As operations were just starting to come together in Santa Barbara, California, I had to move locations to Seattle, Washington and leave behind all tangible progress towards becoming sustainable. Before I left, I gave all of my sustainable creations: the planter boxes full of vegetables, the aquaponics system, and the fish tank, to my neighbors. Although it was disappointing to give away all of the tangible progress I made, the intangible progress, what I learned during the process, is what’s most important.
I learned that building planter boxes is easy, and becoming sustainable is hard. The main obstacle I encountered when growing vegetables was a lack of space. Spacial constraints prohibited me from growing enough food to revolutionize my diet. I was, however, able to grow enough food among the planter boxes to noticeably reduce the amount of vegetables I needed to buy from the store.
In my experiment, the plants that were most productive were the foliage plants. By foliage plants, I mean the plants that have edible leaves and/or stems, opposed to flowering plants where you have to wait for the plant to grow a flower and wait for that flower to be pollinated before anything edible starts growing. Romaine lettuce, red lettuce, and sweet peas were the three plants that yielded enough in the small space available to eat consistently. The Romaine lettuce and red lettuce (foliage plants) produced substantially more than the sweet peas (flowering plant). So, if you are a college student trying to grow vegetables with limited available space I would highly recommend growing Romaine lettuce and red lettuce, and keep sweet peas in mind.
There are also some simple ideas you can use to expand the space available for growing. Rather than being limited to growing everything in garden beds on the ground, consider these options: you can build pots to place on your window or hang; you can build planter boxes where there is no garden already; you can build raised garden beds if the ground doesn’t get enough light or you just want easier access to the plants without the hassle of bending over. When using these ideas, or any of your own, keep in mind that vertical orientation can save a lot of space. Vertical orientation is essentially using the vertical space in your garden rather than just the horizontal space. For example, you can arrange multiple planter boxes, pots, or whatever you’re using, in a vertical stack, in such a way as to let light shine on all the plants in the top planter box while simultaneously allowing light to reach all of the subsequent planter boxes underneath. There are many examples online of gardens utilizing vertical orientation.
When you don’t have the ability to garden outside, aquaponics is a cool way to do it inside. The first aquaponics system I built worked better than I ever imagined. The plants in the aquaponics system grew about twice as fast as the plants outside. The plants that thrived most in the system were melon plants and tomato plants. Before I left Santa Barbara, the melon and tomato plants were growing one to two inches per day! Although the original aquaponics system had to be abandoned, my goal of creating a more intelligent system is still underway. The Aquaponics 2.0, a system of similar design to my first system, is currently running in my house, growing a cherry tomato plant, an edamame plant, a rosemary plant, and a bay leaf plant. All is going well in the new system, but there is always room for improvement.
Goodbye, beautiful Santa Barbara. It’s been fun. Hello, Seattle.