Home gardening is experiencing a renaissance spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic. Facing anxiety surrounding food security and the need for hobbies during quarantine, close to 20% of Americans have reported taking up gardening as a result of the pandemic. Seed sales have soared to unprecedented levels.
As Covid-19 highlights the precarious supply chain that supports our modern lifestyles and the benefit of more self-sufficiency, hydroponics – a method of growing plants without traditional soil, using water-based, nutrient-dense solutions – is emerging as the latest trend in smart home devices. Advances in hydroponic food-growing technology and LED lighting have reached a point where smart devices can take some of the labor, land, and expertise of traditional gardening out of the equation. Make no mistake that “real” gardening requires deep knowledge and effort to yield nutritional and emotional benefits; however, technology can now help laypeople experiment with growing fresh, nutritious food in their homes.
While home hydroponic systems are more effective, easy to use, and aesthetically pleasing than ever, there is a long way to go before the promise of sustainable, accessible food for all comes to fruition. Who wins and who loses in the smart food ecosystem and just how sustainable are these services? Let’s look at the design of three leading home hydroponics systems and the broader impact of such “smart growing”.
Home Hydroponics Leading the Pack
The Gardyn system consists of three vertical artificial “stems” where up to 30 plants can grow at once. These stems are rooted in a sturdy, oval-shaped base reservoir where water, pumps and electronics are discretely hidden under a wooden lid. Two vertical aluminum bars hide the latest-generation LED lights that focus their attention on the plants and dissipate heat effectively. Gardyn comes with an AI assistant app that monitors and manages temperature, humidity, and light.
The most sculptural of the leading home hydroponic systems, the Bace Rotofarm is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous object with a supporting app component. Using a rotating circular drum, it slowly turns up to eight plants around an LED hub, compressing 5.5 feet of growing space into just 15 inches and eliminating gravitational penalty to help plants grow faster. Despite winning several design awards for its science-fiction-turned-reality aspiration, the Rotofarm will not launch until 2021 and its price remains a mystery.
A more economical home hydroponics system comes in the form of the Click & Grow Smart Garden. With three- and nine-plant growing options, the Click & Grow design concept looks vaguely like a carrying basket with an end-to-end handle that cleverly hides LED lights. Click & Grow is unique in its scaled design, allowing customers to stack Smart Gardens together to create a compact food growing system. Like the others, the system has a companion app to track growing schedules and help troubleshoot.
Improving Access to Produce, at a Cost
There is great opportunity for home hydroponics to improve education and access to healthy produce for those who live in food deserts or do not have access to nutritious food. Yet, so far, smart growing systems target tech-savvy, mostly affluent people living in high-density urban communities.
No matter the brand, existing home hydroponics systems command a hefty price tag. The Click & Grow system ranges from $99 for three plants to $599 for a 27-plant system, while the Gardyn kit starts at $799 with a monthly fee of $69 for 240 seed plants. Each plant might produce up to five yields before it needs replacing – that’s a lot of money for leafy greens, fresh herbs, and a handful of fruit.
These products make big claims about sustainability, healthy living, and a reliable food ecosystem, but don’t provide sufficient practical value for communities who could benefit the most from home hydroponics. One hopes that the pricing of these new systems reflects the enormous startup costs of building their business. Perhaps subsequent generations and scale can reduce the unit costs, like what has occurred in the electric vehicles market.
Lowering Environmental Impact
Dirt, when combined with growing chemicals, is responsible for significant water pollution in traditional farming. Rather than using soil, most home hydroponics systems call for compostable refill cubes similar to espresso pods. Each cube includes seeds planted in the company’s patented “growing medium” – in other words, artificial soil consisting of natural materials designed to hold water and nutrients more efficiently than regular dirt. Unlike espresso pods, these cubes are made from compostable corn-based plastic that can be thrown in the yard waste.
The essential trade-off with indoor hydroponics is foregoing the free light-bulb in the sky: the sun. Depending on the amount of natural light available in a home, an LED hydroponic system uses significant electricity that adds to energy consumption and utility bills.
Nevertheless, growing food through hydroponics reduces reliance on industrial agro-farming with its heavy reliance on chemicals, fresh water and the transportation infrastructure needed to get from production to table.
A Victory Garden Redux
Smart growing and home hydroponics is an exciting new trend in consumer hardware. While early entrants to the market feel more proof-of-concept than robust products or services, I predict that this category of products will improve quickly and become commonplace in homes of all types, expanding into other types of gardening and food production beyond leafy greens alone.
Although smart gardens may not yet be as impactful as the victory gardens that produced nearly 40% of vegetables in the US during World War II, there is significant opportunity for home hydroponics reduce dependence on an easily disrupted global food infrastructure while also easing individual environmental impact and increasing access to fresh, healthy produce.