North Coast Journal

Feb. 1995 - IN THE GARDEN

Look, Ma, No Dirt

by Terry Kramer

Imagine harvesting tomatoes, basil and peppers from your garden in the middle of winter. Or, how about growing fresh produce all year long at home without ever having to lift, stoop or pull a weed? Try hydroponics. Hydroponics involves growing plants in a soilless medium, usually perlite, rock wool or gravel, using a small pump to circulate nutrient-laden water through the root system. Grow lights are used with indoor gardens. And because plants can be grown on tables, hydroponic gardening is ideal for wheelchair users, the elderly and those of us with bad backs.

Arcata businessmen Michael Christian and Genaro Calabrese design, manufacture and distribute hydroponic garden systems throughout the United States. Their company, American Hydroponics, employs 10 people on the North Coast, and has a hydroponic garden design featured at the Smithsonian Institution. Both have successfully grown basil commercially. Calabrese sells hydroponic tomatoes that he grows in a 30-by-140-foot greenhouse to local restaurants.

Christian says he became interested in hydroponics because he "got tired of cleaning the dirt from spinach and lettuce."

Not only is hydroponics a clean way to garden, it's quite easy to do, taking all of the guess work out of watering and feeding plants, according to Christian.

"Imagine if you have this nutrient that is exactly what plants need, and you give it to someone who doesn't know anything about gardening. That person can take a pot of perlite, sow a little seed and then grow this incredible plant," he said.

"Hydroponics takes the guess work out of what it takes to grow a good plant. There is no mystery."

Although hydroponics today involves tables, pots, pumps and high tech lights for indoor gardens, it isn't anything new. It is a technique that was used by the ancient Mayans and Babylonians.

Hydroponics became popularized by the news media in the 1920s when a scientist named Dr. William F. Gericke grew a 25-foot tomato plant in a wash bucket. He coined the term hydroponics, which has a Greek translation literally meaning "The sweat from the brow of a woman during childbirth."

Today's hydroponic techniques offer a sweat-free way to garden, says Calabrese. "They (hydroponic gardens) are clean, neat and you can put them virtually anywhere. And you don't have to worry about soilborne disease. There is no weeding, no hoeing, no bending, and no heavy bags of soil to carry around."

Hydroponics is not only easy to do, it can also produce a lot of vegetables in a limited amount of space.

"Traditionally, when you pack a bunch of plants together in the soil, they compete with each other for nutrients, and they spend a certain amount of energy seeking nutrients," Christian explains.

"With hydroponics you have an environment where you are delivering nutrients directly to the plant, and the plant only spends energy holding itself up. So you can cram lots of plants in a really small area. You can grow very productive gardens in very small spaces," Christian says. For some, the words hydroponics and grow lights conjure up images of pot farmers and marijuana. Christian says one needs to see tomatoes, peppers and basil growing in the middle of winter to become educated.

Demonstration gardens are at American Hydroponics' retail shop in Arcata. "People really need to see it. We've found that there are predominant images when you say hydroponics, like marijuana growing, NASA space laboratories or Epcot Center. Those are the main associations people have when you say the word. They don't know the practical applications of it. "What we have done is take all the mystery out of it and created a little garden called the Baby Bloomer. Popular Science took off with it and grew a fabulous garden and called it a `no brainer,'" Christian says.

If you want proof of the efficiency and practicality of hydroponics in growing food for people, take a look at Holland, suggests Calabrese. "Holland, as small as it is, exports produce all over Europe. They have the least land. Holland supplies 80 percent of the tomatoes in Northern Europe. And it is all hydroponically grown," says Calabrese.

"You don't need huge tracts of land to grow lots and lots of vegetables," says Calabrese, commenting on the problem of diminishing agricultural lands in relation to the expanding world population.

Christian believes the future of hydroponics lies in the ability to grow fresh produce such as peppers, basil, tomatoes, eggplant, and melons here, instead of shipping it from out of the area.

"The future of this, of what we see, is growing food on the spot instead of transporting this worthless cadaver food from Mexico that comes in all, -- well -- you've tasted bad tomatoes.

"With this technology there is no reason for that."

February Planting Checklist

PLANT IT BARE - Take advantage of the bare root season now in full swing. In addition to fruit trees, roses and deciduous ornamental trees and shrubs, you can plant bare root blueberries, cane berries and strawberries. Also available are bare root perennial vegetables like artichokes, asparagus and rhubarb.

WEED - Before weeds get a head start, smother them with a thick layer of mulch. This is far better for soils that are heavy with moisture after recent heavy rains. In beds that will host this spring's flowers and vegetables, add a layer of weed-free manure or compost; then cover with black plastic or cardboard. Weeds will be completely smothered and the ground will be ready for digging and planting without having to mow or pull weeds first.

WATCH OUT - Hungry slugs and snails go hunting for early blooming spring bulbs. Slugs can make a quick meal of daffodil flowers. Bait or trap when necessary. n FERTILIZE - Deciduous fruit trees should be given a complete fertilizer two to three weeks before they bloom. Feed lilacs and hydrangeas with a high-nitrogen fertilizer.

PRUNE - If you haven't done so already, prune roses. It's still not too late to prune fruit trees, cane berries, wisteria and grapes.

PLANT FLOWERS - Perk up flower beds and pots with a few cold-hardy bedding plants. Primroses, pansies, Iceland poppies and snapdragons bloom nicely during the late winter and early spring, chasing away the winter blues. Sprinkle seeds of alyssum and lobelia in barren areas for dependable color later on.

Terry Kramer is a Bayside free-lance writer who specializes in gardening and horticulture.

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