In Food

Hydroponic Adventures

Posted by: on Mar 21, 2013 | One Comment

Plants2My husband and I are going to grow tomatoes, peppers, and jalapeños this summer. We grew these same vegetables last summer. However, last summer we grew them in soil in containers on our deck. The jalapeños did fabulously. We pickled them all and have been happily eating our own hot peppers all winter. However, the bell pepper and the tomatoes did not fair so well. We aren’t 100% sure why. We planted them a little late, we probably didn’t feed them enough, and they may have gotten too dry. This year we are setting up to grow them on our deck but in a hydroponic system. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in sand, gravel, or liquid with added nutrients but no soil. Container gardening can be difficult with soil. The soil gets too hot and dries out too quickly. So, we are going to try our hands at hydroponic vegetables.

The first little seedlings.

The first little seedlings in coco coir.

To be fair, my husband has been doing most of the work. He bought seeds and containers to sprout them in. He bought lumber and built four new benches for our deck. The benches will eventually hold our plants. They are angled slightly so the plants will drain by gravity. He even stained the benches to seal out the water and keep them from rotting. He picked up forty food grade buckets in Chesapeake the other weekend. The buckets will eventually be our growing containers. He researched pumps. I helped him plant the seeds. While he traveled for work, I watered and fed them. We planted three varieties of tomatoes. I managed to kill one variety almost completely before he got home. There is one little plant trooping along but it’s not looking good.

The ones ALL the way to the left are the ones I killed. :(

The ones ALL the way to the left are the ones I killed. :(

We started the plants in coco coir, a growing medium made from coconut fiber. We have since transplanted some of them to perlite, a volcanic substance. Perlite is the little white bits you see in bags of gardening or potting soil. The others are in soil for now. Amazingly, the plants we put in perlite are doing much better than those in soil. The perlite plants are growing more quickly. Eventually, we will move the plants outside in the food grade buckets with gravel and pump water and nutrients to them from a reservoir. The plants will drain by gravity back to the reservoir. I believe that’s the general “for dummies” version of the system my husband has planned. I’m still working it out.

The plants on the right are in perlite.

The plants on the right are in perlite.

So, all this thinking about hydroponics has us exploring different methods, mediums, and nutrients. Our goal is to grow vegetables with as little impact as we can. We aren’t using pesticides. Hydroponic systems are more efficient when it comes to water usage. However, traditionally, hydroponic systems have relied on chemical nutrient solutions. But there are other options. You can use a tea made from high quality compost or a mixture of fish emulsion, liquid seaweed, and bloodmeal. This winter we grew our kale in a hydroponic system and used organic hydroponic nutrients. The kale has been successful and delicious. We are still researching what nutrient solution we will use this summer.

As we researched, we discovered that while hydroponics in the United States can be certified organic, many countries and regulatory bodies do not recognize them as organic. Now, I don’t think organic certified is the gold standard by any means. It’s not perfect. It’s a line in the sand. Certified organic is helpful when buying from large groceries where I can’t talk to the farmer that grew the fruit. But because hydroponics systems do not use soil, hydroponically grown vegetables produced with sustainable methods are not universally accepted as organic. Some definitions of organic place emphasis on non-chemical inputs and others emphasize soil.

Studies are showing plants grown in hydroponic systems are more productive than those in soil and use all the nutrient inputs. There is no nutrient loss like there is with soil. The plants are larger and produce more fruit. Additionally, a study conducted on rooftops in Canada found increased resistance to aphids in hydroponically grown tomatoes. We still plan on planting marigolds to distract any bugs and because they are pretty.

I hope, by the end of summer, we will be canning our own salsa.

1 Comment

  1. Beth
    March 22, 2013

    Fascinating! The perlite do better because the plants are little, but good luck with those big buckets for tomatoes. A friend of mine tried that in Alaska, and produced one little tomato. She called it her $100 tomato because it was the only thing she got for all the expense she put into it! I am fascinated with hydroponics because you can actually raise fish and make a complete cycle of cleaned water with the waste that keeps the plants fertilized. Can you show the process you used for growing the kale and how did it go for sunlight and keeping them warm? Love to hear more. Thanks for sharing.

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