In the modern garden, nature and technology are working together to raise healthy food. From a hydroponic window garden in Brooklyn to a fish-fed farm in Florida, we indie farmers rely on new technologies to help mother nature raise our crops. How can you, fellow gardener, use technology to change the way you farm and dynamically raise how much you produce? Join us to explore the intersection of technology and nature in this modern, geeky garden.
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Why Garden with Technology?
In many parts of the world, gardening is as easy as tossing a seed in the soil and watching it grow by the nurture of nature. For many of those fair-weather gardeners, using technology is more about fun than function. For others, technology is a necessity for gardening and farming, thanks to limitations in space, climate and resources.
In the concrete jungle of New York, space is at an ultimate premium. Having a soil garden on the ground level is out-of-the-question for most New Yorkers. People living in cities like New York are faced with a limitation of space that forces them to get creative, to involve technology in their garden to produce a valuable yield.
People in NYC and rural New York both face another problem regardless of available space. The climate allows for once-a-year growing seasons, usually lasting between March and October. That leaves five months out of the year that are too cold to Garden, so there’s only a thin slice of time where gardeners can pluck vegetables from their plots. To grow year-round, gardeners must rely on technology to sew, grow and harvest fruits and vegetables.
Last, people in some parts of the world don’t have the resources necessary to grow food. In arid deserts with sandy soils, a lack of water and nutrients will prevent gardeners from raising crops. In places like Australia, the droughts of the aughts challenged farmers and gardeners to use new technologies to raise crops that flourished with a bit of ingenuity.
Soil Gardening the Smart Way
If the soil is rich and plentiful in your area, you can improve your growing yield and limit your resource use with smart technologies. One common way is to use drip irrigation to feed your garden the water it needs. Instead of spraying with a hose or watering with a can, gardeners can use precise, direct-to-root watering systems that are inexpensive, easy-to-install and use less water than conventional methods. Drip irrigation systems are sold in most hardware stores and can be purchased in packages or built using individual pieces to spec. Gardeners can run thin, 1/4-inch hoses along their garden directly above the central root systems of their plants. Different sprayers can be attached that drop drips of water into the roots or spray the vegetation above. Generally, these systems can cost a dollar or two per square foot and can be managed by advanced computer systems that monitor the climate and decide when your plants need watering.
If you still prefer to water the old-fashioned way, there are systems available that can tell you when your plants are thirsty. Systems like the WaterStik can be inserted into the soil near your plants and will tell you when to water your plants or when they’ve been fed too much water. Then there’s the really advanced (and really pretty) option called EasyBloom, a stick-style plant monitor that can integrate with your computer for precision monitoring of sun, soil moisture, soil fertility and temperature. It can tell you what plants to sew where, how to raise them and how to solve common problems in the modern garden. Garden geeks don’t need to fear sticker shock, either– EasyBloom sells for $19.95 on Amazon.com.
Easy Hydroponics at Home
Hydroponics is a garden frontier that usually scares off most gardeners for a few reasons. First, it seems incredibly complex, when in reality it is quite simple and can be done inexpensively. Second, it’s largely associated with the production of cannabis, when in reality it is used by people throughout the world for genuine food production. It is a truly amazing way to garden, and has a lot of benefits over soil farming.
What is hydroponics? Hydroponics is the raising of plants in nutrient-rich water without the use of soil. Plants sit in a loose, gravel-like medium while water is moved or oxygenated around the roots using a variety of methods. Hydroponics is actually quite common, with popular gardening kits available for raising plants indoors. The AeroGarden is a common example, as seen on TV, online and on the kitchen counters of gardeners across the United States. This system feeds plant roots with a spray of nutrient-rich liquids while an attached light raises the plants above. They can be used to grow flowers, herbs and vegetables in a small space indoors without the need for sunlight.
