The Morning Call (Sunday)

Use Hydroponic­s and Enjoy Fresh Produce

Whether indoors or out, here’s how to reap vegetables, fruits and herbs without so much as getting your hands dirty.

- By A.C. Shilton

MILY MARSH, WHO lives in Sonoma County, Calif., always thought the best thing about gardening was the feel of soil on her fingertips. But in 2019 she and her fiancé moved to a townhouse with an 8-by-12-foot concrete slab for a backyard. As lockdowns in California stretched into May, and Ms. Marsh, 30 and a co-owner of a janitorial company, read about the surging interest in gardening, she felt the urge to plant her own. Her only real option was a hydroponic setup.

“I was completely against it at first,” she said, adding that to her it just didn’t seem like real gardening. Reluctantl­y, Ms. Marsh purchased a unit from Lettuce Grow, a company that sells ready-to-grow hydroponic kits. “Now it’s just my favorite thing,” she said.

As cold weather moved in across the country, you could practicall­y hear the collective moan of America’s gardeners: No more fresh herbs, zucchini or heirloom tomatoes until the summer.

Unless you bring your pandemic garden indoors.

As has occurred with urban chicken coops and backyard beekeeping, interest in hydroponic­s has surged during the pandemic. For AeroGarden, another company selling hydroponic gardens, sales jumped 384 percent last March, after most state lockdowns took effect. From April through June, sales were up 267 percent year over year.

“It has been a really amazing year for us,” said Paul Rabaut, the company’s director of marketing. A representa­tive for Lettuce Grow said it was on track to do 10 times the sales in 2020 as it did in 2019.

Meanwhile, D.I.Y.-ers are building hydroponic gardens out of PVC pipe and five-gallon buckets. When lockdowns began, Vicki Liston, 45, a profession­al voice-over actress in New Mexico, wanted to limit her trips to the grocery store and started constructi­on on a pipe-based system. She worried about keeping a pandemic garden alive in her arid backyard, but so far the project has been a surprising success, she said.

Compared with traditiona­l gardening, “hydroponic­s grows more food in less space with less water and less time,” said Dan Lubkeman, president of the Hydroponic Society of America.

That is, if you get everything right. Hydroponic­s is about optimizing growing conditions: You must have the perfect amount of light and nutrition available at all times. Nail it, and plants can grow up to five times as fast as they would in soil outside, Mr. Rabaut said.

Ms. Marsh, who now has gardens both indoors and out, can vouch for Mr. Rabaut’s assertion. She is constantly amazed at the vigor of her plants. “We planted three tomato seedlings, and so far we have gotten 350 tomatoes,” she said. “It’s insane,” she said.

There’s a downside, though. Soil is pretty forgiving; get overzealou­s with your fertilizer, and your cucumbers may suffer, but the soil can buffer a fair amount of the damage. Water is much less forgiving, and the internet doesn’t always offer great advice, Mr. Lubkeman said. He recommends connecting with your nearest hydroponic­s specialty

'We planted three tomato seedlings, and so far we have gotten 350 tomatoes. It's insane.'

shop, where employees are likely to be experience­d growers, or buying a book on the subject.

That's one reason many new hydroponic gardeners opt to buy a plug-and-play kit: These kits tell you exactly what to add and when. If you're feeling crafty and a little adventurou­s, though, you can easily build one yourself.

Here's how to reap a lot of produce without so much as getting your hands dirty.

A HYDROPONIC SETUP REQUIRES A FEW BASIC ELEMENTS

Whether you construct it yourself or buy a kit, a hydroponic garden needs the following:

■ Seeds or seedlings. If you're doing this indoors, look for varieties that thrive in containers. This will ensure that none of your plants get so big that they take over your whole hydroponic setup.

■ A reservoir for the nutrient solution, which is made up of all the macronutri­ents (think nitrogen and phosphorus) and micronutri­ents (like iron and calcium) that plants need.

■ An aerating pump for oxygenatin­g your nutrient solution, since plant roots need oxygen, too.

■ A water pump to move water out of the reservoir and onto your plants throughout the day.

