable life you’re now living… well, who knows. Personally I think the novelty factor tips the scale in favor of the farm, but the hardcore environmentalist might not agree.
Speaking of lights, once I decided to add them to the farm, I went the pin-socket route. These things are great and cheap, but I had to manually scrape away the rubber insulation with an x-acto knife to expose the wire where the pins were going to hit — the pins are supposed to poke through on their own, but in my case they didn’t. Just something to keep in mind if they don’t immediately work.
Be very, very careful that the bottle caps don’t clog with algae or other gunk. This became an issue about two months after launching, and resulted in a backup of water in the base of some of the higher bottles, which led to overflowing when we topped off the reservoirs (it took about a week to figure out what was going on) and the dehydration of some of the lower plants. It was a huge pain to take care of. Next time I take the thing apart I’ll probably cut the openings so they’re a little bit bigger and less likely to clog.
I have had particularly excellent success with bok choy, basil, and chard. Romaine lettuce also grows well, and I believe my buttercrunch and simpson lettuce would have been good growers had they not fallen victim to a system malfunction that ended in a bit of a tragedy for one full column. I had terrible luck with rosemary and avon spinach, and after an initial growth spurt, my pea plant seems to have lost the will to live. I have younger cucumber, sage, tomato, and kale plants that are all looking very good, but aren’t yet harvestable, so their jury is technically still out.
Several of my plants were sowed in soil then transplanted into the hydroton pellets, and this transition actually went much better than expected — perhaps even smoother than the plants started in flora pods.
Some of the modifications shared on this community look like they offer great improvements in terms of aesthetics or functionality; the kit leads to a functional farm, but it looks a little science-fair-esque. Fixed mounting and tubes and nicer bottles might allow for a more professional-looking and slightly easier-to-manage system, and I would recommend considering them if you’re starting from scratch.
And if I were to start from scratch, I would do just that — I wouldn’t go with a kit. I appreciated having it as a guide for my first build, but I think I’d be too inclined to tweak the second time around to find it useful.
As one final thought, this thing is a lot of work. It requires active involvement and observation and maintenance. Troubleshooting takes quite a bit of brainpower and know-how, and I’m still very much working toward a stable system full of thriving plants. Generally speaking, it’s not something you can just check in on once or twice a week.
That said, I love the Farm. It looks awesome, there is a crazy sense of achievement at growing plants from seed to the point where they’re edible (especially here in NYC), and visitors love it. I’ve learned a lot, and there’s of course the certain sense of pride when someone sees it for the first time and goes, “Holy cow, what is that?!” If you can devote the time, energy, and resources, I highly recommend taking one on for yourself.