BUILD A VERTICAL HYDROPONIC GREENHOUSE IN 90 DAYS

Hey there Farmers,

Glad you stopped in. You are in the right place for the leading vertical hydroponics technology. You may have seen some of my videos, or read some of the tutorials on my blog. This might be the first time you have stopped by our neck of the woods.   

Nate Storey with the vertical hydroponics tower he invented.

You are here because you caught a vision for local food production. You may be ready to start growing. Now what?

If you just need pricing and system specs, I recommend taking a look a this 20′ x 48′ Greenhouse Bundle with a single irrigation zone running off a 330 gallon reservoir. This is an amazingly productive system that comes in around $19,000, not including the greenhouse. This is almost exactly the same system we used to run our first CSA membership, except ours was a little bigger.

If you want to see how others are planting seeds in their local economy, make sure and follow the Upstart Farmers on Facebook. I have the privilege of watching as this community takes shape, and my goal is to share these experiences with others to make it easier to participate in our local food system. 

The resources I have put together here represent many years of hard work from a number of people. I am proud to be a part of a world class team here at Bright, and I would love to be a resource for you as you go forward. 

A word about our equipment

My specialty is with hydroponic and aquaponic production, and particularly with ZipGrow Towers. I developed ZipGrow technology because I recognized that greenhouse space is valuable, and I wanted to take advantage of these powerful micro environments for growing crops. This guide will help you plan, purchase, install, and operate a ZipGrow vertical growing system.

While I talk a lot about vertical growing, I am just as happy to see someone succeeding with raised beds, dutch buckets, or any other type of growing method. One of the developments I am most excited about is Able Ag. This free (!) software tool can give you a powerful dashboard to manage your crop rotations, sales and delivery schedules, and regular tasks and responsibilities.

In other words, we recognize the benefits of all growing methods, and we are committed to supporting growers of all stripes and methods.

My biggest passion in life is seeing motivated farmers growing smarter and building strong relationships with those in their local communities. We are going through a major food renaissance right now, and small farmers are delivering the freshness and transparency that people want. We are seeing small farmers beginning to gain ground on Big Ag!

I hope you are as excited as I am. Let’s get growing!

k

k

Sincerely,

Nate Storey, founder of Bright Agrotech and inventor of the ZipGrow Tower

ZipGrow Vertical Hydroponics Tower

CAUTION! CHECK YOUR WATER SUPPLY

If you are planning a vertical hydroponics system system, it is a good idea to test your water before starting. In particular, you are looking for the level of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) which can affect the Electrical Conductivity (EC) of your water.

TDS is measured in parts per million. Levels above 300 ppm may require distillation or reverse osmosis.

Aquaponic growers will have similar set of concerns. You will want to avoid galvanized metal tanks and components. The galvanized contains higher level of zinc that can be harmful to fish.

K
K
K
K
K
K
K
K
K

STEP 1 – FIND YOUR SITE & PLAN YOUR GREENHOUSE LOCATION

REDUCE YOUR DAILY STEP COUNT

Many farmers will tell you that how you design your farm and workflow is critical. You will be managing a number of tasks throughout the day, and the closer your greenhouse is to your back door, the better.

A greenhouse usually needs at least two visits a day to open/close the ventilation flaps or turn on/off the heating). Plan for shorter routes to and from the greenhouse. 

MAXIMIZE YOUR LIGHT

In most northern climates (>35° or 40° N Latitude), you should orient your greenhouse on an east/west axis to take advantage of early and late season sunlight. This places your long south wall towards the sun, and takes advantage of all those happy little sunbeams.

There may be some exceptions to this if you are in a high wind or snow area. Lower latitude climates will have much more flexibility in their solar orientation.

 

With the rapidly falling costs of LED lighting and energy costs, many growers are finding a strong case for supplemental lighting. If you have questions about LED lighting strategies, contact our growing specialists.

AVOID WATER POOLING

If you are in low ground, you may find that you have water pooling or flooding during the rainy seasons. This is not as big of a problem when growing hydroponically, but you may want to choose a site where the water runs off in a direction away from the greenhouse.

ACCESS UTILITIES

Hydroponic growing requires access to water and electricity. For a smaller home system, this can be managed with a normal garden hose and an extension cord (Caution! Water and electricity don’t mix). But if you are planning a larger greenhouse you will want to consider running a buried electric line with a grounded outlet box.

