Limited hours of sun during the winter, a short growing season and a lack of outdoor space in urban areas are ongoing challenges for would-be gardeners.
For Chicago's Nick Behr and Sarah Burrows, there was also the issue of trying to tend an outdoor container garden in a very windy city. Burrows was quick to admit they never quite got the hang of watering things correctly, either.
But an interest in food security and desire to eat organic, locally produced foods led the couple to get some advice from Behr's uncle, a certified master gardener.
That's when they first learned about using hydroponics to grow herbs and vegetables inside their condominium.
“We went to the store, we bought some of the equipment — it was very cumbersome and large and plastic, not very attractive," Burrows said.
"But we set it up in our house, in front of one of our big windows, and it grew plants like crazy. We had tomatoes and herbs and even cucumbers.”
Burrows says hydroponic gardening uses about 80 per cent less water than soil gardening and the plants grow about 30 per cent faster.
But the couple didn’t like that their house looked like the scene of a science experiment, with all the lights and buckets, so they started developing their own system — a sleeker, more streamlined one, with containers just the right size to fit on a window sill.
Almost a year ago, they ran a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter to get their company, Modern Sprout, off the ground.
“Our house, we refer to it as a culinary jungle," Behr said.
"Basically, any windows that we have, we have stuff growing in. So we’ve got a full allotment of herbs, we’ve got some cherry tomatoes that have been growing all winter, so it’s definitely a very green place inside of our condo right now."
Timer hidden in planter
The container design and finishes reflect the couple's aesthetic tastes, but the shape is also functional and conceals the inner workings that control the watering and feeding mechanisms.
“There’s a pre-programmed timer which is hidden on the side of the planter, that has settings all the way from two waterings a day — which is perfect for orchids or seedlings — up to 17 times a day, which is great for fruit-bearing plants like tomatoes,” Burrows said.
The plants sit in a clay pellet medium so the roots get oxygen, while the system controls the watering rate so all gardeners have to do is top up water levels and organic nutrients as often as needed.
Behr said anything that fruits or flowers can be grown indoors on a window sill, listing cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, kale, lettuce, and a wide range of herbs among the possibilities.
He added that last summer, the couple harvested several hundred cherry tomatoes off of one plant in their condo.
Interest in Modern Sprout has been coming from countries with short growing seasons, like Scandinavia and Canada, as well as from city dwellers without adequate outdoor space.
“It’s funny, though, 'cause even in a place like Florida, we get a lot of interest and that’s because the pests are so bad, people have to resort to indoor gardening all year round,” Burrows said.