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What does the future of vegetable growing look like?

What does 2019 hold for mass fruit and vegetable production?
What does 2019 hold for mass fruit and vegetable production? Credit: InFarm

Thanks to technology, vegetables can now be grown in outer space and deserts, even subterranean tunnels, and soon, the most hostile environment of all: supermarkets. During your rush hour shop, instead of fighting over ready meals you may find yourself in pick-your-own strawberry bliss on aisle 12, free of plastic packaging and air miles.

Energy-efficient LED grow lights, robots and internet-connected vertical farms are some of the technical breakthroughs that are revolutionising edible gardening, notably in places with no outside space at all. And with our global population closing in on eight billion - a majority in garden-less urban apartments - this futuristic tech promises to remove pressure from our natural world (and our own to-do lists) in the nick of time. 

Supermarket farming aisles 

German company InFarm has more than 100 vertical microfarms already in shops across Germany, Switzerland and France with plans to bring them to the UK. Shelving units with grow lights and hydroponic trays of nutrient-rich water, they resemble shop refrigerators growing live salads, veg, herbs and fruit. Staff simply slide trays in to grow and out once customers have picked everything. 

One Bristol-based start-up also hopes to bring vertical farms to high streets using aeroponics that spray roots in a nutrient mist. India Langley, of LettUs Grow, says aeroponics give plants “better access to oxygen and carbon dioxide which results in them growing much faster: we have shown a 70 per cent increase in growth rate compared with hydroponics.” 

Langley is keen to highlight benefits including lack of pesticides, “by reducing food miles, we can help slash food waste and reduce the carbon footprint of fresh produce, around 50 per cent of bagged salad we buy in the UK ends up in the bin.” 

InFarm, German microfarm company Credit: InFarm

Yield per metre can be many times that of in-ground farming, making it possible to feed dense urban populations in very little space. It sounds futuristic but soilless growing has been used for decades, the step change is the cheap-to-run LED grow lights and internet connectivity. 

“Our aeroponic grow beds are fully automatable,” says Langley, excited about the fact their system has central control from LettUs Grow’s headquarters, so shop staff won’t need to worry about nutrient formulas, “it makes this technology accessible to everyone.”

Restaurant kitchen gardens 

Around the world many restaurants are following suit, two Michelin-starred Atera in New York has its own indoor vertical microfarm supplied by Farm.One. In the basement directly next to the kitchen, the farm grows a large variety of unusual herbs and salads for fresh flavour and choice, reducing supply cost and environmental impact.

“By communicating with the farm we are able to get herbs picked just a couple of hours before use and they are to our exact specifications,” says James Moore, Atera’s head chef, “they have so many varieties of herbs that we can sample and use the variety we want to get the best balance out of the dish.” 

Australia-based Farm Wall produce another, attractive-looking vertical farm designed to be seen in cafes and restaurants, and Evopro sell an industrial hydroponic unit in the UK for a cool £8,000. Other options include hydroponic plastic towers housing ten or more plants in a column, which, like all vertical farms, can be used with sunlight (on a rooftop for example) or LED lights. 

A new kitchen appliance 

For those with no outdoor space, IKEA has an indoor vegetable growing solution to slot next to the dishwasher. Its low-cost hydroponic grow towers with the familiar Scandinavian aesthetic are easy to use. Customers scarred by attempts to keep herbs alive on a windowsill can look to these as a living pantry. 

Tom Dixon, designer and mastermind behind IKEA’s ‘gardening will change the world’ show garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, certainly believes in the idea. In May he and the home superstore will construct a two-tiered garden with an underground urban farm beneath a garden for wildlife and wellbeing in the Great Pavilion at Chelsea.

Robot weeding 

Robot vacuums not only amuse cats, they often clean better than we ever did and the future of robot lawn mowers looks assured, but what of the neverending task of veg plot weeding? Roll forward Tertill, a weeding robot crowdfunded through Kickstarter, created by Joe Jones, inventor of best selling robot vacuum, the Roomba. 

Jones explains that Tertill patrols the garden constantly with “a small weed whacker cutting down weeds that have just emerged and are under about an inch tall.” Solar powered, the device constantly weeds during the day keeping plots spick and span. 

For those who find weeding challenging, Tertill could be the answer, and it’s certainly appealing for those fiddly vegetables that require regular hand weeding, such as asparagus, garlic and onions. To these Jones hopes to answer prayers of gardeners plagued by rabbits and deer with “functions that will let Tertill chase pests from the garden and collect extensive data about growing conditions and possibly individual plants.” 

Automated watering and weather monitoring

Everyone forgets to water sometimes, usually in times of summer drought but Hozelock’s new Cloud Controller and irrigation systems mean you need not panic, you can water the garden from anywhere in the world using an app on your phone. 

In conjunction with Netatmo, a WiFi connected outdoor thermometer and rain gauge, you can mollycoddle courgettes while on holiday. Why stop there, by installing outdoor Foscam cameras you can even watch your tomatoes being eaten by slugs. 

Futuristic mass production 

When it comes to vegetable technology, farming leads the way, the sector often first to adopt growing technology. In California, Naio produces three different sized electric weeding robots for crops, removing the need for herbicides. It’s the stuff of sci-fi films and Iron Ox, another farming tech start-up in California is trialing a fully computer operated indoor farm claiming to produce 30 times the quantity of lettuce of a traditional farm. 

Sterling Sussex is a new hydroponic tomato farm in the UK with state of the art smart glasshouses. “We have a central computer constantly monitoring and controlling temperature, nutrition, humidity, light and CO2 levels,” explains director David Scrivens, “we use climate corridors to raise and lower temperatures, while LED lights and shading allow us to produce crops year round, even in winter.” 

Drones have been trialled for spraying and large scale rooftop farms are planned for cities around the world, including London. If eating plants fed on nutrients in water doesn’t appeal, it’s worth remembering that’s how plants transport nutrients naturally from soil and the trade off is crops without pesticides or chemicals used to prolong shelf-life. As for flavour, well, there’s no technology for that, yet.

Find Jack’s blog at jackwallington.com. Follow him on Twitter @jackwallington and on Instagram @jackwallingtongardendesign

What do you think the future of vegetable growing looks like? Would you like to see these technological advances? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.