The Big Question: Why grow your own food?
Why grow your own food?
This question can only be answered with another question…
How much do you trust the food you buy from the market?
” The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.” – Ann Wigmore
Today most food producers want to produce large quantities of food at a very cheap price. This has lead to the use of some wrong methods. The pesticides, fungicides and other harmful chemicals used are not safe for consumption. These chemicals usually end up on your plate. It’s ironical to know that the same vegetable you eat to stay healthy is slowly killing you from inside!
Can you imagine feeding this to your loved ones… especially your kids?
That was the thought that made me start on this journey to grow my own food. The main reason for me to think about this was my 2-year-old son. He had started eating veggies at that time and loved eating carrots and beets.
Our whole health ( and so our wealth) depends on what we eat and it was time to take action.
A Small Start
I wanted to grow all kinds of veggies but had no clue where to start. Where to get the seeds? how to grow them? What can I grow here in my weather? …. It was very confusing at that point.
I knew that I needed to get started and then I will learn along the way. I did learn a lot along the way but it was not easy… gardening or farming is something you can learn only by doing. Watching few youtube videos or reading books will not help you much. Best way to learn to garden is by actually starting to garden. Get your hands dirty and you will get the fruits of your labor 🙂
The first thing I tried was growing herbs. If you are new to gardening this is a great way to start. Herbs are very easy to grow and most of them grow almost throughout the year. I was growing mint and basil.
Have you ever tried the freshest tasting chutney made from mint you grew?
The pasta sauce with fresh basil leaves was never more satisfying.
There is a pleasure … a sense of satisfaction eating something that you have grown!
The next I tried was Spinach and Red Amaranth. These are other easy veggies to grow. The best part was I did not have to wait for them to grow to full size. I used baby spinach leaves in my grilled cheese sandwich many times.
These small successes were great motivation to keep me going. You need to start with easy things first. Without this success, there is the possibility of you quitting too early.
Challenges of Growing in an Apartment
Trying to grow vegetables to consume on daily basis is not easy as it sounds. You will soon realize the limitation of growing in small space. You can only grow so much on your balcony (or if you are lucky then on your terrace)
The other challenge is plants take time to reach maturity which could be anywhere from 3-4 weeks to 2-3 months. This means you cannot plant once and hope to eat from your garden every day.
When I realized this it got me worried. But I thought there has to be a way … people must have done this before. So I came up with a two-pronged approach to solve this.
The first, was how do I maximize the limited space that I have to grow more plants. One way to do this was going vertical. The vertical garden is stacking plants one over other. This allows you to plant lot more in the same footprint ( This was also the inspiration for the name “Crop Stacks”. Growing food in vertical stacks). There is a lot of information about this on the internet. (If you are not careful you can waste a lot of time researching without much action.
The second was how to grow the plants fast in a simple and safe way. I wanted to grow without using any harmful chemicals or genetic modifications. Growing plants fast seemed a bit challenging at first till I discovered Hydroponics. With hydroponics, you can grow a lettuce in about 35-40 days which in soil would have taken about 65-70 days. That is twice as fast!
Another benefit of using hydroponics is the ease of stacking. Hydroponics system is less bulky which makes it a good option for vertical setup.
Trials With Hydroponics
I was lucky to have a friend who likes hydroponics and one day he gave me this simple setup to try.
It was a hacked version of the ebb-flow hydroponic system. In this setup nutrient-rich water is in the lower compartment. You pump this water to the top compartment which has the plants. It fills the top compartment and drains back down by gravity. This process keeps the roots of the plants wet and moist and helps them grow.
I wanted to see if I can simplify it. The simpler option was something called “Deep Water Culture”. It has plants suspend over a tank of nutrient water. No moving parts, pumps etc. The roots grow downwards as the plant grows and feed on the water. I built a quick and dirty version of this from a disposable plastic glass. This worked great.
For me, these two setups proved to be the first step to growing with hydroponics. Like before, simple steps, in the beginning, are a great way to learn and keep going. This simple setup proved that you can indeed grow without soil. So I started doing bigger experiments.
I built a desktop unit using styrofoam (thermacol). It had grow lights to grow indoors( looking back grow lights made it more complicated). This was not successful at first. Plus at the same time, I was having a tough time to get reliable seeds. This lead to trying to germinate and grow thousands of seeds. I must have killed thousands of young seedlings trying to grow them in hydroponics setup. But the trials did not stop.
Tried to tweak further till I figured what it takes to grow.
The confidence from these experiments helped me to try things at bigger scale.
And finally, it was possible to grow indoors using hydroponics. So far I was trying to be effective in growing using hydroponics. The challenge was trying to be efficient cost wise.
Though it is possible to grow indoors with the right technology. The cost of electricity for the lights and temperature control is very high for these setups.
Another challenge is grown using organic nutrients. You need to take extra care to avoid unwanted microbes growing in your system. These microbes if kept unchecked which will eat plant’s nutrition.
I wanted this to be something I use to grow food on regular basis. I want you to adopt it to grow your own food. For this to be successful it had to work without too much effort and cost within reason. I am guessing you want it to be simple and efficient too.
So to grow your own food the best option for hydroponics is to use the light from the sun. I tried it with a simple setup.
This a deep water culture setup. It has the nutrient water in a plastic tray and plant roots are suspending from the top. It was a success.
Now I am planning a bigger setup. It is taking time but soon I will have it up on my balcony 🙂
Back to the Roots
I am still exploring and learning about how to best grow different plants. I don’t want to claim that hydroponics is the only good option to grow your own food. Yes, you can grow many vegetables using hydroponics. But, I prefer to have more than one system. Only after testing them for few seasons I can make a valid decision.
So this leads me back to the roots… the traditional way of growing organic vegetables. I am talking about using organic/vermicompost and growing in containers.
Now you may be wondering…how is this efficient?
That is what I am trying to find now. The next step is setting up my balcony garden using Grow bags. I will be trying intercropping. It a way to grow different types of plants in-between each other to maximize the space.
Also, want to try to see if it is possible to use the efficiency of square foot gardening in this setup.
Some initial trials have been promising …
Now looking forward to what is possible next. If I want to make a difference in the way we grow and eat our food I have to think big.
The Big Goal for 2018
For the coming year, I am planning for something big.
I need a big motivation to keep going. Also, I want someone to hold me accountable for getting things done. So I am sharing this with you. I will keep posting my progress on this blog and you keep me accountable.
So what is my big goal…
“I want to grow what I eat “
I want to grow all the fresh vegetables that I buy from the market. Once setup I should be able to use the vegetables on my balcony almost every day. I will no longer have to buy from the market. I am going to start with the most common vegetables and herbs. This will include, coriander/cilantro, tomatoes and leafy greens and lettuces for salads. Then progress to other vegetables like Egg-plant or potatoes.
The best day would be when I am able to give fresh grown carrots and beets to my son and we recreate the picture above 🙂
Join me on this journey and see what it takes to grow your own food.