Boswyck Farms: Home Grown Hydroponics

Posted: May 28th, 2010 | Author:

“No, I’m not growing pot.” says Lee Mandel. “Let’s just get that out of the way before we talk about anything else.  Everyone wants to know that.”  Looking the part of the mad scientist, Mandel introduced me and Adriana Young to the inner workings of his indoor farm and hydroponic education and consulting business earlier this year. “I call the project, ‘Boswyck Farms,” harking back the Dutch settlers name for this formerly fertile area, which means ‘Wooded District.’ Sort of ironic considering how industrial Bushwick is today.”

“Hydroponic” means that I am growing plants with water rather than traditional soil.”  Mandel is cultivating jalapeno peppers, basil, chard, kale and tomatoes in his loft in Bushwick using hydroponic technology that he designed himself (as well as some off-the-shelf systems).  The room is aglow with the daylight spectrum of grow lamps and there are tidy rows of plants and planters in almost every free space.

Pictured Above: Mandel's design inserting under-sprayed pots into a PVC pipe that allows recycling of water.

“I am experimenting with a variety of hydroponic methods. Dutch boxes. Upward sprays.  Drip lines.  I am using various soil media, fertilizers and different types of lamps.”

“The great thing about hydroponics is that you can grow your own fresh food in small spaces.  I’ve eaten everything and it all tastes great. Growing plants in this manner uses about one tenth of the water used with conventional farming methods because the water is recycled for about 30 days before it has to be dumped.”

Pictured Above: Ecogrower Drip Hydroponic System with air driven spider drip system with hexagonal reservoir, available at East Coast Hydroponics (see "Resources" below).

“I did have a little problem with White Fly.  In Bushwick! So I sent away for ‘micro wasps‘ a predator insect that is no bigger than a pencil point which lays its eggs into other insect’s larvae.  It’s a proven organic gardening strategy. That did the trick with no chemical sprays.  I live with these plants. If I use an incesticide on the plant, I am going to make myself sick too. Now, that’s a simple way to understand ecology. The earth is like this apartment — just a whole lot bigger.”

Pictured Above: This little card attached to the plant stalk contains "micro wasps" that help control indoor insect pests, like white fly.

“If you want to get started with your own hydroponic gardening, you should visit East Coast Hydroponics in Queens.  Those guys know everything about hydroponic gardening and sell all sorts of equipment for serious gardeners and hobbyists.  If you really want to grow your own food, the products sold in hydroponic stores are quite expensive.  So I began making my own systems using less expense equipment available from any hardware store.”

Pictured Above: Mandel's home-grown hydroponic planter design using off-the-shelf products such as a lidded Rubbermaid storage container and PVC tubing.

“People ask me all the time why I do this. I had really bright windows in my old loft in Boston.  I had amazing plants there.  Taking care of them made me really happy.  When I moved to Bushwick, I didn’t have such great light but I missed gardening so I decided to try hydroponics.  Friends suggested that I grow food and I thought it would be interesting to have an indoor farm.”

Pictured Above: Starting seeds in a Germination Station or Hot House Plus.

“I start all the plants from organic seeds. Most farmers start their seedlings inside in Winter too.  People don’t realize that all they need is heat — not light — when they are sprouting.  Once the green shoots come up, I have to add grow lights.”

“Hyroponics requires the use of growing mediums that are lightweight, support the plant structure, allow oxygen flow around roots, retain little moisture and permit rapid drainage because water and nutrients are delivered to the plant roots, not the growing medium.”

Mandel uses several different growing media instead of potting soil, like an ordinary houseplant.  He prefers “grow rocks” derived from clay — often known by the name LECA — Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate . The clay is formed into pellets and fired in rotary kilns at 1200C, causing it to expand inside and become porous. Expanded clay is light in weight, will not compact, and can be cleaned & sterilized for reuse.  ”The same growing media can be used for rooftop gardening if properly irrigated.” Mandel added. “We used the same growing media for the rooftop farm at Bushwick Starr Theatre, opened this May.”

