“We must cultivate our own garden”– Candide by Voltaire (1759)
Where does your food come from? Try to avoid thinking about grocery stores or supply chains or even a local farmer’s market. Instead try to picture what the vegetables in your refrigerator’s crisper looked like as they grew out of, in, or above the ground. Do you know what those vegetables look like as they develop? Do you know how long they take before they’re ready for harvest?
I’m assuming many of you are less comprehensively aware than you might like. Sure potatoes grow in the ground, but how many does one plant produce? How long do they take to grow? What does the part that comes out of the ground actually look like? Knowing these details has no effect on the nutritional value of what you eat, it doesn’t really make it taste much better, and it’s Google-able in 5 seconds anyway. Frankly, the main benefit is perhaps just a stronger respect for what you eat and in how you prepare it, yet it’s something I personally feel is important for myself to have a better understanding of.
I’ll be honest, the reason I got interested in growing something edible came from a video game called Stardew Valley. For those unaware, Stardew Valley is a country life simulator. It’s far more than just a farming game, but the high level premise is a city dweller heading to the countryside to start a new life living (in most part) off the land. There are many similar games, but it’s a great example of the genre and is quite a relaxing and rewarding game. As alluded to, Stardew Valley gave me a pixelated and digital glimpse into how things grow, and made me think about what I could physically grow.
I’m going to give you an overview of how I got started with micro scale indoor gardening next, but first let’s step back to the quote from the beginning of this post. For those of you looking for a short (<200 pages), meaningful, and surprisingly timely read, I’d like to suggest Candide by Voltaire. It’s certainly more tangentially related to literally growing your own garden, but it is an excellent treatise on the contrasts of optimism vs. reality, philosophical thought vs. action, and the quest for personal fulfillment. A discussion of how and why it’s themes are particularly relevant in the current global context deserves far more effort, but for now I want to recommend it as short read that can be mulled over for quite some time. (Free on Kindle here as well)
Starting a micro scale indoor garden
Alright, let’s talk about this indoor micro garden. I’m going to discuss some of items I used, some of my learnings, and other tidbits. I am nowhere near an expert, but hopefully I can walk through my personal progression from curiosity and interest, to homemade pesto and kale salads.
Here is my indoor garden pictured about a month in. What’s in this picture? Well, the star of the show is a combination of a hydroponic tank and a grow light. It’s called an Aerogarden Harvest, and contains slots for 6 plants. You’ll also see a few foil wrapped mason jars and yogurt cups as well. These are called Kratky jars, and they are taking advantage of the grow light from the Aerogarden. And of course the plants themselves: Genovese basil, Thai basil, Tuscan kale, Thai chili, bok choy, dill, mint, parsley, and thyme.
A common way to grow plants at household scale is to fill a small pot with soil, plant ana already developed plant or a seed if you feel brave, then place in front of a window and water occasionally. However, hydroponics is an alternate approach that involves growing without soil, just water reinforced with specific nutrient blends (and often aerated as well). There are a variety of benefits, especially for indoor gardens. The Aerogarden mentioned above is an all in one hydroponic system, you add pre seeded pods, water, nutrients, perform basic maintenance, and a month or two later, you are rewarded with harvestable herbs and/or vegetables. The Kratky jar method is another hydroponic technique that uses little technology, and is easy to start from common household recyclables. The rough idea of the Kratky method is that roots grow into the nutrient water, and as they absorb water, the water level lowers and allows the exposed portion of roots to absorb oxygen (otherwise the water must be aerated, like an aquarium). My jars are made from leftover pasta sauce jars wrapped in aluminum foil (important to block light and prevent algae growth) and partially filled with nutrient water, and yogurt cups with many holes cut out of the sides and bottom (to look like this), then filled with a Jiffy pellet (small pod of peat soil for starting seeds), and surrounded + slightly covered with a expanded clay pebble growing medium (absorbs and slowly releases water and provides structure as roots grow out). There are a variety of different hydroponic and related techniques, but these two are probably the easiest, and require little time and effort to get going.
Progress and takeaways
I took fewer pictures than I would have liked, but around the time the above image was taken was when I started to harvest portions of my garden to eat. With herbs this is easy as you can take a small portion of the plant and it will continue to grow happily (in fact it is recommended to harvest more frequently than you might expect!). I started adding mint to my water (and on top of desserts), made a pesto sauce with the Genovese and Thai basil, and yogurt dill sauces for dipping, gyros, etc. The Kratky jars were a bit more tricky, but I was able to harvest enough kale for a small salad (it’s still growing awaiting another harvest), and have my fingers crossed on my Thai chili plant producing a few peppers soon. Unfortunately my bok choy did not survive to harvest time – will be trying again!
One strange takeaway for me personally was the bond that developed with these plants as I watched them grow from seeds. Humans seem to love personifying things, and in my case looking and tending my plants became a short daily ritual which made cooking with them surprisingly sentimental.
There is a large amount of information out there, and hydroponics/indoor gardening can get as complex as you like. Personally I found that for my small scale purposes, details like nutrients, water PH, and other specifics were less important. As I try new approaches and scale out a bit more, these details become more important for consistent and optimized growth, but don’t let the unknown scare you from getting started. Everything I have done so far has been done with what what came with the Aerogarden, tap water, hardware store water soluble nutrients and occasional pruning.
I’ve now fully harvested the thyme, dill, and mint. The basils and parsley were doing so well that they have been repotted (into soil!) and are now happy in front of a window where I harvest from them as needed. The Aerogarden is now home to some cherry tomato seedlings, and i’ll be trying a few different Kratky jar lettuces and chilis. I’ve also started growing an avocado seed that has now fully sprouted and is beginning to form leaves. Overall this indoor micro garden is still only a <5 minute time and energy daily commitment from me, but the rewards so far have been far in excess of what I have put in.
What I used and other useful links
- My indoor garden:
- Aerogarden (All-in-one hydroponic system)
- Kratky jars
- Glass mason jars (recycled – like these)
- Yogurt cups (recycled – holes cut through out top and bottom, see here)
- Aluminum foil (Or anything that wraps around the jars to prevent light)
- Expanded clay pebbles (Provides drainage and structure for roots)
- Jiffy pellets (Where you plant your seeds)
- Seeds (Only some of these can be grown successfully hydroponically)
- The Kratky method works best with leafy greens (lettuces, spinaches, herbs) or larger plants like tomatoes/peppers, but you will need a larger container.
- Nutrients (This can get complicated fast, but this is what was available at a hardware store and seemed to work as a staring point)
- How to make a Kratky jar walkthrough video – there are many others, better to watch a few before starting