First of all - what is urban farming?
Gone are the days when we needed acres of land in some faraway place to grow fruit and vegetables.
Instead, farming is now possible even in the big cities. Urban farming, also referred to as urban gardening, has many faces. It can be a small vegetable patch in a city garden, a balcony with cherry tomatoes, a window sill with microgreens, or even an indoor lettuce producer working in underground facilities in a city centre.
Indoor urban farming allows for food to be grown on various scales, making the most use of the space available.
There are three leading technologies used in urban farming. They are:
These three technologies allow for soil-less farming, making it easy to produce healthy and delicious foods without using any soil whatsoever.
How is vertical farming designed?
Vertical farming changes how we think about growing plants. Instead of rows of plants spread out on fields, its layers of crops stacked on top of each other, making the sky a limit.
The root concept
Vertical farming is not an entirely new concept. For example, the idea to use height and stack plants, allowing more to grow with less space, can be seen in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Yet, the term was only coined in the early 1900s by Gilbert Ellis Bailey. It then became mainstream thanks to Professor Despommier from Columbia University. He asked his students to figure out how to feed the whole population of Manhattan with only five hectares of rooftop space available.
Even though the students did not achieve this, Despommier saw the potential of growing crops on urban structures and created the first official outline of the first commercial vertical farm in 2001.
Nowadays, vertical farming can be seen in supermarkets and even on popular TV shows, like on the spaceship of 'Away'.
What's the technology behind indoor farming?
One of the beautiful things about indoor farming is that it allows for complete control. Often referred to as CEA (Controlled Environment Agriculture), the technology enables farmers to grow with precise measurements of nutrients and water and avoid unwanted problems such as unpredictable soil, pesticides and herbicides.
There are three techniques popular within urban farming, all of which are used both on a small hobbyist scale or a large industrial scale.
- Hydroponics - this technique allows for soil-less farming. Plants are suspended over nutrient-rich water, allowing the roots to be immersed and absorb however much water they need. Farmers can quickly see which nutrients the plants need and then adjust accordingly.
Aquaponics - similar to hydroponics, with one unique difference. Aquaponic farming uses aquatic animals (with the help of oxygen and bacteria) to fertilise the water where the roots are suspended. The water fish are swimming in is connected through pumps to the rest of the system, ensuring all the nutrients are utilised, and the water gets recycled.
Aeroponics - this technique could be the method of the future. Aeroponics allows plants to grow with their roots suspended in the air. The suspended roots are regularly sprayed with nutrient-rich water, providing them with everything they need but with a minimal amount of water.
How can indoor, vertical urban farming be sustainable?
Vertical farming was built with scarcity in mind. As a result, it usually requires less water than traditional farming methods.
It also requires less space, allowing for industrial-scale food production in highly populated areas. Additionally, because of how highly controlled indoor growing environments are, vertical farming lowers the risk of diseases. This means that far fewer pesticides and herbicides are needed - if any.
This highly controlled environment also decreases the number of crops that could potentially be lost due to unexpected weather changes, preventing food waste. It also reduces the amount of CO2 produced through transportation, as crops are usually grown in urban areas close to distributors and consumers.
Last but not least, vertical farming can produce more food in less space and a shorter time than traditional farming. And it can do it without using additional resources, making it the ultimate sustainable solution.
Can you grow at home?
One of the remarkable things about all these technologies becoming more popular is that there is also equipment available to small-scale growers.
Multiple shops can help you source and set up a starting kit, no matter whether it's aquaponics, aeroponics or hydroponics.
If you're handy and have a knack for making things, you can also build a basic system using items lying around the house, like empty plastic bottles and string. But of course, homemade kits carry a greater risk of failing, as automation is often the key to success in vertical farming.
Saying that, if you've never grown anything before, you might consider building something yourself before spending money on a kit. Just see how you like to grow things like avocados, lettuce or our favourite - microgreens.
Microgreens: powerful mini sprouts
Microgreens are tiny plants that are highly nutritious and extremely easy to grow at home. They grow from various vegetables and herbs' seeds and are small but delicious.
Microgreens grow very fast. It takes about 10 to 15 days for the whole process to be completed and for you to consume the results of your labour, making them the perfect starting point for any novice grower.
Which microgreens can you grow?
Plenty of vegetables and herbs can be grown as microgreens.
The list is very long and includes surprising things like sunflowers and broccoli. But the most popular ones are the greens you know from your salads. These would include kale, arugula, spinach or watercress, basil, parsley or swiss chard.
How good are they for you & the environment?
Microgreens are both delicious and nutritious. They can be eaten raw, and research suggests that they might also be full of antioxidants, and we all know how much our bodies and skin love antioxidants. Some will also contain significant amounts of Vitamin E or Potassium, but different types of microgreens will generally have a slightly different vitamin content.
The most important thing to know is that all microgreens are full of the good stuff, and you don't need to worry about which one you grow, as long as you eat them.
Bonus: Growing microgreens at home is one of the most sustainable hobbies you can have. So enjoy the fruit of your labour guilt-free.
DIY: Growing microgreens at home
You do not need to buy special equipment to start your adventure with microgreens.
All you need are some seeds, a container, medium, water and sunlight.
Prepare your small but not too shallow container. It can be a plastic container you've decided to reuse or a glass or ceramic dish from the kitchen.
Fill the container with a medium, like soil or, even better, organic coconut coir. Add a little moisture and spread the seeds evenly on top of the medium.
Place another light container on top of the medium as this will help promote germination of the seeds. You can keep the light container on for up to 48 hours. You can skip this step if you want - just remember your microgreens might end up a little smaller.
Once your setup is ready, all you need to do is move your dish to a sun-soaked spot and regularly check if the seeds have enough moisture. If the medium seems a bit dry, spray water on it.
If you're lucky, you'll be able to harvest your crops within ten days.
You can also buy special growing dishes that allow for the vertical growth of multiple microgreens at once.
Is there a downside to urban farming?
Like everything in life, urban farming is not perfect.
There are a few things people need to be aware of before throwing themselves at the idea of growing in the city. Although we believe the advantages significantly outweigh the disadvantages, here are some points to keep in mind:
Urban soil might be contaminated and unsuitable for growing food
- You might accidentally attract unwanted animals and pests
- Growing on a rooftop or balcony may cause water damage
- The startup cost of aeroponic, aquaponic and hydroponic equipment is high
- Urban farming, especially indoor farming, can be technical and intimidating at times.
Showcases of the modern way to grow
Urban farming is here to stay, and exciting businesses are springing up around Europe.
Inform sets up herb growing hydroponic systems in supermarkets. The employees regularly check on their herbs, harvesting whatever is ready and making it available for shoppers. Their products can already be found in various countries, including Denmark, Germany, France and the UK.
Another great example is ØsterGRO rooftop farm, an urban gardening experience in a popular neighbourhood in Copenhagen. Various vegetables are grown on a roof, next to a lovely greenhouse where chefs serve communal style dinners made from the produce grown on the roof.
Denmark is also home to Europe's largest vertical farm, Nordic Harvest. The farm manages to have 15 harvest cycles a year, using 100 times less space than conventional farms, making it the farming option we must explore further for the benefit of the generations to come.