The Conley Cold Frame Package (International Greenhouse Company – $6,175 for a 20’ by 36’ greenhouse) comes with natural gas or propane heating unit, which will require a natural gas line or a propane tank be located on the property.

AVOID FROZEN LINES

One of the hidden joys of growing food is managing cold water lines on frosty mornings. A little frost-nip will lead to something I like to call the screaming barfies. This happens when your fingertips start to thaw out, giving you a thrill of exquisite pain and a nauseating feeling in your stomach.

This is not as much of a problem as frozen water lines. Backyard growers will need a frost free hydrant and will want to drain their lines before cold nights.

Larger greenhouses will have a water line ran to the greenhouse. Bury your water lines below the frost line (usually 3 or 4 feet underground) and use a frost free hydrant to prevent freezing at the faucet. The nice thing about a properly managed greenhouse is that everything inside the greenhouse will be kept nice and warm throughout the night.

KEEP THE WEEDS OUT

The last step before greenhouse installation is to put down your foundation/flooring. We put down a weed barrier covered with 2 inches of pea gravel, followed by some basic grading/leveling. This gives us a nice gravel floor and keeps our shoes from getting muddy.

If you are working with the International Greenhouse Company, you can get full support for your greenhouse installation from their customer service team at 1-888-281-9337.  I have had a fantastic experience every time I have spoken with them, and I can’t recommend them enough.

K
K
K
K
K
K
K
K
K

STEP 2 – PLAN YOUR GROWING ZONES

Think tasty crops.

You made it! So now you have a beautiful piece of land and an empty greenhouse ready for growing.

Ok maybe not. This is the step that will shut down even the most passionate growers. According to Modern Farmer

If you’re in commuting distance of a big city, good luck even finding farm acreage. Raw suburban land is often snapped up for residential and commercial development.

It’s true. Putting up a greenhouse is the easy part compared with the problem of land access. With a booming urban population and agricultural economies of scale, the small farmer is facing an uphill battle to get back to the land. Finding a spot for your farm will not happen easily. This is also another shameless plug for ZipGrow Towers. Vertical hydroponics techniques are one of the most productive growing methods available, and can help to maximize your production on valuable real estate.

Keep reading to learn how you can grow 450 pounds of basil in a 20′ by 36′ greenhouse.

WHAT BUSINESS ARE YOU IN?

Many farmers choose to specialize in several crops that are in consistent demand and provide a healthy profit. Even if they grow other crops at the same time, they are able to rely on several regular and consistent sources of income, and their customers could count on them to always deliver.

Our reports show that the highest margin, most reliable sources of income are from popular crops like salad greens, kale, mint, basil, oregano, tomatoes, cucumber, and peppers. It makes sense, since most of us eat these veggies regularly. This is great for ZipGrow farmers, since many of these are crops that can grow in a hydroponic farming system. The challenge is to choose which crop or mix of crops to focus on, and to become an expert in growing that crop.

Approach each one separately

I like to approach each crop separately. Able, our farm planning tool (www.able.ag), will help you focus on the labor and the costs that are required for each one, as well as the revenue that the crop is bringing in. This information can be invaluable when it comes to making a decision about what to grow.

If you don’t have this level of experience, we recommend that you get started with high value herbs and greens that have a short time to harvest. This reduces the risk of losing a crop (always a concern until you get your growing system dialed in), and gives you a quick turnaround on your investment.

 

Our Recommended Go-To-Market Crops

GREENS

People are starved for fresh, locally-grown greens from farmers they can trust. ZipGrow farmers grow a wide variety of greens and command above market prices at market. Here are a few of our farmers’ favorite greens that are in high demand in almost any market: Lettuce, Kale, Chard, Bok Choy,

See our entire Recommended Crop Guide for more.

HERBS

There’s not a soul on earth who doesn’t love fresh basil, especially when they know their farmer. ZipGrow farmers love being the ones with the freshest herbs in town. Thanks to their unique vertical farming design, ZipGrow Towers maximize mint and make chives grow like crazy. Here’s a sample of what ZipGrow farmers are growing and selling in their local markets: Basil, Mint, Chives, Parsley.

See our entire Recommended Crop Guide for more.

FLOWERS

While not always the first choice for commercial growers, ZipGrow Towers have the ability to grow a wide range of short-statured flower crops. Imagine 5-foot columns of marigolds or zinnias bringing bright colors into your greenhouse or on a client’s Farm Wall. These towers of flowers are being used by some very creative farmers. 

