Don Beland is converting his five-bedroom suburban home in Holly Springs, N.C., into a farm—indoors.
In the kitchen he has set up hardware-store shelves that hold 12 trays of tomato seedlings, arugula, spinach and microgreens. In about two weeks, the tomato plants will move into the dining room, where Mr. Beland will replant them into a 7-foot high soilless growing system he is building. Near a window, jalapeño and habanero pepper seeds germinate in a 3-foot wide miniature greenhouse. The house is typically aglow with purple LED lights that can be seen from the street.
“My wife worries about what people think,” Mr. Beland says.
Restaurants tout tomatoes grown on site and supermarket placards designate produce from nearby farms. But homeowners like Mr. Beland may be the ultimate locavores. They are reoutfitting their homes to grow the freshest produce possible—even in winter.
The $ 2 billion vegetable gardening industry is finding new ways to get indoors as well as out. Hydroponics, a soil-free way of growing plants, appeals to homeowners who like the idea of gardening but would rather avoid the dirt, especially indoors. Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. now either owns or has a majority stake in three home hydroponics brands including AeroGarden, which are devices that look like salad-growing space ships.
In hydroponics, plants are grown in water and a medium such as pebbles and may be oxygenated through air pumps or frequent drainage. Plants get their nutrients from mineral solutions added to the water instead of through soil, and homeowners add lighting systems that mimic the sun’s rays. Successful gardeners get fresh veggies grown indoors, even when it’s cold outside. Downsides can include bright lights at odd hours, noisy hums and clunky-looking contraptions, and those considering more elaborate setups might need to be wary of homeowner-association rules.
The number of households growing vegetables hydroponically has doubled in the last year, says Mike Sutterer, senior vice president and general manager of the gardens division for Scotts Miracle-Gro. Indoor hydroponic gardening is particularly popular among consumers in their 20s and 30s. “It’s a millennial sport,” he says.
“It’s a hobby you can happen to eat,” says Andy Calhoun, a 40-year-old information technology specialist in Cumming, Ga. He has outfitted his dining room with $ 1,800 worth of hydroponic growing equipment including nine sleek metal and plastic AeroGardens, some with touch-screen displays. “I’m going for the not-house-full-of-plastic-buckets look.” He is growing eight kinds of herbs, cherry tomatoes, jalapenos and Romaine lettuce.
“It’s a luxury,” says Daimon Beecroft, a 37-year-old electrician in Edmonton, Alberta. “If we’re eating a salad I know we’ve always got tomatoes downstairs.” Mr. Beecroft has converted a living room bar into a seed-starting operation with three AeroGardens on top. “Neither my wife or I drink anyway,” he says. Using plastic sheeting and lumber, he has also built a covered area next to the bar into a hydroponic growing tent for lemons and exotic cucumbers. He calls the setup his bargarden.
There have been drawbacks, for instance when Mr. Beecroft had to travel in December. Lapses in maintenance caused plants to die. The seeds now on the bar are a new batch, sown a week ago.
“My wife wasn’t as into watering,” he says.
In North Carolina, Mr. Beland’s wife can sympathize. “In six months my house was overtaken by his operation,” says Gerrie Beland, a human resources manager at a biotechnology company who initiated her husband’s hobby by giving him a 2-foot-wide salad-growing dome for the kitchen countertop for his birthday a year ago. Within six weeks, there was an illuminated grow tent in the living room holding a hydroponics setup with air pumps, buckets and timers where Mr. Beland grew peppers, tomato and basil plants. In mid-December, he took it down in preparation for an even bigger one in the coming weeks and has already ordered parts.
“I went into my bedroom one night and there were pots everywhere,” she says. “The plants grow fast and he’s forced to find space.” A coat closet has become a storage shed for buckets, timers, nutrient solutions and plastic sheeting.
“I’d like to have that closet back,” Ms. Beland says.
Some kitchen appliance showrooms sell hydroponic equipment for a kitchen vibe that’s more mod than mad scientist. Urban Cultivator is a mini-fridge like appliance which uses multi-spectrum grow lights and a watering schedule set on a timer, and sells for about $ 2,500. (The maker was bought in October by Aurora Cannabis Inc., which cultivates and sells Canadian medical marijuana.)
Urban Cultivator’s co-founder Tarren Wolfe has long been manufacturing commercial-grade hydroponic units for cannabis dispensaries in California and elsewhere. “Chefs were coming in to get cannabis and would say, ‘hey can you grow microgreens in there?’” he recalls. “It made sense. Everybody eats. Not everybody consumes cannabis.”
Tower Garden, manufactured by Collierville, Tenn.-based supplements company JuicePlus+ Co., is a 5-foot-tall column that can hold at least 20 plants. The hydroponic system costs $ 525 and comes with seeds, equipment and plant food. For another $ 70, a customer can stack on another 15 inches.
Sarah Hosaki, a salon owner in Markham, Ontario, uses it to grow bok choi, Swiss chard, and kale in her dining room. “We have snow outside and I have a tower of vegetables in my apartment,” she says.
Some homeowners have their hydroponic operations connected to fishtanks—a system also known as aquaponics, where fish waste supplies nutrients to water that nourishes the plants.
It isn’t your typical goldfish bowl. Charles Baughman, a retired postal worker in Hershey, Pa., has two vegetable growing beds connected to a 120-gallon fish tank in his basement filled with 25 tilapia fish. Mr. Baughman is growing lettuces, kale, spinach and two tomato plants under the glow of multi-spectrum LED lights.
Accidents happen, and when timers and gallons of water are involved, it’s not always pretty. Once, Mr. Baughman came home to dead fish because the automated fish feeder overdid it. Billie Bailkin, a real estate developer in Kennett Square, Pa., once had her veggie-growing fish tank, set up in the mudroom, overflow.
“If I hadn’t had a drain in the floor,” she says, “it would have been problematic.”
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