Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Growing Tomatoes the Hydroponics Way

In general growing vegetables, especially tomatoes, in a home garden is a challenge, trying to grow them the hydroponics way is what I call a Science Experiment. OK, sure this is not rocket science but for us it was hydroponics 101.

A hydroponics garden
Our Hydroponics Garden

I blame it on Mickey, the Disney mouse. About 10 years ago we went on a family vacation to Disney World and while in Epcot, we went on a ride called Living with the Land and since then I had the urge to try growing vegetables especially tomatoes using the hydroponics method. Why tomatoes, because I love them. Why Hydroponics, for the challenge of it and also because I don't like dirt, worms, the mess, mosquitoes and the many pests that ruin plants.

Also at the rate our world population is growing, we will need to successfully grow our foods in containers, indoors, and without soil. And interplanetary survival of our species will depend in large part on our ability to grow our foods in alternate ways.

Plants growing the Hydroponics way at Epcot, Disney World.
Fruits and Vegetables growing the Hydroponics way at Epcot, Disney World

Tomato plant growing via hydroponics at Epcot, Disney World
A huge tomato plant growing the hydroponics way at Epcot, Disney World

The Epcot ride is rather spectacular. You get to see a huge greenhouse where they are growing all sorts of fruits and vegetables and none of them using soil. They were growing various types of melons, bananas, pineapples, papayas, peaches, eggplant, peppers, beans, various types of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs, to name a few. you can came a delicious and healthy fruit or vegetable salad with the variety of crops they were growing and they all looked yummy.

Hydroponic plants growing at Epcot
Hydroponic plants growing at Epcot

Beautiful vegetables growing via the Hydroponics method at Epcot

Three years ago we went again to Disney World on another family vacation and this time I went on a mission. I wanted to visit Epcot and go on this ride again to take pictures, to carefully observe and to learn. Unfortunately we could not make the Behind the Seeds tour they offer but thank goodness to Google search, we got some guidance from other people who have tried growing vegetables using hydroponics.

hydroponics lettuces growing at Epcot
Rows upon rows of delicious vegetables growing the hydroponics way at Epcot -
Salad anyone?

What is Hydroponics?
Basically it means growing a plant without soil using nutrient infused water and an inert growing medium.

Basket of tomatoes harvested from the hydroponics plants
Fabulously delicious tomatoes

Is Hydroponics new?
Not at all, Hydroponics goes as far back as 600 B.C. to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, it has been said Hydroponics maintained the gardens.

The Aztecs also used hydroponics in their hanging gardens to feed their people. And during World War II, some of the Pacific islands used hydroponics to grow food to feed the troops.

My Hydroponic System
While there are several types of hydroponics methods, we decided on the Ebb and Flow System, our version of it. In retrospect, I don't think we built it the cheapest way, but is also not the most expensive, after all it was an experiment for us.

Our hydroponics system was set outdoors, on our porch in fact, I figured to try outside first before considering doing it inside the house.

I divide our Hydroponics System into three major components;

1) The expendable materials
  • Perlite (can be reused)
  • Plant nutrients
  • Seeds 
  • Starting seed medium

2) Materials to build the Bench and Containers
  • 5-gallon buckets (from Home Depot)
  • 4-inch PVC pipe (becomes the main drain pipe)
  • 1-inch PVC pipe and elbows
  • 1/4" black tubing (used to transfer the water plus nutrients to each plant)
  • Wood to make a bench (so we could raise the buckets off the floor)
  • 5-gallon pain filters (lined the inside of the 5-gallon buckets)
Bench area for hydroponics system
Bench area for our hydroponics system

3) The water recycling system
  • Water pump
  • 20-gallon bucket (from Home Depot)
  • 1/4" black irrigation tubing
  • Corrugated flexible tubing (used for draining)
  • Timer/controller

What we did
  • First, we needed to grow the tomato seeds into seedlings. For that we already had a setup in our basement where my husband starts flowers and vegetables seeds for our gardens and flower pots. It is basically a 4-rack shelf with intense lighting. 
  • We decided to grow 5 plants; Cherry tomato, a Roma tomato, A Big-boy tomato, and 2 Anaheim peppers.
  • Each 5-gallon bucket needs to be modified as follows; drill a 2-inch hole on the surface of the bucket at about 2 inches from the bottom, this becomes the drain hole.
  • Fit each bucket drain hole with a 1" ID rubber grommet to seal a short length of PVC pipe and elbow to drain into a hole in the 4-inch pipe.
Work in progress, checking the system
  • The bucket cover has a 3-inch cut out at its center, as well as a slit section cutout, through which the plant will be inserted and watered.
  • The 4-inch PVC pipe has a 2 inch hole drilled into it at positions that align with each bucket drain which is necessary to collect the water draining from the buckets and circulate the nutrient infused water back to the plants.
5-gallon buckets used in a hydroponics system

