Grow your own herbs? Not so fast.

The Urban Cultivator might be good for restaurants, but maybe not home cooks

Grow your own herbs? Not so fast.

Photograph by Reena Newman

On paper, the Urban Cultivator sounds like a fine idea. Just picture it: a glass-fronted, mini-bar-sized device that nestles under your kitchen counter, coddling tray after tray of living herbs and greens with the combined comforts of artificial sunlight and scheduled irrigation so that they are perpetually ripe for the plucking. Well, it sounded good to me, anyway. And it looked even better once I located the Surrey, B.C.-based company website, and saw its photos and claims (“365 days of perfect growing conditions for all your favourite herbs and veggies,” “It truly is the zero-mile diet,” etc.). So I asked for a test drive—requesting a $2,200 stand-alone unit with its own wooden countertop (to spare myself a renovation).

Not long afterwards, two massive boxes were delivered. One contained the unit, and the other, a huge bag of peat, mixing tubs, giant syringes, a pH meter, pH adjusting chemicals, liquid nutrient, seeds and—wait for it—an external memory drive to reprogram the circuit board, in which a bug had turned up, post-production.

This all came with the expected fistful of illiterate instructions, seemingly composed by the Chinese secret service with a view to sabotaging our industrial progress. Somehow I persevered, transitioning seamlessly from the electronic conundrum to stirring a tub of wet peat on the kitchen counter, and then—finally—seeding four trays.

I planted two full trays of arugula (in high demand), one with basil (indispensable) and one with sorrel (to satisfy a hankering for saumon à l’oseille). That was easy: sprinkle seeds, cover with plastic domes for germination, and slot trays into the cultivator.

Then I launched the monitoring program and the thing whooshed into life with a cacophony of spinning electric fans and a flood of hideous white fluorescent light cascading from the viewing window. In my mind’s eye, I saw a red diode representing my house suddenly blinking on an energy-consumption-surge monitoring grid the RCMP uses to hunt down grow ops. But I pressed on.

Two days later the arugula was charging out of the gate, every last seed split open by a nascent sprout. I removed their domes and let them breathe. The basil and sorrel looked to be sprouting mould. Two weeks on, the arugula trays were carpeted green, and the basil and sorrel were beginning to overcome their slow starts. A couple of weeks after that I succumbed to temptation and tasted a two-centimetre-tall arugula sprout. It tasted—well—just like an arugula sprout. The basil and sorrel were still too small for sampling. The instructions, meanwhile, indicated that I should have been harvesting at two weeks.

So I got back in touch with Tarren Wolfe, who co-founded Urban Cultivator a couple of years ago as a natural offshoot of the original business, Northern Lights, which makes cabinets for growing, er, medicinal marijuana, a.k.a. “tomatoes” (“Our motto is ‘Grow your own’—it doesn’t matter what you grow,” he said). Wolfe explained what I should be harvesting at two or three weeks were sprouts, in the process thinning the field and encouraging the growth of what was left behind.

It took more than an hour to thin the arugula and then separate their tiny leaves from their dirty roots, but I did it. And the following week, I followed suit with the basil and sorrel. Those sprouts were useless, but a few weeks on—two months after the start date—I finally had a decent salad, a few tablespoons of pesto, and sauce for saumon à l’oseille for four. And then it was time to start over.

This is the thing: when Wolfe pitches his machines to restaurants, the economics of his argument revolves on fast-growing sprouts. And while commercial enterprises have a lot of use for such things, it is far from true of the home cook like me. Neither do I want to plan my arugula salads eight weeks in advance. In short, I would venture that this is a case of the economics of one business not applying to another. By which I mean that if arugula was sold only in tiny bags, in dark laneways, by hooded men demanding cash, I might consider dropping two grand on a cultivator and growing my own. In the meantime, I will happily stick to Loblaws.

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