First look: Niwa One Indoor Smart Garden. Think of it as desktop fabrication for plants

David Gewirtz is a man of many skills. Gardening is not one of them. He's killed cherished family plants and even unkillable cacti. Now, with the help of an app-enabled high-tech garden, he's actually growing real veggies.

I do not have a green thumb. When my parents gave me a cactus as a gift one year, I promptly killed it. I killed the next one, too. The only plants that ever survived in my house were plastic. Just so you know, my pre-existing knowledge of plant growology is nada. Zip. Zilch. Completely non-existent.

Yet, when Wellbots and Niwa asked me to take a look at the Niwa One Premium Indoor Smart Garden, I said, "Sure. Go ahead and send me one."

It's the look of the thing that caught my eye first. As you can see in the image below, the Niwa One looks a whole lot like the big brother of the Ultimaker 3D printer next to it.

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On the left is the Ultimaker 3 3D printer. On the right is the Niwa desktop farming device.

That's not entirely coincidental. Both devices have a bed where the action takes place. In fact, both devices have a heated bed. In the 3D printer's case, the heated bed is used to help hold the plastic to the build surface. In the Niwa's case, the heated plant bed provides appropriate warmth for the plants to grow.

They also both have a tower that rises above the item being created, whether that's a 3D print on the Ultimaker's bed or tomato plants in the Niwa's bed. And the tower provides much of what's needed to do the building. That's a print head for the 3D printer and it's a special grow lamp for the Niwa.

If you think about it, the Ultimaker is a desktop fabricator for plastic objects. The Niwa is a desktop fabricator for plants.

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The similarities don't end there. Both the Niwa and the Ultimaker are app-enabled, and it's the app that controls the creation and growing process.

So, there you go. While I don't know squat about plants, I can definitely identify a desktop fabrication device when I see it.

Born on Kickstarter

The Niwa One was born on Kickstarter and, to be honest, it kind of shows. While the hardware for the Niwa is, with one or two exceptions, pretty solidly constructed, the documentation consists of a Google Word doc that's still clearly a work in progress. The Niwa One is an interesting offering, but it could definitely benefit from the sure touch of a seasoned product manager.

The original Kickstarter video shows a slick, plastic growing bed, but what I got was a bed of something called "rockwool" (more on that later). The video also shows a pretty white light shining down on the plants, and makes the comments that it'll go great in your living room. In practice, it has an otherworldly, intense pink light that there's no way you can sit near for very long.

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It's alive!

As you can probably tell, there are both pros and cons to this product. I'll discuss them all as we explore more in this article.

When I got the package, assembly was mostly straightforward. I had to run feeds to the pump that lives under the main bed and sends water and nutrients into the rockwool. I also had to run a cable up through one of the four risers, so that power could reach the plant light at the top.

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Installing the risers was easy, but there's a connector that got in the way when trying to set the lamp tower on the risers. I wound up having to disassemble the lamp tower to re-route the connector. Once I did that, the rest of the unit went together easily enough.

The Kickstarter completed and Niwa is now in production. I received a production unit from Wellbots, a partner company who supports the ZDNet DIY-IT discovery series for both desktop fabrication and robotics. They sent also me the Mavic Pro I used in a number of drone discovery articles.

Planting seeds

Once you set up the Niwa One, you need to fill its basin with water and some nutrients. This process initially seemed a lot more intimidating than it actually was. In practice, you measure out some water and pour it in the basin, then use an eye dropper to deliver a few milliliters of two nutrient solutions, each of which are provided in appropriately-labeled plastic bottles.

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Use this stuff to help your plants grow.

The Niwa One has six drippers, which are little nozzles attached to hoses that sit on top of the growing bed. Planting the seeds consisted of pushing holes into the rockwool bed (one on each side of each dripper), dropping a super-tiny seed in each hole, and covering up the seed with vermiculite (which looks a lot like kitty litter).

