Time for the Prize: Urban Gardening and Living off the Land

What kind of impact does growing your own food have on the world’s resources? Jump aboard for a little thought exercise on this week’s Time for the Prize challenge to brainstorm urban gardening and living off the land.

We figure for any kind of meaningful impact there would need to be wide-spread adoption of people growing at least some of their own food locally. This means making the process fun and easy, a challenge well suited for 2015 Hackaday Prize entries. Write down your ideas as a project on Hackaday.io, tag it 2015HackadayPrize and you could win this week’s prizes which are listed below.

Space, Information, and Automation

urban-gardening-thumbTo get rolling, we started thinking about three things that are needed to convince people to grow their own food or live off the land.

First up, you need space to grow. This has been the subject of a number of urban farming hacks like the one seen here which uses downspouts as a vertical garden apparatus. Openings are cut into the front of the tubes, which are each hanging from a PVC rack. Each opening hosts a plant, holding them where they have access to sunlight, while taking up very little space on a sunny balcony or sidewalk.

The concept also includes a bit of automation. It’s a hydroponic garden and simple sensors and controllers handle the water circulation while providing feedback for the gardener through a smartphone app. We think the technology of the system is one way to attract people who would otherwise not take up seed and trowel.

For those new to taking care of plants the other thing to consider is information. Not only does the sensor network need to monitor the system, but something valuable needs to be done with the data. Perhaps someone has an idea for city-wide aggregate data which will look at successes from one urban garden and make suggestions to another?

This is your time to shine. Get those ideas flowing and post them as your entry for the Hackaday Prize. Even if you don’t see the build through the idea can still help someone else make the leap to greatness in their own brainstorming.

This Week’s Prizes


We’ll be picking three of the best ideas based on their potential to help alleviate a wide-ranging problem, the innovation shown by the concept, and its feasibility. First place will receive an RGB Shades Kit. Second place will receive a GoodFET42 JTAG programmer and debugger. Third place will receive a Hackaday CRT Android tee.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

64 thoughts on “Time for the Prize: Urban Gardening and Living off the Land

  1. More pie in the sky thinking that ignores basic reality. It takes about one acre of land to feed a typical person for a single year…. So very few people in the US even have enough land to do so. So lets take my community as an example, Dallas/Fort Worth. Our population is roughly 6.5 million. So we would require about 10,000 square miles of land to produce the food we would need for a single year. The community only currently occupies about 9,500 square miles, the vast majority of which is either in use and not really suitable for food production. The numbers are pretty much the same for any urban area, where most of our population live.

    Now lets look at ‘local’ food growing…

    When you realize that most of our population is in urban areas. The only available land (of sufficient size to grow food for that population) is far from ‘local’. You are trucking food a minimum of about 50 miles (and typically much further). Compound this with the fact that growing seasons in much of the country are fairly small, particularly when compared to those of us in the south.

    Further, we have to look at the diversity of food, particularly produce we have become used to. Such diversity (which has wonderful health benefits) is simply not possible with ‘local’ food. The ubiquitous banana, apple, and orange are perfect examples. Local food is highly seasonal, and when we historically only had local foods, people were required to rely on preserved foods to get them through much of the year. This level of food poverty produced things that would be unheard of today. For instance, a common Christmas gift in colonial times was a single orange…. Which by the way had to be imported at extremely high cost (hence why it was a suitable ‘present’).

    Seasonal and local produce consumption have a large number of benefits, but to expect to feed even our relatively small population with such is simply naive.

    1. The one acre statistic assumes traditional gardening techniques. Even changing to the techniques in “square foot gardening” lowers that number and using vertical hydroponic and other intensive farming techniques can lower that even more.
      I think the goal should be to grow what you can locally and supplement with outside sources.
      Today I’m assembling the 5 th and 6th raised bed in our back yard. Fresh food tastes better.

      1. Okay, lets say you quadruple productivity, without significantly increasing water or other energy demands, it doesn’t change the basic equation. Local production is not viable for feeding dense populations. Its basic math and science.

          1. The provided nutrition is more costly then simply buying the produce someone else produces for you, though as a hobby it is a good one. And as for decreasing food transportation costs… You appear to not understand the basic math. It doesn’t in any meaningful way.

          2. How is providing water and letting nature take its course costly again? Even if used for fresh herbs it makes more sense than buying at the store. Of course your location and sun exposure will be a factor, but small efforts add up quickly so why not? I have a complete understanding of basic math and science, and I also understand things don’t have to be all or nothing.

