Gardening & Food

Leafy Green Machine is a complete urban farm system in a shipping container

These shipping container growing units from Freight Farms feature high-density vegetable & herb production, and include everything needed to go from seed to table, year-round, in a fraction of the space as a conventional greenhouse.Ideas for methods of growing more produce in and around urban areas, close to where the food will be consumed, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but one shape in particular keeps popping up in urban agriculture, especially when it comes to year-round growing and cold climates. Shipping containers (also known as intermodal freight containers), while probably not the first thing to come to mind when it comes to growing vegetables, are a great choice for upcycling and repurposing for urban farms, because they’re affordable, readily available, and built to last for decades, and with some extensive retrofitting, can be used as climate-controlled indoor farms.

I recently covered the CropBox, which boasts of being a ” farm in a box,” but long before that shipping container farm made the news, Freight Farms was building their own high-density growing units inside cargo containers, thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign run in 2011. Since then, Freight Farms has continued to develop and improve its urban farm units, dubbed the Leafy Green Machine (LGM), which uses high-efficiency LED lighting, vertical hydroponic growing towers, and an automated climate-control and irrigation system to grow thousands of plants inside a single 320 square foot container.

The Freight Farms design is based on a conventional insulated shipping container measuring 40′ x 8′ (~12.2m x 2.4m), but are extensively retrofitted to serve as a micro-farm that can grow some 4,500 plants at a time. The rows of plants are grown vertically, with the LED lighting strips between them delivering “the optimal wavelengths for uniform plant growth” and the hydroponic system supplying the nutrients that the plants need, directly to their roots, using 90% less water than conventional growing does.

And not only do the units grow mature crops, but the LGM also integrates a dedicated germination and seedling station (also using LED lighting and hydroponic irrigation) that can handle up to 2500 plant starts, which then get planted into the growing towers a few weeks after sprouting. This aspect of the LGM is probably one of the most essential elements for a production farm, and one that isn’t so obvious to non-farmers, as it enables the growers to start seeds and continuously feed those seedlings into the system for regular harvests, all within the walls of the shipping container.

According to the Freight Farms website, these “smart farms” (so-called because they can be controlled via smartphone) also offer another advantage over outdoor growing and other open systems, because the use of a sealed container for growing can “eliminate the need for herbicides/pesticides.” The LGM system is also considered to be modular and scalable, as the shipping containers can be securely stacked on top of each other for increased production in the same physical footprint as a single unit.

By enabling year-round growing, even in cold climates, each of these 320 square foot containers are said to be able to produce an acre’s worth of food each year, and could be a viable option for the urban farm entrepreneur. The cost of a unit isn’t cheap ($76,000), and there are other costs associated with operating one (estimated to be about $13,000 per year for electricity, water, and various growing and packaging supplies), but considering that the LGMs are considered to be capable of producing yields of locally-grown produce “at commercial-scale in any climate and any season,” they might be a great business investment for the prospective urban farmer.

Find out more at Freight Farms.

10 Flowers To Grow With Vegetables

Posted By Andrew McIndoe @ 9:15 on March 23rd 2015

Companion Planting: How To Deter Pests and Encourage Beneficial Insects

Flowers among the vegetables are more than just a colourful addition. They attract pollinating insects to fertilise the flowers of beans, peas, tomatoes and all those crops that depend on pollination to produce a crop.

In some cases they may act as a decoy or a repellent to harmful insects such as aphids. Some are beneficial to and attract predatory insects such as ladybirds (ladybugs), wasps and hoverflies. These are particularly useful in controlling pests naturally without your intervention.

Some also act as soil improvers: either by fixing nutrients in the soil or acting as green manures if dug into the ground at an early age. Some just look pretty, attract the bees and provide some lovely blooms for cutting for the house.

1. The hardy pot marigold, calendula looks at home in the vegetable garden or alongside vegetables in raised beds or containers. The petals can be used as a lively addition to salads.

Bees and other pollinators will visit for the nectar and pollen. Grow single flowered varieties and allow it to seed itself. It is a hardy annual so will pop up year after year on most soils.

2. Nasturtium always looks at home amongst vegetables, especially later in the year. Both flowers and leaves are edible, as are the seeds which are sometimes used pickled as an alternative to capers. Visited by bees it is also a magnet for caterpillars, so a good indicator plant.

3. Poached egg flower, Limnanthes douglasii is the ultimate flower to grow anywhere around crops that need pollinating.

It forms a low cushion of feathery foliage smothered in shining flowers. Bees swarm to it, as do hoverflies which will prey on those pests.

4. Practically all simple daisies are highly attractive to bees, butterflies, hoverflies and predatory wasps.

Camomile fits in anywhere in the open ground, raised beds or containers. You can use the flowers to make a fragrant, sleep-inducing infusion.

