Hooked on hydroponics

Farm Forum

Not all gardeners or farmers this spring will be digging in the dirt to grow juicy tomatoes or fresh greens. Instead they will be using a technique called hydroponics. This technique has been around for hundreds of years, is popular in Europe and is increasing in popularity in the United States both with commercial growers and home gardeners.

“Hydroponics is a process of growing in water, with a soil-less growing medium and adding nutrients to feed the plants,” said Paula Christensen, owner of Green Earth Products, Inc. There are different growing mediums to choose from. Christensen, who has more than 30 years experience in the agricultural field, sells a customer-favorite called Hydroton, which looks like round balls of clay pellets and allows air and nutrients to easily circulate around the roots. Plus, it can be sterilized with food-grade hydrogen peroxide and reused.

Mark Scholl opened his commercial hydroponics business, Happy Hydros, in Pukwana eight years ago with his wife, Teal. The couple had an interest in growing fresh and healthy food year-round. He explained that the idea of doing hydroponics started because he was tired of only being able to eat good-tasting tomatoes in August; the rest of the year they were flavorless.

“I had lots of interest (in hydroponics), but the learning curve was terrible,” Scholl said. He spent time reading, researching, and talking to people.

“Hydroponics is not just throwing the seeds in the soil and hope they grow,” Scholl explained. “You have to learn timing of growing — the watering and when and how many nutrients to add.” He also found that everyone has their own style of doing things, and he just had to figure out what worked for him.

Christensen warns that there is a big learning curve with hydroponics. She recommends starting small.

“Start with lettuce, it’s the easiest to grow and the most forgiving. Don’t start with tomatoes, they’re like babies, and every day is a baby day with them,” she said. Lettuce is a great plant for beginners because the leaves will tell you at a glance what is going on with the plant before you hit a catastrophic problem. From there she recommends moving to peppers, then giving tomatoes a try.

Scholl grows tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, lettuce and microgreens. He is also trying a test run of strawberries this year.

He believes hydroponics has a great future. “The pound of food you can produce in an area is so much more than (in) soil.” He worries about the state of soil health and heavy water usage in conventional farms and is proud to offer pesticide-free food.

Bug just like gardening in the soil, there are benefits and drawbacks to hydroponics. Christensen cited the ability to grow year-round, limited insects and being able to avoid the hail as some of the biggest benefits. “You can also keep plants growing for longer as long as you meet all their nutrient needs,” she said.

But she does warn that fungus gnats can become a problem during winters with high humidity, and care has to be taken to get rid of the pests before the whole system is shut down and rebooted.

Scholl struggled at first to get his business going, thinking he was too early for the eat-local movement to hit South Dakota. But now his 12,000 square feet of greenhouses produces 60,000 pounds of tomatoes a year, plus other produce, which he sells at the Black Hills Farmers Market on Saturdays during the summer, local grocery stores in Sturgis and Custer, and restaurants, schools, and hospitals on the eastern side of the state.