Hydroponics for the home gardener Sassy, soilless gardening

Hydoponics, hydroponic growing, vertical growing, vertical farming, gardening, life is a garden, greenery, fruits, vegetables, water, soilless, tank

Make a statement and make a difference, save space and maximise your harvest – how? Hydroponic farming, baby! Life is a Garden has turned up the sass meter this month with expert insight from Timothy Damons, an equally high-spirited soilless enthusiast with a passion for LIFE. Debunk some hydroponic misconceptions, learn how to set up and maintain a system, and be inspired by the flowers and food you can grow. Let’s dig in, or rather, let’s pump up!  

November’s topic: Soilless, sassy gardening
Theme: Hydroponics for the home gardener  
Industry expert: Timothy Damons based in Saldanha Bay on the West Coast  

1. We love finding new members from the eco-tribe! Please share your story with us: What lead you to hydroponics? How did your journey with this growing method begin?  

I adore nature and have always loved gardening. I love being out in the open, taking in the fresh morning air and witnessing all the weird and wonderful things that planet Earth has to offer. Seeing plants growing into something beautiful and nutritious gives me tremendous joy. When I left the corporate world in 2017, I decided to take a hydroponics course with a well-known hydroponicist named John Sandison. I chose hydroponics because I wanted to understand how to grow good quality fruit and vegetables in an environmentally friendly, sustainable way. I also lived in a big city at the time and generally, space for gardening is limited. I wanted to explore how people can grow edibles in the city without the large-scale footprint that our commercial farming methods have. Vertical farming is truly the answer to this conundrum and that is why I decided to pursue it.  

Hydoponics, hydroponic growing, vertical growing, vertical farming, gardening, life is a garden, greenery, fruits, vegetables, water, soilless, tank
Hydoponics, hydroponic growing, vertical growing, vertical farming, gardening, life is a garden, greenery, fruits, vegetables, water, soilless, tank

2. The system you have built sounds very interesting and easy for a home gardener to set up. Please give us an overview of your vertical recirculation hydroponic growing station.  

The system is the intellectual property of a company called Verti-gro in the United States and has been adapted to a) give greater stability to the system and b) to use locally sourced components to make the system cheaper and more suited to the South African consumer. 

The system comprises of a double bucket system (20L & 25L) that acts as both a nutrient reservoir and sump tank.  

A small fountain pump is fitted to a long PVC pipe that acts as the “spine” of the system and transports nutrient-rich water to the top of the hydroponic system via arrow drippers.  

Four specially manufactured styrofoam buckets fit onto the PVC spine and each of them slots into each other to create the vertical stack system. Each bucket is filled with hydroponic growing medium (expanded clay pellets, perlite, vermiculite, coco coir or others), which provides support for the plants that grow in the system. 

Seeds or seedlings are planted into each corner of the buckets and the roots are fed by nutrient-rich water which percolates through the system. As the water percolates through the system, the excess water returns to the sump tank (bottom bucket) and the process starts again. This is why this type of system is known as a recirculating system. 

The main benefit of this system is that fertiliser is reused for a number of cycles before it needs to be discarded and replaced. 

Hydoponics, hydroponic growing, vertical growing, vertical farming, gardening, life is a garden, greenery, fruits, vegetables, water, soilless, tank
Hydoponics, hydroponic growing, vertical growing, vertical farming, gardening, life is a garden, greenery, fruits, vegetables, water, soilless, tank

3. What sort of benefits does this system offer our gardeners? Why should they consider hydroponics?   

You can use the vertical system to grow fruit or vegetables anywhere, producing a very small footprint. To understand this better, where you could ordinarily grow around 50 000 plants in a hectare, you can grow around 300 000 plants in the same hectare using a vertical growing system. That’s the beauty of the system and that’s why it holds such great potential for using unutilised space in cities for food production, including home gardens.  

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4. What are some of the common mistakes that lead to unsuccessful water-based growing and which plants are not suitable for this method?  

Overwatering is the most common mistake that affects newcomers to hydroponics. 

Each growing medium has its own water retention capacity, so it’s important to keep track of how well your vertical system is draining. Plants like a moist medium that is neither too wet nor too dry, so the best way to ensure that you avoid overwatering your plants and grow strong, healthy roots is to invest in a moisture meter.  

It’s important to understand how long it takes each bucket to drain off, so you can set your timer to give another feed and take the moisture levels back to optimal levels. Some meters are paired with a PH meter, which is highly recommended. Certain nutrients are only available and taken up by your plants within a certain PH range, so it’s equally important to understand what the PH is of your nutrient solution is to ensure optimum growth of your plants.  

Another common mistake that newcomers make is failing to frequently check their plants for pests and diseases. Growing plants hydroponically can sometimes lead to a false sense of security. Plants generally grow very well during early stages of growth. However, remember that these new, succulent shoots and leaves also invite unwanted guests who are keen to feast on this lush growth. It’s therefore vitally important for the hydroponic grower to establish a routine pest and disease management programme throughout the growing period.  

The good thing is that there are great organic products on the market these days that are highly effective and easy to use. While the vertical system can be used to grow almost any plant, root vegetables like potatoes and beetroots are not suited to the system. 

