Home gardening is experiencing a renaissance spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic. Facing anxiety surrounding food security and the need for hobbies during quarantine, close to 20% of Americans have reported taking up gardening as a result of the pandemic. Seed sales have soared to unprecedented levels.

As Covid-19 highlights the precarious supply chain that supports our modern lifestyles and the benefit of more self-sufficiency, hydroponics – a method of growing plants without traditional soil, using water-based, nutrient-dense solutions – is emerging as the latest trend in smart home devices. Advances in hydroponic food-growing technology and LED lighting have reached a point where smart devices can take some of the labor, land, and expertise of traditional gardening out of the equation. Make no mistake that “real” gardening requires deep knowledge and effort to yield nutritional and emotional benefits; however, technology can now help laypeople experiment with growing fresh, nutritious food in their homes.

While home hydroponic systems are more effective, easy to use, and aesthetically pleasing than ever, there is a long way to go before the promise of sustainable, accessible food for all comes to fruition. Who wins and who loses in the smart food ecosystem and just how sustainable are these services? Let’s look at the design of three leading home hydroponics systems and the broader impact of such “smart growing”.

Lowering Environmental Impact

Dirt, when combined with growing chemicals, is responsible for significant water pollution in traditional farming. Rather than using soil, most home hydroponics systems call for compostable refill cubes similar to espresso pods. Each cube includes seeds planted in the company’s patented “growing medium” – in other words, artificial soil consisting of natural materials designed to hold water and nutrients more efficiently than regular dirt. Unlike espresso pods, these cubes are made from compostable corn-based plastic that can be thrown in the yard waste.

The essential trade-off with indoor hydroponics is foregoing the free light-bulb in the sky: the sun. Depending on the amount of natural light available in a home, an LED hydroponic system uses significant electricity that adds to energy consumption and utility bills.

Nevertheless, growing food through hydroponics reduces reliance on industrial agro-farming with its heavy reliance on chemicals, fresh water and the transportation infrastructure needed to get from production to table.

A Victory Garden Redux

Smart growing and home hydroponics is an exciting new trend in consumer hardware. While early entrants to the market feel more proof-of-concept than robust products or services, I predict that this category of products will improve quickly and become commonplace in homes of all types, expanding into other types of gardening and food production beyond leafy greens alone.

Although smart gardens may not yet be as impactful as the victory gardens that produced nearly 40% of vegetables in the US during World War II, there is significant opportunity for home hydroponics reduce dependence on an easily disrupted global food infrastructure while also easing individual environmental impact and increasing access to fresh, healthy produce.