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Keep your thumb green all year long with a soil-less growing system

Winter in B.C. is usually a quiet time in the garden. On the coast, rain drips off evergreen branches and onto waterlogged lawns, while in the Interior, snow hides any trace of carefully cultivated flowerbeds.

But there you are, in your toasty-warm kitchen, enjoying a fresh salad made with vegetables that you harvested that morning. How? From plants growing inside your house. Plants that are thriving in the middle of winter – through hydroponics.

Hydroponic gardening is a great way to bring the taste of summer into your kitchen, as well as keep your thumb green during the fall and winter months. With a simple hydroponic system and a bit of planning, you can grow a variety of herbs, vegetables and flowering plants inside your home or greenhouse throughout the year.

“You can grow almost any plant, from azaleas to zinnias,” says Scott Hammond, general manager of Solar Greenhouse and Hydroponics Supply in Burnaby. “You can grow lettuce, basil, leafy herbs, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes – anything at the grocery store with a ‘BC Hothouse’ sticker on it was probably grown hydroponically.”

Soil-less Gardening

Hydroponics involves growing plants without soil. Instead, plant roots are suspended in a growing medium (such as rock wool, vermiculite or expanded clay media) and surrounded by water and nutrient solution. Light – both natural and artificial – is also required.

Hydroponics allows you to garden year round, and not just indoors. In springtime, a hydroponic system can be moved outside to take advantage of full sunlight, warmer temperatures and air circulation.

This method of gardening has provided White Rock’s RoseAnn Lepard with a bountiful supply of vegetables and flowers, all grown on her backyard deck.

“It’s right there – it’s not a dirty way to garden,” she says. “There’s a minimum amount of pest problems. No slugs, snails, fungus. I don’t have to spray any pesticides.”

Lepard uses a form of hydroponics where water and nutrients are misted onto plant roots, which are contained within a series of pipes. “If I move, I can take my garden with me,” she says. “If I don’t like where it’s at, I can rearrange my garden. I have a blast!”

While Lepard’s sophisticated system grows more than 100 plants each year, other gardeners have had success experimenting with much simpler set-ups.

Audrey Ostrom, a master gardener and volunteer at VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, is a traditional gardener who has successfully grown vegetables with hydroponics. This year, she’s growing hot peppers in a small set-up in her greenhouse.

As a frequent traveller, she’s found the system to be convenient. “I can go away for a few days, provided the plants have enough water and a supply of nutrients.”

Ostrom sees more specific advantages to using hydroponics for tomato plants, which don’t always thrive in B.C. gardens. “When growing tomatoes hydroponically, you don’t risk having blight,” she says. “Blight can last in the soil from year to year.”

Naturally, where there’s no soil, there is no risk of soil-based diseases or pests, such as cutworms. The main components of a hydroponic system can also be reused with different plants.

“There is less waste with hydroponics – plants can grow in the same medium over and over,” says Woody O’Neill, a hydroponics consultant for WTI Hydroponics & Garden Supplies in Vancouver. “And you can do hydroponics anywhere.”

Getting Started

For gardeners used to getting their hands dirty, hydroponics is a very different approach to growing plants. But it’s not difficult to begin.

“Don’t be intimidated – it’s easier than running an aquarium,” says Solar Greenhouse’s Hammond. “By investing the same amount of money or less, you can feed yourself vegetables for a couple of years.”

The easiest way to start is to find a reputable hydroponics supplier in your area. Go to the store, look at all of the different systems on display and talk to the staff. They can help find a system that fits both your living arrangement and your budget.

You can get started with a simple set-up for between $20 and $50. “You need a container that holds water, a growth medium and nutrients,” says Hammond.

Then you have to choose the plant you want to grow. Vegetables, herbs, flowers and houseplants can all be grown with hydroponics. Hammond recommends growing annuals rather than perennials, because perennials have specific dormant and active growing periods that can be difficult to replicate in an indoor situation.

You can either start with seeds or cuttings, or transplant an established soil-based plant. “If the plant can stand the stress of its roots being cleaned off, then it will probably survive in a hydroponic system,” says Hammond.

While you can choose any size container to fit your location, the nutrient solution that you use must be tailored to the special needs of hydroponic plants. Soil-based fertilizers can supplement the nutrient content of soil, but hydroponic nutrients must provide all of the elements that a plant needs to survive. Nutrient concentration and pH levels should be monitored every few days.

Light and air circulation are also important factors. The artificial lights that many hydroponic systems require to supplement winter’s meagre daylight can generate too much heat. “When you’re farming inside, you create your own weather,” says WTI Hydroponics’ O’Neill. “You need air movement to maintain a comfortable temperature within the room.”

There are other challenges unique to hydroponic gardening, explains O’Neill, because gardeners must supply absolutely everything that the plant needs to survive. “With hydroponics you have to pay more attention than when you’re just prepping the soil and sticking plants into the ground.”

Expect some trial and error when you’re starting out. With soil-less gardening, “gardeners just need to understand more about plant physiology,” says Hammond. “The more the gardener understands about the growth process of a plant, the more successful they will be.”

It takes just one look at RoseAnn Lepard’s incredible veggies to be convinced that hydroponic gardening is a great way to keep growing during the winter. She encourages gardeners to jump right in and “Get your fingers wet!”

Freelance writer and filmmaker Bonnie Jean Mah is an enthusiastic home gardener who enjoys exploring all aspects of gardening.