Green hobby grows into a business

Turned off by how expensive vegetables and herbs are at the supermarkets here, Danish entrepreneur Thorben Linneberg decided to grow his own at home in 2013.

With his Singaporean partner Nadine Keller, he started growing a few plants such as mint, tomatoes and rosemary in small pots and planters in the balcony of their three-bedroom condominium in the western part of Singapore.

But once, after a long trip, they returned to find some of their plants had died, though they had an automatic watering system.

Ms Keller, 39, says: "You really have to be on the ball when you are growing plants in soil. We failed at gardening."

But instead of giving up, Mr Linneberg, 45, a Singapore permanent resident who has lived here for 18 years, was spurred to invent a device that would let them grow their own food without having to worry too much about maintenance.

Entrepreneur Thorben Linneberg and his partner, Ms Nadine Keller (both above), with their gardening systems. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Armed with a heat gun and PVC pipes he bought from a hardware store, he crafted his first prototype for a vertical gardening system.

He was inspired in part by a video of someone making a "strawberry tower". This is a popular growing system that gardeners use to stack modified buckets on top of one another, with holes cut into the plastic containers so that the strawberry seedlings - planted in soil in the buckets - can grow out of them.

Mr Linneberg used an electric saw to make slits in the pipe before using a heat gun to soften the areas around the openings.

The now-malleable PVC pipe, 15cm in diameter, could be indented - this allowed him to place netpots, or meshed cups, filled with seedlings into the holes.

He affixed the pipe into the centre of the bucket, through the lid and connected a water pump that would feed water into the system from the top.

The tools and materials cost him about $2,000 and he was able to make several prototypes.

As his balcony was small, he placed a few of the prototypes at a friend's house. The plants there flourished - it was a true test of the device as Mr Linneberg's friend did not have green fingers.

Other friends who saw the system wanted one of their own. As demand grew, the D-I-Y project turned into a serious endeavour to create a proper gardening system for small homes here.

To fine-tune his product, Mr Linneberg used a Google design software called SketchUp to test out shapes and settled on a honeycomb-like design for each module, which could be stacked. He also bought a 3D printer to make the modules at home and to cut costs.

The first prototype was ready in early 2014. A year later, the couple registered their company, Aerospring Gardens, to sell their product, which they had spent about $10,000 to test and research.

The aeroponic system has evolved from its D-I-Y days. Now a sleek self-sustaining system, it takes up about 1 sq m of space. Its base is a 75-litre bucket and water is recirculated through internal piping to keep the plant roots hydrated.

Plants are grown in 27 pop-out pockets built into nine hexagonal planter sections. These are stacked and secured to one another through an internal threaded pipe and affixed to the lid of the bucket.

The self-assembly kit comes with liquid nutrients and a seedling kit with a small selection of seeds.

Aerospring Gardens has its own website and the product is also sold at Tangs department store in Orchard Road and Far East Flora retail centres.

The smaller system costs $649, while the larger version, which has 12 planter systems, is $750. The couple have sold 200 units so far and are making a slight profit.

They took a leap of faith and left their jobs last year to focus on Aerospring Gardens.

Mr Linneberg had been a country manager for different multinational corporations and was also working on his own start-ups, while Ms Keller was the general manager of a digital content production company.

They have three of their creations in their balcony - they have moved to a bigger home.

Luscious green leaves sprout from each pocket, with some stalks bearing juicy fruit. Some of the edibles they grow include cucumber, kale, tomato and passionfruit.

They have also hired a horticulturist to help them improve the gardening aspect of the operations, such as testing plants that would grow better in Singapore's climate, fertilisation and pest control.

Mr Linneberg says of their D-I-Y venture: "I expected to build these few towers and that was it. But you get excited seeing your basil grow and you can harvest kilos of tomatoes and you want to improve it.

"It's so appealing to grow your own food."

Natasha Ann Zachariah

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2016, with the headline Green hobby grows into a business. Subscribe