The Rise of the Indoor Gardening Movement

Countertop Cultivation: Tracing the Roots of America’s Growing Indoor Gardening Trend

Think about the last time you ate a tomato straight from the vine or served up greens still warm from the sun. If you’ve had vegetables this fresh, you know there is no comparison to the ones we find in even the nicest grocery stores.


Sure the farmer’s market is a close second, but you lose the sense of accomplishment and pride gained from the knowledge that you grew this food. Maybe it speaks to something ancient within us, the awareness that we can still provide for ourselves in a world of pre-packaged convenience. Or maybe it’s the slowness of this process, patiently watching as seeds germinate and grow, blossom and fruit.

There are so many reasons people are turning back to old ways when it comes to food production, but one thing is certain – this desire to feed ourselves has sparked a whole new revolution that’s taking the garden from the backyard to the kitchen…and the living room…and the den… I’m talking about the concept of indoor gardening and let me tell you, it’s on the rise.


From Field to Factory (and back again)

So how did we get here, from a species of hunter-gatherers to one that raises nutrient rich microgreens on the kitchen countertop? We humans have been farming for about 12,000 years. Self-sustenance from food production has been central to the survival of our species throughout all those many millennia and it has played a huge role in shaping our world and our culture. For thousands of years, the garden was key to communities and households.

  • Colonial America (1493-1763): most houses have a kitchen garden, but the rise of industrialism brings with it a steep drop in home gardening. Increasingly families rely on outside food production as they move away from rural areas to cities where they go to work in factories.
  • The 1940s: as larger scale farming begins to nudge out small family farms, produce moves from the neighborhood to the supermarket. People become increasingly disconnected from food sources and the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides forever changes the landscape of agriculture, for better or worse.
  • Victory Gardens: the 1940s also gives rise to a whole new garden revolution. With World War II raging, a food crisis looms as much of the industrial crops in western nations are shipped to soldiers at the front. Enter the Victory Garden. Patriotic households across the U.S. and beyond begin planting gardens to feed their families at home and offset food shortages. Even the White House has a Victory Garden planted by none other than Eleanor Roosevelt.
    Public Domain
  • The 1970s: a growing demand for organic food is heard from people frustrated by the heavy use of chemicals in industrial farming. At this same moment, in the wake of the Vietnam War, scores of young people begin opting for a life in the country over the laced up, buttoned-down one their parents chose in cities and suburbs. The Back to the Land Movement is born out of a desire to escape a world that feels increasingly uncertain and unsustainable. These are the children of parents who lived through the depression and major military conflicts. They demand a change from a system that seems to have failed their parents again and again. The movement gives rise to farming communes and food co-ops and old ways come flooding back.


Answers for a Changing Planet

Fast forward to the 21st century. Here we are. We sit on the brink of the unknown in so many ways. Climate change is altering the face of agriculture right before our very eyes. David Wolfe, professor of Horticulture at Cornell University writes in The New American Landscape, “We are in the unfortunate situation of being the first generation of gardeners, ever, who cannot rely on historical records to tell us what our climate is, or what to expect in the future.”


Photo courtesy of IAMO


As if this weren’t enough to give pause about the ability of our current system to continue providing enough food for all, large-scale factory farming has also given rise to a disturbing trend that is sending people back to basics when it comes to where they source their produce. Foodborne illness, while not something that can ever be eliminated entirely no matter where something is grown, has certainly seen a fair number of cases linking it to industrial food production and processing. It seems no fruit or vegetable is safe when it comes to the potential for illness, from tomatoes to sprouts, cantaloupes to leafy greens, foodborne illnesses like salmonella and e coli have made thousands of people ill, sometimes seriously, occasionally fatally.

Pesticides and herbicides are still a major concern for many consumers as well. As far back as 2009, Smithsonian Magazine reported that organic food was in huge demand. From the initial release of USDA Organic standards in 2002, sales of organic food skyrocketed by up to 20% in just a single decade. Today consumers are so tuned in to organic food that demand is outpacing supply.

In a nation obsessed with eating almonds (no, seriously—from 2005 to 2014 American almond consumption rose by 220%) there are some harsh realities beginning to set in. California produces 82% of the world’s almonds and California, as we all know, is gripped by a drought so massive experts struggle to find language to describe its proportions. Production of single almond consumes 1.1 gallons of water that the state does not have to spare, and almond farming is rapidly overtaking more land than the ecology of California can sustain and harming important animal species in its path. Almond prices have skyrocketed and with all the environmental stress it causes, almond farming is far from sustainable.


Far from the Farm

Photo courtesy of The United Nations

So what’s a concerned consumer to do? The reality is, in our digital, workplace-driven era, we have continued to pour into cities to build our lives. The U.S. census in 2016 reported that just over 80% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas. Meanwhile, sparsely populated rural areas sit on 97% of the nation’s land. This means dense population crammed into just 3% of all available space in the entire country. Not much room for backyard garden pursuits and yet interest in close to home, clean food production continues to expand.


