In 2016, Thorben and Nadine Linneberg quit their stressful corporate jobs to bring vertical gardens into homes, both big and small. The couple founded Aerospring Gardens, whose flagship product is an automated hydroponic tower with an easy-to-install modular system.
Placed in a well-lit and airy balcony and patios, it can grow up to 36 types of vegetables from seedling to harvest. In less than two years they’ve sold 1,000 units – just further evidence of the growing momentum behind the urban farming and local food movements.
The couple’s pathway to establishing Aerospring Gardens has been long and winding. What started out as a hobby would eventually turn into business.
For Thorben, the attraction was always reconnecting with nature; he recalls with fondness how, before he arrived in Singapore in 1999, he would tend his garden back in Denmark. “Even in Singapore after all these years, I’ve always had a pot of basil somewhere,” said Thorben, who is now a permanent resident.
Then Thorben and Nadine met six years ago. They soon moved in together and decided to grow food at home. But Thorben found that gardening in Singapore was completely different from back home; he quickly grew frustrated with Singapore’s hot and humid climate. The relentless heat meant that regular watering was essential. “The plants died and dried out on a hot day, and at that point I decided to build a hydroponic system that would not run out of water,” he said.
Thorben taught himself to make basic hydroponic setups from PVC pipes by watching YouTube videos. Two years later, he was looking for an exit strategy from his stressful career in business administration. Nadine observed that gardening calmed his frayed senses; turning his homemade hydroponic systems into a business seemed the perfect answer.
“I was fundraising for businesses and a lot of deals just went sour for many reasons and I was just very stressed about it. I ended up in the garden when I went home from work. Nadine said I was relaxed and I got my smile back and the frown disappeared from my face,” said Thorben.
“She said to me, ‘When you are doing gardening, you are so much more relaxed and pleasant. why don’t you do that?’,” he recalled fondly.
The newly married couple took a leap of faith and invested their savings in production tools to make Aerospring Gardens’ first prototype. Thorben bought a 3D printer and designed the modular system, despite having no experience in manufacturing.
“I’m no engineer but should I redo anything in my life, I might have gone in that direction, instead of business administration,” said Thorben. “It turns out – to my own surprise – I actually have some talent in mechanical engineering.”
The Aerospring Garden: enough food for a family
An Aerospring Garden hydroponic kit is a hexagon-shaped pole with nine to 12 sections made out of a food-safe polycarbonate material and manufactured in Singapore. The nine-section Aerospring Garden Standard reaches a height of 165 centimetres and can grow up to 27 plants. The 12-section Aerospring Garden Pro is 195cm tall and can grow up to 36 plants.
The vertical design saves space, making them suitable for apartment balconies. For those who want to grow their food indoors, Aerospring Gardens also offers a grow tent setup outfitted with grow lights and a simple ventilation and temperature control system. This is helpful to those living in countries with changing seasons, as the grow tent makes it possible to cultivate all year round, said Thorben.
The couple wanted to make growing your own produce an easy and low-maintenance task. The kit equips customers with everything they need for a successful crop; water pumps, nutrients, rockwool – to hold the plants in place – and even seedlings are provided with each system. This saves a lot of time that would normally be spent procuring the materials for a hydroponic garden.
“From our initial research, we found that there wasn’t an out-of-the-box system that you can assemble yourself easily. There isn’t anything out here in this part of the world that you can buy off the shelf – everything you need to start growing. We saw a gap in the market in and we decided to pursue it,” said Nadine, who is Singaporean.
Given the right light conditions, Aerospring Garden users can expect about an 80 percent success rate for their crop, said Nadine. Aerospring Garden sells a wide variety of seedlings – popular options include kale, basil, tomato, eggplant, mint and passionfruit – for S$2 to S$4 each. Exotic variants of supermarket staples, such as chocolate mint, habanero peppers and tuscan kale, are also available.
As the Aerospring Garden uses water for its growth medium, there is no need for soil. This reduces pests as well as the mess that soil gardening brings. Having started out with soil, Thorben can attest to the attraction of hydroponics. “Nadine would scream at me about soil footprints in the apartment,” he said.
Hydroponic systems also cut the growth time by half when compared with soil. The pump circulates water from a 75 litre bucket throughout the system, delivering nutrients straight to the plants’ roots; the plants do not have to expend as much energy into growing roots to seek and absorb nutrients. The energy is instead diverted into growth. With a 75 litre bucket, you can go on a holiday and your plants will still be thriving when you return, said Thorben.
At S$680 for an Aerospring Garden Standard, the systems do not come cheap. But Thorben says that in a country like Singapore, which has high food prices – basil, for instance, is typically S$2.99 for 15 grams, or just a handful of sprigs – it can pay for itself in as little as six months through reduced grocery bills. S$2 of basil seedlings from Aerospring Gardens can be turned into a bountiful crop. “We wanted a product that is compact but can grow enough food to make a difference in your life,” he continued.
Demand for Aerospring Gardens’ kits is increasing steadily, the Linnebergs said; as well as Singapore, they’ve got buyers in the Middle East, Australia and Europe. For now they are able to make enough units but if sales continue to grow they may seek outside investment to expand production capacity.
“We are talking to retail chains and if we can get them [to stock the Aerospring Garden], they would order 5,000 units immediately,” Thorben said. “We might need to raise funds from an investor but so far we have been able to do it with our own money, and with one investor who has been with us from day one.” He adds: “We don’t just want money but we are looking for the right attitude, the right support and the right contacts.”
Above all, the couple want to raise awareness about the benefits of having your very own hydroponic vegetable garden. While organic food is increasingly popular among consumers, the freshest and most nutritious produce is that grown on your balcony or patio.
“The minute your organic food is picked and sent to you from a farm in somewhere like Australia, the countdown begins and its nutritional value starts to deteriorate, compared with something you pluck from your Aerospring Garden,” said Nadine.
Thorben added, “We are teaching people how to lead a sustainable life.”
Photo courtesy Aerospring Gardens