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Growing your own food at home when you don’t have a lot of space

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Hydroponics can work at a large or small scale.


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This story is part of Road Trip 2021, CNET’s coverage of the Biden administration’s push to grow American manufacturing and make more things in the USA.

It was just one week before the US descended into COVID-19 lockdown early last year when my plant obsession began. Stuck at home with a recently broken leg and a 4-year-old whose Seattle preschool had closed, I bought a lemon tree that we could tend together — something to keep us occupied and out in the sunshine. By the time we heard of one of the first American COVID-19 deaths, in the hospital where my son was born, our garden grew with a crop of Yukon gold potatoes in a planter box. 

By summer, just before another leg surgery, I’d peppered the yard with tomato plants, knockout roses and a 100-foot lilac hedge. And today after 17 months at home, my garden has grown to include basil, rosemary, chives, lavender, mint, oregano, hens and chicks, blueberry and butterfly bushes, hydrangeas, gardenias and five apple trees. “You have a problem,” my husband Dave muttered the other day as he lugged the garden hose across the yard under the August sun. 

But my problem was born out of necessity. When the pandemic hit, most of us watched as supply chain shortages — including imports that account for 15% of US food consumption — emptied grocery store shelves for the first time. Faced with such unprecedented stress, it’s no surprise that just over one in four Americans began growing food at home, according to a Packaged Facts National Online Consumer survey. These novice gardeners said their worries about the future, including food shortages, hunger and inability to go to the grocery store, were the main reasons for their newfound self-sufficiency. Locally grown meant more than just being within driving distance; it meant being in your backyard.


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“The appeal of being able to grow fresh, year-round, is just too much to resist,” said Kevin Morgan, a retired print industry professional. “My outdoor gardening is raised beds, but I live in Indiana, so we have a limited growing season.”

Practicality aside, food security isn’t the only reason to garden. The long-associated health benefits of plant exposure, or “green therapy,” were the draw for me and many others. One of several Japanese studies found that simply observing your plants reduces mental and physical strain, including stress, fear, anger, sadness, blood pressure, pulse rate and muscle tension.

Like Morgan, I was feeling all the benefits, but I was fresh out of yard space. Still craving comfort, I turned to the latest at-home gardening trend: indoor hydroponics.

What is hydroponics?

Hydroponics is a gardening method that uses nutrient-rich water instead of soil to grow plants. First popularized in the US in the 1920s by University of California professor William Gericke, the centuries-old farming technique requires less space and water than soil-based planting and typically yields larger plants that can grow and fruit for up to nine months. Hydroponics can feel intimidating, but you don’t need to be a scientist working in a lab. In the last few years, US startups have modernized the processes in favor of low-maintenance products that control lighting and feeding, and advise you on how to tend your plants through Wi-Fi-enabled apps. 

There are few types of hydroponic techniques:

  • Nutrient film: Plants grow in an angled tray positioned above a reservoir filled with flowing water. The roots sit submerged in the nutrient-rich solution that aerates the plants as the water flows. 
  • Ebb and flow: Plant roots are periodically flooded with nutrient-rich water, then drained back into a reservoir, conserved, and reused. 
  • Wick system: Plants, usually secured by sand or clay to keep them in place, are fed water and nutrients from a piece of string or “wick” running up from a water reservoir. 
hydroponics techniqueshydroponics techniques

Harvard University

What does the industry look like?

Commercial hydroponic farming is a $32 billion worldwide industry that’s projected to grow at an annual rate of 5.1% through 2025, and home gardening hydroponics companies have reported similar upward arcs. Here are a few of the major players. 

Rise Gardens

  • Headquarters: Chicago 
  • Hydroponics technique: Nutrient film
  • Product prices: $279 to $949

Rise Gardens come in four sizes, from a single-level tabletop garden to a three-level freestanding model. Each system includes a starter kit of company-selected seed pods — 8 to 36, depending on the size you choose — that changes seasonally. The Rise Gardens app alerts you when it’s time to add nutrients and water, adjust the lighting and harvest your food. 

According to founder and CEO Hank Adams, a Rise Garden may be the best choice for you if you plan to grow large-scale fruits and vegetables. “[Vertical towers] cannot support large plants and often don’t have sufficient light for large plants,” Adams told me in an email. “While many claim to grow tomatoes, you’ll note the tomato plants are tiny. It also allows for rooted veggies, vining crops, microgreens and so on, all of which is not possible with other systems set up for consumer use.”

Rise GardensRise Gardens

Rise Gardens

While company sales soared during the pandemic, Adams said that indoor gardening was already a well-established hobby that’s become a necessity for many Rise Gardens customers. “I think [our demand] is driven by two things,” he said in a January interview with TechRepublic. “One is, we’re all stuck inside. We’re all tired of streaming and binge-watching TV or being on our devices. And those of us who are parents, as I am, we’re looking for something to do with our kids that’s not on a screen.” The second trend is the food itself. “I think people who like to cook or like great fresh food for their family have found their way to these products.”

Rise Gardens sells its smallest system through its Amazon storefront, and you can shop all its products directly from the company website

Gardyn

  • Headquarters: Bethesda, Maryland.
  • Hydroponic technique: Ebb and flow
  • Product prices: $799 to $1,485

Gardyn’s vertical hydroponic system takes up 2 square feet of space. The company claims its 30-plant system yields the same amount of produce as a 1,300 square foot outdoor garden. Its wifi app and smart assistant, Kelby, automates water and light levels for optimal growth and promises a harvest that feeds a family of four to six in four to five weeks after seed sprouting. Prices vary depending on whether you decide to add a one or two-year membership subscription on top of the system’s $799 base price. Although the lengthier membership doubles the cost, you get a lot of bang for your buck. 

The Kelby app’s capabilities expand to include plant care guidance like how to thin and where to place sprouts in the system. You also get 10 free yCubes (the Gardyn’s version of…

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