Closer and Closer to Home

A desire to move away from industrial farming was the impetus for the locavore movement, a term coined in 2005 by chef, author, and local food advocate Jessica Prentice. Locavore originally referred to food grown within a 100-mile radius from the home of the eventual consumer. For many living in cities, this was the answer they sought to get themselves as close to their food supplier as possible. The rise of locavores brought a resurgence in farmer’s markets, food co-ops, community gardens, and a general taking back of control over the who, what, where, and how of food supply chain.

Photo courtesy of

And still lots of folks want to take things even a step further. Indoor gardening speaks to so many of the realities facing us today. The average American spends roughly 90% of their time indoors and the majority of those people live in urban housing with little or no available land. Bringing the garden indoors makes sense for so many.

Indoor gardening is the ultimate in locavore cuisine. It truly doesn’t get closer to home than the ten steps between your kitchen counter garden and your dining table. It is little wonder that this trend toward 21st century windowsill gardening, so to speak, is taking hold. Besides all the reasoning behind the trend, the increased availability of indoor growing kits and supplies makes this the next logical step in home food production. And data shows that the movement is really taking off.



The Stats Behind the Indoor Gardening Trend

According to the 2017 Garden Trends Report by Garden Media Group:

  • 37% of Millennials 28% of Baby Boomers are already growing herbs indoors
  • 66% of parents believe activities centered on healthy food are important for children. No wonder, considering soaring obesity rates among our young children that are threatening to cut lifespans shorter than their parents.
  • Reports have also shown that from 2011-2016 the market for indoor gardening supplies saw unparalleled growth.


Indoor gardening has come a long way from the days of just setting pots near a sunny window and hoping for the best. These days, indoor gardens come in all shapes, sizes, and varieties. Options range from traditional soil-based gardening to hydroponic growing. Even the sun itself has been eclipsed by indoor grow light technology to make fresh produce possible all year round.

The thing is, there are reasons that outdoor gardening only works when the conditions are right, and it isn’t just about heat. We all know plants need light, but what you may not know is that light isn’t just linked to photosynthesis. It turns out that light, or more specifically the right kind of light, has everything to do with the outcome of a plant.


Indoor Garden Technology Offers Optimal Growing Environment

Plants are smarter than we give them credit for. Just ask Daniel Chamovitiz, director of the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences at Tel Aviv University. In his book What a Plant Knows, he breaks down the ways in which plants encounter the world around them. Chamovitz writes,

“Plants monitor their visible environment all the time. Plants see if you come near them; they know when you stand over them. They even know if you’re wearing a blue or a red shirt. They know if you’ve painted your house or if you’ve moved their pots from one side of the living room to the other.”

Of course, we know that plants don’t actually have eyes and ears (insert your own potato and corn jokes here) at least not in the sense that we do. But they do have the ability to know what their environment is like and they do have certain needs in order to flourish.

Seedlings especially have a tendency to be weak and leggy if they don’t receive enough full spectrum light to nourish them. Full spectrum light is what the sun gives off and what specially designed grow bulbs are made to mimic. To make matters even more complex, some of the fruits and vegetables we love to grow are what are known as “long day plants” meaning they require between 12-18 hours of sunlight in order to blossom. When you put these two factors together it becomes pretty apparent that not every windowsill is created equal and therefore some technological intervention may be called for.

These days, full spectrum grow lighting has made indoor gardening more user-friendly than ever before. Specially calibrated bulbs and light fixtures ensure optimal light for indoor crops. While it’s impossible to say for sure whether indoor gardening was already on the rise before this technology started to go mainstream or vice versa, the intersection of interest and technology is helping boost in-home production around the world to new heights.


So just how widespread is the rise of indoor gardening?

In 2016, the IKEA Life at Home Report found that 60% of people around the world grow vegetables or flowers indoors. Home food production over all in the U.S. has been increasing in popularity. In 2014 the National Gardening Association reported that home gardening was at its highest level in decades and appeared to be on a swift incline.



Indoor gardening for the home is a logical extension of what has been happening within the resurgence of small-scale regional farming, especially in colder climates, for quite some time. The use of hoop houses and similar indoor spaces extend growing seasons in places where winters are cold and snowy. In northern New England, Backyard Beauties Tomatoes is a prime example of warm weather food production at moderate scale brought indoors to create a local/regional supply of something that was once only available from distant places during the cold months. Indoor gardening at home scales this down and puts the reins fully in the hands of the consumer.

Is it possible that we have come full circle? That from our humble beginnings as agricultural pioneers we now stand on the precipice of a second agricultural age? With an increasingly unpredictable climate and a general increase in awareness about what’s good for our bodies, our communities, and our planet, we do seem poised for a revolution. The intersection of desire, knowledge, technology, and sheer necessity put us in the perfect position to begin growing our own food indoors at home.

Whether to feed our families, neighborhoods or even entire communities and beyond, indoor gardening offers a fresh take on old ways that speaks loud and clear to our 21st century way of life.


– Julia Tolstrup @ Back to the Roots

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