I’ve been working with Adam and our friend Jared Kofron on what we’ve been calling the “plant project” - a DIY hydroponic system with a plant growing lamp, for people who live in apartments and want to grow a few plants.

It’s a goal of mine to grow kitchen herbs, and just have them on hand and cook with them fresh. The true decadent dreamy food life. Parsley and oregano, sage and rosemary, thyme and basils and so on. Maybe some small tomatoes.

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However! I’ve been failing at this pretty hard for about 10 years now, from a combination of laziness, travel, and just not trying that hard to figure it out. I keep our collection of houseplants alive, but kitchen herbs need more frequent watering, more light than we get naturally, and probably some other things. Mostly I’ve just been buying the little $1.50 - $3 tiny pots of herb plants from the grocery store, then feeling sad when they die.

Lately I’ve been buying a bunch of parsley every week or two and making a green sauce: (Alice Waters style, or the one from Lunch at the Shop, but most frequently the Everlasting Meal version, with shallots and anchovy!). The deliciousness of this has made me more motivated to figure this cooking-with-fresh-herbs thing out. I’m certainly not going to pay for the $2-5 herbs in plastic shell things (too much money and trash), and I’m not going to have a yard, but I really want to cook with herbs! So plant project it is.

(Also, watching plants grow is really nice. Besides just eating them.)

Side note for reading friends: I accidentally paired, in short succession, The Secret Life of Trees, Overstory, Semiosis and Ammonite and man have I been thinking about plants a lot lately. Recommend all of those. The first is nonfiction, the second was short listed for the Man Booker prize last year, and last two are super imaginative sci-fi.

Anyways, the answer to my plant-related life goal is clearly to bring in some help: hydroponic watering and a light for those poor lil' plants. It's hard to make it in the pacific northwest! I barely make it through the winter, and I'm not even a plant.

So, Jared’s had a lot of success with his flood-drain system on a timer with growing kale and stuff. It's two plastic tubs, stacked on top of one another, with a light above that. The plants live in the top tub in clay pebbles, and twice a day a little submersible aquarium pump turns on and fills the top tub with nutrient water, which slowly drains back down. And the light turns on and off to simulate the day. That's it!

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This winter, I’m building my own, adding in improvements based on his previous design, and he’s going to rebuild and improve his old one. We've got a BOM, I've gotten most of the parts in the mail - building commences soon, and we’re going to write tutorials for how to build your own as we do it. Plants for everyone!

As we've gotten going, I've realized that here's never been a better time to be a beginner at this! The popularity of weed growing has made hydroponic parts pretty ridiculously cheap compared to what they were just a couple years ago. You can get a 300W full spectrum daylight LED lamp for $80 now. And you can get seeds locally or online, and grow a big variety of stuff. Fedco seeds, for example, has lots of herbs sold in packets of 150-500 seeds for $1.70-$2.00 per type of plant. You can fit a lot of herbs into a little 12x18 inch container, it’ll pay back the investment within a year, since herbs are so expensive. Theoretically. :D If I were buying the dream-life amount of herbs from the grocery or farmers market. Which I am not. But I can imagine. Dream life to real life!

Anyways, Jared and I spent a bunch of bike rides and coffees talking about why grow plants, how do you build it, why build the system this way, and so on: in short, what are the design objectives for an ideal DIY hydroponic system for an apartment? Big picture:

  • Get to grow plants, getting good results with little experience, and then great results as you learn
  • Delicious kitchen herbs on hand to cook with, and enough to share sometimes with friends
  • Ability to grow stuff you couldn't grow in your climate zone or season
  • Small enough to have in an apartment, not going to spill or leak
  • Minimal ongoing costs, < $1/week for a good supply of many herbs/food plants

Read on for how these goals translate into the hardware and system design, and how to build your own DIY hydroponic kitchen herb garden.