Hooked on Hydroponics

It was inevitable from the first trip through The Land at Epcot Center that I would become a hydroponic gardener. The sight of 20 foot tall pepper plants, to say nothing of the similar tomato plants was too much for this inveterate gardener. A book on hydroponics got me started ("Beginning Hydroponics", Richard Nicolls, Running Press, 1990) and soon I decided to build my own hydroponic system from scratch.

Three years later I must be an expert because I have made all of the mistakes and still have a great crop of chillies, My current crop consists of two Thai pepper plants which are eight to ten feet tall. They have grown into the skylight. That brings up lesson one, prune your plants. Hydroponic plants grow very tall. I chose one of my varieties because it grew only 12 inches tall in a pot for three years. Imagine my suprise when it reached 8 feet in the hydroponics tray. There are literally hundreds of peppers on my two plants, more than I can eat and give away. Proper pruning can go a long way to prevent this problem.

I also grow several herbs. Cilantro is the most important one. I can have a continuous supply of this most important ingredient for salsa and other Southwest dishes. The only problem with cilantro is that it gets leggy and goes to seed quickly. Arrange your system so that you can start new seeds every month or so. Cutting off the flowers helps but only to a point. Lesson number two, when you choose a hydroponic system, select one that makes it easy to remove and replace one plant without distrubing the rest of your crops. Chilies can grow for years while some herbs have productive lives of only a few months.

The first year, I made another common mistake. I tried to plant too much. I have only 18" x 40" in my system. The first year I planted several tomato plants, cucumbers, basil, cilantro, and jalapeno peppers. All of the crops grew well for a while, but the larger ones soon blocked all the light from the others. I had a tangled mess. I did get crops from all of the plants. Winter tomatoes were a particular treat.

The most important lesson though has been with pest control. Whiteflys have been the bane of my hydroponic existence. They came into my sun space the first year with some pepper plants which I keep in pots and move outside in summer. Nothing I did allowed me to control them. Sticky yellow sheets attracted a few. Various sprays beginning with the most benign organic pesticides and moving gradually up to atomic weapons all failed. In the end I unplugged the hydroponics, moved all plants outside, and closed down for a few months. The second year, the whiteflys came in on a greenhouse plant given to us as a Christmas gift. Within a month there were clouds of whiteflys in the garden. In the end, it was necessary to close down again. Now I practice rigid quarantine of all plants coming into the sunspace. Drycleaner bags make a good cover for even large plants. Keep them covered for about a month and watch for flys. A No Pest strip hung inside the bag will take care of even the worst infestation, but be careful not to eat anything on the plants during the treatment or for a month or more after. Pick the plant clean and then let a new crop form after the treatment.

A number of commercial suppliers now make getting started in hydroponics very easy. Liquid fertilizer concentrates make the process of preparing the nutrients simple. The only test equipment needed is pH paper to check the acidity of your water supply the first time you start. It was not always this easy. I have about 100 pounds of chemicals in my basement and mix my nutrients from solid chemicals.

Chemical requirements vary for different types of crops. Herbs, where you want lots of leaves and no seeds need a diet rich in nitrogen while chilies, tomatoes, and other fruiting plants need less nitrogen and more potassium. If you plan to grow both types, you should have two separate systems. I do now after several years of frustration. One is for fruiting plnats and one for leafy plants.

The best commercial systems use small plugs of rock wool for starting seeds and place the individual plants in separate containers. My older system has evolved from a single bed of perlite into a collection of pots of perlite in an open tray. This makes it easy to remove and add plants. Gallon milk jugs with the top removed and a few holes around the edges at the bottom make a cheap pot for this use. You can also buy commercial pots. The container, a large rubbermaid storage box, to hold the pots, a reservoir below it holds the nutrient, and a pump is used to periodically flood the roots. The nutrients then drain back into the reservoir. A simple timer controls the cycle so that the pumping occurs every few hours. The only specialized item in my system is a pump (Little Giant - chemical resistant type) which is designed to withstand the chemicals in the nutrient solution.

The second system is a commercial one purchased from Worms Way. It uses large ceramic stones to hold the plants in their pots. The pots sit in an aireated bath of nutrients. It has proved easy to use and maintain.

The last thing that plants need is light. This is possibly the hardest and most expensive thing to supply artificially. Chilies grow well all winter with a good south window even in the short days of our New england winters. However, the addition of artificial lights can reduce the plants tendency to grow too tall and will allow you to plant at higher density. Fluorescent grow lights and professional sodium vapor lights are available from suppliers of hydroponic equipment. You should be aware that they will raise your electric bill a bit, but the culinary value of the fresh produce may be enough that you will be willing to pay the price.

Finally, what should you grow? This is where you should experiment. Different varieties do best with different light and temperature. You should expect to experiment a bit and find what works best for you. I had good luck with Serrano chilies and poor results with Jalapeno. The Thai variety I have now produces a 3 inch yellow chili which is medium hot. The "small" variety produces a shili which looks like a piquin. Small and red and very fiery. Both have been very productive. Seed suppliers sell special varities of tomatoes and cucumbers for container gardening which work well in hydroponic gardens.

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