■ Light! More on this later.

■ A “medium.” Since you're not using soil, you'll need something to hold the plant's roots in place. Many mediums also help keep roots moist between waterings. Mr. Lubkeman recommends a material called rockwool for beginners.

DECIDE WHETHER TO BUILD YOURSELF OR BUILD OUT OF A BOX

As with most hobbies, you can spend a little or a lot. Originally, Ms. Marsh wanted to go the cheap route. Setting up a D.I.Y. system with a few buckets and an aquarium pump can set you back less than $150. But Ms. Marsh worried about getting everything working correctly. Lettuce Grow's container is made from recycled plastic, and for Ms. Marsh, that tipped the scales toward buying a premade kit, even if units start at $348 — no lights included.

AeroGarden's smallest units, which include grow lights, start at $99, with larger models going for up to $600. Ultimately, the decision about whether to buy a kit or build one comes down to whether you enjoy tinkering or would rather not spend a day gluing PVC pipe to plastic tubing.

IT’S ALL ABOUT BALANCE

Once your set up is prepared, you may see seeds sprouting within three days, though some plants take longer. After two weeks, your seedlings should start to look like real plants. This is when Ms. Liston realized that her hydroponic experiment was not going quite right. A few weeks in, and her plants were dying.

It turned out that her tap water was too alkaline; a pH buffering solution fixed the problem (water testing between 6.5 and 7.0 on the pH scale is considered ideal). A setup like AeroGarden will tell you when you need to add fertilizer or adjust the pH of your water. If you built your own operation, you'll need to remember to add nutrients and check the pH of your water (using testing strips) weekly.

“It's been fantastic,” Ms. Liston said, adding that once she got her light, pH and nutrient levels dialed in, “it just exploded.”

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING

If some plant nutrients are good, more is better, right? That's not at all the case, Ms. Liston said. So far, she's managed not to overfeed her plants, but too much food can result in dead or severely damaged plants. How often and how much you'll need to feed depends on the type of nutrient solution you're using. Read the directions on the bottle.

LET THOSE LIGHTS SHINE

You may be able to grow lettuce, kale or herbs in a sunny window, but when days

ONA CREATIVE are short, investing in a full-spectrum grow light is worth it. These lights provide the same spectralra­nge as the sun and you'll see much faster growth, Mr. Lubkeman said. In Ms. Liston's case, adding a light and moving her plants next to her sunniest window resulted in a noticeable change in their productivi­ty.

GOODBYE BUGS (FOR BETTER OR WORSE)

Ms. Liston's favorite thing about growing indoors is that it's bug-free. While that means you won't need to pluck slugs from your lettuce, you will need to take over for bees and do your own pollinatin­g. For plants like peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, Mr. Rabaut said some customers get decent pollinatio­n rates just by shaking plants gently every day or two. However, you'll get better results if you play the part of the bee, using a Q-tip or small brush to sweep pollen from one blossom to another.

MAINTENANC­E IS KEY

Ms. Marsh tries to clip back greens and herbs at least two times a week. If Items like basil aren't trimmed back they'll go to seed and stop producing. While hydroponic gardens are much less work than their outdoor counterpar­ts (no weeding!) you can't neglect your plants completely and still expect them to thrive, Mr. Lubkeman said.

 ??  ?? To bring her garden inside, Vicki Liston built her own hydroponic system. Once she found the right balance of light, nutrients and water, "it just exploded," she said.
To bring her garden inside, Vicki Liston built her own hydroponic system. Once she found the right balance of light, nutrients and water, "it just exploded," she said.
 ?? PHOTOGRAPH­S BY DYLAN COLE FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES ??
PHOTOGRAPH­S BY DYLAN COLE FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
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 ?? AEROGARDEN ?? An AeroGarden kit, complete with tomatoes. Top, Lettuce Grow’s Farmstand can grow up to 36 plants.
AEROGARDEN An AeroGarden kit, complete with tomatoes. Top, Lettuce Grow’s Farmstand can grow up to 36 plants.

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