There are two things I don’t know if I’ll ever have: a kid and a garden. My parents had both. My childhood was green and quiet, leafy and loamy, and we grew things in the yard sometimes–squash plants that over-proliferated; green tomatoes we’d lose to rabbits; bitter red radishes I ate whole, still tasting of earth, on the back deck in the summer.
There are likely people my age who still have these things–yards and gardens, and children to tear them up–but if I know any, they live far away from where I do. I’ve resided in cities for as long as I’ve been an autonomous person, first in New York and now London. In New York, there was no scrap of green to be found–the woman who lived next door would sometimes nod at me across the brick alleyway between us when we were both at our kitchen windows. Here in London, my flat has a back garden far below our third-story window, but almost no one who lives in this building is allowed to enter it. It’s been completely claimed, by the bristling, unfriendly elderly couple who live below, and no one is willing to argue with that. Our rent here stays low as long as we don’t cause problems.
Usually, when people move to the city, they spend so much time proudly polishing all the gritty little trophies they’ve earned–the ones the kids from their hometowns never did–that they forget about all the things they’ve given up. It’s been a long time since the walls of my room have been mine to paint. It’s impractical, if not disallowed, to remodel when you rent. My fiancé and I have been living with another couple for three years, and I’ve already forgotten which dishes are ours and which are theirs. Our collective toothbrushes crowd onto a tiny window ledge in our closet-shaped bathroom. And we only keep plants that promise not to need very much. In the city, you must try not to need much.
On spring afternoons I gaze down out of our bedroom window at the elderly couple, meticulously gardening. They work for hours: raking and trimming, fussing with a water feature, buzzing the hedges. There are some rare weekend nights when I’ll shut myself in our room and smoke a cigarette out the window. I hide this carefully from my housemates, and even from my partner, as it’s not allowed in here. I imagine the tiniest snowfall of poisonous ash, stealing unnoticed into the precious garden below, and I feel less resentful.
I think a lot about the future. Like, if you had a yard and a garden as a child, and now you can’t even touch the one scrap of land behind your own home, what will your children have? It seems like when living in a city, little bits of what you are able to have constantly fall away. Even time. I watch the blue threads of cigarette smoke disappear among the skeletal shapes of the forbidden garden below and think about how having children is not going to be possible for me forever, either.
Recently, my partner got a bonsai tree. He says you have to clip its leaves in half so that it thinks there are walls around it, and that makes it grow in the desired, artificial manner.
IKEA recently announced that it will launch its own line of hydroponic gardening kits, promising “a beautiful way to bring a bit of the natural world inside.” Gardening is so hot right now, especially among 18 to 34-year-olds: The National Gardening Association says the number of young Americans who grow food leapt 63 percent between 2008 and 2013, and now stands at 13 million. Spending on food gardening has doubled over the same period, to a formidable $1.2-billion market as of 2013. But studies also suggest home ownership among this age group is at the lowest it’s ever been since record-keeping began in 1974. Where are all these gardens going to go?
IKEA has long promised clean, smooth ways to cram the mad, jangling disorder of urban life into tiny spaces. It now even makes gardening seem simple: Water, life, and love, that’s all you need, the hydroponics launch video promises, as a tidy model lovingly soaks seeds and “plugs,” sorting them each into trays. The time-lapse video lavishes attention on the slow, tender eruption of nature against the clean pastel of this well-dressed woman’s modern life. It’s mesmerizing. She sorts dozens of seedlings. Dozens, right in her apartment!
I want to be her, I think. I want to have lush greenery swelling in my hydroponic garden as I browse fiction, play the clarinet, and take selfies in my vintage dress. What if the cold resignations of city life could be swept away by the emerald tones of “harvest” right on the countertop of my closet-sized kitchen? Though I live in a cloister high above the pavement, I could, with care and the miracle of home technology, serve fresh spinach I’ve grown by hand to my imagined family, or my imagined guests. I could be one of those hosts who has a lot to say about ingredients. I could describe the freshness; that soil flavor of my youth, peppering all our meals with wholesome integrity.
The IKEA Hydroponics (the KRYDDA/VÃ„XER series, of course) will not be available until May, though. I don’t really want to wait that long. I want to become a grower now. I want to be ready for the end times, for the shifting climate. When our urban glass catacombs fall away, I want to know how to strike the artificial spark of life into the hollows of what is left. As the end of the world comes, I imagine myself, muscled and bandana-wrapped, rewiring exhaust fans, hot-wiring ecosystems, pressing scavenged seeds into beds lined with kitchen foil.
We might not ever have kids. We might not even be able to keep house plants alive. But there is still time to become post-apocalyptic greenhouse architects. We’re city folk. Our roach-carapace resilience, our urbane ingenuity, has to be good for something. I’m determined.
