Volume 20, Number 42 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | October 13 - 19, 20100
Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds
Founder of the Windowfarms Project Britta Riley demonstrates one of her vertical hydroponics gardens.
Farming at home, in windows and water bottles
BY Aline Reynolds
On the corner of William and Ann Streets lies a barely noticeable ground floor space. At an eye’s glance from the sidewalk, it is dimly lit and looks vacant. A large white sign on the outside window says “For Rent.”
But inside, Britta Riley and her fellow environmentalists are busy testing windowfarms, a method of vegetable gardening you can take up in your very own living room or kitchen.
“The idea was to hack away at this problem of getting fresh food to people who live in cities,” said Riley, founder of the Windowfarms Project, which she began experimenting with in 2008.
“They’re vertical hydroponics gardens – it’s a totally different way of growing [than] growing in dirt,” she explained.
Each “column” is made of a string of water bottles, makeshift pots the plants grow in. Small clay pellets stored in the bottles hold the plants’ roots in place as they absorb a liquid solution. The bottles are connected via tubes to an air pump, which circulates nutrients and water through the containers.
“It’s almost like you’ve made a tea out of really good dirt, which you’re running in a bath over the plants’ roots at timed intervals,” Riley said.
The columns of plants must be hung directly above a windowsill.
“Plants ideally get eight hours minimum of natural light per day,” Riley said.
South-facing windows, she added, have the optimal exposure to sunlight.
Since cloudy skies or shadows hamper natural light, even in the sills facing southward, windowfarmers are advised to attach bulb lights with timers to the columns.
“If you have the lights turned on for a few hours during the middle of the day, they can actually replicate [sun] light,” Riley explained.
They should receive no more than 12 hours of light per day, though.
Riley recommends that windowfarmers start off with simple plants, such as lettuce and herbs, and eventually graduate to more high-maintenance vegetables like peppers, squash and cherry tomatoes.
She holds windowfarming workshops on Wednesday afternoons and evenings. Last Wednesday night, Riley coached Financial District resident Megan Soffe on step one: how to plant seeds.
Within about 15 minutes, Riley and Soffe dipped the seeds into a solution containing hydrogen peroxide, and then nested them into sponge-like plugs made out of composted tree bark. They placed the plugs in egg cartons.
“The plant will germinate inside of that,” Riley said to her student.
Soffe is supposed to set them in her sunlit windowsill for two to three weeks, after which she’ll set up the window garden and insert the plugs into the water bottles.
“I’m excited to get it started,” Soffe said after the tutorial session. She works from home on Nassau Street, around the corner from the studio, and is taking up windowfarming both as a hobby and as a means of nutrition.
Riley’s professional website, windowfarms.org, now hosts a forum for 17,000 windowfarmers who dialogue about their projects and troubleshoot problems that arise during the farming periods.
“The idea is to try to make it be as much online [based] as possible without the need for in-person meetings” or expert-led tutorials, Riley said.
Windowfarms are particularly popular in the fall and winter months, when local farming diminishes and most produce sold in area markets are from faraway places like the West Coast or Central America.
FreshDirect deliveries are less expensive than growing in a windowfarm, but the vegetables and fruits are less nutritious.
“By the time you start eating the plant, it’s pretty much dead, and its nutrients are depleted,” Riley explained, since the food has typically been refrigerated for three days before it reaches your front door. The vegetables and fruits you grow in your own home are also crunchier and more flavorful.”
As for time commitment, setting up a windowfarm can take a full weekend, Riley said, but maintenance typically only takes between 15 and 30 minutes per week thereafter.
For some, she said, windowfarming is a fun pastime. For others, it’s all about eating nutritious homegrown food.
“You’re kind of more conscious in general about eating, because [the food] is like your baby,” Riley said.
Riley partakes in Swing Space, a residency program run by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, in which visual and performing artists and environmental groups are provided temporary work spaces. Launched in 2005, Swing Space has since provided over 1,000 individuals with Downtown studios.
“[The program] is designed to address short-term space needs for a wide range of projects, and to encourage creative, experimental and collaborative approaches to artistic practice in unconventional spaces,” according to the L.M.C.C.’s website.
Riley’s space at 156 William Street was formerly occupied by Drake Business Schools, which folded in 2005. Capstone Equities real estate firm, the current proprietor, has temporarily donated the storefront to the L.M.C.C. while it searches for a retail tenant.
“We have a month-to-month agreement with our space donor,” explained Sean Carroll, program manager of artist residencies at the L.M.C.C.
Riley said that, barring the space being rented out in the next month, her environmental team could stay there until at least mid-November, according to an agreement with the L.M.C.C.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to be there longer,” she said.