          3. Tim,

            If you think providing water (which isn’t necessarily ‘cheap’ and letting nature takes its course is all there is to growing food you have clearly never actually tried to grow you own food…

        1. planofuji says:
          The provided nutrition is more costly then simply buying the produce.

          This underscores our current situation/problem. We outsource to areas were labor costs next to nothing, but because of our own (inflated?) economy, we can hardly afford local produce. Try buying banana’s produced by workers making minmum $20 an hour.

          planoffuji is correct in several areas, the developed world do want to feel empowered-wed spend several hundred dollars to grow herbs- wheras the same money could employ a farm for months oversees.

          Developed areas in times of low income, such as the depression, families with farms were in many cases the best off and would feed families in the area. These families with farms might be the only rural/low class with food diversity, while the poor eat possum pie every day, until they are overhunted and they move on to rodents, insects..

        1. And just how do you plan to achieve this miracle of enviromental control to have the ability to harvest in multiple seasons? You clearly haven’t considered the energy demans associated, nor have you considered that many crops take the best part of a year to reach ripeness…

        1. And vice-versa, assuming infrastructure supports your trading at 100% efficiency. Then, a fully compartmentatlized, specialized society works (and thrives, which is what we should be shooting for, engineered societies)

          1. You reveal much with the term ‘engineered’ societies. You can’t have an engineered society where its population is free to choose. Only a fascist society can achieve an ‘engineered society’.

      1. If the assumption was not so it should atleast have been the goal (that there are no excuses when you plan ahead (and use modern tech)).

        My grandparents mentioned when living in Germany years ago besically everyone had a small garden in the back yard (even apt’s). We, at the very least, should have dedicated, community space- allocated by a population:size ratio that could sustain local population. Im also not against ordinances that would require people to have atlleast a small garden to supplemen. Foods, meds, other personal/household needs…

        1. Same was the case in the UK, and allotments (publicly owned land which is leased to owners as growing land, and has legal protections keeping it as such) is still a thing, but the growth in population, moves to flats/apartments and lack of a garden for a lot of people makes it a lot less viable than it used to be.

          It *is* possible to augment your purchases by growing things in windows, and I’m all for that, but for most people switching entirely to growing your own just isn’t viable (also it was rarely the case in the past either, generally people would specialise within the community and share what they grew) and suggesting there’s no excuse just guilt trips people for something they literally don’t have the facility to do

          1. This is a problem of expectations, we expect to be able to do our specialized task in our society, which might not be licated optimally for human being survival. Thus, we rely on societies infrastucture to take care of us. This is can be a large city, village, tribe, or pack: even non-humans operate in this fashion. Across different times and places perhaps the difference is current technology, as we see people becomming more equal when the work becomes more equal. Humans, and even many animals can learn to push buttons and work systematically on a trivial process. Yet not everyone could sucessfully pursue a wild animal, but given technology even an encumbered person could build a trap and waite.

          2. Quirk, By all means please volunteer to abandon all technology and survive in the wild on your own… I don’t think anyone would object. However, that doesn’t change the basic fact: The current population can not be supported with such pie in the sky dreams as locally grown food in backyard and roof gardens. Such talk is equivalent to trying to stop a tsunami with a couple of sand bags.

          3. Wow you really believe in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. No system will take care of the entire urban population. Any given tier of the food system doesn’t support everyone, thats why theres an extended system. Local food production can drastically cut down expenses and reduce pressure on other areas of the system.

          4. mystixa says:

            I am not talking about the ‘perfect’ but simply the possible. It doesn’t make sense to pick at the edges of a problem and try to convince yourself that your accomplishing something.

            The ‘solutions’ proposed here amount to throwing out a few sand bags and expecting them to stop the tsuanami.

      1. Marginal improvements are meaningless in this area. It is basic math and science if your able to grasp it. These ‘victory gardens are going to feed everybody’ are the same as snake oil salesman selling zero point energy gimics to those who fail to understand physics.

        1. Ok now you make your trollishness obvious. Marginal improvement on a global scale is extraordinarily meaningful. Victory gardens were never meant to feed everyone, they were meant to reduce resource use so that more resources could go to the war effort.

          1. Clearly you can’t understand the basic mechanics and math. Lets say you reduce demand by 1% (which would be an astounding accomplishment with the ideas thrown about here) and population growth continues at 2. 3. 4, or 5%… In short your ‘solutions’ NEVER make any real difference. Further, even if these dreams managed to keep pace with population growth you simply postpone the inevetible. A population that is larger then available resources will support.

