Brandon Trueblood, owner of There It Grows, an organic garden store in Normal, Ill., holds up a lettuce plant from an Emily’s Garden hydroponic system. The roots suspend from a clay pebble medium into oxygenated water for nutrient uptake.
Brandon Trueblood, owner of There It Grows, an organic garden store in Normal, Ill., holds up a lettuce plant from an Emily’s Garden hydroponic system. The roots suspend from a clay pebble medium into oxygenated water for nutrient uptake.
NORMAL, Ill. — Growing vegetables in a soil-less environment dates back to the 18th century, was used to feed troops in World War II, was studied by NASA for extended space travel and now is seen in kitchens, patios and rooftops.

Hydroponics, a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water without soil, is quickly growing in popularity in urban and rural areas as a way to expand fresh vegetable availability year-round.

“It’s an aspect of emerging technology that’s growing,” said Brandon Trueblood, owner of There It Grows, an organic garden store in Normal.

“A lot of my customers love the science behind understanding the plant and how it grows. When it comes to hydroponics, your pH level and your parts per million level of your water nutrient solution are very important.”

Beyond the fun of science, hydroponics also offers a chance to grow a lot of food in a limited amount of space and not have to worry about soil

“The science of being able to control what you need when it comes to your water and nutrients and then going through a number of cycles to figure out what makes them grow the best and the most robust are also why this is popular,” Trueblood said.

“When it comes to soil, I think the whole soil food web is another important aspect that people are starting to learn about, such as the beneficial microorganisms, the bacteria in the soil that create a symbiotic relationship with the root zone and help the plants process nutrients.

“As much as I’m really promoting the hydroponics, I’m still very fond of growing in soil, too, especially during the summer with the outdoor garden.”

Many Systems

Various forms of hydroponic growing environments are available.

Aquaponics uses fish, as well as plants in a closed system. The fish waste is filtered down and re-circulated through a growing bed where the vegetables are grown.

“It’s an enclosed loop system that you don’t have to add nutrients to. You just add water and the fish and seeds, and it works in a symbiotic relationship,” Trueblood said.

Emily’s Garden is among the hydroponic, deep-water culture options that include a reservoir with nutrient solutions in water and an air pump with air stones for oxygenating the water.

“When the roots are suspended and grown in the clay pebble medium, they get down to the reservoir, and the oxygenated water allows them to thrive. If the water wasn’t oxygenated, then eventually there’s not enough air and they would die,” Trueblood said.

Another option is the highly oxygenated aeroponics system that includes a reservoir and growth chambers where the plants are suspended above.

The enclosed aeroponics system sprays a nutrient-rich mist solution onto the plants’ dangling roots.

“The water runs back down to the reservoir and keeps re-circulating, so you have less evaporation and an efficient use of nutrients and water,” Trueblood said.

The enclosed aeroponic system is a focus of NASA since a mist is easier to handle than liquid in zero gravity during longer space missions.

Other options include the Nutrient Film Technique system and a deep-water hydroponics system using a five-gallon bucket.

The NFT hydroponic system works as a very shallow stream of water containing dissolved nutrients that is re-circulated past the bare roots of plants in a watertight gully, also known as channels.

All of the systems require the addition of nutrients in the water.

“Most of the nutrients are a teaspoon or tablespoon per gallon, depending on what you’re growing. Lettuce and herbs don’t take too much nutrients. If I was growing hot peppers, then you need a little bit higher nutrient content to produce the peppers,” Trueblood said.

Lettuce, tomatoes, celery, herbs, spring onions and strawberries are among the vegetables suitable for hydroponics production.

“You can grow plants that reach up to three feet tall. I personally wouldn’t grow tomatoes in the Emily’s Garden or aeroponic system. I would rather have a five-gallon bucket for the tomato plant, and you can trellis behind it,” Trueblood said.

“Systems such as the Emily’s Garden and aeroponics are better for lettuce, basil and those types of plants.”

Getting Started

For those just starting up, Trueblood suggests the Emily’s Garden system is a great first step.

“It’s straightforward. There are no re-circulating, no submersible pumps. It’s very easy to get going and control. When you have a lot of re-circulating and a lot more plants, your water pH and parts per million fluctuates more.

“I sell probably more of the Emily’s Garden system than anything. There’s not a lot of moving parts, and the plants really thrive in it.”

Trueblood believes the large interest in urban gardening is related to the consumers’ increasing focus on where their food comes from, what goes into it and concerns about the chemicals and pesticides.

He promotes four-season gardening and using organic or natural products for fertilizers and insecticides and showing customers ways to utilize their space through hydroponics.

“If you don’t have a lot of space, whether it be your deck or your patio, a balcony, a rooftop, there are so many unique and versatile ways to grow food in a limited amount of space and to make an impact on what you’re having to buy a the store,” Trueblood said.

“I think it all comes back to some health and nutrition aspects and growing your own food with a fresh and higher nutrient content, especially with the concerns out there about what’s going into the food production system.”