Updated/Fact-Chacked on April 25, 2023 by Gareth James
There’s no denying that growing your food at home is a great idea; not only will you save money but also ensure that it’s of high quality and free of artificial genetic modifiers. Unfortunately, most people do not have the space to ‘live off the land’, but there is a solution. Vertical farming.
In this day and age, anyone can set up a vertical farm, even at home. Maintaining a vertical farm can save you a lot of precious space and money simultaneously.
In our guide, we’ll help you develop a better idea about vertical farming and how you can use it to save space without sacrificing the volume of your output.
- 1 History of vertical farming
- 2 Commercial vertical farming in the UK
- 3 How to set up your own vertical farm at home
- 4 Home vertical farm solutions (All-in-one kits)
- 5 Mini home farm solutions (cheap options)
- 6 Outdoor vertical farm kits
- 7 Vertical farming advantages
- 8 Vertical farming shortcomings
- 9 Final Thoughts
History of vertical farming
Vertical farming is nothing new; the idea has been around for thousands of years. One of the first recorded examples is the hanging gardens of Babylon; plants were placed on tiers above each other and are thought to have reached 20-30 M high. A pulley system is thought to have been used to move water from the local river to a water reserve above the gardens.
The idea of actually growing plants without soil was first published in a book (Sylva Sylvarum) in 1627, and further experimented with by the scientist John Woodward. The term ‘vertical farming’ was coined by Gilbert Ellis Bailey in 1915; his idea was to build vertical farms underground to protect crops from wartime damage.
Commercial vertical farming in the UK
Commercial vertical farming has become a big business, especially in the USA, where companies like Aerofarms have invested over $130 million in their business. Most of the big vertical farms are based in the States, but we slowly see more large-scale vertical farm businesses in Europe. Infarm is one of the largest commercial vertical farm businesses in Europe. Based in Berlin, they have raised around 144 million euros from investors to expand their business.
Commercial vertical farming has a high barrier to entry with huge setup costs, many employing cutting-edge growing technologies. Infarm, for example, gathers and tracks of 50,000 data points on plants – plants can be automatically grown with optimum conditions, controlled by data and AI.
In the UK, Vertical Futures is leading the charge in Southeast London, supplying microgreens to over 100 restaurants. Vertical Futures also provide vertical farming solutions like ‘container labs’ – a shipping container with a full indoor growing system. Companies that have bought their systems include Heck, the sausage company, to produce their veggie range.
Another large-scale vertical farm business in the UK is Growing Underground, based under the bowels of Clapham, using 100% renewable energy and producing a variety of nutrient-dense microgreens sold at selected M&S, Tesco, Whole Foods and Farmdrop.
Ocado has been investing heavily into vertical farming, forming partnerships with 80 Acres and Priva and buying a stake in Jones Food Company – to create vertical farms as part of their micro fulfilment strategy.
How to set up your own vertical farm at home
For starters, you need to have a tiered element to the farm to create a vertical farm. You can set up your vertical farm at home in two ways: low-tech and high-tech.
High-Tech vs Low-Tech
High-tech vertical farms require you to buy several components that work together to give you an automated vertical farm with a constant supply of electricity. These systems can be a bit complicated for beginners. Not to mention, they’re expensive.
If you opt for a low-tech vertical farm, you can significantly cut down on costs. Here’s how you can create a DIY vertical farm at home:
- Get a few empty plastic bottles.
- Carefully cut a small portion of the bottom of each bottle while keeping the lid of 2 of the bottles.
- Cut out two holes from each bottle a little beneath the lid on opposite sides to use them as a drain for extra water.
- Fill each bottle with pot soil for a few centimetres from the bottom, except the top bottle that acts as a funnel.
- Make a small hole in the lid of the last bottle, which will be used as a tank for a steady and continuous water supply.
- Make small windows on the bottles filled with soil to plant the roots of young plants.
- Make sure the components are properly held and connected together.
The layout of a vertical farm consists of tiers stacked up over each other vertically. Each tier has its lightning that mimics sunlight artificially.
For best results, you need to ensure that the lights work at specific times of the day with variable intensities to make sure that it simulates the circadian cycle.
It’s a common mistake for beginners to leave the lightning at its full intensity the whole day, thinking that it’s beneficial for their plants. However, this can be counterproductive since your plants need time intervals of darkness, too.
You need to water your vertical farm just as much as you’d water your horizontal one, but you won’t need the same amount of water.
You can use several techniques to water your vertical farm, including manual watering, hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics.
Manual watering is the cheapest and most readily available method out of the four. Just water the top plants and let the rest of the seeds feed by the effect of gravity.
Another cheap alternative is hydroponics. It’s less expensive than both aeroponics and aquaponics. Not to mention, setting it up is super easy. All you have to do is keep your plants in a circulated pool of water abundant with healthy nutrients.
