Hydroponics 101

Confessions of A New Indoor Gardener

In my hands I felt the heft of the large box of hydroponic gardening equipment I had recently purchased. “Microgarden?” I thought, “This thing weighs at least 30 pounds.”

I set down the box on the carpet of my living room. Leaning over with hands on knees, as a long time soil gardener, I didn’t know what to expect from something so reliant upon science and way too much of what I didn’t know and understand.

As I cut through the tape holding the contents of the box, images of chemicals and glass beakers and a rather Frankenstein-ish approach to growing vegetables held firm in my mind.

The single page of directions was enough to intimidate me—Plug this in, fill that up, add this nutrient, adjust that. What in the heck was hydroponics and why? I stopped everything I was doing and met with a gardener friend the following day that had several years of indoor gardening experience.

Ten minutes in and the severity of my line of questioning was to the point of persecution as my gardener friend calmly fielded and fended off what I asked of him regarding hydroponics.

Somehow, this method of gardening began to make sense. I went home and set up my half-opened hydro garden, and followed the directions one step at a time.

Setup was actually easier than I imagined. I popped into the reservoir what was basically an aquarium pump and easily attached several other parts. Next, I filled up the reservoir with some good clean water and plugged in the pump in order to test the little sprinkler-like misters in the grow chamber. I chose the advanced, aeroponic hydroponic system because of my soil-based gardening experience and because I have the extra time to methodically take care and study the growth of my plants. Otherwise I would have chosen something that’s a little more automated like the ebb & flow system.

The misters worked exactly as described. Each one sprayed a mist of water onto its corresponding net-pot where the grow medium (replacement for soil) and plant root mass would grow. Into each of the net pots I placed one vegetable starter plug that I had previously sprouted in a sunny window.

Following this, I hung up my small bank of high-output fluorescent lights the appropriate distance above the Microgarden. This fluorescent light, running at 16 hours per day, would act as the sun and provide the necessary light energy for the plant to conduct photosynthesis. Finally, I flicked on the switch and was surprised by the brightness of the light.

Next, I mixed into the reservoir the appropriate amount of liquid nutrients. At first, because of my misconceptions of hydroponics, I thought the nutrients would lend a funny chemical taste to whatever I grew in my Microgarden, but then I read the ingredients. Botanicare’s Pure Blend Pro Grow was derived from organically sourced things such as fish meal, composted seabird guano, kelp, amino acids, rock phosphate — all of which I had previously used in my soil garden in the back yard. Wow, I thought, this isn’t so different from soil gardening, just a different way to grow what I wanted to eat. Visions of organic homegrown salads sitting next to my juicy steaks began to fill my head.

At first, my spinach, lettuce, basil and mustard greens grew at about the same rate of soil starts. This held true for about three days, and then, much to my surprise, the slow expected creep of vegetative growth was completely over run with the fast and smart efficiency of what my friend had explained to be the magic of hydro-farming.

At two weeks, my Microgarden was growing at such a rate that I was comfortable harvesting a small bowl of salad greens every night with dinner. “Simply remarkable” I thought. Each fresh and delicious crispy bite further displaced my own misconceptions of taste and quality. This produce tasted nothing like the glass beaker chemicals I had once imagined.

At three weeks, the growth rate exploded and seemed almost unbelievable. I would drive home from work, cook dinner on the stove top, then walk over to my hydro garden with scissors and disbelief, thinking all the while that my harvest still had to be limited to the one bowl of salad greens, only to realize that what I had harvested the previous night, had already grown back with a vengeance.

At four weeks I just couldn’t eat enough salad, and began offering my fresh home-grown greens to friends and co-workers. My Microgarden had grown into a robust jungle of fresh leafy greens that could feed a family of four, no problem, and it was not stopping for anything.

At five weeks, I was certain that I would never purchase old and questionably-sourced produce again from the super market, no matter how whole the food claimed to be, because look at my results, look at what I grew. I could see and taste the difference. And it was so easy.