Taking Hydroponics Beyond Closet Pot Growing

Lee Mandell is farming inside his loft in Brooklyn. The founder of two-year old Boswyck Farms currently grows tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, four kinds of lettuces, and herbs hydroponically in about 150 square feet. He considers Boswyck Farms to be a testing ground for his expanding business in hydroponic food farming: designing and installing hydroponic systems, as well as teaching workshops. He's also developing a science curriculum for K–12 grades based around hydroponic farming. CHOW spoke with Mandell about this techie approach to farming.

So what is hydroponic farming?

Hydroponics is basically growing without soil. The word breaks down to "water work." It's a weird combo of French and Greek. You grow plants directly in water mixed with nutrients. There are many forms, but the bottom line is the nutrient solution is supplying everything the plant needs. Possibly the most common form is the Chia Pet.

Are there any advantages to growing food this way?

There are two big advantages: One is you get higher yield per square foot than soil-based farming. It's also the most efficient use of water. All of the water is used by the plants; there is no runoff. So you are seeing a lot of hydroponics in the Middle East. Israel is actually one of the leaders.

Are we behind the times?

We are playing catch-up. In this country, hydroponics is more new than in other places. Most of the commercial hydroponics use in this country is for growing pot. It's one of the first myths I have to dispel: Yes, you can grow something other than pot.

So it doesn't have to be a shady grow-closet?

If you want to grow year-round, you've got to grow inside some of the time. But we are also in the process of installing hydroponic systems outdoors.

Are a lot of people starting to embrace hydroponic farming?

We are getting contacted by more restaurants. We are also interested in putting systems in schools, so that some of the food going into the school lunch programs can be grown right there. While we aren't involved in it, there is also a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse getting built on a rooftop in Queens that is all hydroponic. It is a company called Gotham Greens that is supposed to open up this spring. They are the biggest commercial hydroponic set-up happening in New York so far.

Sounds like this is ideal for urban farming.

It's great for rooftops. And obviously you don't have to worry about the toxic soil, which we battle all the time in the urban environment.