How to start an indoor farm for 25 bucks

January 31, 2011
By Sketch Editors

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You can grow food indoors, anytime of year. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an apartment, office, or house, or even have windows; it’s possible. The trick is to pick the right vegetables you can grow indoors. Unless you want to spend a lot of electricity you wont be growing tomatoes in your basement.

Microgreens and sprouts are great indoor farm plants. They taste great, add some green to a winter diet and these plants, like sunflower and alfalfa, can pack serious nutrients, even protein. They are harvested after a few days or weeks, and much of the energy and nutrients the plant needs to grow are in the seed so you get a lot out for little input.

Grow for flavour and variety. It takes a few minutes a week to get food one cant find in a store and speckled pea shoots in a stir fry tastes next level. Its also an excuse to experiment with intersections of living and non living systems, or architecture, and get extra benefits from both.

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Start with a minimal investment, let the plants win you over and size up with some experience or you might find yourself a full time farmer and quitting your day job. Here are the basic things to think about and for 40 bucks you can get you started:

Light: 4 foot fluorescent shop light fixture and bulbs work well and are inexpensive to buy and run. If you buy cheap bulbs buy cool white. Leafy greens need more blue than red spectrum light. 20 dollars for 4 square feet.

The cool white LEDs are 6500K in colour temperature which works great for greens, and the ones I use (SMD 5050) draw 6 watts a meter or one fifth that of a fluorescent the same length. Most energy savings calculators show the payback period for the initial higher cost of LEDs over fluorescent at 2 to 3 years. Well worth it since they have 10 times the life span of a regular bulb. You can buy reels online of LEDs that need a 12 volt power supply, like a laptop power supply. Super efficient but more money up front. 10 to 20 dollars a linear foot.

Again, you can not grow fruiting or budding stages of plants with these lights, so the idea is to use as little energy as possible to grow food that does well in this type of light. The LEDs are dim but plenty strong for microgreens.

Container: Find trays or pots you can use that are at least 3 inches deep by as wide and long as your lights. Glass casseroles or pie plates will do. A couple of 2 dollar greenhouse trays work well. Clay window planters are nice, or you can try the tubes. The main idea is to have enough depth to hold moisture and create a space equal to the amount of light. Free to 20 dollars for four square feet.

Soil: you can buy what you need but if you are interested in being self sufficient, soil building is a key part of the growing cycle. I use a mix of 2 parts coir to one part worm castings for the top 2 inches of the soil and straight coir for the rest. Coir is a coconut husk byproduct that acts like peat, holding moisture. Worm castings are the product of vermicomposting, a way of composting using red wigglers, a European worm that is a fast digester. The microscopic life in the worm castings helps to maintain healthy roots and balances the soil and water ecology in aquaponic systems. Check out superstar Will Allen at Growing Power, the man with a plan who vermicomposts on a huge scale.

Vermicomposting is easy and odorless if you do it right and can produce all the nutrients for your plants in your own home. I have 2 plastic storage bins in the basement that produce 30 lbs each of worm castings every 4 to 6 months, more than enough for my set up. There is more info on vermicomposting at xxx. A large bag of worm castings will sell for 20 dollars at a garden supply and coir around 8 dollars a block that expands to 3 cubic feet.

Starting the seeds: a trick is you can pre-sprout most big seeds in jars. Beans and peas, sunflowers, even wheat grass work well this way. Smaller seeds like arugula and other fine, mucilaginous seeds add directly to the soil medium in the tray. Order from a seed company, over sprouting those bought ata bulk store and you’ll have better results. Mumms specializes in sprouts and microgreens.

Jar sprouting from my experience gets the germination rate way higher than sowing them in soil. Fill a mason jar one-third full with sunflower, pea, or other large seeds and soak overnight. They expand so leave room. Cover with screen, panty hose, or a tea strainer so it can breathe and drain on an angle. Rinse and drain and the following morning and repeat in the evening. You should see the beginning stages of the sprout. Once you do then mix into the first inch of grow medium and lightly water.

Farming: Put your lights on a timer, run 12 to 16 hours a day (I cycle them at night when electricity is half price for 13 hours), with a fan if you want to help strengthen the plants for transplant or keep mold at bay. In a week to 2 weeks you have a crop, watering every other day or as needed.

A pair of stainless steel kid scissors works well for harvesting. Sunflowers you cut once you get the first set of leaves but before the second and pea shoots and greens like beets, chard and arugula you can harvest at the sprout stage or a few weeks later when the plant is 4 to 10 inches high. You’ll see with your lighting how long you can grow but for efficiency its best to harvest early. You can get multiple crops from the same planting if you thin out say the arugula at the sprout stage, then let it go another week and thin again allowing room for the larger plants to come in.

Replanting: The key to being efficient is composting, and again it can all be done indoors. You can rip out the cut stalks and old growing medium from the tray and it will still be cheap to start again using new medium, but if you compost it all gets cycled in again. I keep a few Rubbermaid tubs in the basement, one with dead leaves, one with worms and active compost. The leaves are to add to the wet compost coming in, to balance carbon (brown, paper, dead leaves, sawdust) with nitrogen (green, discarded vegetables from the kitchen, used sprout soil), 7 parts carbon to 3 nitrogen and that ratio is very important or you get rot and not compost. Worms are available mail order, or a local supplier.

Have another tray sprouting a few days before your last harvest in your first tray and you can get continuous crops. Cut crops like sunflower before they grow secondary leaves and store them in a bag or container in the fridge for up to two weeks. Crops like chard and arugula can be thinned out every other week, getting several crops from one planting, as they grow. the flavours are intense, so even if you grow just a small amount it will act as a seasoning for tired old salad mixes from the store.

Micah Donovan

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