    2. I am not sure how ‘intenesive techniques such as vertical hydroponics’ is even a valid statement. Lesss hours of direct sunlight and crowding seem to be screaming at me everytime I see one. These always growing extremely small plants, that usually appears to be herbs. I think I spend about $3 a year on seasoning shakers so not exceedingly useful.maybe if it can support a potatoe, squash like vegetable, and low fruit like strawberry then it would be viable.

      1. On the other hand, aquaponics setups, in theory, such as those that are self-sustaining complimentary systems, are EXCEEDINGLY viable. IE: The plants, whcih could be suspended directly above an ‘aquarium’, would be fertilized by fish waste. The fish could be feed from the plants. After reproduction, you have a renewable system that just needs to be maintained.

        Seaweed type plants, like kelp i believe, seem to do well, produce great nutrients, and be useful for many things other than food (ie fuel). Fish, which although I dont personally care for, can have a great nutritional value.

        Such a system could be produced extremely cheap, as in whole in the ground with plastic liner and woven bed, and would be great in expanding/growing/ societies, even rural societis could produce something similar cheaply (could be much cheaper than a hydro setup requiring daily/hourly pumps.)

        1. This could also be a multi-tier setup. The aquarium could be looked at like a “magical fertilizer generating reservior” for your hyrdo setup as well. Seaweed could grow atop the res, while water is cycled to other plants, nearby or vertically stacked- im not fully against vertical, you do have to work with the space you are given (ie balcony).

          1. Vertical does have potential to be streamlined, grey water from house drains through system to ‘exit’ or ‘greywater holding/recycling’. Thus eliminating the use of pump and utilizing grey waste from house or local resource (collection with rez high enough for adequate flow in comparison to entry point).

          1. Artenz,

            Actually fertilization is one area where urban areas are very capable of supplying the needed materials. They just can’t easily provide the energy and potable water food crops need.

    3. I think you’re confusing “land” with “area”, and you’re probably also confusing “agriculture” with “current methods of agriculture, unmodified”.

      While there is little land available for agriculture in urban areas, there is quite a bit of area. Rooftops, in particular, can be used for sustainable agriculture. For example, the WalMart in my local area has a huge rooftop area that goes largely unused, and since it is covered in (black) tar it requires extra energy to cool in the summer. Also Home Depot, Lowes, and a host of other warehouse-style stores.

      Assuming that the roof can structurally support it, this area could be purposed for hydroponics and aquaculture. If it can’t, perhaps regulations or tax incentives could encourage builders to make structurally compatible buildings in the future.

      Here’s one company that makes experimental small-scale systems which can be put pretty-much anywhere:


      I’ll also note that robotics is making its way into gardening in a big way. Greenhouses are using robots that go out and grab potted plants to bring them back to the barn for inspection/watering/trimming/picking/packaging by human operators. Some robots can do some of these actions without human intervention (watering, picking).

      It’s not unrealistic to imagine a mostly automated hydroponics/aquaponics system like the ones shown above, where robots or other automated systems do most of the daily drudge-work with little human intervention.

      Perhaps a single human could manage a number of small rooftop gardens, much as a maintenance man would go out and inspect an area once a week and otherwise be on call when the system reports problems.

      None of this is “pie in the sky”, as you put it – it’s a simple extrapolation of things that people are doing right now. You cannot use the methods of large-scale agriculture to solve these problems, which is why we are being asked to some up with different methods.

      It seems “pie in the sky” to you, but to us the problem is a fascinating opportunity.

      1. And you seem incapable of basic math. The land AREA is the MAXIMUM available for growing (assuming all the people get moved underground). As you’ll note in my example, that area is LESS then required to feed all the people in my community, which isn’t are particularly dense one by modern standards.

        And ‘intensive’ techniques which change the basic land area/person fed ration marginally also require other resources that are limited as well. For instance fresh water. Not really available in the American Southwest to use irrigating a bunch of gardens to try and feed over a hundred million people…

    4. Just a couple of counterexamples:

      6,000 lbs of food on 1/10th acre.

      “The Dervaes family grows over 400 species of plants, 4,300 pounds of vegetable food, 900 chicken and 1,000 duck eggs, 25 lbs of honey, plus seasonal fruits throughout the year.”
      Of course they’re in southern California and spend most of their time tending their garden.

      1 MILLION pounds of Food on 3 acres.

      1 MILLION pounds of Food, 10,000 fish and 500 yards compost on 3 acres in downtown Milwaukee.

      Just sayin’.