Hydoponics, hydroponic growing, vertical growing, vertical farming, gardening, life is a garden, greenery, fruits, vegetables, water, soilless, tank
Hydoponics, hydroponic growing, vertical growing, vertical farming, gardening, life is a garden, greenery, fruits, vegetables, water, soilless, tank

5. Please share your top hydroponic plant picks with us and what rewards can gardeners gain from growing them?  

The vertical system is probably most famous for producing delicious strawberries.  

Herbs grow very well in the system and my favourites to grow are parsley, chives, coriander, basil, rosemary, sage, thyme and rocket. Leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard and bok choy also grow very well in the system and the best thing is that most of these are “cut and come again” varieties. This means that you can harvest what you need and in time, the plant will grow again for another harvest or two. 

If you like flowers (including edible flowers), you can also grow a number of SA favorites like ivy’s, pansies, nasturtiums, violas and petunias. Tomatoes, cucumbers, chillies, peppers and green beans are also grown in the system, but these should be properly pruned and trained to hang down in order to control growth and maximise yield.  

Hydoponics, hydroponic growing, vertical growing, vertical farming, gardening, life is a garden, greenery, fruits, vegetables, water, soilless, tank
Hydoponics, hydroponic growing, vertical growing, vertical farming, gardening, life is a garden, greenery, fruits, vegetables, water, soilless, tank

6. In terms of set-up, where should one install a hydroponic system and what are some of the factors to consider when thinking about the location?  

The sun is your best friend, along with water and nutrients. These are your main catalysts for growth, so a nice sunny north-facing spot in your home or garden is the best location for your hydroponic system. I always recommend raising the system off the floor to assist with maintenance, like draining and replacing the nutrient water. The easier you make it for yourself to manage the system, the more enjoyment you’ll get out of it because you won’t see changing water or doing maintenance as a chore.  

Hydoponics, hydroponic growing, vertical growing, vertical farming, gardening, life is a garden, greenery, fruits, vegetables, water, soilless, tank
Hydoponics, hydroponic growing, vertical growing, vertical farming, gardening, life is a garden, greenery, fruits, vegetables, water, soilless, tank

7. Are there any garden accessories that compliment rock layouts particularly well, in terms of synergy, theme, contrast or texture?  

The best theme I would say that compliments the xeriscape garden would be “modern minimalistic”. Different Textures must be used to create that wow factor. By that I mean different stones like pebbles, dumprock and gravel. Steel and wood and or concrete ornaments are an amazing way to create that perfect look. 

Pavers also help to create that very stunning minimalistic feel to any garden. Try to go with more of the same colour ornaments, pots and pavers.

Hydoponics, hydroponic growing, vertical growing, vertical farming, gardening, life is a garden, greenery, fruits, vegetables, water, soilless, tank

8. In your years of experience, what common misconceptions have you found with hydroponic growing? Are there any myths to debunk?  

I think the biggest misconception about hydroponics is that it’s difficult and too expensive to get into. In terms of difficulty, yes, it is difficult, but in my view, everything is difficult when you’re doing it for the first time. The more you do something, the easier it becomes and you tend to get better at it fairly quickly. It’s all part of the learning curve. We learn through trial and error and making mistakes, so don’t see failure as a negative, but a positive. As inspirational speakers like to say, “fail forward.”  

Go on a course or volunteer at one of the city’s hydroponic growing hotspots and learn on the job. YouTube also has great resources available for aspiring hydroponicists, so do check it out. 

In terms of being expensive, yes, hydroponics can be quite expensive to begin with however, a lot of hobbies have a high entry point in terms of cost, like wanting to get into golf or mountain biking, for instance. A lot of what people see around hydroponics is geared towards the cannabis market. If you want to use hydroponics for this purpose, then it will cost you money. If you’re looking at hydroponics as a way to grow delicious, sustainably grown food, then it need not cost you that much in terms of initial setup. 

Hydoponics, hydroponic growing, vertical growing, vertical farming, gardening, life is a garden, greenery, fruits, vegetables, water, soilless, tank
Hydoponics, hydroponic growing, vertical growing, vertical farming, gardening, life is a garden, greenery, fruits, vegetables, water, soilless, tank

9. How important do you think hydroponic growing is for South Africa as a country and can a home gardener truly make a difference with this system?  

I think that hydroponics is a vital skill for everyone to learn, especially our youth. As cities grow and as resources like land and water become more scarce, we need to become smarter in how we produce food and utilise our resources in more efficient and more effective ways.  

The Netherlands is probably the best example of how hydroponics can be used to boost agricultural production and GDP growth. It’s a fraction of the size of the United States of America or the People’s Republic of China and yet, it is consistently one of the top 5 exporters of fruit and vegetables worldwide, most of which are grown using hydroponics. 

Like with everything else, people are going to need to become a lot more self-sufficient when it comes to growing their own food in the future. Home hydroponic systems definitely offer the aspiring home farmer an easy way to get into food production, learn the basics, hone one’s skills and grow from there. 

Hydoponics, hydroponic growing, vertical growing, vertical farming, gardening, life is a garden, greenery, fruits, vegetables, water, soilless, tank
Hydoponics, hydroponic growing, vertical growing, vertical farming, gardening, life is a garden, greenery, fruits, vegetables, water, soilless, tank

You can purchase a variety of growing mediums, fertilisers, and hydroponic installation products and equipment from a GCA Garden Centre. The staff will be able to advise you further on which set-up and products to use in your space to compliment the produce you wish to grow. Access our directory here: https://www.lifeisagarden.co.za/category/garden-centres/  

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