Hydroponics can also be used in an industrial scale, or by using do-it-yourself systems that can be built at home on the cheap. A common method of hydroponics, called “deep water culture”, can be built with a basic $3 bucket from a hardware store and a cheap aquarium air pump and air stone from a pet store. The air pump and air stone oxygenate the nutrient-rich water while a plant sits in a net atop the bucket. As the plant grows, the roots grow into the nutrient solution and the plant grows above accordingly.
Hydroponics is an incredibly effective way to grow vegetables. Hydroponics requires 1/10th of the water as traditional soil growing, plants grow 50% faster and larger on average, and systems can be stacked vertically to make the best use of the available space. The down side to hydroponics is that the initial investment is higher than soil growing, that chemicals are required to enrich the water with nutrients, and that the used water must be discarded after a plant has used it.
Advanced Aquaponics at Home
Aquaponics is a young science that is revolutionizing the way gardeners and farmers raise crops. Aquaponics fuses hydroponics, the soil-free raising of plants, with aquaculture, the farming of fish in a closed loop system. In these systems, the fish waste feeds the plants, and the plants filter the water for the fish. Unlike hydroponics, this is a truly organic system where spent water does not need to be discarded. Unlike aquaculture, the water is naturally cleansed by plants and doesn’t take a toll on the environment. It is a truly amazing system that was born in the Virgin Islands in the 1980s and revolutionized by farmers in Australia during the droughts of the last decade. A farmer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for example, uses aquaponics to raise over a million pounds of food, 12 months a year, in just three acres of land within the city limits.
The difficulty with aquaponics is that it requires knowledge, strict discipline and systems that can be costly to build. Some have been successful with an indoor system at home, lit by a window and a grow light, using a standard aquarium and a small hydroponic grow bed. Others have built industrial-sized technological marvels with massive tanks of Tilapia and rows upon rows of lettuces, herbs and other vegetables. Whether you start by building a DIY aquaponics system, or invest a thousand or two into an out-of-the-box kit with instructional materials, it can be a life-long hobby and an exploration into the future of food production in the world.
Light and Energy for your Garden
If you’re in a dark part of the world or at least a dark corner of your apartment building, you’ll need to add light if you want to garden from home. Doing so can be done on the cheap with work lights from your local hardware store, or with precision systems using hot bulbs or color-temperature-specific systems. The next question is how you’ll be powering those lights– and whether or not you have a plug available or access to the electrical grid. You can always replace or supplement your electrical needs with solar panels or other renewable energy systems.
First, the question of light is important. If your window has 8 or more hours of direct light per day, that will be sufficient to raise an indoor garden. If you’re using soil in containers or hydroponics, you can place your garden near the window and take advantage of the natural light. If you need to supplement light or fully provide a light of your own, you can buy cheap work light holders for about $10 that will hold 8-foot fluorescent lights. Depending on what plants you are growing, you may need to find out what the best “color temperature” is for those plants. You can buy inexpensive packs of light bulbs from a hardware store that will grow each plant properly. Don’t worry about picking the wrong bulb for your plants, but consider that there might be an ideal light out there for your specific garden.
If your garden requires an indoor light and a pump for the hydroponic system, you’re going to need a power source. If a wall plug or access to the power grid is not available, you’ll need to find a way of providing your own power. You can go solar, if you wish, but understand that the investment can be high. For less than four figures, you can purchase a set of solar panels and an inverter battery kit that will maintain power when the sun is down to provide a constant charge. This can be enough to power a pump and a light or two without taking a toll on your electric bill. It may be out of reach for most casual gardeners, but the die-hards and the purists will want to consider moving toward a fully renewable gardening system.
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How geeky is your garden? We’d love to see yours and hear your story. If you’re a soil-and-sun purist or a hardcore aquaponics advocate, show us your garden in the comments below. We’re as addicted as you are, and we’re always looking to learn from those who stop by and visit. If you’re new to geeky gardening and have any questions, try us. We’re pretty well steeped in this stuff, having built large organic soil gardens and complex aquaponics systems alike. We could talk about this stuff all day!
Thanks for visiting, and be sure to share this with your garden-addicted friends and family!