Vertical gardening is growing into the wave of the future
By Barb Gorges
As we slip into the dark half of the year, we don’t have to say goodbye to growing our own fresh herbs, lettuces and other greens. There is an option for those of us without a greenhouse, hoop house or cold frame, even if we have limited natural light or limited space.
Think vertical. Think “Farm Wall.”
No more stooping over short little plants. No more weeds. No more intensive watering schedule.
Bright Agrotech, www.brightagrotech.com, a Laramie-based start-up, has been perfecting this system that maximizes production for every square foot. It works for farmers as well as hobbyists—indoors or out. The company now employs 30 people, many coming straight from the University of Wyoming.
As magical as this system sounds, it really works. Growers on every continent except Antarctica are using it. In 2015, the U.S. pavilion at the world’s fair in Milan, Italy, installed a demonstration Bright Agrotech ZipGrow Farm the size of a vertical football field, like a giant billboard full of leafy vegetables.
Locally, the system is being used at Cheyenne Central High School. There, agriculture teacher Ty Berry has his classroom’s system set up on a cart so he can take it places, including the state and county fairs last summer.
Elsewhere, Altitude Chophouse in Laramie grew edibles on an outside wall during the summer using this system.
How it works
The Farm Wall starts with towers. They will remind you of rain gutters upended, but they are made of food-grade white plastic which wraps around part of the open side, leaving a slot the length (or the height) of the tower for plants to sprout from. Towers come in 3 or 5-foot heights.
Bright Agrotech refers to these components as ZipGrow Towers. That’s because the growing medium can be “zipped” in and out of the towers.
The plants grow in a matrix made of curly fibers from recycled water bottles. They have a brown, protective silicone coating. Otherwise light would cause algae infestations in the originally clear material.
So how do you get the plant into the matrix material? Simple. It comes in two halves. You “zip” it out the end of the tower, spread the two halves just enough to place seedlings in between at regular intervals and “zip” it back into the tower. The plants spill out the lengthwise slot.
As you can imagine, the plastic matrix isn’t going to hold water well, so strips of wicking material are added with the plants.
The next step is to place the towers between the upper and lower horizontal gutters. The lower gutter is on the floor. The upper gutter can be slid onto a bracket on a wall (indoors or out).
What makes the Farm Wall water-smart is that it is a hydroponic system. Water constantly circulates. About once a week the water reservoir needs to be topped off. It looks like and is lined up with the other towers but has no growing slot. Water is poured into the top. At the bottom is a spigot that allows only a certain amount of water to sit in the lower gutter. A small submersible pump there sends the water up through a hose and across the top, inside the upper gutter. There’s an emitter above each tower, keeping it watered.
Without soil to provide essential nutrients, you must add them to the water yourself. What you add depends on what you are growing, which is where Bright Agrotech can give you advice. There are several commercial fertilizer mixes available, or maybe you’d like to try aquaponics, in which the water circulates through a tank of fish and picks up nutrients from the fish poop.
While on my tour in Laramie one unexpected thing I learned from my guide, marketing team member Amy Storey, is that the more growing cycles a unit of matrix material has been through, the better it gets. All the old roots and all the potting soil left behind by the seedlings enables good microorganisms to get established and start helping with their usual job, making it easier for plants to absorb nutrients.
One plus of the Farm Wall system: no pesticides are necessary, as long as good horticultural practices are maintained. And there are no weeds since you aren’t tilling the garden and causing weed seeds to sprout.
There are several considerations with this system. The 5-foot high, four-tower package is $599 (free shipping). The two-tower, 3-foot high version is $369. There is also an 8-tower option. Beyond that size, you need to look at the commercial farm version.
You also need an electrical outlet for the water pump. While the commercial farming version needs to be hooked up to plumbing, the Farm Wall doesn’t. But you may want to install it where a few splashes of water won’t be a problem.
An electrical conductivity meter will help you know how you are doing with fertilization, though you might make do with nutrient package directions and your own observations.
You’ll need someplace warm to start seedlings under lights.
Speaking of lights, you’ll need some florescent grow lights set up vertically in front of the Farm Wall if it isn’t set up outside or in a greenhouse.
Obviously, root crops are not going to do well in such limited root space. So far, the most successful crops have been flowers, herbs, lettuces and other smallish greens.
At the University of Wyoming Extension, horticulturist Chris Hilgert experimented with strawberries, but hasn’t been successful—yet.
For growing small vegetables commercially, vertical farming is certainly more efficient than one layer of 6 to 12-inch high plants, especially in a greenhouse. Also, in an urban area, the cost of lighting and water pumping may be less than transporting produce from elsewhere.
In Jackson, where the town is isolated and the growing season very short, Vertical Harvest, www.verticalharvestjackson.com, grows for local restaurants, grocery stores and its own store in a 3-story glassed-in area on the side of a parking garage. On a tenth of an acre they grow the equivalent of 5 acres of conventionally farmed land through the winter.
This semester Berry’s students are planting beans in their classroom Farm Wall. It was paid for by an educational grant he wrote. Bright Agrotech also provided curriculum ideas to maximize the educational possibilities.
I remember 25 years ago when Cheyenne parent-teacher organizations raised the funds to pay for computer labs for their schools. Now computers are part of the school district’s budget and every student seems to have what amounts to one in their back pocket.
Perhaps someday it will be completely normal for a wall of every school building to produce healthy food for school lunches. Unless kids are already packing Farm Wall salads from home.
Note: Laramie, at 7200 feet elevation, is in a hostile environment for growing vegetables, which may have been the inspiration for Bright Agrotech founder Nate Storey, a native of Cheyenne with a PhD from the University of Wyoming. But his version of vertical gardening is catching on worldwide.