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Here you can see the rockwool, the drippers, the red heating elements, and a few sprouts.

We planted tomato and pepper seeds. This was the very first time I'd ever planted anything. My dad tried in vain to get me to help him in our tiny little suburban garden when I was growing up, but I would have none of it. The idea of planting and then waiting seemed so non-interactive. As a result, the Niwa planting was my first time. It was uneventful while, at the same time, somehow transformative.

A whole lotta wait and see

Growing does not happen quickly. When I agreed to look at the Niwa One, my wife and I had the idea that we'd plant some seeds in September and we'd have tomatoes and peppers we could put into a Thanksgiving salad.

Not so much. Growing things takes longer than I thought.

As you can see from the picture below, which I took just this morning, we do have evidence of life. We just don't have big, beautiful tomato plants and snackabelle peppers. At least not yet.

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That's most of what's growing now. It's about three inches in size. The dripper is about an inch long.

It took about a week after planting the seeds before the first sprouts began to show. I can't tell you how excited I got. I honestly did not expect to get excited over a little wisp of green in fake soil. But it was deeply cool.

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This is when we first saw life.

For about two weeks after that, only three of the six sets of plants showed life. The three in the front (which we think are the tomato plants) were growing nicely, if slowly. The three in the back simply didn't sprout until about two weeks after the ones in front.

I don't know enough about planting to tell you if that's just how that species works or it's a function of the Niwa farming machine, but for now, we're watching both sets of plants and obsessively checking on them each day.

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I had wanted to show you a time-lapse, and Wellbots even sent me a Drift Ghost X Action Camera to do it. You might not think an action camera can do this sort of thing, but the Drift Ghost can be set up to take one image per hour, which, for something like 3D printing, would be cool.

Unfortunately, plants don't change all that much over normal time. Even one image a week doesn't show all that much change. Even so, we appreciate having the Drift to experiment with when trying to document the plant's growth. It's a neat little camera, and we plan to use it for time lapses on some 3D printing projects.

App-enabled

The Niwa One is an app-controlled device. It connects to your network via Wi-Fi, and the app controls the light, the pump, and the heat that drive plant growth.

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The Niwa app

I had a little difficulty with the app initially. We set it up on my wife's iPhone SE, which has a much tinier screen than other iPhones. I'm guessing the developers didn't test on the SE, because the password login area was obscured by the on-screen keyboard. It took a few tries, but we eventually created an account and connected to the Niwa.

Once you're set up, the Niwa app is very nice. There's a button on the side of the screen with preparation instructions, and a guide and meter on the main screen that shows the state of the light, the water pump, and the heat.

Instructions tell you what to look for (like whether or not a plant has shown sprouts or flowers), and then tell you what to do (which is usually adding or changing water and adding a certain amount of nutrient).

The app displays growth stages and you're supposed to click an icon on the screen to move to the next stage. That part was definitely exciting, because clicking it indicated that the plant has grown some more and let us know what to look forward to in the next stage. It's a little bit of gamification that kept my interest in the plant growth.

Overall, I liked the app a lot. I think it might do more over time, like show you what, for example, a sprout should look like or what a tomato plant flower looks like, so you know when you've hit the goal. Even so, I think this is an interesting precursor to a whole range of app-enabled farming activities.

Right now, the app only knows about three types of plants. Presumably if the product succeeds, Niwa can introduce more and more plant types you can control with your app.

A first look

This is a first look, which means it's way too early to do a definitive review. Also, frankly, I have so little planting experience that I'm hesitant to review the horticultural aspects of the machine.

That said, I can share with you some of the pros and cons of the device. I'm going to kick off with the cons, because I'd like to leave you with my positive impressions, especially since the overall experience has left me with a newfound sense of interest in plants and growing I never expected to have.

Some concerns

Beyond the slight setup snafu I had, there are four main criticisms: the rockwool, the light, the price, and, as I've mentioned, the somewhat unfinished feel of the product.

