Growing at home: Part 1 Methods & Environment
Dish is Square Mile Farms’ Head Farmer. He’s spent the last year experimenting with growing 40+ types of vegetables, herbs and microgreens at our Paddington rooftop farm and in our office farm installations. Using his knowledge of building and maintaining indoor hydroponic systems he is on a mission to help London workers reconnect with their food by helping them grow it themselves!
Over the coming weeks and months Dish is going to share his experiences of moving our urban farm to his home (check out our kale seedlings in the image above) and provide tips and guidance on how you can also grow at home to help you learn, clear your mind, and grow your own fresh produce.
In this article Dish will outline popular methods for growing at home and how you can optimise your growing environment.
If you’d like to grow at home, but you’re not sure where to start, we’re here to help! I'm going to explain traditional methods and modern systems for growing all sorts of greens (salad leaves, vegetables and herbs) at home. We’ll also look at how to create a suitable environment for our plants within our homes, from light levels to temperature and airflow. Surveying your environment before you start will give you a better understanding of what you will be able to grow.
How can we grow from our homes?
There are lots of methods for growing food from home, the right one for you depends on the space you have and how much time (probably quite a bit at the moment) and money you want to invest into the project.
The simplest solution to home growing is using containers filled with compost, which can be placed indoors or outdoors. They can be anything from a plant pot to a wooden barrel or an up-cycled water bottle, you are limited only by your imagination. The main thing to remember is that the soil needs to drain well so the roots are not waterlogged, so first ensure there are drainage holes in the bottom of your container. And if your plant is indoors, position the pot in a tray, or something similar to avoid the water draining onto the floor!
You can also improve drainage by placing a layer of gravel at the bottom before adding soil, or mixing perlite (a porous volcanic rock) with the soil to ensure there is air pore space in the soil so it freely drains (experiment with using 10-50% perlite in the mix).
If you have garden space available for growing, raised beds are one of the best ways to grow large amounts of produce. The higher soil temperature of raised beds increases the growing season by a couple of weeks! They also offer good drainage because soil compaction is not an issue. Depending on how high you build your raised bed, it can also require less bending over, making tasks such as weeding and tending to plants much easier.
Hydroponic Systems Although equipment for soil-based gardening is the easiest to find in shops, hydroponic systems are now widely available and all of them can be made from everyday items.
Wick Systems are the simplest of all hydroponic systems. They use cotton or nylon wicks to pull water into the growing medium by capillary action. This passive system requires no moving parts however is not recommended for thirsty plants. Plants that require less water such as rosemary are great for wick systems.
Deep Water Culture (DWC) systems are very simple to make and operate. The seedlings sit directly into a nutrient solution. Plant roots have a high demand for oxygen and since there is no circulating water, an airstone is used to aerate the nutrient solution (similar to a fish tank). This system is great for growing Lettuce, Kale, Chard and Basil.
Flood and Drain systems are those in which trays are periodically flooded with water and then drained back into the reservoir. These systems are extremely versatile, we use them to grow seedlings and microgreens at our farm. You can also use them to grow baby leaf plants.
Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) is a technique wherein a very shallow stream of nutrient solution is re-circulated past the bare roots of plants in a gully. NFT systems can grow most mature herbs and vegetables.
Vertical systems are a great option for saving space, they can be placed against or mounted directly onto walls. A lot of vertical systems are grown with the same principles as NFT but on the vertical plane. They are easy to harvest and clean since most plants are in your eye line.
Our vertical, hydroponic farm based on a Paddington rooftop.
In future blogs I will explain how to build some of these systems with commonly found equipment.
Considering your home environment and optimising conditions for growing
The first major factor that comes to mind when deciding where to grow your vegetables and herbs is light. We will be focusing mostly on growing indoors, however these principles can apply to growing outdoors too.
Ideally we can use natural light. The best indoor places for this are conservatories, balconies and larger windows. The direction you are facing also has an impact on light and warmth, as well as the time of day your plants will receive this light:
North facing: no direct sunlight, so typically cooler.
East facing: bright first thing in the morning followed by no sun later in the day.
South facing: warm light all day, although it changes throughout the day and year.
West facing: sunlight at the hottest part of the day. In the late afternoon you’ll get softer light.
If you find that you have a North facing window or no suitable window at all, you can supplement the growing process with LED lights. They are very easy to fit, energy efficient and widely available. A clip-on lamp holder with an LED bulb can be used to light up small containers. Larger containers and hydroponic systems require more light so LED strip lights are more suitable here as they give a better spread of light. Lights can be set to turn on and off automatically with plug-in timers or Smart Plugs, which can be controlled remotely on your phone.
Temperature and humidity are the next factors to consider. A temperature & humidity meter can be used to observe changes in indoor climate. Most plants flourish with a daytime temperature between 18℃-24℃ and a night time temperature between 13℃-21℃. Our homes should be in these ranges for most of the year, supplementing this with central heating may be required in some cases. Avoid putting your plants in a cold room as it will impair their growth rate and some plants won’t grow at all.
The ideal humidity for most plants will be 50-60%, however many will flourish in humidities up to 70% (although this increases the risk for moulds like powdery mildew). The humidity in our homes is roughly 50-55% during the summer and 45% in the winter. An easy way to increase humidity in your home is to have more plants, as they create a humid microclimate in your room! You may find that using a humidifier is necessary in the winter.
Airflow is also a major consideration for many reasons. Small steady gusts of airflow build structural strength in the stems of plants making them more robust as they grow. It also moves stagnant, oxygen rich air away from the leaves of the plants, replacing it with air with a greater concentration of CO2 (our homes have a much higher CO2 concentration than outside thanks to us breathing!). As importantly, airflow helps to reduce the prevalence of pests and moulds, which thrive in still air as they’re able to settle on plants. A simple tabletop or clip-on fan can be used to supplement airflow.
Here are some useful bits of equipment to get you started:
Once you’ve found a good spot in your home or garden for planting, you then need to build your system. We’ll help you with that in future blog posts. In the meantime, if you have any questions, or need some help, please message us on social media, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter here where we share tips on how to grow and how to prepare fresh produce on a weekly basis.
Finally, for some inspiration, our CEO found this warm and sunny south facing spot under his bedroom window to grow kale seedlings before transplanting them. He used some old plant pots which he found in the garden and a kitchen tray to catch any excess water. Now let’s see your home-growing setup!