It’s approaching 80 degrees in one of the greenhouses at Yarnick’s Farm in Indiana. The rows inside are filled with tall cucumber plants teaming with fruit. But none of these vines are growing in the ground, they emerge from large white grow bags.
Since 1981, owner Dan Yarnick has been fascinated with growing plants hydroponically. His father and brother thought he was crazy when he told them his dream to start planting without soil.
“It has many benefits,” he says. “You go in with a sterile environment, you don’t have a lot of the diseases, and you can control their nutrition.”
Hydroponics uses a nutrient-rich solution to feed the plants. Yarnick has acres of land farmed conventionally, but 16 of his greenhouses are used for hydroponics. He enjoys indoor growing for lots of reasons. “You don’t have to worry about the deer and the different animals,” he says with a laugh.
The season runs just about year-round for the farm with a little downtime mid-winter. Besides the cucumbers, there are beans, herbs, leafy greens and more still being harvested now. The butterhead lettuce is sweet and tender, and cucumbers are firm and crisp.
“It’s fun to see something grow in the winter months, and it’s fun to eat something when the snow is flying,” Yarnick says.
He starts picking hydroponic tomatoes in March; some of the varieties are sold at the farm market — and throughout the region at grocery stores and restaurants. Yarnick provides lots of produce for Eat’n Park restaurants in particular. Some of his favorite varieties are ‘Brandymaster Pink,’ ‘Porterhouse’ and ‘SteakHouse’ for beefsteak tomatoes. For cherries he likes ‘Matthew,’ an orange grape tomato, and a brown-striped variety named ‘Zebra.’ ‘Annamay’ is a red cocktail variety similar to Campari that he favors.
“When I first started, the tomatoes didn’t have the flavor they do now. That ‘Campari’ cherry tomato, after you eat it, it leaves the flavor in your mouth for five minutes,” he says.
Yarnick doesn’t want his tomatoes to be confused with fruit grown in the South, picked green and then forced to ripen.
“The gassed Florida tomato has no flavor,” he says.
Hydroponic varieties are very nutritious, he says. “The plants (are) very good for you because they get everything they want in a controlled environment. You reap what you sow.”
Because they are not shipped across the country, these vegetable hold on to those nutrients longer, too. “It’s my favorite thing to do,” he says, “grow greenhouse vegetables.”
Gary Baranowski, director of horticulture technology at Bidwell Training Center on the North Side, has been teaching hydroponics for nearly 15 years at the school. Bidwell is a post-secondary training facility for adults in transition that offers career training in seven different areas including horticulture. Qualified candidates attend for free.
In a large, open greenhouse, there’s a brand-new crop of basil and some greens just sprouting in long white hydroponic trays in what’s called a NFT or nutrient film technique system.
Many other crops at Bidwell grow in a Dutch bucket system, similar to what is used at Yarnick’s. It’s usually used for larger plants such as tomatoes or vine crops. A 5-gallon bucket is filled with an inert material and nutrients are pumped into each container. Growers use clay pebbles, perlite, coconut fiber or something else altogether to give the roots something to hold on to.
In the NFT system, the roots of the plants are continuously bathed with a moving nutrient-rich solution. The system looks like a long gutter slightly graded so the fluid runs through the roots. There’s also an ebb-and-flow system that has a tray filled with plants, usually grown under artificial lighting. Below is a reservoir filled with the nutrient-rich solution that is pumped up to the tray. The roots absorb the liquid and then the tray is drained. The pump and drain cycle are controlled by a timer.
“Probably the most practical at home is probably the ebb and flow or the NFT system,” Baranowski says. Some advantages to growing hydroponically include using less space, fewer workers and it extends the growing season.
“Sometimes it’s expensive to get started,” he says, “but when you’re up and running you can see some fruits of your labor. Anything that you grow traditionally can be grown in a hydroponic system.”
For gardeners interested in setting up their own hydroponic operation, OPCOMLink USA has two reasonably prices alternatives for indoor hydroponic growing. Their OPCOM Farm indoor gardening systems is offered as a GrowBox for horizontal growing or the GrowWall to get vertical.
Rajeev Mishra is vice president and general manager of the company and sees many different consumers interested in the product. “It’s for the gardener who already has interest in growing but doesn’t have the ability to do it year round,” he says of one type of customer. But adds this is also a good choice for urban gardeners who don’t have a space to garden. He hopes also that people can use the system as a way to teach children about the benefits of gardening and where their food comes from.
The indoor growing system comes with everything gardeners will need to grow plants organically with hydroponics, even seeds. The gardens both have a proprietary LED light system to keep plants growing stocky. Any home hydroponic system will need good, artificial lighting to make the plants happy. The garden for the table top has enough room for up to 50 plants, the GrowWall can hold 75, it uses ebb and flow technology. The horizontal system uses something called deep water culture, the plants are continuously suspended in nutrient rich liquid. Mishra has seen just about every type of plant growing in these gardens including baby watermelons in the company’s Taiwan office. Greens like lettuce and herbs are naturals for hydroponic growing, but he says, grow what you love. If tomatoes in January are your dream, experiment and give them a try. Shorter plants are best suited for the GrowWall as there is less room between levels. Either tall or shorter plants will work in the GrowBox. The hydroponic system also uses 90 percent less water than conventional gardens. The GrowBox and GrowWall are priced at $499 and $599 respectively. He adds that there’s no weeding, weather variables or four legged pests to contend with either. “It’s almost like you pick and choose the fun parts of gardening,” he said with a laugh. “This doesn’t just a deliver fruits and vegetables, it delivers an experience and a feeling, he says. The journey is as important as the end result, it’s really fun.”
Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or email@example.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodygardens.com.