      1. Just saying,

        But I find the claim likely severely over exaggerated. Further, they are located in a near ideal location (except for the fact that the population there already over consume the available fresh water resource)

        BTW, much of the produce consumed in the rest of the country is in fact produced in California, where they have a bit of a WATER shortage…

    5. If everyone on earth were to be given 1 square meter of land, they would occupy approximately the area of Jacksonville, Florida. IOW, there is plenty of space to grow food, if we make it a priority to dedicate land to food production and not large yards and houses.

      1. I suggest you try and feed yourself off of a single square meter of land with no trips to the grocery store. At the 1 acre/person ration we need approximately 20% of the worlds land area to feed the current world population…

        1. I looked at this statistic very differently, perhaps backwards of your interpretation. I figured one well built living complex, with around the area similar to the surface area of jacksonville, could comfortably house the entire worlds population. Considering one would be comfortable with around a square meter of space around them at any given time (The larger the person, the less comfortable).

          Of course, the way I looked at his figure you have the rest of the entire world vacant to… posssibly farm (save Jacksonville-sized super complex.) IE: See china, self-sustained mega complexes. Though, my crazy thought process then went to making these self-sufficient, now we arent far away from a community that can exist in extreme conditions, perhaps not even of this world.

          1. PS: Obviously, while 1 square meter might be the considered your comfortable ‘bubble’, you would want to move. It can definately be done(IE overcrowded prison cell to Matrix-like corpse farms) but anyway,I guess im just advertising properly planned and engineered societies.

          2. Or, focus industrially and we look at it as you say, we assume 1 sq meter production area per person. We then figure around food procucing industrial complex, the size of Jacksonville, that feeds the entire population. This, and what you said as well, is similar to what we are already doing (outsourcing to specialized areas). However it, and this is where we are currently lacking,is not properly/efficiently organized, it has been organized by free market principles. Assume we were playing a boardgame, and we now, with current technology, could restructure all of our systems and resources. Thus we could expect, though never guarantee, efficiency and equality.

          3. Quirk, Yes you looked at his statement with absolutely no critical thinking skills. How do they get people out to the VAST land area needed to feed that population on a regular basis to maintain and operate those farms? How do they load, process, and transport all of that food? How do they deal with the massive concentration of hazadous waste produced by seven billion humans?

            And lets not forget how do they force seven billion people into a density higher then any that has ever existed? And then keep them there? Such day dreams are the product of people who never actually DO anything.

          4. There are always costs, the point was to get a visual representations to those of us that lack basic math skills. I myself had no idea there was so much unused land, and thats not even building upward.

            Now, these ‘engineered societies’, which are simply planned cities with current technology, self-contained mega cities already being implemented in densely populated areas. These can be described as gigantic skyscrapers and could be a huge impact just on the communities local proximity. They can contain living quarters, work, shopping, etc. The outer walls give protection from elements and employ many growing methods along the outside walls, roof, etc (select areas are climate controlled). They are nothing new at all, and will continue to propagate plutonically where needed (as will other technology with, or without, our efforts).

            Obviously doing things individually is less practical than in group, but its also infeasible to think you could make any large change in a short period of time given our current world relations, infrastructure, and technology. Without major shifts, a huge disaster, many years of bad planning and excessive population increase, or world alliance/takover. We already mentioned previously how socio-economic conditions have structured current society, im sure no one would argue they will shape the future.

    6. Your information is horribly out of date. My father fed a family of 4 on 2 acres. 1 of those acres was for the cow. And this was with old 1980’s technology. today it’s even easier to grow food for people in a smaller space.

      1. And your perception is highly flawed. I find it very unlikely (too the point of absurdity) that you consumed ONLY what was produced on a single acre with no supplemental food stuffs purchased from the local grocery… Further you don’t specify where this was, but I sincerely doubt it was say in a subburb of Chicago, New York, or Boston…

  2. For all the haters and know it alls, why not try it. There are pros and con’s to everything, and even if it doesn’t work great the first time, something was learned to make improvements. I swear, every time I come here, people complain about everything. Someone could talk about a resistor and a hundred people would complain. I’ve done various types of gardening, this works, but obviously everything can’t be done this way and there are drawbacks, but again, lesson one, live and learn.

    1. Here’s the thing. What the f*ck did you say about a resistor? I’ll have you know, a resistor is not a hack, full stop. Goddamnit, resistors! Worthless heat balls. Stop impeding current and let it flow, let it flow freely! Fricking resistors, rawr!

    2. This article about a technological solution to the food problem is akin to posting an article about find the best zero point energy extraction method to solve the worlds energy problem. It ignores the basic math and science of the subject.

