One of the great things about running this blog is getting pictures from fellow gardeners all over South Florida of their own tomato gardens. This year in particular, I've gotten a few from gardeners who are doing pretty incredible things ... including Brian. Brian grows hydroponic tomatoes in a set-up he created himself, and he's probably too modest to say it, but he strikes me as a mad genius. So I asked Brian if he'd be willing to share his method and he agreed.
For the uninitiated among us, hydroponics is the practice of growing plants in a water/nutrient solution, without soil or potting media. The plants are rooted in a sterile mixture for support, and they obtain their nutrients directly from the water. In addition, root-zone aeration is increased, sometimes dramatically, depending on the type of hydroponic setup you're using. But I'll let Brian tell the rest ...
1. So you're growing tomatoes hydroponically outdoors. How did you decide to go that route and what's your basic set-up look like?
In a nutshell, my local soil stinks. I already had a 440-gallon rain barrel collection setup, so trying hydroponics made sense. I researched hydroponics on the Internet and it sounded promising. I decided to set up a test garden and see how it went. I chose the ebb and flow method as it seemed to meet my needs with the least hassle. The growing medium I chose was coco coir with a layer of red lava rock under it for added drainage. For my test setup, I used eight 5-gallon buckets, which I connected together using 1" PVC pipe and fittings. I used an old 15 gal. fish tank for my nutrient tank, and with some creative pipe work, I came up with a system that fills, drains, and controls overflow all from one point.
2. How many plants do you grow in each container? What kind of harvest are you getting?
My test garden consisted of five buckets with two tomato plants in each, one bucket had six silver queen corn plants, one bucket with basil, one bucket with six blue lake green bean plants, and on a whim, I planted a pumpkin seed from the Halloween jack-o-lantern I carved. All plants were started on November 1 from seed indoors using Rapid Rooter plugs and a fluorescent light. The harvest was beyond my expectations. Let's just say all the neighbors on my street received tomatoes. I never counted exactly, but the ten plants yielded close to 100 tomatoes, and there are still a few on the vine. Most were in the 1 lb+ range with a few coming close to 2 lbs. The six corn plants produced four usable ears, two of which filled in close to 100 percent. The basil grew like a weed; I would top it in half, and a week later it looked like I didn't touch it. The green beans produced four double handfuls of beautiful beans. The biggest kick I got was the pumpkin plant. I didn't even expect it to sprout. Not only did it sprout, it actually produced a pumpkin!
3. What was the hardest part to get right? I've heard that outdoor hydro is hard because of rain water, animals, etc., encroaching on the growing containers. Did you have issues like this?
My hydroponic garden is a work in progress so I can't say I've got it right yet! I have had great results so far with a few bumps. I think the most confusing issue I had was which nutrient solution to use. There are hundreds of them: powders, liquids, two-part mixes, three-part mixes, etc. It can be overwhelming to a novice, which I was. The other critical factor in hydro is the nutrient tanks' PH level. It's very important to monitor it and keep it within the range for what you're growing. It's easy to do, but must be done if you want great results.
Rain really hasn't been a issue up to this point. I'm a bit of a weather junkie so I check the radar daily. When rain is heading my way, I simply disconnect a fitting and the rain water flows through the buckets and onto the ground instead of back into the nutrient tank, which would dilute it. In reality, having your plants get a good rain is benificial, as it's recommended you flush your buckets with fresh water every week or so. This eliminates the buildup of unused nutrients and salts that can settle in the bottom of your buckets. Salts will block the roots from absorbing the nutrients they need. Surprisingly, the local critters have ignored my garden completely. We have racoons, opossums, and of course, birds. I haven't seen one bite or peck up to this point, knock on wood. My best guess is the neighbors leave enough dog/cat food outside to keep the wild critters content.
4. If someone wanted to start growing hydro tomatoes, where should they go for good information and resources? How can I get started?
Try www.simplyhydro.com. It's a great resource for the hydroponic beginner. It's a cleanly designed website with easy reading and clear information. Ive done my travels through the hydroponic web and their website is on target.
As far as tomato-specific websites, there are too many to remember, all with varying opinions. I took in as much information as I could and tried to balance it with my situation. You have to remember what works for a gal in Ohio might not work for us here in South Florida. Bugs, weather, etc. It's all different.
One great local resource for hydroponic information and products is Greentouch Hydroponics in Davie (5011 S. State Rd. 7, suite 104, 954-316-8815). Carey and Mike who work there are both very knowledgeble and helpful. Mike can go into detail on micronutrients like nobody's business. His nickname, Ozone, is well deserved. It's by far the best local Hydroponics store in Broward in my opinion. For online shopping, another great resource for hydroponic stuff is Grow Smart Hydroponics. They have fast shipping and great pricing and helpful staff as well.
5. What varieties of tomatoes are you growing? Do you have problems with fungal and bacterial diseases, etc.?
My first test setup, I planted Burpee Super beefsteak hybrids. They did great. The flavor was OK, and the size and quantity were outstanding. I currently have a second setup with another Burpee beefsteak variety just starting to flower. In the nursery, I have Heinz and Brandywine varieties almost ready for transplant. To me, the Brandywine will be the real test of my hydroponic setup. As you know, they can be finicky so I'm excited to get them going. Up to this point, powdery mildew has been my biggest fungal issue. It went untreated in the first test setup of tomatoes due to it showing up so late in the plant's development. The plants had already given me 50+ tomatoes, so I decided to let it go as the plants would be replaced soon with new ones. I've since been using preventitive spraying of Neem oil and seem to have the issue under control. Like everyone it seems, I have had some mystery leaf curl issues as well, but no real harm done there.
(From Jon ... if you have any questions about the particulars, leave them in the comments section and I'll make sure they get answered!)