I’m notorious for my black thumb, as the long trail of dead basil and tomato in my wake will attest. But for the past two months, I’ve grown so much lettuce, spinach, and arugula that I’ve been able to share my bounty with my neighbors.
It’s all thanks to Lettuce Grow, a startup that creates self-watering, self-fertilizing machine designed to help families grow a fifth of their produce at home. I’ve been testing the device, which uses the science of hydroponics to optimize the growing process, allowing leafy vegetables and herbs to go from seedlings to ready-to-eat in two or three weeks. And the compact, six-foot-tall device is beautiful to boot, standing like a sculptural plant wall in a corner of our kitchen.
Zooey Deschanel and her business partner Jacob Pechenik founded Lettuce Grow in 2018 in an effort to simplify growing fresh nutritious food at home. The machine, called the Farmstand, allows you to grow between 12 and 36 plants and starts at $348. Since it is modular, you can start with a smaller version and add new levels over time. If you have a sunny garden or deck, you can leave it outside. But you can also keep it indoors if you buy the brand’s LED lighting system.
Lettuce Grow is a pricey investment, but Pechenik says that it will pay for itself within the year since you’ll save money buying fresh produce from the grocery store. Given how much I’ve grown over the past two months, this checks out. But it also depends on how much you typically spend on veggies: The Farmstand is likely to appeal to health-conscious consumers who shop at Whole Foods and farmer’s markets and have disposable income to spare. But Lettuce Grow is committed to making the device available to other communities as well. For every 10 Farm Stands the company sells, it donates one to a school, nonprofit, or other community groups. So far it has donated several hundred devices, along with a million dollars to support these organizations.
I can attest that the Lettuce Grow requires no skill and very little time on the “farmer’s” part. The Farmstand ships to your door and takes about an hour to set up. Once it’s up and running, it only requires about five minutes a week to maintain. Every week, you need to top up the water in the base, add a few spoonfuls of fertilizer, and test the pH of the liquid. Lettuce Grow sells seedlings that go into the machine for $2 a plant; you’ll need to buy new ones once you’ve fully harvested a vegetable, which can take a few months.
Until I started testing the Lettuce Grow, I didn’t fully understand how much tastier and more nutritious freshly harvested vegetables are. Scientists have found that most produce loses 30% of its nutrients three days after it is harvested, and vegetables in grocery stores are often weeks or months old. Those lost nutrients are good for our bodies, and they also produce more complex flavors. Since getting our Farmstand, my family now cuts the lettuce, arugula, and spinach we need for our daily salads, and I’m perpetually surprised by how delicious the vegetables taste even without any dressing.
Deschanel and Pechenik became interested in growing their own produce after they became parents: They wanted to be able to give their kids healthy, organic vegetables. (The two were married and have children together, but have since separated.) Research shows that children eat more fruits and vegetables if they are home-grown, partly because they observe these plants growing and become more invested in them. I’ve found this true with my five-year-old daughter. She helps us fertilize the plants each week and loves watching different vegetables come to life. When she’s in the kitchen looking for a snack, she’ll sometimes pluck a lettuce leaf and munch on it.
Beyond helping individual families eat better, Pechenik says he and Deschanel launched Lettuce Grow to help tackle some of the problems in our food system. A century ago, Americans largely got their fruits and vegetables from gardens and small-scale farms near them. Starting in the 1960s, large, industrial farms revolutionized the way people ate by mass-producing produce and shipping food around the country and world. This increased access to a wider range of food, but it came at a major cost to the planet. Shipping food globally produces carbon emissions and results in food waste. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that up to 40% of food produced spoils in its long journey from farm to table, which means that all the water, soil degradation, nutrients, and greenhouse gases used to make it goes to waste as well.
Pechenik believes that one solution to this problem is “distributed farming”—that is, having families grow a proportion of food themselves. Until I tried the Farmstand, I didn’t think it was possible for my family to grow our own vegetables: We simply didn’t have the skill, time, or interest in gardening. But technology has cut through all of these problems. Since we’ve been testing the Lettuce Grow, we’ve made far fewer trips to the grocery store and we’ve barely thrown out any produce. It’s one small step towards ending food waste.
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