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Grow a hydroponic garden

Emily Marsh, who lives in Sonoma County, Calif., Always thought the best thing about gardening was the feeling of dirt on her fingers. But last year, she and her fiance moved to a townhouse with an 8-by-12-foot concrete slab for a backyard. As closures in California lasted until May and Ms. Marsh, 30 and co-owner of a cleaning company, learned of the rise of the gardens, she felt the need to plant her own. But his only real option was a hydroponic setup.

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

As the first frost of fall hits plants across the country, you can practically hear the collective whine of American gardeners: no more fresh herbs, zucchini, or heirloom tomatoes until next summer.

Unless you bring your pandemic garden indoors.

Like urban chicken coops and backyard beekeeping, interest in hydroponics increased during the pandemic. For Aerogarden, another company selling hydroponic gardens, sales jumped 384% in the two weeks of March, a period that followed most state shutdowns. From April to June, sales increased 267% year over year.

“It has been a really great year for us,” said Paul Rabaut, Company Marketing Director. A representative from Lettuce Grow said it is on track to achieve 10x sales compared to last year.

Meanwhile, DIYers are building hydroponic gardens with PVC pipes and five gallon buckets. When the lockdowns began, Vicki Liston, 45, a professional voiceover actress in New Mexico, wanted to limit her trips to the grocery store and began construction on a pipe system. She was worried about keeping a pandemic garden alive in her very barren yard, but so far the project has been a surprising success, she said.

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

In other words, if you are doing everything right. Hydroponics is all about optimizing growing conditions – you need to have the perfect amount of light and nutrition available at all times. Nail it down and plants can grow up to five times faster than they would in outdoor soil, Mr Rabaut said.

Ms Marsh, who now has indoor and outdoor gardens, can vouch for Mr Rabaut’s claim. She is constantly amazed at the vigor of her plants. “We have planted three tomato plants and so far we have obtained 350 tomatoes,” she said. “It’s crazy,” she said.

There is, however, a downside. The soil is forgiving enough – be overzealous with your fertilizer, and your cucumbers can suffer, but the soil can cushion a good deal of the damage. Water is much less forgiving, and the internet doesn’t always have good advice, Lubkeman said. He recommends connecting with your nearest hydroponics store where employees are likely to be experienced growers, or purchasing a book on the subject.

This is one of the reasons that many new hydroponics gardeners choose to buy a plug-and-play kit: These kits tell you exactly what to add and when. If you are feeling cunning and a bit adventurous, you can easily build one yourself.

Here’s how to harvest a lot of produce without getting your hands dirty.

Whether you’re building it yourself or buying a kit, a hydroponic garden needs the following:

  • Seeds or plants. If you’re doing this indoors, look for varieties that thrive in containers. This will ensure that none of your plants will grow so large that they will take over your entire hydroponic setup.

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

  • A way”. Since you are not using soil, you will need something to hold the roots of the plant in place. Many mediums also help keep roots moist between waterings. Mr. Lubkeman recommends a material called rock wool for beginners.

As with most hobbies, you can spend a little or a lot. Originally, Ms. Marsh wanted to go the cheapest route. Setting up a mid-size DIY system with a few buckets and an aquarium pump can set you back under $ 150. But Ms. Marsh was concerned that everything was working fine. Lettuce Grow’s container is made from recycled plastic, and for Ms. Marsh, that tipped the scales toward buying a pre-made kit, even though units start at $ 348 – no lights included.

Aerogarden’s smaller units, which include grow lights, start at $ 99, with larger models going up to $ 600. Ultimately, the decision to buy a kit or build your own depends on whether you like to DIY, or prefer not to spend a Saturday gluing PVC pipes and plastic tubing together.

Once your setup is set up, you may see seeds germinate within three days, although some plants take longer. In two weeks, your seedlings should start to look like real plants. It was then that Ms. Liston realized that her hydroponics experience was not going quite well. A few weeks later, his plants died.

It turned out that her tap water was too alkaline. A pH buffer solution solved the problem. (A water test 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’ve built your own farm, you’ll need to remember to add nutrients and check the pH of your water (using test strips) every week.

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

If certain plant nutrients are good, more seems to be better, right? That’s not the case at all, Ms Liston said. So far, she has managed not to overfeed her plants, but too much plant food can lead to dead or severely damaged plants. How often and how much food you will need will depend on the type of nutrient solution you are using. Read the directions on the bottle.

You may be able to grow lettuce, kale, or herbs in a sunny window, but as the days get shorter, investing in a full spectrum and growing light is worth it. These lights provide the same range of light as the sun, and you’ll see much faster growth, 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.

Ms. Liston’s favorite thing about growing indoors is that it’s bug-free. While that does mean you won’t need to pluck the slugs from your lettuce, you will need to take over from the bees and do your own pollination. For plants like peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, Mr Rabaut said some customers report getting decent pollination rates just by gently shaking the plants every day or two. However, you will get even better results if you are willing to take on the role of the bee – using a cotton swab or small brush to sweep the pollen from flower to flower.

It’s in your house, after all. While there is no mess involved, these setups can get a bit awesome. Ms. Liston performs a complete wiping of the PVC plant substrates every two weeks. If you are purchasing a pre-made kit, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning.

Mrs. Marsh tries to cut greens and herbs at least twice a week. Many items – like basil – need to be kept trimmed, otherwise they will go to seeds and stop producing. While hydroponic gardens are much less labor-intensive than their outdoor counterparts (no weeding!), You can’t completely neglect your plants and expect them to thrive, Lubkeman said.

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