Most people would consider me to be the very opposite of an “early adopter”. Heck, I don’t even own a smartphone (or an i-pad, i-pod, or other such technology that you allegedly can’t live without in the modern world). But when it comes to equipment associated with the living foods lifestyle (of which I was very definitely an early adopter 25 years ago), I’m right there. Green Star Elite juicer – check. Excalibur dehydrator – check. Vitamix – check. Automatic sprouter – check (actually, I’ve got two). So when I heard via the Hippocrates newsletter that a new, “can’t-live-without-on-this-lifestyle” product was available, I was straight on the internet to find out if this amazing piece of Canadian kit could be obtained on my side of the pond. Enter Continental Chef Supplies (CCS), the only UK distributor of the magnificent Urban Cultivator; the machine that really could make a “zero mile diet” a realistic possibility.
So, what is it, is it all it’s cracked up to be, how does it work and will it really save time and money? Coming up, but remember back to a time perhaps a few years ago when your kitchen might have looked a bit different. How long have you had a dishwasher? I was certainly a “late adopter” of one of those, but wouldn’t be without it now. And how many people these days have a posh built-in coffee maker, or maybe, on a smaller budget, a Nutribullet, compared to 5, or even 2 years ago? What was once considered a gimmick might well become tomorrow’s essential. This was my initial feeling the moment I saw the Urban Cultivator.
In November, finding myself in London with a couple of hours to spare, I hopped on over to the CCS showroom in Baker Street. And there before my very eyes stood the latest wonder of modern technology – a Commercial Cultivator. This unit is primarily designed for chefs and professional kitchens; with four levels, and fitting 4 large growing trays onto each, it is otherwise either for someone who runs a small wheatgrass-growing business, or someone with a large raw-eating family. Try as I might, I could not think of anywhere in my kitchen that I could fit in one of these behemoths. I’d need a pretty large kitchen extension to accommodate one (or maybe 3 days on a serious garage clear-out mission – now there’s an idea!). It still might represent a relative overkill for my personal needs, but hey, I can dream.
Slightly more realistically, in another part of the showroom, stands the Residential Cultivator. The same size as an under-counter fridge or freezer, this unit does not require a major re-think of your living space. With two levels, and two large trays in each, it is ideal for a health-conscious couple who want to grow their own microgreens and tray greens such as wheatgrass, sunflower greens and pea shoots. Whilst you can certainly grow these outdoors for part of the year in the UK, depending on where you live, I have found that sunflower greens won’t grow on my outdoor, protected rack past October, and they don’t like it if I put them outside until the end of April. I therefore embraced the opportunity to have a residential unit on trial for a 3 month period – winter being the ideal time to put it through its paces. I cleared a redundant space in my utility room, cut a narrow section of worktop away and the unit was delivered on 11th December 2015, just as promised.
Very well made, it’s an excellently designed, quality product. Something you’d really want to show off in your kitchen, rather than having it hiding in a utility space as I am doing for this trial. There’s the option to have it freestanding, which means that you can basically put it anywhere and no plumbing is needed, or it can be plumbed in to the water supply. Currently mine is on the freestanding option, although plumbed in would be the obvious choice for someone buying one. It looks very good, and is made from high quality materials. It can be customised to your kitchen design and colour – a bonus for the style-conscious.
How does it work?
It grows your tray greens, microgreens and salad leaves either hydroponically or with soil. I am currently growing wheatgrass, sunflower greens and pea shoots hydroponically, and some baby kale salad leaves in soil. The unit waters the trays from underneath, and you set the frequency of watering via the unit’s menu. Mine is currently set to a 3 minute watering cycle which takes place twice daily. The top growing level can be watered on a separate cycle from the bottom level. I don’t have to do a thing – I can even go on holiday and know that I don’t have to ask anyone to do any plant watering in my absence. The temperature can be set to your chosen level – I have set mine to a pleasant 20C.
For hydroponic cultivation, special growing mats, which I have nicknamed “nappies”, are used in the bottom of each tray. Although I have not yet tried them, special pre-seeded growing mats are available and with these, all you have to do is put them in a tray and the cultivator does the rest – no need for any conventional “sowing” of the seed and the potential problem of overcrowding (too much seed in one place, not enough in another). There is a programmable lighting cycle – the full-spectrum lights are currently set to come on at 8am and go off at midnight. Relative humidity is controlled inside the unit to prevent moulding of the seeds, and there are special domes provided which fit on the tops of the trays for the first few days, to keep your seedlings moist as they start to germinate. My first tray of pea shoots grown hydroponically did in fact develop black mould and I had to throw them out, but that’s because I didn’t follow the instructions properly at first. The current tray is looking a lot happier. If you’re used to growing on an outdoor rack, a little adjustment is needed.
The trays are large – bigger than the ones I use outside on my growing rack, which is a good thing. The sunflower green tray that I have recently grown lasted me a week, whereas my outdoor trays only last 4 days.
Benefits over growing your herbs, microgreens and tray greens outside
Massive! Climate-controlled, regular “sun”, no slugs, no snails, no flies, no need for pesticides or herbicides, no need to remember to water the produce, no risk of overwatering, no need for someone to “house-sit” your plants when you go on holiday…. I could go on, but you get the picture. “Growing your own” will never be the same again – you don’t even need outdoor space.
What seeds do I use?
Urban Cultivator supplies all the seeds you might need, or you can source your own. I am currently using their pea, kale, rocket, basil and other microgreens, but have used my own sunflower seeds and spelt grain (for wheatgrass). The wheatgrass grew amazingly fast, and the sunflowers seem to like the long light cycles and warm temperature. You can almost see the seeds growing in front of your eyes – it’s a lot more interesting than TV. The seeds supplied with my trial unit are organic and GM free, and I’m looking forward to trying out the pre-seeded mats in January.
Will it pay for itself?
The answer is definitely yes. I worked out that if I grow all the pea shoots I need, and do not have to buy in any trays of wheatgrass or sunflower greens, the Residential Cultivator would pay for itself in 3 years. If there were an intermediate sized unit (see below) it would be likely to pay for itself faster.
I’m still getting the hang of the programmes and I had to download an instructions document from the internet since there wasn’t one with the trial unit. Having said that, CCS are great and have been happy to respond to phone calls and send prompt replies by e-mail, and the Canadian helpline is available 7 days a week. I think the unit would be best plumbed in, and that is definitely what I will do when I buy one.
The only other downside is that I think there should be 3 size choices. Much as I would love a Commercial Cultivator, it is size-prohibitive (until I build that kitchen extension), and with the amount of juicing I do, I feel the Residential Cultivator is slightly too small to grow all the salad leaves I need, in addition to the tray greens. If I’m growing my usual sunflower greens, wheatgrass and pea shoots, there’s no room in the Residential Cultivator for anything else, until my tray greens once more move outside onto my growing rack for our all too short British summer.
Would I buy one?
Absolutely. Should you buy one? Definitely. Every home should have one. And it’s far better for you than that expensive built-in coffee machine…
Where can I see one?
At CCS. I’m co-hosting “Alive”- a full day of wonderful healthy food prep and detox recipes at CCS on 6th February 2016, and we have just 7 places left. Do come and join us – details here.