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Gardening: Soil Free Zone

Hydroponic gardening has moved into the mainstream.

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Gardening can be spiritually and mentally rewarding. And if you have a big enough greenhouse, it can also be financially rewarding. But as many people know after a day of weeding or pulling dead tomato plants out of their yard, it can be frustrating too.

Hydroponic gardening reins in many of those random elements.

Moving into the mainstream, hydroponic gardening has become an efficient, cost-effective and year-round practice. The stigma of hydroponics and illegal drug production has given way to the reality of big tomatoes and fresh lettuce in Food Lions and Krogers.

It's about time.

Hydroponic gardening made its debut as one of the Seven Wonders of the World: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon astounded the Kroger's shoppers of the ancient world with their high-quality goods. The art of gardening without soil, of growing plants in water, has since spread to many parts of the world, especially where soil quality is poor. With the invention of plastic, hydroponic gardening has become even more accessible and widespread.

The swelling ranks of converts means good business for Brian Tromly, owner of I Love Hydroponics in the Fan.

Tromly opened his store in March 2003, at a time when there were only two other stores in Virginia: one in Woodbridge and the other in Virginia Beach. Now, he says, there are six, and as he plans to open a second store outside of Richmond soon, he can attest to the growing interest in hydroponics.

The plants grown are “better quality at a better price,” he says, and for that reason many large-scale operations are filling the grocery shelves with hydroponic goods. With the banning of certain pesticides, Tromly says, “In the next few years 60 to 70 percent of strawberries will be hydroponic.” That's big money for big growers. But what does the gardener of humble means need to know to get started?

Hydroponic gardening is just growing without soil in nutrient rich water. The problem with soil, Tromly says, is the buffering agents, the compounds that tie up nutrients needed by plants. Hydroponic gardening removes that variable, so that all the nutrients go straight to the plant. Because the water is recirculated in the hydroponic systems, 60 percent less is used.

The most popular hydroponic system is an ebb and flow, Tromly says. A tray of plants in small cups sits above a reservoir, which floods the tray at intervals. Because the nutrients are fed directly to them, their roots don't grow as much. “All growth is up,” Tromly says, adding that after that, “Your only investment is light.”

People rig outdoor systems with PVC and wires, relying on the sunlight. But for true year-round gardening, an artificial light source is a must. Metal halide lights (operating in the white/blue range of the spectrum, mimicking early season sun) are better for veggies, lettuce and herbs, while high pressure sodium (giving off the red/orange light of the late season sky) is better for fruiting and flowering plants. Adding a carbon dioxide infusion accelerates growth.

The variety of nutrients and fertilizers fills catalogs, all promising to maximize growth and size. Within the hydroponic community, debate continues over the better nutrient, organic or “chems.” The advantage to organics (including mixtures of worm castings and bat guano, sea kelp and soybean) is supposedly that fruits and vegetables taste better. “Chems,” a concentration of nutrients and pH buffers, appeal to the large scale farmer because the faster growth yields a better turnaround for sales.

The interested gardener should consult the trade magazines, such as “Maximum Yield.” Often technical, with provocative ads that seem more suited to men's magazines, these publications nevertheless offer a lot of real world advice for the expert and the beginner who want a little more control.



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