5. I’ve mentioned the prairie flower giant hyssop, agastache many times for its spikes of blue flowers in late summer. It is not often recommended as a flower for the vegetable garden, but it is a magnet for bees and looks lovely with orange and yellow marigolds.

6. French and African marigolds are used to deter aphids, they contain some natural pyrethrins. They are also pungently aromatic and are supposed to repel nematodes in the soil.

They attract hoverflies which prey on the aphids and the single and semi-double varieties seem to be popular with bees.

7. Phacelia, sometimes called scorpionweed, can be grown as a green manure; in other words you dig the green plant into the soil as a fertiliser.

If left to flower it is highly attractive to pollinators and its soft lilac flowers are highly attractive too.

8. Clover is a legume, in other words it is in the same family as peas and beans. This means it has nodules on its roots which contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

These fix atmospheric nitrogen providing food for the plant. Used as a green manure, or if the roots are left in the ground it feeds the soil. Clover is widely used in organic farming.

Red clover looks lovely and its prevalence as the nectar source for honey is testament to its attraction to pollinators.

9. Cosmos is an easy hardy annual to grow with feathery foliage and beautiful single or semi-double blooms that are superb for cutting.

Bees, other pollinators and butterflies love it and it is particularly useful later in the season to attract pollinators to your runner beans and tomatoes.

10. In the shadiest corner of the vegetable plot grow comfrey. You may need to contain it but it does make great ground cover.

If you have fruit trees, grow it under them. The flowers are a good nectar source and the leaves a great addition to the compost heap. Organic gardeners will brew comfrey tea: as a fertiliser for the plants.

Futuristic Water Bottle Is an Edible Blob of Awesomeness Called Ooho!

Looks like someone has started to create an awesome, cool way to drink water. The future of sustainable water portability is almost here: The Ooho! Water Blob won the Lexus 2014 Design Award

Ooho! Water blog sustainable water portability bottle lexus award Ooho! Water blog sustainable water portability bottle lexus award

When we drink bottled water we throw away plastic, [and] 80% of the bottles are not recycled….. Ooho! uses the culinary technique of sphereification, the water is encapsulated in a double gelatinous membrane. The technique consist into apply sodium alginate (E-401) from the brown algae and calcium chloride (E-509) in a concrete proportions in order to generate a gelification on the exterior of the liquid. The final package is simple, cheap (2ct/unit), resistant, hygienic, biodegradable and even eatable. Ooho! is licensed as creative commons so everyone could make them at their kitchen, modifying and innovating the “recipe.”


Photos from DesignBoom <<

How a community garden will steal your heart

Let’s talk about food. Things are changing, and they have been for some time. Even back in the 70’s when the convenience of “engineered to withstand packaging and shipping” processed food took over, there was resistance to that beast. The resistance could have been due to poverty or simply for a love of growing their own food. Either way, the food movement is now, and it’s growing stronger each day. I attended a luncheon organized by the Virginia Green Building Council earlier this week, and was truly inspired by the stories, charisma, and passion Tanya Denckla Cobb expressed. She recounted her experiences, journeys, and stories surrounding this food movement across the U.S.Tanya is an Environmental Mediator at the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia. She has been involved and researching this food movement since the late 80s. She is the author of, Reclaiming Our Food, which explores the movement in great detail.


As we eagerly listen and munch away on our sandwiches from Mona Lisa Pasta, Tanya encourages us to pipe up about why people are interested in this food movement and to think about what the motivating factors are surrounding the movement. Why do we shop at the farmer’s market or choose local foods? Why do we participate in community garden programs? She reiterates our responses: that there is a desire to regain a trust in our food and to re-establish a connection to our food. Of course, we also just want better tasting, less engineered processed food. We aren’t the only ones. Tanya wants to show us the motivation for urban farming and the food movement and the explore the impacts.

Healing lands and communities

She begins our journey in the heart of Philadelphia, PA. GreensGrow is a community garden that was started by two chefs who basically said, “We want a better tomato. We want a tomato with explosions of flavor. We need local tomatoes. We need a local farm.” Of course, having a farm in the middle of the city might sound impossible, but these two chefs and the community transformed an abandoned and contaminated lot into a beautiful productive flourishing urban farm. After an 18 inch concrete cap was poured on the site to remedy the contamination, they started with hydroponics and then moved to using raised beds. Now they offer educational tours, cooking demonstrations, and have greenhouses for year round production. What was once an eyesore and health hazard to the community is now a nationally recognized leader in urban farming.

