Every once in a while, someone comes along and shows you that something you thought was complicated to apply, is really quite simple. Lane Burman is one of these people. Lane lives on a quiet street on the north side of a moderate city in Southern Ontario. A 30 foot by 11 foot area in his backyard is where he planned to build his hydroponic garden.
Lane approached me in the winter of 2009 and asked what I thought of his plan. I thought it was brilliant and offered advice and sponsored him some materials such as fittings and nutrient for the project.
The first thing to do was to choose the plants for the garden and start them. He Chose 7 different types of heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, loufa, pumpkins, beans and orange Blenheim Melon. Four varieties of lettuce were also sown to be grown remotely in soil less mix in a Styrofoam cooler. All the seeds were started in April and physically planted into the system in the middle of May as there is no frost present in the hydroponic system, yet frost is still in the ground. The system Lane chose was a drip system with an 80 gallon garbage container for 10 tomatoes and a 30 gallon container for the rest of the plants. Friends donated three and a half gallon kitty litter containers and eight 20 litre pails as growing vessels. The drippers would be pushed by 600 gallon per hour submersible pumps and they would run twelve hours a day. One dual electrical outlet was needed to run both pumps.
Next on the agenda was to build a bench around the perimeter of the garden against the fence. The bench ran along the fence on two sides of the garden for the 20 litre pails to sit on. Two saw horses held a two by four frame for the kitty litter pails to sit in and one kitty litter pail was placed inside another with a brick set inside for countering the weight of the tomatoes with fruit. Three quarter inch holes were drilled in the bottom containers and half inch fittings were installed and the hoses attached. The kitty litter containers were filled with pea gravel and 2 gallon per hour drippers were attached to the top hose. You could also use expanded clay pellets, perlite, or vermiculite and sand. The rest of the garden was assembled with half inch fittings (straights “L” and “T’s”), gardening twine, trans barbs and various three quarter inch clamps. The whole process of building the garden took approximately 20 to 25 hours. The garden was set up and ready by the middle of May. All he had to do was add water.
The garden area was positioned north to south and was well lit all day. The spring of 2010 was pretty normal for Southern Ontario but the summer was brutally hot at times. There were sustained temperatures of over 37 degrees Celsius for days at a time. The containers were white for this reason. The reservoir was hidden under the tomato plants and kept cool in the shade. If the containers or the reservoirs are dark in colour the water will become far too hot for the roots to handle and the plant will shut down. The reservoirs were topped up when needed and the nutrient refreshed weekly. He used a two part nutrient solution full strength with a vegetative fortifier. The A and B nutrient formula was used half strength for the lettuce and peppers in the soil less mix. The A and B nutrient can be used in any hydroponic system very successfully.
The tomatoes were all heirlooms and were purchased at the local market from a co-op as cuttings. The tomato varieties were Margo, delicious, green zebra and black krim. These tomatoes are all non-hybrids and are not GMO (genetically modified organisms). At one point in the summer Lane spotted blossom end rot on the bottom of the tomatoes and added extra calcium to the reservoir and it cleared up immediately. The only other problem was the weight of the tomatoes and keeping the plant upright, especially on windy days. Trying to set tomato cages in the pea gravel proved problematic because they did not dig in deep enough to be effective. This year he will lower the garden and try some sort of trellis system with gardening twine to physically tie the plant to. With being so hot and sunny as the summer wore on, Lane realized he would have to construct some sort of shade cover for those extreme days when the plants would visibly suffer in the heat. Being closed in on three sides of the garden made stagnant air a bit of a problem on calm, hot days, so some sort of fan arrangement will be set up this year. Ideally solar fans and pumps could be run on 12 volts for all the energy they use.
All in all, the garden was a great success. All the plants produced copious amount of quality fruit the whole summer. The tomato plants averaged 16 pounds of fruit per plant. This is not surprising. Plants in hydroponic systems can produce two to three times more produce than in soil. Plants absorb and transpire 1/3 less water than a field crop and use less space overall. Reservoirs were topped up every two or three days at the most and only twenty or so litres at a time.
In a sunny corner on his deck, Lane grew six or seven types of hot peppers in containers with soil less mix. These peppers thrived and produced lots of hot fruit. He gave me a couple of plants that I grew in my yard. They were called “friars hat” from Portugal and they were very hot. Over the winter he has been buying pepper seeds on E-Bay. Here you can purchase rare seeds from around the world. Planting these seeds in the drip containers this year should give him a good harvest. He plans to retain the seeds from what he grows and in turn, sell them on E-Bay himself.
Lane knows a farmer who grows lavender near Niagara on the Lake, in South-East Ontario. This fellow has expressed an interest in growing lavender hydroponically after seeing pictures of Lane’s results from last year. He wants to use a combination of French and English lavender to attain a unique fragrance to be used in perfumes and aromatic oils. They will be getting together in the next few weeks to firm up plans for his system.
Ninety-five percent of all green house vegetables are grown hydroponically here in North America. Field crops run generally about forty to sixty thousand pounds per acre. Top growers in the United States and British Columbia using hydroponics can get upwards of 650,000 pounds per acre. A small area on someone’s backyard can help feed a family and friends and neighbours quite easily. With plenty of sun energy, no drought and no searching for nutrients, edible plants can’t help but thrive. And besides, there’s no weeding!
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