As for aeroponics, this method works by setting up several pipes beneath the plants that spray a fine, nutrient-rich mist right onto the roots of the plants.
The best part about this method is that it eliminates the need for soil, making it very easy to scale. However, this technique is a bit expensive, but not unlike aquaponics.
Using the aquaponics method means you need to buy fish to simulate a natural ecosystem. The presence of fish can significantly impact the soil’s fertility, allowing your plants to grow up healthy and quickly.
Home vertical farm solutions (All-in-one kits)
If you want to integrate vertical farming into your home, you have a few options; mini versions aimed at herb growers or mid-level systems. You can use vertical systems and grow plants using natural light and hydroponics.
Here are a couple of mid-level home vertical farm systems if you are getting more serious about indoor growing.
2023 Update: Since writing this article 2 years ago, there has been an explosion of new products onto the market. We are going to start reviewing each product, so bookmark this page.
Agrisolutions make a home system called ‘Plantcube‘, which looks like a wine fridge. This automated, app-controlled system can grow nutrient-dense greens in weeks from your home – all without any soil or mess. The basic unit starts at 3,000 Euros so you will have to eat a serious amount of greens before you are ‘eating for free’. Even if you are a serious greens lover and spending £20 per week on them, it will take 2.5 years to break even – and this excludes any running costs!
This kit gives you three tiers of growing trays and can be used indoors or outdoors. Altifarm basic model is with soil and no lights, but you can buy expansion packs to add LED light strips and hydroponics if you want to increase your growth potential.
Mini home farm solutions (cheap options)
You can buy mini indoor farm kits on Amazon that produce a few plants at a time; these are generally not ‘vertical stacked’ but do use hydroponics and lighting to increase growth speeds. Here are a couple that has had good reviews:
Akarina Hydroponic kit is aesthetically pleasing set-up and easy to set up. It comes with some salad leaf seeds; system will do seed to plate in 40 days.
Miracle-Gro AeroGarden Harvest is great piece of kit from the top nutrients suppliers. Every garden centre stocks Miracle Grow product so you would expect so decent liquid nutrients. Unlike the above kit, the Aerogarden comes with plug-plants (not seeds) to get you growing straight away.
Outdoor vertical farm kits
If you lack outdoor space and want to grow veg, you can buy outdoor vertical farm kits that rely on natural light. Hydro Veg sells kits that sit on a wooden frame (5’6 ft height and 7’4 feet wide). Currently, these kits are £355.00.
What plants can you grow with hydroponics?
Most beginners to vertical farming and hydroponic setups grow herbs first, and basic salad leaves like lettuce and spinach. These plants are generally hardy and fast-growing; lettuce can be grown from seed to plate in under 30 days.
Once you master herbs and salad leaves, it’s time to move on. The next great plant to grow is tomatoes, especially cherry tomatoes which can do well with an LED setup. Other vining plants to grow include cucumbers.
Vertical farming advantages
Space-saving is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the benefits of vertical farming. Similar to how skyscrapers work, vertical farms save space by being oriented in a vertical setup instead of a horizontal one, which means that you don’t need to buy a large land to grow your farm.
Another overlooked advantage of vertical farming is water saving. By watering the top portion of your farm, the water will simply slide down to the corps at the bottom, allowing you to water your farm using much less water.
Additionally, vertical farms are maintained in controlled environments, so you won’t expose your plants to unexpected weather conditions and pest attacks.
Furthermore, vertical farms are more effective in producing a higher output in a smaller interval of time. This is mainly because vertical farms require less space than conventional farms and are maintained in a controlled environment.
Vertical farming shortcomings
While vertical farming has lots of favourable features, it isn’t flawless. The first disadvantage of maintaining a vertical farm is cost. If we break down the costs of a vertical farm, we need to consider equipment and running costs.
The costs are largely variable and depend on your goals. The equipment costs could range anywhere from £100 up to £1500
One factor that can primarily affect your equipment costs is whether you want an indoor or outdoor vertical farm. It’s a no-brainer that outdoor vertical farms require more expensive equipment, but they’ll give you a much higher output.
Now that you know how vertical farms work, you can set up your own one at home right now. Sure, your initial costs would be higher than if you grow a horizontal farm, but the benefits are well worth it in the long run.
Vertical Farming FAQs
How quickly can plants grow with hydroponics?
With the correct conditions, you can go from seed to plate in 3 weeks with some plants.
How do you speed up hydroponic growth?
You can add nutrients to your water system to make the plants grow faster. Each plant will have different optimal nutrient requirements.
Is hydroponic growing faster than soil?
Some plants can grow 100% faster with hydroponics if set up correctly with optimal growing solutions.
Mary shares a passion for gardening with her husband John, though she is more focused on growing veg on their allotment at St. Margaret’s Allotments, Durham. Mary also works in the lawn care industry and manages the lawns for the Durham University campus.