“Imagine if I could grow tomatoes year-round…” I said as I came in from the garden.
“One word,” replied my husband Patrick. “Hydroponics.”
John at Mr. Hydro in Solana Beach (858-259-9100; mr-hydro.com) gave me an introduction.
“Hydroponics may seem intimidating, but it’s pretty simple. Hydroponics is growing with water instead of soil. It allows a plant to be in direct contact with nutrients, which are dissolved in water. That way the plant can concentrate on growing plant matter instead of having to build a massive root growth to absorb nutrients. Since you know just what you’re adding to the water, you can tailor a formula to your plant’s needs.”
The big benefit, he said, was efficiency. “You realize much faster growth rate and a higher yield on things like tomatoes. I like to grow mine from cuttings. Besides saving time, you save water and space. And because you’re eliminating soil, you have less chance of attracting bugs, mold, and parasites. You’ll give up some square footage in your home and add $50 a month to your electric bill, it’s true. But because you are growing indoors, you won’t be subject to the weather or the seasons.”
Mr. Hydro caters to beginning indoor gardeners. “We sell complete systems. Somebody can come in here, buy a system, take it home, and be growing within hours.” Systems range from $713 for 3 buckets (each bucket holds one plant) to $2254 for 18 buckets.
“We can come to your house and install it for you [$65 and up]. If you need something custom, we can design a system. We also offer weekly maintenance — some people just don’t have a green thumb. We feel things for heat, we smell things — it’s kind of like having your fish tank serviced. We’ll check the pH of the water, nutrient levels, electrical components, replace nonoperational parts.... If you live within five miles of the shop, it’s $30 a week or $100 a month; five to ten miles, it’s $35 a week or $120 a month.”
San Diego Hydroponics in Bay Park (619-276-0657; sdhydroponics.com; locations in North County and East County) aims at a slightly greener thumb.
“We can order systems for a customer,” said Chase, “or they can buy a system one piece at a time. The easiest setup is called ‘ebb and flow,’ or ‘flood and drain.’ I have one on display here. You need a tray [$50–$200], which will vary in size depending on how many plants you want to grow. You need a water pump [$20–$150] to move the water, an air pump [$9–$150] to keep the nutrients from clumping, and two five-gallon buckets [$5 each].” One is the reservoir where you mix the nutrients, and the other is a waste bucket for after you flood the tray. “Most people flood the tray three times a day. And if you’re growing indoors, you need a light and a hood. We have a light/hood combo for $200.”
More efficient, but also a little more complicated, is the “green-tree bucket system.”
“You start with a pump, pretty much in a bucket, with a timer. That’s called your brain [$250]. Then you can attach up to 72 two-gallon buckets to the brain,” each of which will hold one plant. “A six-bucket set is $80. After that, you need a medium for the plant to grow in. There’s a new product called air stones [$25 for 1.5 cubic feet] that’s made from recycled glass. It’s really light. You can also use clay pellets [$30 for a 50-pound bag], but they’re pretty heavy. Then you need enough hood and lights to cover the number of plants you’ve got.”
Chase told me that I could get lights ranging from 400 to 1000 watts. “I always suggest to new customers that they use fluorescents [$13–$60] for strong vegetative growth on something like a tomato plant. Then, when the plant is around a foot and a half tall, switch to a high-pressure sodium bulb [$85–$130]. That will emit light along the orange-red part of the spectrum, and it gives the plant the lumens it needs to produce full, large tomatoes.”
Other places around town: Mighty Garden Supply in Mission Valley, 619-287-3238; Innovative Growing Solutions, Inc. in Bay Ho, 858-578-4477.