“I also use coco mats cut into discs for the pot with a hole in the center for the plant, instead of mulch, which prevents excessive evaporation.”

Pictured Above: "Hydroton" Hydroponic Grow Rocks. In the background, Rockwell Formed Media from coconut leaves acts as mulch above the "grow rocks".

“I would really love to do this on a larger scale, like 10,000 square feet to see if I could grow food on a commercial scale.”

Mandel’s idea is not so outlandish. In the last decade, Flora Nurseries, operating greenhouses in the North Fork of Long Island, shifted production from exclusively flowers and herbs to tomatoes. Initially, Flora Nurseries grew a Dutch hydroponic breed of tomato following Dutch techniques in glass greenhouses that have expanded to 78,000 square feet. Now, the operation harvests heirloom varieties of tomatoes year round including Green Zebras, Evergreen and Sunset Purple. (I have found Flora tomatoes to be quite good, purchasing them at Union Markets in Brooklyn).

Pictured Above: Aerial photograph of Flora Nurseries in Mattituck, NY located in the North Fork of Long Island with 78,000 square feet of space growing hydroponic tomatoes.

“Really though,” Mandel emphasized, “I would like to bring in kids from schools and show them how to grow indoors.  It’s a natural for schools with limited growing space and a desire to keep the materials close at hand in the classroom.  We are already doing demonstrations for several schools in the area.  It started with me and now there are four or five volunteers helping me get out the message about home hydroponics.”

“Now, we’ve got a pretty thriving education and consulting business. This March, I and Chloe Bass teamed up to make apartment-fresh pesto (using zero carbon “blender bike” donated by Band of Bicycles) at the Urban Wilderness Action Center event at Eyebeam Atelier.  That was a lot of fun.”

Mandel gave me some of his hydroponic kale to take home and try out.  ”The vegetables have the same nutritional value as a plant grown in the ground.  I don’t detect any difference in flavor.  And you can’t beat the freshness.” I cooked up the “Mandel Kale” for my family that night and I found it to be quite pleasant but not as flavorful as the kale from Green Thumb Organic Farm from my CSA.

The issue of flavor may have deeper roots in concerns about phyto-nutritients and the proper place of hydroponics in the sustainable food movement.  Bion Bartning, founder of Basis Foods told me “I am leary about hydroponic produce because I believe that sustainable, good food is all about encouraging and improving stewardship of fertile soil and the known and unknown health benefits of the most natural growing processes.”

Since 2008, USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which certifies products as “organic,” has been debating whether hydroponics and aquaponics could be included in the program.  Echoing Bartning’s logic, food not grown in soil cannot be labeled “organic” — even if no pesticides, herbicides or hormones are used. According to aquaponic advocate, Bevan Suits, writing for The Daily Green: “Vegetables grown in recirculating systems are proven to have exactly the same nutritional value as any other and are perfectly healthy.”

To be fair, Mandel gave me fresh-cut kale in the middle of freezing February.  So, no matter how much better local, organic tastes, I could not have gotten it any fresher (or any more local).

Recently, Mandel was interviewed by CNN about his hydroponic practice as part of a feature on the Plastikki, a boat made of recycled plastic bottles making an ocean voyage to highlight environmental issues.  If you want to skip the fluff, Mandel’s segment starts at 4:14 into the report.  Anyone who is interested in having Mandel build a hydroponic system for your home or your school, should contact him and his team to get started right away.

For the Aspiring Hydroponic Gardner:

You could try to start with a simple system for growing herbs, called the Aero Garden:

Or, you could design your own customized home farm at one of the following local stores that cater to hydroponic gardeners:

BRONX: Bronx Hydro & Garden
39 Bruchner Boulevard
Bronx, NY 10454

BROOKLYN: Indoor Outdoor Gardener
8223 5th Avenue
Brooklyn NY 11209

QUEENS: East Coast Hydroponics
146-49 Horace Harding Blvd.
Flushing, NY 11367

MANHATTAN: New York Hydroponics, Inc.
495 9th Avenue (btw 37th & 38th)
New York, NY 10018

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