If you want to start to grow some of your own food, as so many of us have the urge to, it's one thing when you have a great sunny spot outside for planting a garden, and another thing entirely if you only have the space in your apartment or house. In some areas, getting some space in a neighborhood garden plot may be an option, but if that isn't a possibility for you, you might consider taking advantage some of the high-tech tools now available for indoor gardens.
Replicating the natural environment of a plant inside of a house or apartment can be challenging, as growers need to be able to replace the growth medium (for the roots to be in), the system for feeding them (fertilizing), the ventilation or air exchange system, and the sunlight itself. But advances in high-tech gardening have made it possible for novice home gardeners to set up a quality indoor grow space that can do all of those things, and more.
Every living space will have a different set of restrictions, from the weight of the growing medium to the physical size of the setup, but because such a wide variety of options are available for growing indoors, potential growers have have plenty of choices for putting together a system that works best for them. Here's an overview of some of the technology that's making this possible:
Planting your veggies right in pots of garden soil can be a quick solution if you have access to a patio or balcony for placing them, but for higher-efficiency growing in small spaces, there are a couple of other options. Tomatoes and lettuce might grow amazingly well in soil, but they can also thrive when grown in either a hydroponic, aeroponic, or aquaponic setup.
All three of these methods are based on a 'soil-less' growing method that uses water to deliver the nutrients to the plants, with the big difference between the three being the details of how that water/nutrient mix is delivered to the roots. With a basic hydroponic system, the roots are generally growing through a material such as perlite, rock wool, or clay pellets, and are bathed with water several times a day using some variety of ebb-and-flow irrigation. For aeroponics, the roots are exposed to a mist of water instead of a flood, usually without a growing medium, with the roots growing into a trough or channel. Aquaponics uses a hydroponics system in conjunction with aquaculture, which integrates the waste and water from the fish (or other aquatic animals) as fertilizer for the plants.
Commercial plug-and-play hydroponics systems come in a variety of configurations, from the smallest countertop unit to a large semi-trailer full of growing space, and many of them are modular, so you can expand your indoor garden as you have the funds or space to do so. For the DIY types, or those with a challenging living space that calls for a custom solution, a quick web search will pull up a ton of great instructional videos and plans for putting together an indoor growing setup that's right for the situation.
Lighting for Growing Indoors:
For those with a balcony or patio or window with great sun exposure, providing light for your plants isn't an issue, except in the short days of winter. But for growers without access to natural sunlight, installing a good lighting system is a key to successful indoor gardening. The standard for growing indoors used to be (and still is) using large, high-powered lamps for light, but they aren't really appropriate for using in a small space, as they generate a lot of heat and take up valuable space. While they may be very bright and effective for growth, they also use a lot of electricity to run, so they don't make the most financial sense for a small indoor garden.
Fluorescent lighting is another option for indoor growing, and it can be as simple as stringing up a standard fluorescent light fixture right above the plants, or as complex as installing a number of compact florescent fixtures in an overhead array. The standard 3 or 4-foot long fluorescent fixtures (usually sold as garage or shop lighting) are cheap to acquire, but they also aren't the most effective in either brightness (lumens), or in delivering the optimum wavelengths (color) of light for plant growth. However, advances in fluorescent technology have made it possible for florescent lights to produce a specific range of wavelengths, as well as put out a higher intensity of light, specifically for growing indoors. These types of fluorescent lights, while not being nearly as powerful as a big grow light, use only a fraction of the energy to run, and put off a minimal amount of heat while operating.
The newest type of indoor lighting technology uses LED bulbs, which also use only a fraction of the energy to run, and which are capable of produce not only an intense amount of light for their size, but a more optimal range of the light spectrum than other grow lights. Because of their small size and energy-efficiency, LED lights are being considered by NASA as a possible method for growing food onboard for long space missions, but they're also available to the home gardener. A limitless variety of different setups are possible, allowing for a range of crop or site-specific lighting requirements or installations into a custom or confined space.
Small indoor gardening setups won't need to worry too much about ventilation, as the natural airflow through the room is sufficient for most systems. But for bigger systems, with lights that generate more heat, small low-power fans, such as those found in computers or appliances, can be hooked to a controller (see below) and programmed to turn on and off at set temperature points.
Automating the Indoor Garden:
For those who buy a plug-and-play hydroponic system, the automation of the unit is already taken care of, but for those who build their own, or want to extend the possibilities of their indoor garden, the recent explosion of affordable and programmable micro-controllers makes it possible for the DIY grower to add custom automation to their system.
Using an Arduino (an open-source electronics prototyping platform), gardeners have managed to set up an automated watering and temperature system, with sensors that turn on the systems only when needed, and developed a Guardino (now Growerbot) that can turn on plant lighting during short winter days, monitor temperatures, and water the plants when needed. The platform can handle the irrigation controls, lighting, ventilation, and more, letting growers control the indoor garden environment more precisely.
The Raspberry Pi device is also being used to extend and automate indoor gardening, and for those interested in getting started, a GitHub repository is home to details for the G.R.A.A.S. (Gardening with Raspberry Pi & Arduino Automation System), and the GardenBot is another option.
Growing indoors can be more challenging than growing outdoors, but it's just as rewarding, and with the wide range of high-tech tools available for indoor gardening, there's no better time to get started, either with a plug-and-play system or a homebuilt custom garden.