When Idan Cohen’s grandmother, at the age of twelve, emigrated with her family from Germany to Israel in 1933, she could hardly have imagined a certain sequence of events that she would set in motion twenty years later. One day, as a young mother, she would plant a courtyard vegetable garden that would become, many decades later, the inspiration for her grandson’s high tech horticultural breakthrough: a self-watering planter for raising vegetables — not only in a courtyard, but on a patio, balcony, or roof top, too. In fact, wherever you have extra space outdoors you could utilize this invention, which was only made available to the public a few days ago.
Yet Idan Cohen, after all, was not raised to be an urban farmer — his mother rebelled against grandma’s vegetable growing — and he had little interest in raising vegetables or anything else until later on in life. Years ago, Cohen built intelligence gathering reconnaissance satellites for the Israeli military. Later, he co-founded a company, eventually sold to Samsung, that developed technology for putting TV programs on the Internet.
So, unsurprisingly, Cohen’s invention of the first self-watering growing system has a solid technological foundation. Still, activating the system, which takes 10 minutes, is a study in simplicity. You merely turn on a battery operated control unit, connect a hose to your GROW planter — containing designer soil and organic fertilizer — and let technology do the rest. Sensors integrate weather and soil data so that watering proceeds on an as-needed basis. If you thought self-driving cars had won the designation of “the next big thing,” think again, since self-watering planter boxes, which are available to one and all right now, beat them to it.
So how did Cohen come up with this idea? His high tech success put him in a penthouse apartment with a life of leisure at his fingertips and yet, even so, he began to feel something was missing. Eventually, he put his finger on what was lacking in his life: grandma’s vegetables. It was not only sentimental feelings for her kitchen garden that he wanted to indulge, but also the quality of what she grew that he desired to taste again. Add to this Cohen’s own prowess as a cook, as well as the fact that he could experiment on his own rooftop, and the idea for GROW was born.
“Nothing tastes better or is better for you than vegetables freshly picked from your own garden or, in this case, GROW planters,” Cohen enthused. “I decided to try and bring this experience to city dwellers, most of whom are novice gardeners. Few people living in cities have any concept of how vegetables grow and they are unaware of the many options available to the vegetable consumer. Take cauliflower, for example. I grow ‘Dwarf Erfurt,’ a variety that comes from Erfurt, Germany, the same town where my grandmother grew up. Vegetable growing can connect you with your family history and ethnic background, too.”
It’s something most people never think about, but it’s true: you can now eat the same “old country” vegetables, fruits, and grains that your antecedents, going back a hundred years or more, put on their dinner plates. Tracking your ancestry, including geographical origin, has become a new enthusiasm for many, facilitated by a swab of DNA. Well, once you know where your ancestors lived, you need only do a search of heirloom varieties from that part of the world to make a connection between your great-great-grandparents and what they ate.
Selection of the vegetable varieties available for your particular climate are suggested through the app that comes along with your GROW planter box. Your access to this app will remain forever, completely free, regardless of whether you make any further purchases from GROW. The app not only provides you with vegetable selections based on the time of year and your location and microclimate, but gives you weekly updates on what you should be doing to help your crop along, whether it’s staking, pruning, mulching or checking for pests. While both heirloom and hybrid vegetable varieties are available, GROW’s system and products are completely organic. Based on which crop you bring to maturity and harvest, GROW will also advise what crop is a good candidate to plant next.
Cohen’s invention illustrates the time worn adage that necessity is the mother of invention. Although Israel is one of the most prosperous countries in the world today, this was not always the case. During the 1950‘s, when Cohen’s grandmother had young children, there was a period in Israel known as “tzena” (austerity) during which food had to be rationed. After Israel gained independence in 1948, there had been a flood of refugees and, in accommodating them, the basic necessities of life were in short supply. When Cohen’s grandmother saw that vegetables in the market were scarce, she decided to grow them herself and, out of habit, continued to do so until her children had children of their own, including Idan. Seeing his grandmother in her courtyard garden, and, as a child, savoring the flavors that came from it, made an indelible impression on Cohen, eventually leading to his self-watering planters.
For more information on the GROW system and, if you choose, ordering instructions, go to hellogrow.com. Should you decide to go with GROW, the app that is paired with the system is both iPhone and Android compatible.
Tip of the Week: Speaking of heirlooms, if you want to grow a plant to pass down to the next generation, consider an elephant’s foot (Beaucarnea recurvata), which can live up to 100 years. 50 years ago, Pat Weyrauch, who gardens in Burbank, acquired a cute little elephant’s foot, also called pony-tail palm, to “set on my coffee table,” Weyrauch emailed. “ I had no idea that it would get this big! I wondered if you could give me ideas as to what I might plant — or otherwise fill the space — around it.” I would not plant anything around the base of such a glorious specimen. It deserves its own space and you don’t want to risk getting the trunk wet, which could bring on fungus, as a result of watering plants in the vicinity. You might want to consider a mulch of so-called Mexican beach pebbles, which are actually a mix of small, smooth stones in a variety of colors.