  • After rinsing the buckets, they were lined with the paint filters and filled with perlite up to about 2 inches from the top rim. Do not overfill because perlite absorbs water and expands.
  • Place the cover on each 5-gallon bucket.
  • The 20-gallon water recycling bucket lid has a small cut out for the purpose of allowing the insertion of the drain pipe and the output tube from the pump, checking the pH, and adding water as needed. Fill with water and insert the pump.
Holding tank for Hydroponics system
Recycling tank
  • From the recycling water bucket a PVC tube runs from the pump through the 3/4" pipe branching to the 1/4" pipe to the center hole at the top of each 5-gallon bucket. This is how each plant gets water and nutrients.
  • TEST the system before planting the plants or adding nutrients to the water.
  • Turn ON the pump and check each 5-gallon bucket is getting water evenly. Check for water leaks and repair as needed, also check to see if the recycling water tank needs more water. Run the system for at least 1-hour to allow for full recycling of the water in the tank.

Now you are ready to plant your seedlings
  • Take the 5-gallon lid off and bury the seedling in the perlite at the center as you would if you were planting in soil, then place back the lid. The slid on the lid will allow you to bend it so you can place the lid on the bucket around the seedling.
  • Then label the lid so you remember what plant is growing there.
  • Use wood sticks to prop up each plant as needed, they are very delicate at the start.
Ebb and Flow hydroponics system setup
Ebb and Flow hydroponics system setup
  • Now add the nutrients to the recycling water tank, following the instructions on the bottles.
  • Check the pH of the water, and balance as required. You want a range of 5.5 - 6.0 for tomatoes and most vegetables.
  • Once the pH is correct, run the system again for 1-hour to make sure the baby plants get nutrients.
  • Set the timer to turn on every 2 hours for 15 minutes, from 7am until 7pm, but this depends on the pump size you buy. After some trial and error, we decided that watering more frequently was better than less after all this is hydroponics so we wanted to make sure the plants were not going to dry out or starve for nutrients.
And that is ALL.

A very happy gardener contemplating his masterpiece, his first hydroponics system

What we Learned
  • Always make sure the recycling tank is full of water and with the proper amount of nutrients. Remember this will impact the flavor of your vegetables and the proper growth of your plants.
  • Don't forget to check the pH periodically.
  • If it is a real hot day, you may want to run the system longer or one more time.
  • Look out for leaks in your system; hopefully you will not have any, we did.
  • Not all tomatoes are created equal; the Roma tomatoes did not have as much flavor. The cherry tomatoes on the other hand are fabulously delicious!
  • Be ready to build a support system, an overhang to hold on to your plants since they get huge and they are very productive so you may need a ladder to get to the tomatoes up high.
  • Birds eating our vegetables were not a problem because we have a very alert cat, which was always on the lookout. 
  • We did not notice any pests, or bugs on the leaves or fruit. All plants were healthy.
Healthy hydroponics plants setup
Very healthy hydroponics plants.

The Beauty of Hydroponics Gardening
  • There are no bugs! No need for pesticides.
  • Plants will grow without trouble so long as they get proper watering, feeding and the pH is controlled.
  • The whole system is pretty tidy and clean once it is all setup.
Basket of home grown tomatoes the hydroponics way
Home grown tomatoes, the hydroponics way. One of several baskets harvested.

The Outcome
  • We got LOTS of tomatoes; in fact we were drowning in tomatoes! We estimated easily 60 pounds of tomatoes.
  • The quality of the tomatoes was amazing. They were beautiful, almost perfectly looking. The cherry tomatoes were a beautiful red, beautifully round and fabulously delicious! And that is not an exaggeration.
  • The peppers did very well too. My husband made super delicious salsa and tomato soups and we had lots of tomato salads. Yum.
A perfectly round and super delicious tomato

Roma tomatoes from our hydroponics plants

Anaheim peppers growing in our hydroponics plant

I call this a successful and delicious science experiment.

What Next?
  • Even though is getting colder, the plants are not dead yet. They are still giving fruit but I cannot wait to see what the roots look like.
  • We need to see if the perlite is reusable for next year.
  • Clean the entire system.
  • Definitely repeat the experiment growing other vegetables and only one tomato plant. I am thinking of cucumbers and eggplant.
The Holy Grail for me is to grow tomatoes indoors, year round.

A basket full of tomatoes grown the hydroponics way
One of several baskets full of super delicious tomatoes from our hydroponics system

In Conclusion, I can say that growing tomatoes the hydroponics way was better and easier than anticipated. The tomatoes are fabulously delicious; I highly recommend it even if you don't have much space. Start small so you don't have to invest too much money initially but remember you can re-use most of it.

I hope you enjoyed our hydroponics gardening adventure. If you have any questions or comments, drop me a line. If you have tried hydroponics to grow vegetables, I would love to hear about your experience.

I wish you all a Fabulous Day!

Discovering and Enjoying my neighborhood one place, one event at a time.