Greening the city vertically
Matthias van den Berg, Vertical Garden Tube
What’s your background? How did you get into the world of urban gardening?
I’m a gardener and landscape designer. When I was young I lived in the countryside surrounded by a lot of orchards and farms. I used to work there in my spare time. In our village we also had our own communal vegetable garden. So I really grew up working with nature and growing our own food. I realised early on that this is what I wanted to pursue as a career.
How did the idea for The Vertical Garden Tube come about?
The urban farming movement really got started in the United States. A friend of mine, Prik Korver, who is now also part of the VGT team, picked up on this movement when she visited in 2009 and brought it back with her to Amsterdam. There was an empty plot opposite her house so she came to me with the idea of creating a communal garden that would give around 76 families in Amsterdam access to fresh food. It was whilst working on this project that I started thinking about the problem of the lack in space in cities for growing plants and vegetables. This problem would keep me up all night until I came up with the rough idea for a planter that would grow plants vertically.
How did you go from this idea to the first prototype?
Once I worked out how the VGT was going to look, I had to find someone who would manufacture the model. This was quite difficult. I first went to companies who made planters but they were uninterested. After that I contacted factories. Four out of five came back and told me that the model was too difficult to make. You see, there are 44 holes in the Tube from which the plants are supposed to grow. The problem was that the planter couldn’t be taken out of its casting mold with all these holes in them. But one factory came back to me with an ingenious solution. They created 44 individual disks that would clamp into the Tube to create these holes which could then be taken out one by one and allow it to be pulled from its mold.
That sounds like a pretty meticulous process!
Yes, each Tube is a real piece of craftsmanship. A lot of manual work goes into making it – that’s why it can be a bit pricey! It cost a lot to make the mold as well, almost the equivalent of an expensive car, but I remember the day clearly when the first one was made on May 14th, 2014.
How did you then begin to test the model?
We’ve been testing different plant and vegetable species in the Tube for more than two years. Initially my plan was just to use it for vegetables, edible flowers and herbs so that people could have access to fresh food, but I’ve also used many houseplants since they also grow very well in the Tube. Around 160 liters of soil goes into the Tube but we’re also experimenting with other kinds of substrates to further improve growth.
Tell us about the benefits of The Vertical Garden Tube? What makes it so different from growing plants normally?
It’s always good to know where your food comes from and I believe growing food truly gives people a lot of pleasure. In terms of space, the Tube only takes up a bit more than the size of the average paving stone in Amsterdam, which is 30 by 30 cm. You could grow about 4 plants on that space in an average vegetable garden. With the Vertical Garden Tube you can grow 48 plants. That increases your yield by twelve-fold and is the equivalent of about 5m2 of garden which would ordinarily cost about 500 euros to create. The Vertical Garden Tube is therefore a real investment and a cheaper way to garden.
Who do you hope will use the Vertical Garden Tube?
Aside from city folk looking to welcome more green into their homes and offices, the Tube was also developed for a professional market. In the Hoftuin Restaurant in Amsterdam, the tube is being used in an adjacent vegetable garden that I designed to provide fresh herbs and edible flowers. We are also in the middle of discussing the possibility of using the Tube in commercial greenhouses. In this way, the VGT will really be targeted towards use in the professional urban agriculture sector.
What piece of advice would you give to someone trying to break into the urban green retail market?
A universal truth for all gardening projects or businesses is that, if you want to do it well you have to acquire a lot of knowledge about growing plants and vegetables. If you really want to sell green in the city, you need this experience. I see a lot of green initiatives in Amsterdam which in theory could work, but the end results show that in essence the people don’t get what green is all about. If you don’t have this green knowledge, then you should find someone to join your team who does!