The proposal from Julia Brooke Childs, co-owner of the New Age Garden Center in Swannanoa, proved irresistible. Childs would provide hydroponic gardening equipment to an Xpress garden writer who might then write about the subject. Her suggestion dovetailed perfectly with the frequent suggestions from readers and writers alike that we abandon our last-frost-to-first-frost garden reporting in favor of a year-round feature. Better yet, it turns out that longtime Xpress contributor Peter Loewer (aka The Wild Gardener) penned the very first popular book on hydroponics back in 1972. We couldn’t ask for a more expert adviser.
The personal appeal was powerful as well. After spending most of the last 30 years in the country as an avid organic gardener, I am living downtown now. My garden space has shrunk from one acre of bottomland to some pots on my windowsills in office and condo. So, after long moments of consideration, I decided to assign myself the story.
And lest any questions of journalistic integrity rear their tricky heads, please note that the equipment was provided on loan, with no strings attached. What’s more, as I report on my own experience, I’ll also be talking with others in the local hydroponic community.
In future columns, I’ll discuss the theory of hydroponic gardening and methodological details, but for now, let’s keep it simple. (After all, I am a beginner.) Basically, hydroponics involves growing plants without soil. Roots are bathed in a misted nutrient solution, and a high-intensity light provides energy.
Told that I could grow “anything” indoors, I settled on corn. No one grows corn indoors. It sounds completely nuts.
* Dec. 6, 2003, 7:27 p.m.: I’ve just planted my corn crop (nine seeds, organic sweet corn) in starter cubes. My goal is to grow three stalks yielding six ears of corn in about three months. I may be the only person to ever plant a corn crop in the North Carolina mountains in December. Kind of a sobering notion.
* Dec. 6, 7:31 p.m.: No sign of sprouts.
* Dec. 14: Sprouts about 1.5″ tall; install grow light.
* Dec. 20: Growth has been amazing, now 5″ tall. Transplanted six seedlings to growing unit; turn on mister, add nutrient.
* Dec. 21: No one warned me about cats. Katha pulled two corn plants out of pots, damaged foliage somewhat; replant.
* Dec. 22: Leaves look pale, remember that corn is a heavy feeder; add nutrient.
* Dec 24: Tallest corn 10″ high.
* Dec. 25: Cats invade; Katha, Havoc and Pomonella playing with destroyed corn sprouts all over condo. Merry Christmas.
* Dec. 27: Plant popcorn; shorter plants seem a wiser choice, given my ceiling height.
* Jan 1, 2004: First popcorn sprouts.
* Jan. 6: Transplant into hydro unit.
* Jan. 7: Fence crop in preparation for long weekend out of town.
* Jan. 12: Cats invaded, turned over fence in my absence (forgot to assign cat sitter to scarecrow duty), uprooting all; replant, reinstall fence (this time wired in place).
* Jan. 13: Cats reach through fence, dig up two plants; replant, double-fence. Neighbor speculates I may actually have woodchucks in condo that hide under furniture when I’m home. Katha and Havoc remain prime suspects.
* Jan. 27: Tallest plant now 18″ (knee-high by Valentine’s Day?); the smallest is 2″ tall. The top three are shooting up like rockets. Drain unit, switch to a more concentrated nutrient solution now that the crop is past the seedling stage.
I’d heard that hydroponic crops show astonishing growth rates; so far, my experience confirms this. The fence seems to be working, though this morning the cage was crushed (the victim, I suspect, of a midnight wrestling match).
Until next time, I leave you with Joni Mitchell’s surprising lines:
“We are stardust,
we are golden,
caught in a devil’s bargain,
and we’ve got to get ourselves
back to the condo.”