Growing healthy crops requires a little experience. Here is an introduction to three of the most popular crops for a vertical hydroponics system.

K

K

This 20′ by 36′ greenhouse is able to grow 450 pounds of basil at a time.

K
With a general market value of $1 an ounce, this greenhouse can grow $7,200 worth of herbs in 5 weeks!

 

K

Different crops will require different growing methods. This is a good time to mark off the sections of your greenhouse that will be used for different crops.

Originally developed by Google, SketchUp is a free software package lets you build detailed drawings and plans. We provide free downloadable models for using in your drawing, which means you can drag-and-drop your ZipGrow Towers into your greenhouse.

 

K
K
K
K
K
K
K
K
K

STEP 3 – BUDGET & ORDER EQUIPMENT

Lead time for smaller orders (up to 100 towers) is usually 2 weeks or less. For larger orders please allow 4 to 6 weeks for equipment to arrive.

 

Once you have a sense of your growing zones and your crops selected, you can go ahead and order your equipment.

The pricing list includes all the major components for a vertical production system. 

  • 150 ZipGrow Towers
  • 330 Gallon Nutrient Tank
  • Pumps and Irrigation Lines
  • 2″ x 4″ Support Racks
  • Seed starting station for 1,600 seedlings (optional)
  • 20′ by 36′ greenhouse with ventilation and heating units (optional)
  • IntelliDose Automated Nutrient Delivery system, with remote alerts and monitoring (optional)

WHAT WE SELL

WHAT WE DON’T SELL, BUT WE CAN HELP YOU FIND

Greenhouse structures and coverings

Reservoir or sump tanks

Reservoir or sump tanks

Dutch Buckets or other growing equipment

K
K
K
K
K
K
K
K
K

STEP 4 – ASSEMBLE YOUR SEED STATION (4 HOURS)

You could wait until your system is built, but what fun is that? Having seeds in the dirt is like having a baby on the way. Time to build another bedroom! 

They say that the most important years in a child’s development are ages 0-5. Your plants are the same way. You will want a warm, safe environment for your plants to get a healthy start in life, with plenty of light, humidity and nutrients.

We usually plan for 3 to 5 weeks in a germination/seed station before transplanting to the ZipGrow Towers. We generally look at two approaches for starting your seeds:

  • Start them in the greenhouse with a misting bench or water by hand.
  • Start them indoors on a lighted rack.

A misting bench will bring your seedlings to adolescence with natural sunlight in your greenhouse. If you have the space, this is usually the preferred method.

If you are tight on space, or you want to have greater control over your germination environment, you may want to consider the commercial seedling cart.

k

k

The DIY Seedling Cart comes with all the pieces to grow 1,600 seedlings without mess and without hassle. 

K
K
K
K
K
K
K
K
K

STEP 5 – BUILD YOUR RACKS & INSTALL YOUR TOWERS (1-2 WEEKENDS)

K

K

So your order is on its way. Well done!

Take a weekend (or two) and get ready for your vertical farm. You can purchase these materials at your local hardware store. Depending on how experienced you are with a power drill, hand saw, and some basic carpentry, this should take you about 30 minutes to build each rack footer, and a half day to put it all together.

Once your tools and materials are all ready, it will take about 30 minutes to assemble each rack, depending on your experience with a hand saw, power drill, and basic measurements/carpentry.

We offer a tutorial to walk you through the assembly process (click here).

space
space
space
space
space
space

space
space
space
space
space
space

WHY HYDROPONICS?

K

ZipGrow is perfect for a number of high water weight, low stature crops. In general, this means leafy greens and herbs. For guidance on which crops are recommended for ZipGrow, along with production estimates, please see the Recommended Crop Guide.

BECAUSE THEY CAN GIVE YOU BIG HARVESTS

If you have been exploring greenhouse growing techniques, you are probably aware of the benefits:

  • Extend your season
  • Increase crop yields
  • Decrease time to harvest
  • Gain more control over your growing environment

The growth rate on a hydroponic plant can be 30-50 percent faster than plants grown in soil, grown under the same conditions. The yield of the plant may also be greater. This advantage comes from having more control over a variety of factors, including lighting, temperatures, nutrient flow, and pest control.

Grow Towers utilize the same hydroponic techniques that have been used successfully for decades, with the added benefit of growing vertically. This allows the grower to take advantage of valuable greenhouse space (often overlooked by conventional hydroponic techniques) and get huge production numbers from small spaces.

