Hydroponic gardening—which has been around at least since King Nebuchadnezzar built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in 605 B.C.–is emerging as a buzzworthy new trend both in large-scale agriculture and for home gardeners.
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in water, sand or gravel, without the traditional use of soil. The biggest benefits of the technique are sustainability, efficiency and the ability to grow plants without the use of pesticides, according to two local experts.
Rebecca Mees, part-owner of her family’s Ambridge-based business The Lettuce Ladies, said her interest in tasty, healthy, pesticide-free greens sparked her passion for hydroponic growing.
“My whole family loves salads, and where we were living at the time, the available greens were pesticide-ridden. That’s why we decided to try growing our own vegetables using hydroponics,” explained Mees.
Michael Munz, digital media specialist for locally owned HTG Supply, said sustainability and efficiency are among the key drivers for the growing popularity of hydroponic agriculture. The environmentally friendly aspects are myriad.
“In our area we see a lot of soil contamination from past industry as well as watershed contamination,” Munz said. “We also have lots of large spaces like abandoned mills and industrial sites. These areas can be repurposed to feed a local community and not worry about past pollutants.”
Both Mees and Munz explained that hydroponics allows people to grow more plants in smaller spaces. In the Lettuce Ladies’ greenhouse, Mees has a three-tiered vertical platform (think bunk beds for plants) with greens and herbs on every level, tripling the square footage available in the space.
“You can grow plants in a closet or a cubby under the stairs with hydroponics,” Munz said.
Being in an industrial area does not preclude hydroponic agriculture. Indeed, The Lettuce Ladies’ greenhouse is a brick building that once served as a community social hall.
Ironically, hydroponic growing requires far less water than traditional farming methods, Mees said. Plants are grown in containers with tops, so less water evaporates into the air and none of it runs off into the ground.
Another benefit, said Munz, is scalability. Hydroponic gardening can be as small as a single bucket with one plant or as large as an indoor warehouse. Rice paddies are an example of large-scale outdoor hydroponic gardening.
Basic elements needed include an opaque bucket, lid, air stone and air pump (to add oxygen and help circulate nutrients in the water), growing medium (such as clay pebbles or rockwool for the plant to attach onto), nutrients and the plant itself. HTG Supply sells a “grow kit” that includes everything but the plant for under $50. Indoor systems can be placed in natural light or nurtured in a basement or closet with grow lights.
HTG Supply, headquartered in Callery and founded by two North Hills’ brothers, prides itself on being good stewards within the hydroponics industry. Unlike big-box home improvement stores, the growers at HTG Supply will help customers find the right product to fit the individual’s needs and then also teach the person how to get started and what to do.
“Hydroponic gardening is not hard. Think goldfish bowl and an air stone,” Munz said. Once the kit is assembled, minimal maintenance is needed and growing is significantly less work than traditional agricultural methods.
Lettuces, microgreens, and herbs are the easiest things to grow, according to Mees.
“Definitely consider microgreens for a first crop,” said Mees. “No green thumb is required, and you’ll see success.” Parsley, basil and cilantro thrive in hydroponics, Munz said, and peppers can also have large yields using this method.
Lettuce Ladies relies on a slightly modified hydroponics technique, which incorporates some soil. They have developed their methods through trial and error with advice and support from the University of Hawaii, Mees’s alma mater, and the Penn State Extension. Microgreens are grown in trays containing water, nutrients and a small amount of soil.
Their most popular lettuces are red leaf, buttercrunch, and romaine varieties, though Mees said they are always trying new things to find out what tastes best and what grows well.
The availability of year-round fresh produce, grown locally and pesticide-free, is a key factor in the success and popularity of The Lettuce Ladies, Mees said. Another is trust.
“People care about where their food comes from and what is used to grow their food,” Munz explained. For those reasons, on-site hydroponic growing has taken off in the restaurant industry. Munz cited North Country Brew Pub in Slippery Rock as one example; most people walk by the hydroponic tank in the lobby and never even notice it.
For people looking to try hydroponic gardening at home, HTG Supply has a retail location in Cranberry Township. For anyone who just wants a taste of organic, locally grown microgreens and lettuces, The Lettuce Ladies’ produce is sold at local farmers’ markets and some Giant Eagle locations. Either way, hydroponic gardening might well be tastiest means around to help the environment.
For more information on HTG Supply, visit www.htgsupply.com/locations/hydroponics-store-cranberry-township. To learn more about The Lettuce Ladies, visit www.facebook.com/LettuceLadiesLLC.