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Hydroponics can provide gardeners with a fun change in winter

The first question one can ask is, “Why are you doing this?” There is no good answer to that; Plants grow well in dirt, and the machinery of hydroponics can be intimidating to the novice gardener. But if someone wants to try something different or is enjoying the science of plant physiology, hydroponics can offer a gardener a winter distraction as well as some pretty – or even edible – plants.

In hydroponics with nutrient film technology (NFT), the plants sit in small openings on a closed channel, also called a tray, into which water enriched with nutrients is continuously pumped. (Photo submitted)

I would recommend a kit for a first try with hydroponics, and many are available. I would also suggest using an internet source that specializes in hydroponics rather than a general retailer. The owners of these specialty sites are usually excited to help a person start a project and can offer advice along the way. You can spend anywhere from 30 to hundreds of dollars on a system that will fit in a small room or closet.

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Hydroponic gardens don't need a lot of space to thrive, just a readily available source of light.  (Photo submitted)

Hydroponic gardens don’t need a lot of space to thrive, just a readily available source of light. (Photo submitted)

I use a large closet that is lined with aluminum foil to reflect light, although hydroponics can be done anywhere if you don’t mind the extra light. Kits usually come with liquid or dry nutrients mixed with water for the feeding solution. The substrate for the plants to germinate and grow into is also provided. As you gain experience, you can even experiment with different substrate and nutrient mixes.

Lighting is critical, and it would be unrealistic to expect hydroponically to grow indoors without artificial light. LED technology has advanced dramatically over the past decade and the cost of purchasing and using these lights has decreased significantly. And they don’t produce as much heat as the lamps we used years ago. There are even “tunable” lights that emit specific wavelengths that can be changed during a plant’s life cycle. Light with around 400 to 500 nanometers (nm) appears bluish to humans and stimulates vegetative growth; Light at around 620 to 780 nm appears reddish to humans and, when mixed with the lower wavelengths, promotes flowering. Timers are essential and can be used to simulate the lengthening of the days of the early growing season and the diminishing hours of light at the end of the growing season.

One of the reasons I like hydroponics is that you can experiment with variations in the quality and duration of light. I “forgot” to add red light once when tomatoes were ready to bloom and as a result I had 6 of the tallest tomato trees in the world with about three tomatoes total. (Of course, if lights came with a kit they would emit all the wavelengths a plant would ever need that would appear white to us.)

Nutrient combination products are available that provide all of the nutrients you need and even buffer the solution to the correct pH, almost guaranteeing success. With experience and a spirit of adventure, a person may observe differences in growth and productivity due to variations in the nutrient solution. Routinely checking pH, checking dissolved solids, and trying different combinations and relative strengths of nutrients and micronutrients has the aura of a chemistry experiment – this may appeal to some. The possibilities are almost limitless. I once made tomatoes that tasted like grapes by adding grape extract (and a few other things) to the nutrient solution. They weren’t very good; I will not do this again. Purple salad isn’t very appetizing either.

The two most common types of nutrient intake are “ebb and flow” and “nutrient film technique”. The latter is probably the easiest, and I would recommend it as a first try with hydroponics. Almost any plant other than root vegetables can be grown. I once grew tobacco hydroponically and the local elders who used it in a ceremony said it was very good.

We usually have a harvest of lettuce and tomatoes in the basement during the winter months and just going downstairs to collect this is a blessing. This is not cost effective. It would probably be cheaper to drive to the store and buy it; It takes time and a bit of work too, but it’s a joy to see (artificial) sunlight coming from the hydroponic room in the middle of these dark winters.

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