A Fully Automated Vertical Aeroponic System
by Ryan Moeggenberg
I feel that food you grow yourself is better than any other option. You have full control of the quality and know every step of the process it went through to get to your table. For this reason we want to grow as much of our family’s food as possible but we have a few complications to consider. First, we don’t own the property we live on so I don’t want to make large investments in something permanent. I have built a mobile chicken coop for egg laying hens and a chicken tractor for our meat birds. Both structures fit in our horse trailer so we are able to take them with us when we purchase our next home. I have also added raised beds with scrap lumber and incorporated herbs and a few vegetables in our landscaping. These are a great start given our limitations, but I am always researching more ways to increase our production.
The second consideration is coaxing the most production for the least amount of time invested. We have two kids and two businesses along with our full time jobs. There is not a lot of time left over for garden prep, weed pulling and watering. I researched aquaponic and hydroponic systems because in theory, once they are set up, they seem to eliminate some of the time investments involved with growing in dirt — although they seemed more permanent rather than something that I could easily take with us when we buy our own place.
Short growing season is always a consideration when talking about growing anything in Central Oregon. A greenhouse would be one more thing that I would have to design to come apart to be moved to a new location — which is doable if I really want to, but not preferable. Caterpillar tunnels or hoop houses are ways our local farmers extend their growing during the shoulder seasons. These options still required a significant amount of financial investment including soil improvements and time invested in tending during the growing season. Still not an ideal answer for our situation.
When I was introduced to the Tower Garden I was immediately sold. They are vertical aeroponic growing systems above a 20 gallon reservoir for water and nutrients solution. Aeroponic means that the bare roots (no soil) of the plants are only exposed to water for a period of time and left hanging in the air for the rest. The tower has up to 28 ‘cups’ where you can grow plants in rockwool, but since all of the nutrients are delivered directly to the roots, each cup will support more than one plant. We have two or three tomato or pepper plants sharing one space. That is a potential for a whole bunch of plants only taking up three square feet of space!
The Tower Garden checked the boxes for all of my considerations. Easy to move. Check. Minimal time investment. Check. Indoor, year-round growing. Check. The only negative I could find was that they can’t grow root vegetables. The water and integrated LED grow lights are both on their own timers and fully automatic. After you plant and get your nutrients in the water, all you have to do is check the pH once in a while and add water as needed.
Oh, you have to harvest too because you will have a lot of food! The Tower Garden marketing claims that the plants will grow three times faster and produce 30 percent greater yields on average. Based on my experience, their claim is not a stretch. My theory to their fast growth is partly because everything the plant needs to grow is delivered directly in the water.
When we first set up our Tower Garden we planted all of the cups at the same time: four with tomato plants, four with cherry tomato plants, four with pepper plants, four with herbs and 12 cups with greens. And remember — each cup holds more than one plant. We were harvesting greens in less than four weeks and it all matured at the same time! Our family of four couldn’t keep up. I wasn’t educated about pruning the tomato plants and they grew to the ceiling and it was so bushy we could barely walk past the Tower Garden. This summer when I couldn’t handle the overgrowth anymore I pulled all of the plants and started over. Succession planting and aggressive pruning keep the plants manageable with a steady flow of vegetables and greens.
Restaurant salads have been ruined for us. The flavors that a Tower Garden produces are unbelievable. Marcee likes arugula so we planted some on the Tower Garden. There is so much peppery flavor you need to eat it with a glass of water and it makes store-bought arugula seem like you are eating plain spinach! The kids love to stand and ‘graze’ on the chard and buttercrunch. They describe it as ‘fluffy’ because it is so fresh and tasty. When I break the stems of the bok choy during harvest it is so full of water that it sometimes sprays me. I had planted one of our smaller raised beds with lettuce this summer so that we would have some while I replanted the Tower Garden. We ate it but we didn’t even like that flavor compared to what grows inside. Plus, I wasn’t used to washing lettuce so I harvested our salads from outside directly into our bowls. Once, as I brought a forkful to my mouth, I noticed a little green caterpillar… just in time!
After having a Tower Garden for a year now I have learned a few more benefits above my initial list of considerations. First, there is no pest pressure. Tower Gardens can go outside in the summer if you would like but we opted to keep ours inside because we didn’t have to worry about aphids or other pests. Keeping it inside also kept our lettuce from bolting due to the heat. Second, someone had to water our raised beds every day through the heat of the summer. Twenty gallons or more every day over the course of the summer. I filled the Tower Garden’s twenty gallon reservoir five times. If you were to put a Tower Garden outside on a deck or patio you would have to fill them more often, but the water savings is tremendous.
People often ask how much our electricity increased with the pump and LED lights. We honestly haven’t noticed any difference. We saw an increase in electricity usage when I put the two tank heaters in the horse’s water troughs, but did not notice when we turned the Tower Garden on.
All things considered, we are obviously very happy with our purchase of the Tower Garden and will probably purchase more of them. I would like to have one dedicated to salsa ingredients and the kids want one on the deck with strawberries and melons on trellises. When the kids are interested in growing food, I do everything I can to encourage them.
If you like the idea of owning a Tower Garden yourself but have questions or would like to see one first, give me a ring. You won’t be disappointed!
Ryan ~ 541-280-3337
photos by HomeSpun Magazine