Speaking of resilience and ingenuity, this story begins in earnest–with weed growers. In the service of that illicit flower, online communities sprung up around growing long ago–at least since I was a child on Usenet. You can grow anything, technically speaking, if you have intake and exhaust, grow lights, drainage, the right temperature, the right soil, and the right pH. If you have all those things, then you can definitely grow and breed marijuana.
When my hydroponic research suddenly reacquaints me with this information, I’m elated. I can grow weed. It’s just a matter of learning and patience. I mean, if there is anything you can count on a city person for, it’s drugs, isn’t it? Instantly, I am teleported from “fresh spinach would be nice” to “I am going to be so in-demand at the end of the world.”
The online information resources for growing indoors are massive but not surprising–just like when you turn over a log in the deep woods and watch the pale ant eggs, and throbbing worm bellies, and other many-legged things swarm and scatter, and think, of course it was there all along. This do-it-yourself grower community is profoundly warm and friendly–Reddit’s /r/microgrowery offers a reputedly easy guide to starter sets. I watch a man in all black spend 15 minutes demonstrating a purported $35 “aquaponics” setup. Some goldfish in a tank maneuver elegantly among dangling roots. So the fish eat the nutrients produced by the plants? Or is it that the fish waste nourishes the plants? Whatever. There are plants growing over a living fish tank, dude. It’s amazing.
It all seems so seductively simple: If I learn this one new skill, if I start on the road to one of these compelling “setups” or “builds,” then I become self-sustaining. (“Here’s my personal build,” says every enthusiastic poster; “Great setup,” each courteous comment replies.) I can generate my own food. I can defy the elderly neighbors downstairs. Keep your rose garden, thou Beasts.
But even the microgroweries, as they’re called, are large for a third-floor London flat. Where could we install this massive stall of canvas? In the hall outside the bathroom, where we all fumble and move across one another’s paths in the sleepy dark, whispering sorry? What is a cool tube, and why is it $166? After much research, I decide I need smaller than micro: I need a Space Bucket.
As it turns out, Space Buckets are more adorable than you can believe. “We are a community of DIY indoor gardeners with a knack for LEDs and small containers,” they say on Reddit. But they are more than a community–they are a “movement”; they have a “manifesto.” And they are eager to have me join them. I want to join, too, to become a quietly ingenious survivalist. The hesitant silence in my womb is actually the hunger for revolution. Yes, that’s definitely it.
Imagine me, perched at the edge of a flat rooftop, fishing fist-sized tomatoes out of one of my many Mylar-lined buckets. Me, feeding the children of the future! Imagine my newfound family, crawling across the wreckage of the urban ideal, enjoying heavy, smoke-laced feminist meditations in the starry night, grow lights dotting our reclaimed car parks and shimmering off our rain-damp tarpaulins! Other beings from distant stars would touch us briefly, to share what we have grown. This is what I imagine when I discover Space Buckets. It’s probably what you will, too, when you read the manifesto:
Humans of the Earth! Hear the Space Buckets calling. It is time for a DIY indoor gardening revolution. We stand at the vanguard:
I. Bucket culture is open. We are a community of learners, a movement of tinkerers. Our goal is to spread information about how to grow plants inside small containers with artificial lighting. Anyone can join us.
II. Bucket knowledge is free. We believe in the free flow of ideas and the unparalleled power of the Internet. We are part of the web, and we contribute to it. Profit is not our motivation, innovation is.
III. All plants are inside our law. We do not judge species based on their political situation. We are a melting pot of photosynthesis enthusiasts.
IV. Bucketeers matter. Every gardener can make an impact in his inner self and social circle. Watching a plant thrive is a perspective-gaining experience. This bucket mindset pushes us forward.
I feel very ready to begin, and to matter. I am advised to “start here,” with a simple template for a Space Bucket. It seems easy enough. I need a power strip, grow lights, a 24-hour timer for the lights, a four-way splitter for the bulbs, a couple of PC fans wired to an AC adapter with electrical tape, some Mylar film to make the bucket reflect inside, and some masking tape to make it light-proof outside. Lumen tightness, it says, a delectable phrase that makes me feel like I am already part of this world. I am a node in this elegant, humane, digital net draped lovingly across the planet, flowers bursting from its intersections. I am transcending apartment life. I post on a Reddit thread: How do I re-wire my PC fans to an AC adapter?
“If you don’t want to wire too much, get a LED UFO instead,” replies my new friend “bucketfarmer.” “Also use an inline fan + passive intake for your cooling needs and some LED side lighting with a power supply. Three plugs and you’re good to go!”
He makes it sound so easy, I tell myself. He makes it sound so very easy.
Following the starter kit’s shopping list, I order the necessary goods one at a time on Amazon. One by one the tiny boxes begin arriving. I rely on the Royal Mail more than ever before, and on the caprices of package delivery in London–my foyer filling up with missed package slips, emergency-red. It is one of those city things I didn’t plan for: walking a mile and a half to the post office, during the appointed daytime hours, to collect lumpy parcels.
