Have you ever been curious about starting a garden or growing your own food, but always assumed you didn't have adequate space or time? Turns out there's a solution to that: hydroponic gardening, a method of gardening that skips the soil and uses nutrient-rich water to grow produce.
In the latest episode of Good Together, Laura Wittig, Brightly’s CEO and co-founder, chats with Jacob Pechenik—the co-founder of Lettuce Grow, a company that makes self-watering, self-fertilizing hydroponic Farmstands that make it super simple to grow your own food at home (even if you only have four square feet of space to do so).
Together, they discuss the importance of understanding where your food comes from, the benefits of growing food yourself, and exactly how you can utilize hydroponic gardening in your own life.
What Is Hydroponic Gardening?
When it comes to gardening, you've got a couple of methods: hydroponic and traditional soil gardening. The issue with soil gardening is that it's not easily accessible to everyone.
"50% of us live in cities. And we don't necessarily have a plot of land that we can grow in. And then those of us who don't live in cities, we might be renting. We might only be in a place for a year or two and we don't know what was there before, we don't know what is in the ground," says Pechenik. "And then there's a lot of investment that goes into creating a raised bed type of garden. Then if you are going to move, you can't take that with you."
According to Pechenik, hydroponic gardening is much more conducive to city, or on-the-go lifestyles. "It sounds a lot more complicated than it is," he says. "But it's really just growing using the water to deliver nutrients rather than growing plants in soil where the roots are pulling from the soil and the water."
What Is a Lettuce Grow Farmstand?
Pechenik, wanting to make hydroponic gardening easy and accessible to the masses, created the Lettuce Grow Farmstands, which he says are really simple systems (despite what you might think!).
"We have a tank of water, and in that water we have the nutrients mixed in. There's a pump at the bottom of the tank, and the pump goes off once an hour for about 15 minutes," says Pechenik. "It pushes water to the top of the system, and then water rains down over the roots of all the plants."
This water delivers the right amount of nutrients and water to the plants, but what's even more impressive is the amount of water that gets used. Spoiler alert: it's very little.
"The really awesome thing about hydroponics is that the water is then collected again in the tank, so there's no runoff, there's no evaporation—all the water is used," Pechenik says. "And because of that, you know in conventional growing it takes 21 gallons to grow a head of lettuce. Using our system, and a lot of other hydroponic systems, you could grow that same head of lettuce with less than one gallon."
It also takes very little time. According to the Lettuce Grow website, you only need to attend to your Farmstead for five minutes a week, making it easy to use for even the busiest of bees.
The one kicker is the price. The least expensive Farmstead starts at $348, which Pechenik realizes isn't accessible for everyone—yet. He aims to one day bring that down in the future.
"As we get more and more growers and we learn more, we can continue to innovate, and bring the price point down," says Pechenik. "But it's an investment, and from what we've seen, the investment fully pays off in about 13 months. So the more you use the Farmstand, the more you're growing. And you're actually saving money, because you're not going to the grocery store, you're not buying produce there, and it's not wasting in your fridge."
Why to Grow Your Own Food
So, what's the point of growing your own food? Why invest in a hydroponic system like this when you can simply buy your produce at the grocery store? According to Pechenik, it has to do with the ability to get fresh food to people in a timely fashion. He discovered this firsthand when he started his own farm with two friends.
"The difficult challenge wasn't growing the food," he says. "It was really getting it to market, because we could make this beautiful head of lettuce on our organic farm and we could do it at about the same cost as growing a conventional head of lettuce. But then we had to take this beautiful head of lettuce, put it in the clamshell or put it in a bag, put it in a refrigerated truck, and send it all over the place. It could be 10 days old before anyone ever eats it."
Pechenik says the logistics required to transport food drastically decreases its quality. "[Customers] get this product that's kind of like wilt-y and doesn't taste good," he says. "It might go bad in their fridge a couple days after purchasing it, and 40 percent would go bad on the way. So it was a huge disservice to the customer."
But it's apparently not just the physical quality of the food that suffers in transit. The nutritional value is depleted as well.
"The biggest determinant of the nutritional value of vegetables is the time between picking it and eating it," says Pechenik. "So if your produce is coming from a farm, it could use the best soil and been raised the best way. But if it takes three days to get to you, then it's going to lose, conservatively, 30 percent of its nutritional content."
To solve this, Pechenik believes we need to get the fresh food as close to our homes as possible, and the best way to do that—whether it's via hydroponic gardening, traditional gardening, or another tactic—is by growing it ourselves.