      The bottom line is that you can’t feed the worlds current population (or even a significant portion thereof) with this overly romantic and nostalgic notion of ‘locally grown’. Hell even those who are using ‘locally grown’ in a commercial way are doing so because they know their customers are idiots and don’t realize that they mean they are only shipping their produce 20-100 miles… AND extensively supplementing it with food products shipped thousands of miles…

  3. I got into hydroponics awhile back and currently grow lettuce and tomatoes. My goal is to grow enough for a salad a day – indoors, year round. I find it delightful to wake up and check the plants out. They are located in my kitchen garden under LEDs. I wanted to learn electronics so I just completed an Arduino Shield that measures pH and EC then pumps in the “right” amount for a given plant type….anywho…I documented all I learned on my blog and the schematic/layout (in kicad) are all available. Always looking for feedback and other folks interested in hydroponics + electronics + software + eating vegetables. http://bitknitting.wordpress.com

    1. Growing a salad per day is certainly a viable goal. And given the rest of your post it is indicative of the amount of effort that very modest goal requires… It certainly isn’t enough food to feed you without trips to a grocery store.

      1. No it isn;t enough without going to the grocery store. But it is a start. And I am finding it is more than eating. On moments when I need a break, there is something extremely pleasant about growing plants – particularly those that can then be eaten. Knowing where they came from and understanding how they get and absorb energy is fascinating (to me). Anyways, I go to the grocery store quite regularly. At least now I am not dependent on their source/quality for certain vegetables that I use regularly.

  4. When people talk about the weight of the harvest they grow, remember that most of that weight is water. The plants themselves also use water transpiration to regulate heat among other purposes, and urban areas don’t always get the amount of rain per residential property footprint to sustainably grow more than a token amount of food without relying on the tap (municipal water). Certainly the application of technology can help control inputs and even simple plastic greenhouses can help regulate humidity and temperature, but these all cost resources; these have externalities associated with their production, transport, and use; and these have additional costs and skill requirements of upkeep.

    When talking about sustainability and water, it is still important to consider the history of irrigation development (and wild west water rights for parts of the US west of the MIssissippi) to understand how we have arrived at our current situation because for most of our history before refrigeration and better chemistry, we have had to keep production close to urban areas. Also consider that a lot of prime agricultural land near sources of fresh water also became great locations for development because those were places people historically settled and used waterways for commerce and transportation.

  5. There’s so much currently unused land, that there should be a cultural shift or some sort of tax break to *use* the land and sunlight that’s already available instead of growing a mostly useless plant (cows and guinea pigs can eat it, horses, etc). Note that many homeowner’s associations actively prevent these kinds of things, and force you to mow (using gas and polluting and taking your time and watering it) a lawn instead of having gardens in every lawn in suburbia. I don’t know if we’re ready for this radical change, we’ll wait until it becomes a catastrophe like always, watching California burn will be warning call.

    This doesn’t need a hack, not until that doesn’t provide enough food. I saw a bunch of “hippies” implement one of my ideas, which is drive around planting gardens for people since they maybe can’t do it. Seeds are already GMO so they already usually have poison infused in the genes so you don’t need to worry about pests, and hand weed it while the weeds are small and it’s not that bad. And don’t overwater (you’ll be tempted to on your first try, but you’ll get mold/fungus and learn a lesson).

    1. Just a heads up, if you want resistant strain seeds you need to pick them out specifically. Not all seeds are GMO, and not all GMO seeds have been bred for resistance to pests (the most common ones are Monsanto’s seeds, which are bred for resistance to their weedkiller so you can use it without damaging the crops). Just planting and ignoring it generally won’t result in a very good harvest, you do actually need to care for them

      Also, you can use a mechanical mower. Used to have one as a kid, and it’s a bit more work, but it works just fine and isn’t hugely worse if you want to save on the fuel

  6. As a commercial farmer (wheat, mostly exported to Asia), I applaud all the dreamers and doers building and trying ways to grow things. Every bit helps to find out what works and more than anything, to inspire people!
    Even if locally grown isn’t “feasible”, every bit helps, and puts people in contact with plants and the people who understand them. Familiarity is a huge benefit to society, including seeing people fail and struggle.
    There are so many great new technologies that hold promise for agriculture, especially with sensors and robotics (pull the weeds, no more herbicides!) The more people building stuff the better.

  7. Sustaining an urban environment locally?

    If this was possible, sieges would have had no affect throughout history.

    Even in that scenario where residents face REAL starvation (not the “Food Insecurity” that obese people “feel”) it could not be done with ALL of their time devoted to it.

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