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Vertical Gardens: Grow Your Own Basil or Strawberries at Work

Article June 24, 2020

Article

An interview with Jindřich Fialka from the workplace environment experts The Greenest Company on their latest concept: green walls, where you can grow herbs, lettuce, or even strawberries indoors.

For quite a while now, you’ve been offering the Space Plant – green walls with houseplants, for use in interiors. And now you also offer a vertical garden, the Space Garden. In what ways is herb cultivation different?

Growing herbs and vegetables is more demanding as far as the conditions. For houseplants, it’s enough for them to look good. But for herbs and vegetables, you want growth that’s as fast and as healthy as possible and for them to eventually be harvestable and replantable.

Through the lens of a workplace environment, these are almost opposite situations. For green walls, you want them to be maintenance-free. But with a vertical garden, you’re acquiring it so that your employees can get involved. So that they can plant it, occasionally tend it, harvest it, and maybe later enjoy a shared breakfast that draws from their own resources.

Jindřich Fialka, co-founder of The Greenest Company

Herbs are primarily for cooking, but in office kitchens, people often hardly even have a way to boil an egg. So what herbs do you put in your boxes?

We start with mint and basil. Mint for tea. Basil for foods such as pizza and pasta. Soon we’ll be adding more, for example lemon balm. And we’re also experimenting with various microgreens, that is, small plant sprouts.

GREEN TESTING

Are your herbal vertical gardens configurable? Can your client dictate in advance what herbs they want to have in the boxes, and in what ratio?

So far we’ve tried out mint and basil, but we’re testing other herbs too, and we’ll gradually be adding them. Ultimately, we plan to offer a selection of about 50 different herbs and kinds of vegetables that customers will be able to change out over time. Tired of mint? Plant lettuce!

How is it with planting vegetables? What types are good picks for growing in an office?

Vegetables are much more demanding in the amount of water needed. We’ll be experimenting with different kinds of vegetables in future iterations, and we’ll definitely give strawberries a try as well.

CAREFUL WITH THE LIGHT

What did the testing of the Space Garden prototype look like? And what was the biggest obstacle in that stage?

We’re still fine-tuning the final product even today. We were surprised for example at what a difference it makes to raise or lower the distance between the seedlings and the light. We’re testing different heights for the system’s height-levels in parallel, and it seems that the ideal spacing will be about 25 cm.

The biggest pitfall is time. Plants need their share of time. Usually weeks. So we don’t have the results and conclusions from our experiments from one day to the next. We need to try things out in real-world conditions, because what works on paper or in a simulation may not be confirmed in reality.

What specific problems have you run into?

Here’s one example for all of them: For photosynthesis to work right, we need a specific intensity and spectral composition for the light. But the technical documentation from lighting manufacturers often conflicts with reality. Our seedlings grow terribly under certain lights even though these are special cultivation lights. And they grow great under others even though they shouldn’t.

You utilize what’s called “hydroponic watering.” Where’s the difference vs. ordinary watering with tap water?

We utilize passive hydroponics, the so-called Kratke Method (from Bernard Kratky at the University of Hawaii - eds.). The plants have a part of their roots lying in water that has been enriched with nutrients, and a part in air. As the water level gradually falls, the roots grow and retain a part in the air and a part in the water. The plants do not need any sort of substrate, and thanks to the hydroponic system, they don’t have to be watered the first several weeks and are not attacked by pests.

HOW AND FOR HOW MUCH?

You state on your blog that a vertical garden costs fifty to one hundred thousand crowns. What’s the size of one of these green walls?

The basic module has three levels, 140 cm in height and 90 cm in width. However, we’re able to produce two- and one-level versions as well. Then there are lots of ways to work with these modules spatially, and so a vertical garden in an office can easily be, say, 5 meters wide. It can also be free-standing, bend around a corner, etc. The price depends on the materials and execution, which you choose based on your interior.

We’re talking strictly about starting costs, alongside which garden maintenance fees need to be counted in, right?

Both variants are possible. If you want to cultivate things yourself, no further costs (besides a few crowns for buying seedlings) await you. But you can also pay for a cultivation service instead and just harvest them once in a while.

I’ll take the liberty of closing with a personal question: Have you ever tried growing violets (fialky in Czech language), in a vertical garden?

Not yet. But thanks for the idea. :-)