Lettuce in the midst of winter

hydroponic lettuce under a grow light
Hydroponic lettuce under a grow light.

Homegrown lettuce in the dead of winter or the heat of late summer? It’s possible with hydroponics. And you don’t need a fancy setup with electric pumps and a water circulation system. The Kratky method lets you do it with a grow light and an empty coffee bin. 

Developed by horticulturist Bernard A. Kratky of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the Kratky method is ridiculously simple. Plant roots need access to oxygen. When grown outdoors, a plant’s roots find this oxygen in air pockets within the ground. In a commercial hydroponic system, pumps circulate air to the plants’ roots. In the Kratky method, an air pocket is formed as the roots take up water, lowering the water level. This air pocket provides all the oxygen a plant needs at the root level.   

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Hydroponic Vegetable Garden Puts Food on the Table

Growing vegetable crops without soil is practiced around the world from household systems up to large commercial vertical farms. Meet Vilma and Dave Anderson, my friends and fellow vegetable gardeners, who introduced me to their successful, home-made hydroponics set-up. Water and nutrients are not wasted here. They are collected and recirculated in their “ebb & flow” system. The plant growth and harvests are quite impressive for a range of crops. I posed a few questions to Dave recently to try and capture their story and adventure in hydroponics.

Hydroponic gardeners Dave and Vilma Anderson, flanked by Kent Phillips and Erica Jones, UME Master Gardener Volunteers and Grow It Eat It leaders (Howard Co.)

What got you started and how long have you been doing it?

I had not even heard about hydroponics until we took a trip to Disney World’s EPCOT in 2012 where they have an extensive hydroponics facility where they do all sort of amazing things, not just with hydroponics but with aquaponics, aeroponics, etc. I really recommend their tour of the facility the next time you find yourself at EPCOT.  My wife and I returned home and decided to give it a try.  YouTube had a few videos on setups that people had tried at home and we used a modified version of what we saw there to set up three tomato plants in an ebb and flow type setup that we placed on our patio.  We were stunned by how successfully the tomatoes grew and we were hooked.  That experience from three plants has grown to 30 plants of vegetables of all sorts including tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, squash, and tomatillos.

Eggplant Crop
Dave showing off the eggplant crop. The PVC structure supports vigorous plant growth.

Did you have previous gardening experience?

I have been growing vegetables for many years both here and in Tucson where we lived for 16 years.  My garden here was pretty small, about 300 square feet, and not particularly sunny but I managed to grow tomatoes, peppers, and squash of various types with more or less success. Continue reading