By growing vertically

These advantages were not accidental. I designed the ZipGrow Towers with careful consideration of the growing conditions.

For example, a 5’ ZipGrow Tower can handle between 8 and 10 plants, on average. You will be able to grow 250 to 300 plants in an area measuring 50 square feet.

This style of growing is perfect for those who are seeking the most efficient use of greenhouse space.  

With less labor

It might seem obvious, but hydroponics is more labor efficient than soil grown crops. There is no tilling, no weeding, and the watering is done for you.

The same holds true for ZipGrow. We estimate that a single full time worker can manage 1,200 to 1,600 ZipGrow Towers on a regular 5 or 6 week crop turn. This means a weekly work load of 240 ZipGrow Towers.

And more crop turns per year

A crop turn means the time it takes to go from seed to harvest. ZipGrow Towers are able to get 7, 8 or 9 crop turns in a year.

While the towers may appear to be pretty simple, these performance numbers were not achieved overnight. We experimented with a number of designs, and I landed on the single sided design since it helps give your plants the most exposure to those healthy little sunbeams. It also avoids the “shady side” dynamic that can rob your plants of light.

Along with this is the Matrix Media. I chose the Matrix Media for its high Biological Surface Area (BSA). The media is a very lightweight media with 290 ft² per cubic foot of biological surface area, the Matrix Media gives your plants a strong anchor and an oxygen rich environment packed with nutrients. This helps your crops achieve rapid crop turns and abundant harvests.

When you add these components to a vertical environment, it means you can get an incredible amount of food from a relatively small space.

space
space
space
space
space
space

space
space
space
space
space
space

STEP 6 – PLUMB YOUR SYSTEM

Setting up your irrigation system does require a little plumbing knowledge, but luckily we’ve created  a full range of tutorials and support for your irrigation and plumbing package. Here are the tasks you have to consider:

  • Decide if you will have more than one growing zone. Many crops will have different nutrient requirements, which means you need to pair similar crops together to get the best results. If you need to setup two different zones for your crops, now is the time to set it up.
  • Choose a pump and run the main feed to your ZipGrow racks.
  • Run poly tubing along each row of ZipGrow
  • Punch a barbed fitting above each ZipGrow tower.
  • Install gutters
  • Install drainage lines, and bury if desired.

The most frequently asked questions usually have to do with irrigation and plumbing.

  • What type of irrigation tubing should I be using? How big?
  • How do I run my irrigation lines?
  • How big should my pump be?
  • What is the flow rate for my ZipGrow vertical towers?
  • How do I plan for separate zones?
  • How do I avoid algae buildup or other blockages in the system?

You can see a great video from Tracy Holz, a talented grower in Texas (Thanks Tracy!)

Once your irrigation is setup, you are ready to turn it on and work out the kinks. You are looking for leaks or other problem areas. Once you have everything up and running, you will be ready to bring your plants into the system and add nutrients to the mix.

Aquaponic growers will have an entirely different set of considerations. We provide a high value series of tutorials to help you get started.

Lead time for smaller orders (up to 100 towers) is usually 2 weeks or less. For larger orders please allow 4 to 6 weeks for equipment to arrive.

space
space
space
space
space
space

space
space
space
space
space
space

STEP 7 – PLANT YOUR ZIPGROW TOWERS & START FARMING!

The final step towards your vertical farm will be to add nutrients to your nutrient reservoir, and transplant your seedlings into your towers.

Right now there is a strong discussion happening about organic certification in hydroponic systems. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we believe in the potential for vertical hydroponics to bring fresh food and new jobs to the neighborhood. If you are curious about the health, nutrition, or science behind hydroponic production, I recommend reading this article from Amy Storey.

Don’t forget your nutrients! You can purchase from us, or shop around for your favorite nutrient mix.

Congratulations! You are now growing with one of the most efficient growing systems on the planet.

space
space
space
space
space
space

space
space
space
space
space
space

Get the answers you need.

When you don’t know the answer, you can count on us.

From building your first greenhouse to getting your first customers, there’s a lot to learn if you want to be successful. But when you have trustworthy advice to rely on, your chances of making it work are much higher.

That’s why we’re here.

We’ve helped hundreds of farmers think through the complexities of starting a farm and provided the personal support they need to be successful for years to come.

Ready to meet your trusted guide? 

YES, LET'S GET TO WORK