A new wave of growing technology means year-round veggie production is a reality. Which solution is right for you?

Rise Gardens Lead
Courtesy of Rise Gardens

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Most gardeners cede the colder seasons to the whims of winter. Coaxing hearty crops out of the cold earth can prove complicated, and low-yield. Fortunately, there are more companies than ever making products that can keep you in homegrown fresh vegetables year-round. This year I decided to try my hand at small-scale gardening on my balcony with a Farmstand system from Lettuce Grow, which launched in late 2019 and counts Zooey Deschanel among its founders. The company offers a compelling promise: They ship you the starters, and within weeks you’ll have a veritable bounty of herbs and veggies to enjoy. I’ll have to admit I was skeptical when the undulating plastic base and skull-like extensions showed up. Each level includes six circular holes, into which you’ll place your seedlings. But naked of plants, and stacked atop the rounded pyramidal base, the construction resembles a pile of Jack Skellington heads, or some kind of ancient graveyard marker. 

There’s a reason they look this way, however. Each aperture is spaced equally to provide access to available light. They bell out in the middle to allow the roots room to spread—and the water to briefly pool around them. Inside the setup, a water pump sits attached to a long PVC pipe. That pump circulates liquid (along with nutrients) to the top of the structure, where it then washes down over the roots, level by level. A timer attached to the outlet facilitates this cycling. This doesn’t just make it easier to grow vegetables. By recycling water, the company claims you’re using 95 percent less of it overall, compared with ground crops. Across the near-500,000 fruits and veggies they’ve grown, they estimate they have saved nearly 10 million gallons of water. 

The seedlings arrive in tiny greenhouse-like containers, and you’re asked to get them going right away. All of my seedlings survived and are thriving but for some romaine that wilted while I awaited an additional level to fit them all. One of the smarter aspects of the system is that the seedling containers include a legend next to each plant indicating whether it should be positioned high up on the tower, in full light, in shade, and so on. You’ll have to do a bit of mixing and matching as there isn’t a full map provided, but that’s part of the fun. 

Suddenly, a Bounty

So, I know what you’re asking: But how does it grow? And let me tell you: You’ll turn your head and next thing you know an obscene amount of greenery will be sprouting from this sleek, white space pod. My arugula was larger than any I’ve ever seen. My cabbage blocked out the rays of the sun. The thyme became sentient and was contemplating a run for president. And the kale kept me in green juice for weeks. 

Overall, I’m thrilled with the Farmstand system. Having fresh greens without incurring a grocery store trip means I’m eating more healthfully. My cooking has benefitted from having a thoughtful visual browsing system to plan my meals. And the pop of green is a welcome sight: Instead of a banana plant getting buffeted about by the wind, I’ve got functional beauty to enjoy. 

Yes, the Farmstand is expensive. It starts at $348, and seedlings are $2 each. But my quick math tells me it’s worth it. Organic kale can cost as much as $4 per bunch. Bok choy the same. If I stick with it, it’ll have paid for itself in about a year. Read on for an overview of other indoor gardening systems to suit any household or need. 

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