Sunset Loves: I Tried Vertical Gardening and Now the Neighbors Love Me
Grow a large bed’s worth of herbs and veggies in a potted plant-sized plot.
Small-scale gardening is one of the most rewarding pursuits for those of us trapped in apartments or small homes without much of a plot of land. And while we’ve covered raised bed gardening and planter approaches before, those might not be possible for everyone.
Fortunately, there are a handful of startups focused specifically on the culinary category that promise to redefine what you can create in a space as small as a balcony or small porch.
The Lettuce Grow company, which launched in late 2019 and counts Zooey Deschanel among its founders, 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 set-up, 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 site and app are easy to navigate, and allow you to choose your plants based on available light and other factors including the size of your family and diet. There’s even a survey that spits out recommended starters, or you can manually assemble your first crop.
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.
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’ve got an absolutely pornographic amount of greenery sprouting from this sleek, white space pod. My arugula was larger than any I’ve ever seen. My cabbage is blocking out the light of the sun and I can almost forego my umbrella. The thyme has become sentient and is contemplating running for president. And the kale will keep me in green juice for weeks.
One drawback to some of the larger, leafy options among the many offered is crowding. My cabbage steals sun from my mint; the squash has the wingspan of an albatross. Leaves evolve to harvest the sun, and you can’t blame them for it. But your “Leisure Cilantro” is the equivalent of a 5’6” point guard while the broccoli plays low post and can box the little guy out with ease. As a result, I’d stay away from those plants, or place them strategically next to each other so they’re waging a fair fight.
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 $3-4 per bunch. Bok choy the same. If I stick with it—and in Los Angeles, I won’t soon lose light—it’ll have paid for itself in about a year.
Through June 30, 2020, Sunset Readers can use the code SUNSETMAG at checkout to get the the first batch of seedlings free with the purchase of a Farmstand.
The FDA-approved, BPA-free plastic and PVC setup is extremely durable, and I’d imagine the system will last for years, though pumps always go eventually.
And while I haven’t gone through a deep clean on the system—which requires clearing the roots of plants you can no longer harvest from—I suspect it won’t be that hard of a process. I don’t have a hose bib, however, so removing the water will be tricky if I want to keep my neighbors downstairs on my good side.
Then again, with the veggie deliveries I’m offering they ought to understand if I spill a drop or two down onto their balcony.