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Passive Hydroponics Part 2: Tomatoes

15 week coirstone dwarf tomatoes As promised last time, this time I report on the tomato half of the passive hydroponic experiment. Executive summary:

⇒ Passive hydroponics worked.

⇒ Potting mix worked better.

This grow isn't over yet (growlog here), and it's had significant problems. But the experiment is 15 weeks along, and I've harvested 67 tomatoes.

For this experiment, I grew two dwarf cherry tomato varieties, sweet n neat and red robin. Both varieties are determinate and grow only 8-12" tall. Space was tight, so I grew one of each variety in two small self-watering pots, maybe 2 liters capacity. Definitely crowded.

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Passive Hydroponics Part 1: Lettuce

9 week splasher and coirstone lettuce, other lettuce splashers behind I just completed an experiment on passive hydroponic lettuce. No pumps, no splashing – just pour nutes into the reservoir, and let them grow. I mentioned this possibility in my book, but hadn't run the experiments.

It worked great. Less effort than splashers, and grew lettuce just as well.

I created the IndoorSalad Lettuce Splasher product as a sort of launch special for my book. It's an inexpensive kit to grow lettuce with hand-aerated hydroponics. These work great for me, and have taken over the lettuce growing, freeing my pricier Aerogarden capacity for more demanding crops like eggplant and tomatoes. I used to devote up to three Aerogardens at a time to greens. No more.

But the splashers haven't sold well. Of course, I could market them better. angel  But they take attention, manually splashing once or twice a day to aerate the roots. For me, growing up to eight of these things at a time – the splashing gets to be a chore.

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Spring Peppers

17 week carmen peppers ripeningMy favorite indoor/outdoor vegetable growing opportunity: sweet peppers!

I mentioned this indoor/outdoor growing trick in my book. The idea is simple – just grow bigger transplants. Rather than set out a 6" tall, 6 week old pepper plant in May, instead grow a full-sized pepper plant indoors, with fruit already on board, and put that outdoors in May – or whenever it's warm enough in your area. Use the free sunlight for the rest of the season.

Why? Because peppers take forever to grow. It's about 4 months from seed to the first red ripe carmen pepper, my favorite variety. My 1" mini bell peppers are only a week faster. If I plant out the normal-sized transplant, at the normal time – voila! First harvest in August. They'll die of frost by October, giving only 2 months of harvest. In contrast, my indoor/outdoor pepper last year yielded from April to October. Three times the harvesting months means three times the harvest.

Early carmen :

  • 47 peppers harvested, April to October, from one plant

Seasonal carmen :

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How Not to Grow Pests Indoors – The Slimes

leaf fungus on my current dwarf tomatoesHow's this for a sequel to my bookIndoor Salad - How Not to Grow Pests Indoors.

I had a chapter on Problems in my original outline. But the book was too long. The topic was discouraging. The pests are regional. So I dropped the chapter and just worked some suggestions into other material. But the problem remains, and I've received questions from readers.

When you grow vegetables indoors, you welcome a living breathing procreating ecosystem into your home. For better and for worse. It's natural to focus on the downside – bugs and slimes, ick! There is an upside, though. As natural animals, we weren't designed to live in a chemical-laced clean room. The war on germs undermines our own immune systems, contributing to rising rates of diabetes, allergies, and asthma, among other things. (The "hygiene hypothesis"1.)

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The Veggie Diet

lettuce in an AerogardenHistorically, my #1 most common New Year's resolution is (drum roll) : lose weight.

As I mentioned in my book, Indoor Salad – How to Grow Vegetables Indoors, dieting was the Grand Excuse I used to buy the Aerogarden that launched my indoor vegetable gardening obsession. If I ate all the lettuce this high-tech toy produced, just think of all the weight I'd lose! grin

Well, that year I didn't lose much weight. But I did make headway battling the bulge in 2013 – I lost 15 pounds and kept it off. My secret? There is no secret. I exercise 6 days a week, and log everything I eat, complete with calorie counts. Persist over the months, and I lose weight.

