Window gardening

herbsonbalcony2

Herbs on our apartment balcony

One of the aspects of Journeyman’s design and function that we are particularly excited about is our window garden. We have a giant boarded-up widow that we’d like to unboard, which will be a perfect space to grow herbs and microgreens. It’s tall and wide – think 10 by 12 feet or so – and we’re thinking of setting up something like a giant bookcase just inside it, with plants instead of books! We’d like to grow lots of different lettuces, tiny chard leaves, arugula, mache, a few things that are more unusual – nasturtiums, sorrel, and heritage herbs like borage and hyssop. We’ve been spending some quality time with seed catalogs!

We are researching ways to make this work for everyone – create a healthy environment for the plants that looks good to guests, doesn’t require too much work to maintain, and doesn’t guzzle energy or require expensive materials or infrastructure. We are thinking of using wine crates for planters – they are excellent at retaining moisture – and making our own compost for fertilizer, and in summer we should have plenty of natural light. In winter we’ll need supplementary light, so we’re also thinking fixtures and energy efficiency.

Fortunately, we’re far from alone in grappling with these issues. Vertical veggie gardens have become a craze lately, and lots of people are working on making them beautiful, sustainable, and practical. The most impressive example of the genre is perhaps Patrick Blanc’s Mur Vegetal. Just look at those pictures! The walls of plants are made of metal frames, a pvc layer that insulates the structural walls from moisture, and a layer of felt that conducts water and micronutrients and provides a growing medium for the roots. The system is hydroponic, and light enough to be installed on almost any vertical surface. In a more fantastic rendering, there are vertical farm designs that envision bringing agriculture into cities, in the form of living skyscrapers that use solar energy, recycle water, and eliminate the needs for pesticides and herbicide through careful environmental management. I don’t think we’ll see a skyscraper farm in the middle of Boston any time soon, but knowing that someone is thinking through the technologies involved in this is exciting. And who knows, maybe the elements of this technology will trickle in much faster than skyscrapers themselves.

There are already some manageable small-scale initiatives. Several companies are producing growing panels – plastic or aluminum cells that can be filled it soil and placed on on walls or leaning free-standing structures. And Jen, of Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds, pointed us to Window Farms in New York. They are crowd-sourcing the research and development process for an urban hydroponic window farm that can be set up on any scale – from a three-plant system to a grid of plants that covers a whole large window. And there are people who make impressive window gardens from scratch – like Marque Cornblatt, who used office storage crates and magazine files as planters for his window veggies. This is closer to what we’re trying to do, and we’ll post the designs here as they develop.

We’re very excited about our urban farming mini-venture. French Laundry may have a three-acre garden and Californian sunshine, but we have a Somerville window!

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