Grow your own herbs? Not so fast.

The Urban Cultivator might be good for restaurants, but maybe not home cooks

Grow your own herbs? Not so fast.

Photograph by Reena Newman

On paper, the Urban Cultivator sounds like a fine idea. Just picture it: a glass-fronted, mini-bar-sized device that nestles under your kitchen counter, coddling tray after tray of living herbs and greens with the combined comforts of artificial sunlight and scheduled irrigation so that they are perpetually ripe for the plucking. Well, it sounded good to me, anyway. And it looked even better once I located the Surrey, B.C.-based company website, and saw its photos and claims (“365 days of perfect growing conditions for all your favourite herbs and veggies,” “It truly is the zero-mile diet,” etc.). So I asked for a test drive—requesting a $2,200 stand-alone unit with its own wooden countertop (to spare myself a renovation).

Not long afterwards, two massive boxes were delivered. One contained the unit, and the other, a huge bag of peat, mixing tubs, giant syringes, a pH meter, pH adjusting chemicals, liquid nutrient, seeds and—wait for it—an external memory drive to reprogram the circuit board, in which a bug had turned up, post-production.

This all came with the expected fistful of illiterate instructions, seemingly composed by the Chinese secret service with a view to sabotaging our industrial progress. Somehow I persevered, transitioning seamlessly from the electronic conundrum to stirring a tub of wet peat on the kitchen counter, and then—finally—seeding four trays.

I planted two full trays of arugula (in high demand), one with basil (indispensable) and one with sorrel (to satisfy a hankering for saumon à l’oseille). That was easy: sprinkle seeds, cover with plastic domes for germination, and slot trays into the cultivator.

Then I launched the monitoring program and the thing whooshed into life with a cacophony of spinning electric fans and a flood of hideous white fluorescent light cascading from the viewing window. In my mind’s eye, I saw a red diode representing my house suddenly blinking on an energy-consumption-surge monitoring grid the RCMP uses to hunt down grow ops. But I pressed on.

Two days later the arugula was charging out of the gate, every last seed split open by a nascent sprout. I removed their domes and let them breathe. The basil and sorrel looked to be sprouting mould. Two weeks on, the arugula trays were carpeted green, and the basil and sorrel were beginning to overcome their slow starts. A couple of weeks after that I succumbed to temptation and tasted a two-centimetre-tall arugula sprout. It tasted—well—just like an arugula sprout. The basil and sorrel were still too small for sampling. The instructions, meanwhile, indicated that I should have been harvesting at two weeks.

So I got back in touch with Tarren Wolfe, who co-founded Urban Cultivator a couple of years ago as a natural offshoot of the original business, Northern Lights, which makes cabinets for growing, er, medicinal marijuana, a.k.a. “tomatoes” (“Our motto is ‘Grow your own’—it doesn’t matter what you grow,” he said). Wolfe explained what I should be harvesting at two or three weeks were sprouts, in the process thinning the field and encouraging the growth of what was left behind.

It took more than an hour to thin the arugula and then separate their tiny leaves from their dirty roots, but I did it. And the following week, I followed suit with the basil and sorrel. Those sprouts were useless, but a few weeks on—two months after the start date—I finally had a decent salad, a few tablespoons of pesto, and sauce for saumon à l’oseille for four. And then it was time to start over.

This is the thing: when Wolfe pitches his machines to restaurants, the economics of his argument revolves on fast-growing sprouts. And while commercial enterprises have a lot of use for such things, it is far from true of the home cook like me. Neither do I want to plan my arugula salads eight weeks in advance. In short, I would venture that this is a case of the economics of one business not applying to another. By which I mean that if arugula was sold only in tiny bags, in dark laneways, by hooded men demanding cash, I might consider dropping two grand on a cultivator and growing my own. In the meantime, I will happily stick to Loblaws.


Grow your own herbs? Not so fast.

  1. Author should shop bashing Chinese manufacturers. The problem is always with the Western design/specification requirements, and not with the factory themselves.  This is an old form of racial discrimination. First with Japanese factories back in 70’s & 80’s.  Then Taiwanese factories back in 80’s and 90’s.  Now Chinese factories.  When are Westerners going to look into the mirror and do a serious self exam.?

  2. Wow. I
    had a much different experience with my urban cultivator.  When I first
    heard about the product, I was excited at the
    ability to grow my own herbs in a pretty little unit, especially since I live in a climate that doesn’t
    bode well for growing outdoors much of the year. 
    I found the set up
    pretty easy – and when I did run into an issue with a sad batch of basil, I
    called tech support and they were very helpful.  Within 10 days I had 2
    trays of pea shoots (I had to give some away!), and my basil tastes better than anything I have ever purchased
    from a grocery store…
    Maybe it was more of an issue with the user than with the prodcut itself?

    • Sounds like the Urban Cultivators team trolling the blogs. 10 days for pea shoots? how tall did they get in 10 days because it should take about 4-5 days for the sprout to even break thru the sead. I call BS. So what did the tech support do or say to help your sad batch of basil turn “better than anything ever purchased” in less than 5 days?

      • Done this in my basement

        10 days is about right pea shoots
        7 for cress
        Under florescent or LED
        no fert

        • Doesn’t mean Its worth 2 grand

  3. Funny “guest” I’m sure ur not using bc northernlights tactics on commenting on the critiques posing as a customer. They are notorious e for trolling blogs and forums discrediting and negative feedback. When in reality there is no research put into the products just trial and error. No engineers just a bunch of stoners .

  4. I bought one a few months back and honestly it is a little too much work for me and a hassle over convenience. There dirt is all over the place, there is mold all the time, its loud and re planting is such a pain. I did get some nice pea tips but it took 4 weeks to grow them and 2 days to eat them so for me its not worth having it in my house. I used it twice and now its just sitting there if any one wants to purchase it off me i will resell for $1500. im in Victoria email is shaded_guy250@gmail.com

  5. Great review!! All other reviews are very biased i found, this is the only review not posted on their website. Its the most credible magazine too. Thanks again!

    • All other reviews are very biased. This is the only credible source that is not some small internet article by some tech start up website.

  6. Hi guys! I have a doubt about urban cultivator. What kind of T-5 they use in the kitchen model? How many watts? Are they 6500 K? I call them, and the technical support just talk about send me another lamp, but i just want this especifications… Help me please. Best Regards!

  7. So how is this company doing now? I have seen a lot from a few years ago, not much recently. Im sure it is dead in the water now as this is a very stupid idea for something to call a home appliance.

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