Two exceptions to counting every calorie:

  1. Two meals a week are "off-books". I consider this essential to diet longevity.

  2. Vegetables don't count.

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Spring Planting – at Christmas

The winter solstice is upon us, and yep – I've started my spring planting. Crazy, huh?

Well, I'm not completely nuts. For instance, I usually have spare time between holidays to get my DIY grow rigs set up. I'm also a major fan of pansies. Pansies not only take 12 weeks from seed to transplant, but are cool weather flowers. They transplant out to the garden before last frost – at the end of March here in Connecticut.

One of my annual 'pansyfest' posts, with the April payoff.
One of my annual pansyfest posts, with the April payoff. Swallowtail Garden Seeds carries a great pansy seed selection.

I could buy pansies. But I'm particular about my pansies. So, yeah, they need to be started indoors at the beginning of January. Impatiens, snapdragons, and vinca have long lead times, too.

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What Do You Really Need to Grow Vegetables Indoors

book coverA press release for Indoor Salad - How to Grow Vegetables Indoors.

Branford, CT, Dec 9 — Gardening author and entrepreneur Ginger Booth launched her book Indoor Salad: How to Grow Vegetables Indoors on Sept. 12, 2013, as the outdoor gardening season drew to a close.

Within a week of launch, Indoor Salad was already a best seller on Amazon in the urban gardening category, and has remained for thirteen straight weeks. Early customer reviews on Amazon: “Highly recommended if you want to get on track, the smart way, to growing your food indoors.” “Unlike other books on this subject, the author doesn't focus on expensive HID systems, but gives affordable DIY projects to grow many different crops inside using fluorescent light systems.”

Winter is prime time for indoor planting. Indoor Salad explains the technical options available to the indoor vegetable gardener, from the perspective of what the best indoor salad crops need in order to thrive. The book makes an excellent Christmas gift for the informed gardener.

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Changes Since the Book Was Published

2 week dwarf tomatoes, hydroponic vs. potting mix (first 2 weeks started in AG Pro100) These are exciting times for indoor salad growers! My best-selling book was published less than 3 months ago, and already, I have a growing list of information to revise. Here are some of the more intriguing developments I'm keeping an eye on.

Aerogrow teamed up with Scott's Miracle Gro – a huge leader in the consumer gardening space. This should give them far wider distribution, and new R&D money. A flush of new products include:

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Indoor Salads and the Pesticide Dirty Dozen

indoor home-grown kale - dinosaur and curly blue dwarf varietiesWhat vegetables should you grow indoors? In Indoor Salad, I focused on the salad crops we eat fresh, year round – lettuce, other greens, herbs, cukes, tomatoes, and peppers. There's a lot of overlap between that list and the "dirty dozen" – the commercial vegetables most contaminated with pesticides and chemicals. EWG's 2013 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce gives the low-down on the worst, and best, vegetables to buy non-organically. It also discusses where to find GMO's at the supermarket. (Executive summary: they're everywhere except the produce aisle.)

Indoor Salad crops on the "dirty dozen":

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Is Growing Vegetables Indoors Cost-Effective?

8 lettuce in 4 splashers left, 2 splashers with flowers and toy choi right. A friend reading my book wondered if growing vegetables indoors could be cost-effective, at his UK power prices. Chris pays about 22 cents per kWh in daytime, 15 cents at night. (Converted from the pence.) Here in Connecticut, our power prices are some of the highest in the US, at about 15 cents per kWh.

And it matters to me. Not just in cost-effectiveness, but in terms of environmental impact. I choose to keep my footprint light on this planet. I'm sure most gardeners feel the same way.

But for the moment, let's just look at power costs and food prices, and run the numbers. The answer is - it depends on what you're growing, how you're growing it, and what your other options are.