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Hydroponics: No More Over-Watering

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Somebody recently asked me what I knew about hydroponic gardening indoors.

After thinking about the question for a moment I realized I didn’t know very much.

After more than 30 years as a serious indoor gardener, all I knew about hydroponics was that it’s the practice of growing plants without soil, usually in water that’s been amended with nutrients of some kind. My own experience had been limited to rooting cuttings in water and cultivating the occasional sweet potato in my youth.

So I visited some hydroponics experts to discover if there were any complicated secrets to growing plants indoors in water and, if so, to learn the advantages and disadvantages of hydroponic gardening.

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According to Brandy Bolt, horticulturist and retail manager for Hydrofarm, a San Rafael, Calif., company that sells hydroponic gardening equipment, the answer to the first question is no.

“There really aren’t too many secrets,” says Bolt, who’s been with Hydrofarm for three years and has a degree in horticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “Hydroponic gardening uses the same fundamental horticultural principals as container gardening: applying the proper amount of water, air, food and light.”

As to advantages and disadvantages, according to Bolt there are only advantages.

“Hydroponics is much more efficient than [gardening with] soil,” she said. “The plant doesn’t have to expend the same amount of energy to grow; the root balls are small, so you can grow more plants in less space and, strange as it may seem, you don’t have the same kinds of over-watering problems with hydroponics as you do in containers.”

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What is the reason for the seeming paradox?

“It’s all about oxygen,” Bolt said. “Most soils--especially clay--have little or no aeration. If you’re growing a plant in a pot, when the pot fills up with water, the air pockets close, decomposition begins and that causes root rot. [When the roots are] submerged in water, supplemented by air bubbles, this can’t happen.”

Is it true you can grow vegetables indoors in a hydroponic garden?

“Absolutely,” Bolt said. “In fact, I grow tomatoes all year long in our company showroom. Nothing to it. As long as you can emulate the conditions of the season in which the plant naturally grows, you can grow it indoors hydroponically.”

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Proving that you don’t have to be a professional horticulturist to grow plants hydroponically, Steven Morris, a screenwriter, has been growing vegetables in a hydroponic unit in his Santa Monica basement for six years.

“Hydroponics is the coolest,” said Morris, who also grows vegetables in his backyard. Using a small tabletop tray unit and 400-watt “grow” lights, Morris reaps regular harvests of cherry tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, basil, cilantro and eggplant from his hydroponic garden.

“Not only do I get larger crops . . . than I do from my garden outdoors,” he said, “but when you garden hydroponically, you never have dirt under your fingernails.”

According to Jonathan Wray, marketing director for Worm’s Way, an Indiana company whose catalog contains a wide range of hydroponic equipment, hydroponics has many other advantages over growing plants in soil.

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“Hydroponics is the most low-maintenance form of indoor gardening there is,” said Wray, whose company has been selling hydroponic equipment for 11 years. “It’s absolutely great for people who travel a lot, since a hydroponic garden practically tends itself. You can go on a two-week vacation, and your hydroponic garden will still be thriving when you get home.”

Also, Wray said, hydroponic gardeners never have to deal with soil-borne fungi or diseases. “Hydroponic gardening is almost totally pest-free,” he said. “Soil-borne insects are eliminated, especially eggs and larvae.”

Added Wray, “Feeding a plant hydroponically is like giving it breakfast in bed, since the plant doesn’t have to expend hardly any energy forcing the food up into the leaves and stems like it does when its growing in soil.”

Light, of course, is critical to the success of growing vegetables and other plants hydroponically indoors.

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For best results, you’ll need high-intensity discharge lights (grow lights) that contain the full spectrum of the sun. The minimum wattage required is 400, but bulbs of up to 1,000 watts are available.

These lights are available through hydroponic gardening catalogs and stores, although a bright sunny window will do almost as well, Wray said.

There are metal halide high-pressure sodium systems that come with hooks to hang the lights from the ceiling over plants, Bolt said. The closer to the plants you hang the lights, the higher the intensity will be.

“Or,” Bolt said, “there are carts available which accommodate the lights above the plants.”

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Bolt grows her tomato plants in one of the company’s best-selling units, the Homegarden.

The Homegarden is a 2 1/2-gallon 11-by-21-inch plastic rectangular reservoir, terra-cotta colored, that retails for $50. It comes with a bottle of the liquid fertilizer and a container of growing medium called geolite, baked porcelain pellets that provide support for the plants.

“This is the one area where soil gardening and hydroponic gardening are comparable,” Bolt said. “In both systems, the plants need anchorage.”

Perlite or rocks will do the job as well as geolite, Bolt said. “These are substances which don’t break down, don’t interfere with the pH [balance of acidity and alkalinity] and provide good aeration for the roots.”

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Worm’s Way’s catalog includes hydroponic gardens that range from a small one at $50 to a $1,500 “ebb and flow” table, 6 by 4 feet, that is an adaptation of commercial types.

Whatever size container you decide to use, Bolt, Wray and Morris agree, you’ll find that hydroponics will provide you with faster growth, bigger crops and yields triple the size of those you’d get in the same space in a container of soil or planted in the garden outside.

Should one use seeds or plantlets for their vegetable crops?

“I use mostly seeds,” Morris said, “because they’re so readily available. But you can buy a tomato plantlet, shake off most of the soil, leaving just a bit around the root-ball, and then plant it into your growing medium.”

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Can “ordinary” houseplants be grown hydroponically?

“Of course,” Bolt said. “Just about any plant you can grow indoors in a pot you can grow in a hydroponic garden--and that includes orchids, coleus, philodendrons, aglonemas, dracaena, spathiphyllums and pothos.”

For a free copy of the Hydrofarm catalog, call (800) 634-9999 or write to Hydrofarm, 3135 Kerner Blvd., San Rafael, CA 94901.

The Worm’s Way 64-page catalog can be obtained free from Worms Way, 7850 N. Highway 37, Bloomington, IN 47404. Telephone number is (800) 274-9676.

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For Southlanders who would like to see what these hydroponic units look like in person, and perhaps buy a unit directly from a retailer, there are several stores in the area that carry a variety of hydroponic units.

Among them is Hydroasis, an 8-month-old venture owned and operated by Evan Townsley. Hydroasis is at 7961 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, and about 90% of its stock is hydroponic equipment from all over the world.

Take a trip to Hydroasis and see red banana, ficus lyrata, shefflera, tomatoes, basil, spathiphyllum and clivia all flourishing hydroponically. There is also a wide selection of containers, nutrients, lights and other hydroponic accouterments. Hydroasis’ telephone number is (213) 653-4769.

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Are your palms pooping? Are your ferns flopping? Send your houseplant questions to the Indoor Gardener in care of the Real Estate section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles CA 90053. Questions cannot be answered individually.


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