Hydroponics finds following
Growing produce sans soil has enthusiasts in the county BY AD CRABLE, Staff Writer
The doors were propped open at Manheim Township's Boettcher House Museum on Sunday as the temperature outside pushed 60 degrees.
After a long winter, what better time to start thinking about growing things?
But not growing things the usual way in the Garden Spot. Dean Long, Esbenshade's Garden Centers' nursery supervisor, made the case to about 50 potential green thumbs to grow produce not in soil but in water supplemented with key nutrients.
Hydroponics is not some New Age experiment, Long noted at the Boettcher House's first public program of the year. It was used thousands of years ago in Middle Eastern cultures.
And it's fairly simple. As proof, Long stood beside a shallow table about the size of a pingpong table. A couple of plastic buckets filled with water and a pump circulated several inches of nutrient-filled water around the roots of the suspended plants. The circulation provides the roots with vital air.
And what a cornucopia it was.
A table full of lushly green lettuce, Swiss chard, kale, mixed greens, kohlrabi beets and broccoli rabe pushed against each other.
Long plucked a head of lettuce from its watery pot. Water dripped from its long profusion of roots as he presented it proudly to his audience.
"It just grows like that," he said.
All the plants are grown by Long and sold year-round at Esbenshade's Brickerville store in what was once seen as a novelty but is fast becoming a viable product line.
At the store, Long also raises cucumbers and tomatoes for sale.
He's begun experimenting with water-grown peas, strawberries and microgreens.
Long had been studying hydroponics for years and dreamed of creating a simple system that could be used to easily grow produce in small spaces in non-ag areas around the world, from deserts to people's basements.
He shared his vision with his church and eventually his bosses at Esbenshade's. About 18 months ago, he asked if he could experiment with hydroponics during the winter downtime. Go ahead, he was told.
At first, the hydroponics display was moved into the store as an attention-getter. But people, surprised to see fresh produce in the store at Christmas, started buying the plants. And they've been asking questions about how to get into hydroponics themselves.
"Don't stop," Esbenshade's managers said, and they moved the hydroponics tables closer to the cash register.
Now the store sells a couple of hundred plants a week. There is even a Fresh Harvest program in which customers commit to picking up orders of fresh greens weekly.
Because of increasing demand, the store also has started selling hydroponic kits. One small kit that grows about six plants at a time costs $79. Another larger one, $470.
One of the big advantages Long sees with hydroponics over earth-based growing is that yields are much higher because it's easier to control the key nutrients to promote growth.
Recirculation in a closed system means water usage is lower than for crop fields. And, unlike in farm fields, nutrients don't escape into the environment. Moreover, pests and diseases are easier to control than with crops grown in soil. No weed control is needed. Produce is not at risk of picking up E. coli or salmonella bacteria from animal waste.
Disadvantages include the need for special equipment that can't fail without endangering the plants, and some diseases common to moist conditions.
Long said greens grown in water seem to taste different than their dirt-driven cousins.
"My customers tell me this lettuce tastes better," Long said.
After the presentation and a bombardment of questions, some in attendance bought bags of Long's lettuce to take home and do their own taste test.