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Vertical Farming: An Old Concept with New Applications

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Vertical farming is not a new idea. It has been practiced in a variety of ways down through the centuries. The terraced mountain slopes in the orient, the French walled gardens with espaliered fruit trees and vining plants of all sorts trained over trellised, fences and lattices. But never has it been more needed, nor the technology better available to maintain it.

The Call for Vertical Farming

Traditionally, when communities needed more growing space for food, they cleared a little more land. They reclaimed some desert, cut down a few trees or tilled up a prairie. But history teaches us that these methods have limited returns. Tilling the prairie in Kansas at first provided rich returns. But after twenty years, when coupled with a drought, the “breadbasket of America” turned into the “Great American Desert. As the rainforests and other wooded areas are cleared, fewer trees means less carbon dioxide converted into oxygen. Heavy forestation effectively damages the lungs of the world.

PBS on Vertical Farming

Why Vertical Farming Can Help

As any urban farmer knows, pole beans and peas can conserve space in a garden. Making use of plants that naturally love a trellis or lattice to climb on can make the best use of foot space. Window boxes can create accessible mini-gardens for apartments, as can pots on a balcony. When food dollars are scarce, a family member with a “green thumb” can make a big difference in the nutrition and palatability of family meals. It can also provide variety because home grown vegetables can be kinds of plants that are not commonly available in the supermarket.

More than that, vertical agriculture practiced on a large scale has the potential to take advantage of sides of buildings, rooftops, and similarly previously unused surfaces for growing. It can be practiced indoors, especially with the use of hydroponics and grow lamps. It can even be done in unusual places, such as space stations.

Advantages to Vertical Farming

  • Reduced footprint on the earth. If your planting space goes up as well as out, you can grow more per square foot.
    Lettuce vertically
  • Ability to allow some of the wild places to heal and regrow. Forests and plains are the lungs of the world. Fortunately, sometimes all that needs to happen to restore an area is to leave it alone.
  • Indoor gardening to protect plants from pests and inclement weather conditions. Gardening indoors means a controlled environment and the opportunity to block out invasive creatures such as locusts.
  • Opportunity for city dwellers to have increased access to fresh food without the accompanying fuel usage. When “green miles” or the distance that food must travel from garden to plate is measured in city blocks instead of miles, less energy is used to transport it.
  • Greater variety of edibles for the human diet. There are more vegetables than are usually sold in a supermarket. Kohlrabi, red carrots, curly kale, and many other uncommon vegetables respond well to growing in trays or buckets.
  • Improved interior air quality. Plants breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. That’s why forests are so important. One big, leafy plant or a lot of little ones can go a long way toward freshening the air.

Are There Downsides to Vertical Farming?

Yes, of course, there are. Like many good things, there are always a few problems to challenge those who want to try it.

  • It requires some planning. As many an upstairs apartment dweller knows, you can’t just start allowing water to drip in odd places. If you put growing boxes against ordinary drywall, it will quickly soak up the water and crumble. Outdoor wooden walls will decay if continuously exposed to wet soil. Wall planters need to be backed with a waterproof barrier.
  • Planter boxes, frameworks and even trellises require some work and financial investment.
  • Not every plant grows well in a vertical farming at home environment. Corn and wheat don’t do well, for example.
  • While in the long run you will save on water, your initial investment in fertile soil, water and light sources could be extensive.
  • Zoning laws and lease agreements could affect your ability to create a vertical farm in your area.
  • Natural and artificial light distribution.

Chicago O'Hare Airport Vertical Farm
Chicago O’Hare Airport Vertical Farm chipmunk_1

Getting Started with Vertical Farming

Getting started with vertical farming and indoor farming can mean a lot of different things to different people. It’s very much a matter of scale.

balcony house herbs strawberriesTo an apartment dweller, it might mean planting hanging baskets of peas and beans, and harvesting fresh vegetables as the plants grown down from their suspended root base. Or it could mean putting in planters and trellises on an apartment balcony to provide fresh edibles while creating a little privacy from the balconies on either side.

A suburbanite who has a bit of yard might add bean tipis and tomato cages to a standard garden. This works very well for the square-foot gardener who has a ten-foot by ten-foot garden space. A slightly less well advantaged urban dweller might use cones of wire on large barrel bases to create garden space.

But for the city, urban planner it can mean installing tiers of hanging planters that mount up the sides of tall buildings. This is space that has for more than 100 years been simply an area that surrounds the outside of a building that is forty stories, or more, tall. These planter boxes could double as insulation, especially in climates where vegetation could provide added shade and respiration.

As previously mentioned, however, such an installation takes financial investment, careful planning, and a means to easily control watering. Whether the plants are grown in dirt or in a fertilized growing medium, nutrients, water and sunlight are “must haves” for good growth.

Greenhouse managers are already aware of the value of careful management of space and the use of racks of growing greenery. They are also, however, aware of the accompanying problems of allowing plants enough room to breathe, the potential for a single pest to wipe out a crop, and the dependence on artificial light, watering, and heat or cooling.

Conclusion

It isn’t a new idea or a perfect idea, but vertical farming systems have potential. They will take ingenuity, engineering, and a certain amount of just dedicated labor to make it work, but they do have a lot of promise.

The Future of Farming – Tokyo’s Vertical Farms

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