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Indoor gardening anyone? Start-ups, designers and big firms are finding ways to ‘bring nature inside’

If the lack of an outdoor area has put paid to the best efforts to grow vegetables, herbs or small fruits, help is on the way – with or without technology

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 July, 2016, 10:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 July, 2016, 10:02am

Farm to table cannot get any closer than produce grown in your own home. But the absence of an outdoor area has hampered home gardening for apartment dwellers in the past: edibles don’t thrive indoors, right?

If you’re one of the many who manage to murder the hardiest of house plants, technology might soon be coming to the rescue.  A US start-up has invented an intelligent indoor garden designed to grow fresh, flavourful and nutrient-rich food year round – and all in a space the size of a bookshelf.

Launching via Kickstarter, the Grove Ecosystem uses fish and plants to reliably grow produce – including vegetables, herbs and small fruits – in a way that its developers claim to be 50-75 per cent more productive, and twice as fast, as outdoor growing.

The founding team comprises two 20-something Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduates who want to inspire people to think differently about food and sustainable living. They’ve developed a mobile app giving customers control over their Groves, via custom plant settings, automatic tracking, and for the time poor, or under-committed, full ecosystem control.

With sensors tracking vitals such as temperature, water level and humidity, this home garden understands its own needs – and will let you know, too, via smart alerts on the Grove OS. It can also self-diagnose: snap a photo of a leaf on your smartphone, and the VegiEye diagnostics function will provide instant insights into the plant’s health.

Vacation mode keeps everything ticking over while you are away. The app also connects with other Grove growers, and lets the urban farmer browse curated seeds and supplies.

Using aquaponics, the LED-lit system is designed with a fish tank underneath, and plant box on top, working with beneficial microbes “in symbiosis” to grow fresh produce. “It’s a natural process where the fish create nutrients for the plants and the plants clean the water for the fish,” say developers Gabe Blanchet and Jamie Byron. As a result, you don’t have to clean the tank, wash your greens – or worry about the freshness of your food, they add. Leafy greens including pak choi, watercress, spinach, kale and nasturtiums are all ideal candidates, along with various herbs and small fruiting crops such as tomatoes, sugar peas and strawberries.

The co-founders say they got the idea when they were roommates at MIT, and built a prototype in the fraternity room. While growing their own food, the buddies noticed that the indoor air felt cleaner. “We realised this could have a profound impact on people's lives,” they say.

Their start-up, Grove Labs, has raised more than US$4 million in seed financing, including an initial investment from MIT. Feedback from 50 early adopters in the Boston market helped shape the design and functionality of the new Ecosystem, launching in the coming fall.

Other start-ups pottering in the indoor automated garden space include CityCrop. Its Athens, Greece-based developers are working on an intuitive vegie plot in a box which connects with your hand-held via the home Wi-fi. Choose your plant and the app will automatically import the right data and adapt the settings for cultivation. Push notifications will help newbie greenthumbs keep their plants in optimal health.  CityCrop is still under development, but pre-orders are being taken.

A manufacturer in South Korea has its own version of an LED hydroponic cultivator, under the brand name Sunny, which it aims to be used to grow fresh fruits and vegetables inside homes, schools and offices.

Ikea is also getting in on the act. Shrinking the idea of an indoor urban farm further, the Swedish brand’s Krydda/Vaxer line of line of small-scale hydroponic gardening pays attention to the likelihood that, in the future, people will have to adapt to living in smaller apartments in urban environments.

Ikea says its “seed to plate” concept is “a beautiful way to bring nature inside”. Developed  with agricultural scientists in Sweden, the kits include “everything you need to get sprouting and keep your garden growing – even in the winter”.

The designers deliberately kept this system simple: as a user, you do need to maintain water levels – and there’s no app to help you do that. Perhaps that’s the point. The appeal of this indoor mini farm lies as much in its tiny footprint, as it does in its mass-market price.