I’m halfway through my caprese sandwich on focaccia, and we’re traveling to Boston, MA, which is also a mecca for urban farming. The South End and Lower Roxbury Open Space Land Trust consists of 16 community gardens and pocket parts. Upon visiting some of these gardens Tanya was impressed by how the people are “ingenious and creative in finding ways to use spaces in communities.” Some of the garden plots were using the space in all three dimensions to grow food. These gardens were started in the 1970’s and are an integral part of the community’s identity. They have been passed down from generation to generation. After the Boston School of Public health conducted soil testing in some of the gardens, they realized it was contaminated with creosote from the railroad ties that were generously provided to create structure for the plots. Upon proposing that the gardens be closed, the community vehemently protested, which has opened up a whole new field of research on ways to clean the soil and remove the contamination to save the gardens. Growing collards and sunflowers will remove some toxins from the soil over about a five year period. Ultimately, the ties were removed and a mixture of two parts healthy soil to one part contaminated soil was deemed acceptable.

Now we’re on the other coast in Portland, OR. A once termed “shut in neighborhood” where crime, drugs, and trash prevailed, and no sense of community existed makes a dramatic shift. A small garden was installed in the center of this public housing complex. Subsequently, the people in the apartments started interacting with each other regularly, crime rates went down, they started cleaning up, and they said no more drugs in our neighborhood. It transformed this neighborhood so much so that the public housing authority asked the organizers to set one up in all of their public housing complexes.

Another Portland, OR public housing community was the recipient of a Hope VI grant, which aims to revitalize the worst public housing projects into mixed-income developments. A community garden established in one of these developments really is the heart of the community. Without the garden there wouldn’t be much interaction between the different cultures or income brackets. The residents of the development formed the Seeds of Harmony Garden Committee to put serious thought into what they wanted to get out the garden and what they wanted to grow. Ultimately, they wanted it to be about sharing ideas, culture, and love.

The gardens do more than heal lands and communities. They also allow individuals and communities to flourish, and can be a center for professional and economic development. Janus Youth has been very instrumental in the development of several urban farming programs in low-income neighborhoods in the Portland, OR area, one of which is the Seeds of Harmony Garden. They aim to unite the various cultures in the community, encourage entrepreneurship, provide employment and job skills training, and facilitate youth development by providing leadership opportunities at Food Works, a three acre certified organic farm.

Now we journey a little farther up the West Coast. Seattle, WA has made strides toward allowing public lands to be used for private profit, something frowned upon in many areas of the U.S. The result has been very beneficial to those low income families that take advantage of the P-Patch Community Gardens. They can grow produce, which they can both sell at farmer’s markets and use to feed their families. The P-Patch gardens are much more though. They really are a place for all members of the Seattle community, and “are places to share love of gardening, cultivate friendships, strengthen neighborhoods, increase self-reliance, wildlife habitat, foster environmental awareness, relieve hunger, improve nutrition, and enjoy recreational and therapeutic opportunities.”

Hopping back to the East Coast, one of the most impressive stories of passion, entrepreneurship, and economic development is Nuestras Raices in Holyoke, MA. A community of migrated Puerto Rican farmers gazed upon a vacant lot below their apartment building. The area was the poorest in Massachusetts after the loss of many tobacco harvesting and paper mill jobs. The members of the community knew what to do, they knew how to grow food, so they were perplexed as to why they were not able to feed their families. Finally, they decided to do something about it. They occupied the abandoned lot and built a garden incorporating vibrant colors into the structures. They put so much work and detail into the gardens. When Tanya asked “what if the land owner comes back and wants to take over?” They said, “so what? We’ll go somewhere else. It’s better to light a candle than curse the dark.” Eventually, they further developed and opened a co-op, restaurant, and use the space to help other members of the community start small businesses. Finally, they realized they needed large plots of land so that they could train others how to farm. They acquired a 30 acre inner city farm where they focus on food systems, economic development, and agriculture.

Kids are the key

Above all, one of the primary motivating factors of this movement is health. Two-thirds of the population in developing nations is overweight or obese. Just as the push to recycle saw success when kids brought home school projects about recycling and “dragged the parents along,” so too will the food movement, and an emphasis on eating healthy, buying local, or growing your own. Community gardens are popping up at schools all across the U.S. It might start out as an after school garden club, which gets the parents involved and funds are raised to actually build the garden. Next, the kids have recipe contests or tastings to get familiar with the vegetables. Then the cafeteria serves the food from the gardens on the lunch menu. The kids’ garden is incorporated into all aspects of the curriculum to further emphasize its importance. Finally, the child starts to educate parents about the vegetables. Tanya found in one circumstance, the parent didn’t even know how to cook the vegetables after a kid actually chose brussel sprouts, when he could have anything he wanted in the store!

Small Act grows big results

On closing, Tanya expresses that she hopes she has demonstrated “how a seed can be planted that can transform and heal spaces, identities, our health, and our communities.” These gardens perfectly embody how a Small Act can blossom into something much greater with more meaning than just food on a dinner plate. The essence of this movement is about love and community. It’s about reclaiming our land, and reclaiming our food.