Time begins to flow through my fingers like dry soil. I start to think that maybe I should have gone to a shop, but that prospect, too, carries a peculiar wrinkle of city life. When your needs are complicated, no one single store can meet them all. It’s better just to order everything online in one go than to take a bus to some outlet, wander the scoured aisles, only to have to take another bus somewhere else. Even worse: having to call over there, asking for x or y, brand names and descriptions juddering awkwardly from your lips and across a spotty 3G-connection.
I receive a missed package notice scrawled with pen notes explaining that one of my items has been left with my neighbors. The scary gardening ones downstairs. I would rather buy a roll of masking tape all over again than knock and ask for it from them. And so I do. (They have yet to return my package to me, either. Hoarding my masking tape, the old persimmons.)
In the end I get all the supplies, the bulbs and fans and tapes and films, strips and adapters, arrayed across my bedroom floor alongside my carelessly flung party clothes and shoes. The white plastic buckets, which I don’t need to line with Mylar because they are already reflective, arrive in a stack sealed tightly with a trash bag and packing tape. My partner is becoming skeptical that I’ll ever be able to wrangle this disorder into a garden. I, on the other hand, am confident I will soon sell him on the appeal of Space Buckets.
I tie my hair in a bandana and put on a sick psychedelic mix. I heat a screwdriver in boiling water and begin to bore drainage holes into the bottom of my bucket. I gleefully snip the connectors off the PC fans. I read instructions and re-read them; I need to cut big holes in the buckets in order to mount the fans. I have to strip the fan wires. I have an IKEA screwdriver and a pair of IKEA kitchen scissors that we use to cut pizza. With a hot bread knife, heated with boiling water, I press my full weight into the bucket on my bedroom floor and saw away.
For a while, I feel bootstrapping and very powerful. But when my knife gets stuck in the plastic (its blade is stamped with IKEA, too) and I accidentally snip off a fan wire I meant to strip, I start to remember why I hated shop class as a girl. My voice gets thin and high when I fully mangle one of the buckets, a sad hole bulging out of it in entirely the wrong place. The kitchen scissors break. My housemates are not going to be happy about this. The revolution is delayed.
Here’s the problem: I do not own any tools. There are no real tools in our apartment besides a hammer, pliers, and a screwdriver, like in a dimly recalled Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood song. My parents had tools when I was a child–I could step into the cool dark of their two-car garage and smell barbecue charcoal, mulch, and motor oil, and look at them all. Each in its place on a perforated board with outlines drawn around it, to recall where it hung. Tools just sort of belonged to my idea of home back then, the way the garden did.
I don’t have anything I had when I was a kid. I don’t have anything my parents had, I think.
I need tools, and to replace the bucket I destroyed, so I head to the home improvement store B&Q in Greenwich to buy more buckets: 20-liter/five-gallon plastic ones with lids. I will know what I’m looking for on sight–it’s not a rare item. I was surrounded by these buckets growing up. Which is why it’s so unusual when the B&Q doesn’t have any. Neither does the other branch on Old Kent Road, nor the Wickes (another DIY retailer in London). No buckets with lids at all.
I am dwarfed by aisles of tools, by improvement goods, by buckets full of grout or cement or paint. I can identify maybe every tenth object my eyes fall upon. The tools–the drill bore, the hand saw, the wire cutter–are intimidating, glittery, clad in gunmetal and safety orange. And they are expensive–investments for homeowners, not for the likes of me. This entire place is lined with tile selections, fixture options, different colors of caulk, things that will never be part of my world. I can’t make a Space Bucket. I can’t even paint my bedroom.
In the garden center I find a lone, packaged “Strawberry Growing House” sitting by itself. It’s a miniature greenhouse that comes with 12 little biodegradable planters, a bag of compost, a packet of strawberry seeds, and stickers to decorate it. It costs 10 pounds–just over $14. It’s meant for kids.
At the end of my experiment, a corner of my room is piled with about 100 pounds’ ($140) worth of Space Bucket abortion. The miniature strawberry greenhouse, though, sits on the windowsill, lined with dewdrops and heat. I added all the little stickers to its frame. There is a sliding plastic bit on the top so I can ventilate it once the shoots come up.
At first I imagine that, one by one, little red berries will poke their heads out of the individualized compartments in my child-sized strawberry house. My partner and I will pick them out when they’re full grown, and I’ll make a small pot of jam. But of course it doesn’t go this way. The instructions indicate that the shoots need to be replanted once they are five centimeters high–outside, in a real garden.
In a few months, I’ll probably abandon them on the doorstep of the terrifying, old gardeners downstairs, hoping for the best. I’ll never know if they plant them or throw them out, just as I never know what becomes of my packages they sign for. I’ll never know whether the plants nestle into the earth and bear fruit, and even if they do, I’ll never taste it.
How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Metropolis section, on the way cities influence new ideas–and how new ideas change city life. Click the logo to read more.