Let's start with the rockwool. Rockwool is a mineral-based insulation product that has inspired off-label uses in the hydroponics industry. It feels a lot like fiberglass, and can be as hazardous. You don't want to touch it, or breath this stuff in. The powders and fibers it produce can be really nasty for your lungs and can get caught as splinters in your fingers.

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While it seems to make for a productive growing base for hydroponic plants, it's apparently not environmentally friendly and not all that healthy to be around. While only the roots of the plants are in the rockwool, I do wonder whether the vegetables that grow in this medium are safe to eat.

There are other hydroponic growing media that growers use. Some folks on the relatively quiet Niwa discussion forums have used clay pellets with some substantial success.

My next concern is the light. When it first came on, it was quite the shocker. Imagine an alien horror movie where there's some disturbing noise behind a door. Slowly and carefully, you creep up to the door, but there's an unearthly glow coming from the crack between the door and the floor.

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Yep. And we're also new in the neighborhood. Good times. Good times.

The camera switches to an outside view, and there's a vivid purple/pink glow emanating from all the windows. Cut back to opening the door, where the entire room is bathed in a unworldly bright pink illumination. Could the machine be trying to create an alien sentience?

Nah. It's just tomato plants getting a little light. But... I kid you not. This light is not something you want to look at, and it's certainly nothing you want to having in your living room. We put it into a spare office and when the light first came on around midnight a few days after setting up the Niwa One, we were a bit startled.

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My camera had a hard time taking a picture of the LED. The reflection gives you a much better indication of what the human eye sees.

As it turns out, the alien pink lighting is a thing. The Washington Post recently ran an article about how new LED lighting techniques can help indoor agriculturalists control plant flavor, growing schedule, vitamin content, and even shelf life.

Exciting aspects of the Niwa One

On the plus side, the year-round growing opportunity is huge. For folks in smaller spaces, or people who want to make some of their own food, desktop farming devices like the Niwa One just shout potential.

As a planting neophyte, I can honestly say that the Niwa One has gotten me much closer to the growing process than I ever would have come otherwise. The smart app has helped guide us through the care and feeding of the plants. It has also shown us how to look out for new stages in growth.

Because it's at desk level instead of foot level, as well as indoors, I found it more convenient to check in on, and marvel at, the little almost imperceptible changes in the plants from week to week and, sometimes, even day-to-day.

Is it worth it to you?

So here's the thing. It's not cheap. The Niwa One Premium is $499. There's also a Standard and Mini for $459 and $429 respectively. The only difference is the size of the risers over the bed. But whether you're spending $499 or $429, that's a lot of green.

A few days ago at Safeway, I picked up a large hot house tomato, which cost me $1.73. It weighed in at 0.6 pounds, so the price for those tomatoes is really $2.89 a pound. For $499, you can get 288 tomatoes. It's not clear how many tomatoes the Niwa One can grow, but I'm guessing you won't get 172 pounds of tomatoes from it throughout the product's lifetime.

That said, the Niwa One (along with other desktop farming devices) are probably not about saving money. Instead, they're about bringing the growing experience inside, learning more about how plants grow, bringing life to organic greenery during cold winters, and looking into the future.

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Hydroponic systems like the Niwa One may be how we get food in the future. If we can solve the growth medium question so it's safe to grow and plant, we may be able to generate vegetables (and even oxygen) year round, even in the most unarable locations on the planet - like my office.

One final note: The folks at Wellbots tell me that there's a Black Friday sale on the Niwa One. If you order it during the silly season, you should be able to take 20 percent off the price. That's a lot of tomatoes, but a good deal is still a good deal.

Big thanks to Niwa and Wellbots for letting a greenless thumb like me get to know this product. In addition to the fascinating uses of desktop fabrication technology for farming and app-based control, I had the chance to re-explore the idea of growing things.

I'm finally growing tomatoes. My dad would have been so proud.


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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