Natural Perspectives: Setting up a hydroponics system

HB Independent

This weekend Vic and I visited a new kind of gardening store in Huntington Beach, Surf City Hydroponics, on the northeast corner of Warner Avenue and Gothard Street. I don't think I've ever been so lost in a store dedicated to growing plants, or so amazed at how big plants can grow in so short a time.

Hydroponic gardening is growing plants without soil. The plants are rooted in a grow medium such as rockwool and flushed periodically with recirculating, nutrient-filled water.

Florescent lights provide the sunlight substitute that the plants need to thrive. And because the lights can be left on around the clock, the plants really take off.

Store owners Dave and Laurie Churchill are only too happy to show customers how they can set up a hydroponics system at home. They can walk you through the many choices of systems, depending on what it is that you want to grow.

Choices range from a simple and inexpensive setup like Emily's Kitchen, which will allow you to grow herbs and salad greens on the kitchen counter, to mini-rooms with reflectors, high-intensity lamps and cooling fans that can be set up in the garage. You can choose a system that will give you an early start on homegrown pepper or tomato seedlings, or pick one that will let you grow greens year-round. The choice is yours.

The lighting systems they offer will provide the plants with the energy input that they need to photosynthesize. That's the conversion of carbon dioxide to sugars, starches and cellulose. Giving the plants light around the clock gives them a jump-start in life. But plants need a period of darkness to flower properly. Timers can adjust the light cycle if you're growing the plants indoors to the flower stage.

The options of nutrient solutions and organic pest controls that they offered for sale at Surf City Hydroponics were staggering. You really need to visit the store to see all that is available. You'll be amazed at the array of trays, tubes, timers and pumps. You can get a preview by visiting www.surfcityhydroponics.com. The Churchills plan to offer classes soon to help customers learn more about this different way of gardening.

Many gardeners use heating mats to get their seedling transplants off to a quick start indoors. I've never used heating mats, but it's obvious that they're a real benefit to starting tomato, eggplant and pepper seeds off right. Surf City Hydroponics carries them and a whole line of seed starting supplies, whether you're growing hydroponically or in potting soil.

Let me give you a little comparison between traditionally and hydroponically grown seedlings. I planted some heirloom tomatoes from seed back in February. I grew them outside in little pots on the roof of our chicken coop, which was one of the few places that got adequate sunshine in our yard in February. The pathetically spindly things are now about 10 inches tall. They're beginning to flower and are ready to be transplanted into the ground.

I contrasted my little tomato plants with the display tomato plants grown hydroponically at Surf City Hydroponics. Theirs were luxuriantly and densely green, twice as tall as my tomato plants, and had stems that were three times thicker than my poor little plants.

Here's the real kicker: Their plants are 3 weeks old, not three months. Wow.

I first saw hydroponic gardening on a visit to Disney's Epcot Center in Florida in the 1980s. Disney was touting it as a way of the future. Garden intensively without soil. Garden year-round. Garden in the desert or the far north or even in space. Seemed impossibly futuristic to me back then.

But now we have hydroponically grown lettuce and tomatoes for sale year-round at our local grocery stores. Cucumbers, bok choy (aka pak choi), bell peppers and roses are also being grown hydroponically on a commercial scale. Tomorrow has arrived.

Surf City Hydroponics also carries Smart Pots, which are felt-like bags that can be used for growing potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, squash or any number of other vegetables. I'm using the 15-gallon-size Smart Pots to grow blue potatoes in my driveway. I've already had the first of several planned harvests from the felt bags. They really work.

Digging the potatoes was no effort at all because they had been grown in potting soil. I just reached down into the loose soil with my hand, felt around and pulled out as many potatoes as I needed for dinner that night. The potatoes were perfect, with no blemishes and no dings from a shovel.

I'm growing sunchokes in a Smart Pot this year too, using a 15-gallon pot. Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, take longer to reach harvest readiness than potatoes, so I won't know how they did until later in the summer. But if the potato harvest is any indication, I won't be disappointed.

I wanted some more Smart Pots to try growing German butterball and King Edward potatoes, but the store had only the smaller size of Smart Pots. The smaller size would allow me to use less potting soil, but isn't suitable for potatoes.

I may give them a try for growing eggplants or winter squash in the driveway, which is the sunniest spot on our property. These are the lengths gardeners will go to wrest more food out of the yard. Or the driveway. Or even the garage.

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