Home Sweet Home Grown
By Cindy Rea
In late autumn a few years ago I purchased a small, beautifully landscaped home in a lovely bedroom community north of Toronto. The new property came complete with a 20′ x 30′ patch of ground that had obviously been used by the previous owners to grow vegetables. As spring rolled around I decided to try my hand at Canada’s number one pastime. I carefully planned out my garden after researching a variety of gardening books and magazines and soliciting advise from my father. I wanted to ensure that this would be a family experience and my three kids would enjoy a sense of nurturing while they helped me plant and cultivate the garden.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as I had planned. I now understand why parents say they enjoy the solitude and tranquility of gardening. When my children found that the process of nurturing and cultivation involved some degree of work they disappeared quickly leaving me alone to tend my garden.
I became aware very early on that I didn’t possess a green thumb. My tomatoes and peppers provided a feast for a number of nasty little pests including slugs and spider mites. I suspect a visiting rabbit enjoyed all my carrots and my attempt to conquer the weeds left me out of commission for three days with a sore back. Upon my return from a week’s vacation I found the remnants of my garden parched and wilting from the intense summer heat and lack of water. However, all was not lost! I managed to harvest about a thousand zucchinis! I took revenge on my kids for their unwillingness to help, with zucchini! They ate zucchini in every imaginable way for weeks.
I did not give up! As spring approached every year I continued to plan my garden. Through trial and error and a bit of sweat I’ve managed to harvest a variety of delicious vegetables. In fact, my family has come to enjoy the fresh picked flavor so much that I have decided to keep a hydroponic garden indoors.
At first I was a bit intimidated by all the equipment and gadgets available not to mention the plumbing and electricity involved in hydroponics. Much to my surprise however, I found that hydroponics was actually easier and cleaner than my outdoor garden. The only electrical work was simply plugging in a pump, timer and light and plumbing consisted of draining or adding water to the garden. Even I could handle this!
I decided to dedicate a corner in a small breakfast nook for the garden. The kitchen is nearby providing easy access to water. I purchased a stand that was designed specifically for growing hydroponically with shelves that can be easily adjusted to a comfortable working height. The compact unit neatly houses a three by four foot garden tray, a 50 gallon reservoir and a grow light, taking up minimal space. With the garden so conveniently located I can take a few minutes, while I’m puttering in the kitchen, to check that everything is running smoothly.
Though there are several different methods of hydroponic gardening, I chose ebb and flow. Ebb and flow (flood and drain) systems are ideal for multiple plant per square foot growing and can accommodate a mixture of vegetables, herbs and/or salad greens. It is an effortless system to set up and requires very little maintenance. Once the seedlings have been transplanted to their larger rockwool cubes they are placed on the ebb and flow tray. The tray is flooded automatically several times a day by a fountain pump submersed in a reservoir of nutrient solution and connected to a digital timer. Submersible pumps and digital timers are inexpensive, easy to use and available at any hydroponic shop.
An ebb and flow tray is ribbed to keep the rockwool cubes from soaking in the nutrient solution and the roots from becoming waterlogged or getting ‘wet feet’. Ribbing also ensures the availability of oxygen to the root system.
I start my seeds in rockwool starter cubes, bearing in mind that various plants have different nutrient requirements. In an ebb and flow system all the plants are fed from a common nutrient reservoir so they must be compatible. A fast growing, fruit producing plant, like tomato, will need more nourishment and therefore a stronger solution than a spinach making them poor growing companions.
Once true leaves appear and roots are showing through the bottom of the starter cubes, usually around 10 – 14 days, seedlings are ready to be transplanted. Generally seedlings do not go into shock or suffer any setback when transplanted as they are merely placed in a 3″ or 4″ pre-soaked, pH balanced rockwool cube with a pre-made hole designed to receive the starter cube.
On a 3′ X 4′ ebb and flow tray I can grow anywhere from 10 to 50 plants depending on their size. A large pepper plant should be allowed approximately a 1 square foot growing area whereas a small herb or lettuce plant will require a much smaller space. Here again trial and error came into play. I found that some plants grew harmoniously together like lettuce and strawberries while others were mortal enemies like tomatoes and dill.
Most plants need about sixteen hours of light a day. My plants receive ample light with a 400 watt balanced spectrum metal halide grow lamp which is attached to an automatic timer. I simply hang the lamp, which comes complete with a reflector, at the desired height, plug in and grow! The remote ballast required to run the metal halide lamp is discreetly hidden off the floor, away from any water. The CSA approved unit is as easy to operate as my living room lamp. The days of unsafe lighting systems with ‘some assembly required’ are over! I must stress; if any equipment doesn’t have CSA approval DO NOT USE IT! They may pose a potential fire hazard and you could be at risk of electrocution.
The nutrient reservoir is the life force of my garden. I chose a high quality nutrient formula recommended for hydroponic use. The concentrate formula eliminates guess work and delivers the proper proportion of each mineral element to the plants. Once the reservoir is filled with the desired level of water the nutrient is added according to the package directions.
Keeping the pH and nutrient levels balanced ensures my plants will get the nourishment they need to flourish. This is where I considered abandoning the whole project. I can’t even balance my cheque book, let alone pH! I was delighted to find that maintaining the nutrient reservoir was much less complicated than I had anticipated. A few drops of pH indicator solution was all that was needed to determine the pH level. Adjusting and maintaining a healthy pH balance of 5.8 – 6.3 (for most plants) simply meant that once nutrients were added, pH be monitored and adjusted as necessary. pH adjusting products are available for raising or lowering the pH as required.
I have found that keeping a journal has been a helpful resource and allowed me to reproduce successful crops and avoid duplicating mistakes. For the most part my garden is self sufficient. I try to completely change my nutrient reservoir every week to ten days. When this isn’t possible I top up the solution with water and adjust nutrients and pH accordingly.
My kids have apparently taken an interest in my hydroponic garden. As fast as my strawberries and cherry tomatoes ripen they disappear! I am contemplating zucchini for my next crop, I’m sure I could double my yield in a hydroponic garden. I cherish the time I spend working in my gardens, indoors and out. Hydroponics needn’t be complicated and the opportunity to continue gardening year round is a bonus.