The problem with gardening is that you have to do it in the garden. This is our third season trying to bring our “soil” up to snuff, and there are so many variables, and so many opinions on what to do about those variables, that I feel like I’m just guessing. You amend to the best of your ability, put the seedling in the ground, and hope for the best. My garden is a crapshoot. I want something that’s easier to control and harder to screw up.
Unfortunately, when it comes to growing things, the more control you have and the more foolproof the enterprise, the less satisfying the results are likely to be. The Chia Pet sprouts every time, but then all you’ve is got a sprouted Chia Pet. My friend Beth is partial to those experiments where you put the avocado pit or the pineapple crown in water, but now she’s got a windowsill full of tropical foliage and no exit strategy.
But then there’s hydroponics.
Hydroponics is as close to a Chia Pet as gardening gets. The idea is that you take soil out of the equation. Instead of expecting your plants to fend for themselves, eking nutrients out of the earth, you take it upon yourself to provide for their every need. You do that simply by adding fertilizer to their water.
My introduction to the appeal of hydroponics came a few months back, when Kevin and I stopped by Sprout Farm, in Mashpee. Jay Sprout is growing kale, strawberries, lettuces, and tomatoes hydroponically, and I found his system fascinating. He uses a system of stacked pots, four plants per pot, so a five-pot stack has twenty plants. The irrigation hose goes across the tops of the stacks, and the fertilized water drips into the top pot and filters through the stack. (It’s a system marketed by a company called Verti-Gro, in Florida.)
Kevin and I decided we wanted to try it, and went back to see Jay this past weekend. He had some extra supplies, and was willing to sell us just about everything we needed to get up and running.
I’ll spare you the play-by-play of our installation, but the gist of it is that we laid down weed block and put five poles in the ground, three feet apart. A short piece of PVC goes over each pole, and keeps the bottom pot off the ground. We put four pots on each post, each at a 45-degree angle to the one underneath, so the corners stick out. A plant will go in each corner.
That’s the easy part. The hard part is making sure the right amount of water/fertilizer mix gets to each stack. As we’re doing a gravity-fed system, this is a non-trivial exercise in fluid dynamics.
Our stacks run up the slope of our garden, and we’ll put the barrel with the plant food on a platform that we’ll attach to the oak tree at the top. We have a hose that runs from the barrel across the tops of the poles, and there’s a little hose tributary for each stack.
We’re working on restricting the tributaries so all the fertilizer doesn’t just flow into the first stack. That wouldn’t work so well. Once we get it worked out, all we have to do is attach a battery-power timer that opens the spigot for the right period of time, at the right time of day, and we’re sixty days from hydroponic lettuce.
This year, we’re experimenting with one row. If it works out, we’ll expand next year. Which will mean that, instead of rows of crops interspersed with aisles of soil, our garden will be black fabric with metal poles of white Styrofoam pots. It’s not as picturesque, I know, but the whole at-one-with-nature, dirt-under-the-fingernails romance of working the earth has paled for me.
To get plants to grow in dirt, you have to first figure out A) what plants need, B) what of those things your dirt doesn’t have, and C) how to get those things into your dirt. And it’s not like you just have to do it once. It’s an everlasting struggle, creating and maintaining earth that plants will grow in.
It’s also hard work. It’s digging and weeding and hauling and tilling. The inputs required by a garden of any size are many, varied, and heavy.
If you skip the dirt, things get a lot simpler. You put your plants in a nutrition-free medium whose only requirement is that it hold the right amount of moisture (ours is two parts perlite, two parts peat moss, one part vermiculite). You let people who understand the needs of plants send you everything your plants need in a 25-pound bag of fertilizer. You put a tablespoon of it in a gallon of water, and you’re good to grow.
The pots, the equipment, and the growing medium can be used for years. Once you’re set up, the only inputs are fertilizer and water. There’s almost no waste. There’s virtually no run-off. And you can grow many times the number of plants in the same area.
Or you can fail utterly, of course. This could be a bust. Our system could malfunction. Our kale could die. And, because our pots are outside, the plants are still subject to weather, insects, and fence-breaking marauding varmints (or chickens). But we’ve struggled mightily with our soil to very little effect, and I can’t help but be optimistic about an alternative.
If this doesn’t work, I’ll just have to ask Beth if I can take some of those pineapples off her hands