Explore Vertical Farming Techniques

As available land gets taken up by development, innovative farmers look to the sky with vertical farming techniques that have minimal footprints while producing plenty of food.

Vertical garden

A vertical farm is the highlight of the US Pavilion at the Expo International in Milan. The wall is made from almost 1,500 individual zipgrow towers and totals nearly 10,000 square feet. It features 42 different vegetables, grains, and herbs grown from seed supplied by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Thanks to the US State Department for inviting us.

Photo by Quint Smith at Expo Milano

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“I guess everyone has crazy brothers and sisters. I know I have. Stan, by the way, has taken out a patent on an invention of his called ‘Botanical Bricks,’ which are simply plant units capable of being built up to any height, for quick landscape effects, the vertical surfaces covered with flowering vines, or the like. He thinks that the idea has great possibilities for such things as world fairs, city yards, indoor gardens, and many other projects. I think perhaps he has got hold of something, and have written him for more information. He certainly deserves a break.”

— A letter from the brother of Stanley Hart White

Stanley Hart White, the father of vertical gardening, certainly was on to something. An influential landscape architecture professor from the University of Illinois, White’s “Botanical Bricks” would lay the foundation for this technologically innovative movement. White’s 1939 vertical gardening patent was indeed visionary. Still today, vertical gardens evoke for many a futuristic, sci-fi technology fit for a colony on the moon. Perhaps this explains the hint of skepticism and amazement in E.B White’s letter. The basic principles of White’s concept can be seen in most modern vertical garden designs. He envisioned a steel structure of any shape and size with a soil-less growing medium that would serve as a living wall.  This basic concept gives rise to endless interpretations, from permanent green walls to mobile vegetable towers. Sadly, White never brought his Botanical Bricks design to reality.  However, his ingenious idea laid the groundwork for many to come. 

While White patented the technology of vertical growing, Patrick Blanc, a French botanist, brought the brilliant idea of green walls to a fantastic reality. Blanc’s vertical gardens marry scientific innovation and stunning artistry. Blanc focuses on lush tropical varieties to create an exotic vertical dreamscape. The first installation of Blanc’s career was at the Museum of Science and Industry in Paris in 1988. Blanc continues to dazzle the urban landscape with his verdant artwork.

How do we bridge the gap between the futuristic art installation and feasibly feeding the booming urban population? Bright Agrotech is a Wyoming based company dedicated to bringing cutting edge urban farming technology to a practical level. Their Zipgrow vertical gardening towers are designed for simplicity in growing vegetables with limited space. Bright Agrotech founders Nate Storey and Chris Michael understand that eating local, growing your own produce, or just getting a bit of garden therapy in a city can be next to impossible. With mile-long community garden plot waiting lists and many community garden plots charging rent, many hopeful urban gardeners can find themselves at a loss. Zipgrow towers are designed with simplicity in mind. They can be used in the home, warehouses, storage containers or used as a green wall outdoors. 

While working on his masters degree focusing on vertical gardening, Nate Storey observed that most four- sided growing towers were experiencing loss of light on at least two sides at one time. His Zipgrow towers are unique in their one sided design which makes for healthier plants with better light exposure.

Zipgrow’s vertical gardening systems use a soil-less growing medium to hold the plants root zone. The plants are irrigated by a drip line with a wicking strip to evenly distribute moisture to all the plants on the structure. Liquid fertilizer is fed through the drip line to the root zone in a hydroponic system. In an Aquaponic system the plants are grown in a symbiotic relationship with fish; the nutrient rich waste water from the fish tank is pumped to the root zone, and the filtered plant water is then cycled back into the fish tank.

Stanley Hart White had envisioned a display at the world’s fair, and other venues to unveil cutting edge technology for the future. This year at the 2015 world Expo (the world’s fair) the American pavilion is featuring a soaring tower of greens and other plants. The vertical gardening tower featured is a super innovative design by Bright Agrotech, the makers of Zipgrow towers. The seeds are all non-GMO, heirloom varieties offered by Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. The juxtaposition of Zipgrow’s ultra-modern gardening technology paired with Baker Creek’s most venerable, historic varieties, makes for an intriguing and colorful display.

Zipgrow towers are truly versatile. While they can be found proudly representing U.S farming technology at 2015 Expo Milano, a couple of New York City farmers use Zipgrow in an entirely different way. Spring Ups is small urban farming venture started by two Wall Street finance guys looking for a change of pace. John Scaife and Christian Golofaro left the New York City finance world for a more hands-on career as urban farmers.  They are using Zipgrow towers in 20’ by 40’ shipping containers to produce 200 pounds of basil a month, right in the heart of New York City. On a pier in Red Hook, Brooklyn, you can find the two Spring Ups shipping containers, repurposed into ultra-efficient micro farms, filled with Italian and Thai basil.

The demand for fresh, local produce is sky high in New York City. Astronomical real estate prices have made farming very cost prohibitive, despite the fact that people are willing to pay top dollar for locally grown food. The logistical hurdle of tapping into this high demand and keeping costs down was the perfect challenge for two guys who love to crunch numbers. Christian and John found the super sustainable and economical design of Zipgrow towers (each 20’ by 40’ container uses only a few gallons of water per day!) to be a great way to offset the famously high energy costs of the city. The compact design of the shipping containers, as well as the increased vertical growing space, is a perfect answer to the real estate dilemma when each square foot counts. Spring Ups focuses on basil because it is an ideal crop for Zipgrow towers with its compact and bushy growing habit and ability to continually harvest. The market value is very high due to basil’s short shelf life and dislike for excessive handling and transport.

We are faced with a booming population, especially in urban areas with limited access to fresh produce, which is the key to a healthy lifestyle and avoiding chronic illness. Large chemical companies and big agribusiness stand to gain from using genetically modified crops and large amounts of pesticides to feed the world. This highly mechanized factory farming is based on an assembly line design, and a one size fits all attitude. Perhaps this is not the answer to feeding the world. Perhaps the answer to feeding the world is just as diversified as the ecosystem itself? Each climate and environment dictates a different agricultural need, a larger scale farm here, an edible forest garden there, and a vertical garden right in the heart of the concrete jungle.