plants

Britta Riley grew up in Texas, so that might explain why she’s growing bok choy in her Brooklyn loft. The 33-year-old maker believes that urban agriculture — specifically hydroponic “window farms” — can make a real contribution to environmental activism.

In 2010 Riley raised $27,000 for her Windowfarms project via the micro-donation website Kickstarter, and put together a system to grow plants in vertical columns hung in front of a window. She uses recycled spring water bottles, an aquarium air pump, air valve needles normally used to pump up basketballs, and hardware meant for hanging art.

“We’re showing that you can actually get really far using things already available to us as consumers,” says Riley.

Each column has four upside-down 1.5-liter plastic water bottles connected to each other; plants grow out of 4″ holes cut in the sides with an X-Acto knife. The air pump circulates liquid nutrients that trickle down from the top of the column and wash over the plant roots.

More than 16,000 people have registered at Windowfarms’ open source community website, and today there are window farmers around the globe, including Italy, Israel, Hong Kong, and Finland.

The website has been crucial for exchanging ideas about improving the technology. It’s a process Riley calls “R&DIY,” or Research and Develop It Yourself. She cites as an example of R&DIY the window farmer who figured out a way to cope with the gurgling sound these systems make.

“He read up on gun silencers and then he just drilled a few holes into an empty vitamin bottle and stuck it over the end, and all of a sudden it completely silenced the system,” reports Riley.

Windowfarms have been used to grow straw-berries, cherry tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and herbs. (You can’t grow carrots, garlic, or other root vegetables with the system.) And for those who don’t relish the opportunity to DIY entirely, a variety of Windowfarm kits are sold.

Hydroponic Windowfarms: windowfarms.org