Way down. Deeper than a root cellar or basement. Possibly farther beneath the surface of the earth than any dungeon (real or imagined). Setting up a hydroponic garden 108 feet (33 meters) underground sounds pretty crazy – nothing lives down there. But when there are miles of vacant bomb shelter tunnels beneath your feet that have just been sitting idle since World War II, it’s a concept to consider. A brilliant idea too, one that offers some real indoor growing advantages.
Why Go Up When You Can Go Down?
London may be short on open ground space for urban farming, but it’s got plenty of these long disused air-raid tunnels from World War II. A wild place to establish a fresh produce enterprise, but Zero Carbon Food is doing exactly that. Their first serious crops will be planted this month on their 6-acre (2.5 hectare) subterranean spread in Clapham. An operation this large above ground in London would only be possible in a vertical gardening setup, or done piecemeal on odd spots scattered all over the city.
“Farm to Floor”
Zero miles harvests of premium greens, microgreens, lettuce, veggies, and herbs isn’t a dream for this team. Growing entrepreneurs and lifelong friends, Richard Ballard and Steven Dring’s new hydroponic urban farm has already gathered the crowdfunding needed to begin raising fresh, chemical-free produce in large quantities beneath London’s Underground Northern Line. They have a ready-made commercial market of London business eager to get their hands on great produce, including their original backer, celebrity chef, Michel Roux Jr.
Chef Roux thought the pair was completely mad until he sampled the food. He instantly lost all doubts on the scheme, and ZCF’s their first customer was won… long before they had funding to expand past a trial garden setup.
Great Climate Conditions
They won’t have to deal with drastic temperature changes, or the ups and downs of weather-induced humidity. You couldn’t ask for a better even environment for an indoor garden. The temperature and moisture that far below your feet is constant. No bugs or diseases live down there either, so that’s a few more battles Zero Carbon Food will have to deal with that the average surface gardener does… indoors or outside. This will keep operating costs at an even keel, and make things far more predictable than we gardeners above could hope for.
Ballard and Dring brought in Chris Nelson, a horticulturalist with more vision than most, to help with setting up a hydroponics system that would take advantage of environmental conditions already available in the tunnels. Nelson’s wife told the daring duo, “You could have phoned anyone else in the agriculture industry, and they would have laughed down the phone at you.” Instead, as Steven recalls, his response after hearing a summary of their bizarre city farming scheme replied, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
They’ll be using advanced LED grow lights to ensure premo harvests of everything they grow, with plans on integrating some of the latest breakthroughs in LED engineering. Serious light power is a given as they’ll get zero assistance from the sun down there.
Yeah, they will be totally dependent on electricity, but their gardens will still be zero carbon. The energy is produced locally by a green power company – it’s all solar and wind generated. And since the ambient temperature is constant underground, they won’t be using any energy trying to beat the heat or battle winter’s chill.
What Can A Subterranean Garden Grow?
Like growing in a cold-frame style hoop house, the available headroom is limited in the tunnels. Still, they can grow any type of greens, mini vegetables, perhaps even fresh strawberries below London’s Tube.
Will they succeed? Well, the initial hydroponics system was already been producing crops in a portion of their allotted tunnel space for over 18 months before their crowdfunding campaign went live. Having already done their homework and plenty of trial runs, Rich and Steve won’t have surprise issues many previous indoor growing startups have had. You could say they’re off to a running start ahead of the official opening of their urban farm.
Got A Used Bomb Shelter Handy?
A lot of people in the US built bomb shelters during the Cold Wars of the 1950s and 1960s. Naturally, a shelter beneath a single family home will be quite small compared to the tunnels under a city the size of London, but could quite possibly provide you with sufficient space for growing quite a bit of food. Something to consider if you have one you could retrofit, and would be less expensive to operate than even a hydro garden in the basement would be if it’s built properly.
Don’t have one available? You could always keep your eye on the real estate market. There was a house for sale somewhere in Colorado last year that had a massive bomb shelter equipped to provide several families with living and recreational space for years. Heating and cooling won’t be the huge issue 10-20 feet below the surface like it is up on top. A lot more insulation than a basement for indoor growing year around.
Learn more about Zero Carbon Food and their Growing Underground plans for feeding the future on their website.
Inline image courtesy of Dezeen.
If you don't find her at the desk - check the gardens. When not writing and weeding, she enjoys a good book, painting junk furniture, and blending the harvest of heirloom tomatoes and chiles into salsas.