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Thursday, June 16,2011

Better when wet

Why hydroponic gardening is growing on us

By Elizabeth Miller

If you ever need to grow food for your space station, hydroponics will be the way to go. Closer to planet Earth, if you are looking to grow a roof-top garden, want to harvest tomatoes by the closet-full, or are just cramped for space and looking for a way to boost plant yield, make broader use of your patio, or perhaps even prepare for the apocalypse, hydroponics advocates will throw their plant-growing kits your way.

Hydroponic setups can be big enough to turn a basement into a vegetable garden, or small enough for a window-ledge set of fresh herbs. Many of the systems can be automated, requiring less attention, and can be far less complicated than their use by NASA suggests.

“There’s just some people that hydroponics just sounds too scientific or scary for them, and they have the connotation it’s only for growing pot,” says Christine Hubbard, manager of Boulder Hydroponic Center. Watching a seed sprout still spouts a child-like “It’s magic!” response from her, says Hubbard, who has been in the business for nearly 20 years.

“You could really set up a garden anywhere you want,” says Christopher Coats, manager of the Boulder Way to Grow store.

“It’s not that difficult,” Hubbard says. “I feel like if I can do it, anybody can do it. All it takes is somebody just showing a few little rules that you need to follow.”

Hydroponics gardening still relies on the basics, like light, water and nutrients, but those nutrients come in a liquid form, sometimes even a “compost tea,” housed at the Boulder Hydroponic Center in a tank of swirling microbes.

“People think that, ‘Oh, you’re growing with fake stuff.’ You’re not. A lot of these hydroponic nutrients are actually mined minerals,” Hubbard says. “They’re not something that’s produced in some scary Frankenstein laboratory.”

Both Hubbard and Coats say they’ve seen hydroponics systems boost crop yields. Hydroponics systems can also help focus moisture distribution. In a drought year, when lawn watering is prohibited but garden watering is approved, lawns can suck moisture away from the garden. But gardening in containers helps isolate the moisture with the garden plants.

“In terms of food production, you can produce 10 times the food out of the same amount of space, and the plants actually get better nutrients when you’re growing in places where you don’t have good soil conditions,” Hubbard says. Commercial growers can get 65,000 pounds of tomatoes out of an acre of soil, but 650,000 pounds when growing hydroponically, she says.

Hydroponics systems allow for growing plants close together without concern over them competing for nutrients, but the plants themselves also produce more because their access to nutrients is so easy, Hubbard says. The continuous access to nutrient-enriched water lets plants put less energy into rooting into the ground for nutrients and more into growing and producing vegetables, fruit or blossoms. For example, in a gravity feed system, which runs without a pump, a reservoir of nutrient-enriched water slowly drains into a tray containing the root systems of plants.

Those systems can also be a good solution for absent-minded or frequently absentee gardeners.

“There’s usually less user interaction because you can set things up and they’re automated,” says Coats.

Because the water access is so focused, gardeners can use less water — down to a tenth of what would be used to grow the same plant in soil, according to Hubbard. And because the system is isolated, there are no weeds, sparing the need for herbicides.

But hydroponically grown plants are still subject to problems with pests. Natural pest repellants, including neem oil and chrysanthemums, work, as do “beneficial bugs” like lady bugs and praying mantises. Hubbard advises using a multi-faceted approach to keep pests from developing a resistance to a treatment.

Hydroponics systems can also be expensive in terms of set-up and ongoing supplies of the nutrients needed, though Hubbard points out that it’s a complete nutrient system, so gardeners know their plants are getting every nutrient they need to produce good fruits and vegetables.

Gardeners looking to get started often purchase soil-grown plants at a garden center, then take a cutting from that plant and start it in water. Removing soil from a root system is stressful both for the plant and the gardener attempting this difficult task.

“Do your research before you dive into it,” Coats says. “Some people can get themselves in a situation that they can’t necessarily handle.”

Some systems can require a lot of maintenance and cleaning.

“Keep it simple,” Coats advises. “Every situation’s going to be different. Figure out what kind of space you’re working with, what your climate is like.”

Set-ups can run from $50 to $500, according to Coats.

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