When Gabe Blanchet and Jamie Byron lived together at MIT, Byron had a green thumb. The room was full of flowering vegetables and smelled like earth and nature instead of weed and farts. Blanchet's diet became more plant-based as he started harvesting what Byron grew.
Years later, Blanchet and Byron are putting personal-sized gardens in dorm rooms and living rooms around Boston through their gardening system, the Grove Ecosystem. It could be the future of indoor gardening.
What's so cool about the Grove Ecosystem is the simplicity of its underlying science. Anyone could do what Blanchet and Byron are doing. They even developed an intuitive gardening app that could turn the most die-hard carnivores into veggie savants.
We talked to Blanchet about some of the most important things to know about growing your own food at home — and how you can set yourself up with salad for life.
You can build a system for under $1,000.
It all starts with fish. The core of the Grove Ecosystem is a bookshelf full of plumbing and a fish tank. How it works:
1. Feed the fish.
2. The fish produce waste in the water.
3. Bacteria turns the waste-filled water into nitrates.
4. Those nitrates act as an optimal fertilizer for the plants.
"It's just the nitrogen cycle that you learn about in fourth grade," Blanchet told Mic. "Essentially the fish waste provides a lot of the inputs or nutrients for the system. The biggest is ammonia, which is converted by good bacteria into nitrates. They clean the water, and it goes back into the aquarium."
Once you get the system down, it doesn't have to win any beauty pageants. This guide from Instructables is pretty much just two plastic buckets, one full of fish, one full of plants and earth. They're connected by a fish tank pump, which is the most expensive element, coming in a little over $30 on average.
You can pick what you can grow — but be realistic.
Keep in mind, Blanchet and Byron's model is built to use its resources as conservatively and precisely as possible, like a small version of these building-sized urban farms. It's controlled by an automating app to do all the hard FernGully stuff. But if you pay attention to what you're doing, you can really push your system to its limits.
"There are a wide variety of crops that are more hands-off and faster cycles," said Blanchet, who's currently growing cherry tomatoes, strawberries, basil, arugula, bok choy and kale. "Thyme or oregano are easy. It's the combo of ease and time cycle to grow them. Certain lettuce greens have been really easy to grow."
But more complex fruits and vegetables take more of your attention. "They take more attention because there's two cycles," Blanchet told Mic. "You have to change conditions, like from summer to fall, because that's when they grow fruit. On your own, you have to shorten the time of day, the spectrum of light, to simulate an autumn-like condition, with humidity too. That's how you get the very sweet, great-tasting berries, tomatoes and peppers."
You can grow foods that aren't native to your address.
Besides the more obvious implications of being able to grow berries in the dead of winter, aquaponic gardening also opens the possibility of growing this from clear across the planet, like herbs and spices from someone's homeland.
"There are so many culinary herbs that people are excited to grow and have on hand," Blanchet said. "There are people from different backgrounds and cultures, trying to grow things native to their lands that they can't find in their grocery stores."
You can feed yourself regularly if you plan it out.
Several bowls of salad and a few tomatoes and peppers a week: That's how much Blanchet says you can expect with a basic Grove system. But that's based just on the existing models. If you know how everything works, there's no reason you can't build a large setup in your garage using more industrial tools, or converting a pantry into a walk-in vertical garden, which, according to Blanchet, could feed a family every day reliably. The best part, besides not paying $5 for a bag of organic baby spinach: You know what's gone into making food you've grown yourself. And you know there aren't chemicals.
"When I'm making a salad, I literally bring the bowl in [the Grove room], cut the greens and put them in a salad bowl," Mike Zartarian, a Grove electrical engineer, says in a company video. "There's nothing to wash off of them. They're ready to go. It makes it easier to eat a salad a night."
You can help save the environment.
It's a bleeding-heart mentality. But considering the brutal effect our food consumption has on the environment, we need to start figuring out better ways to do our part in keeping our planet from falling apart.
It may take a while to really optimize how you grow your fruits and vegetables. But don't think in terms of crop numbers. "That's like going to a five-star restaurant and asking how many calories you can get out of a meal," Blanchet told Mic. Having an indoor garden in general can make your life better. It cleans the air. The food is clean and organic. And, maybe most important, you're doing your part to keep up the planet you share with 7 billion other people.
Correction: Aug. 10, 2015
An earlier version of this article referred to the indoor gardening system as a Grove Lab. Its official name is Grove Ecosystem.