Ways to grow in winter

Indoor gardening options include hydroponics

trowel-error-jan17

In the depth of winter, a new year begins. Will we eat better? Spend smarter? Grow in any way?

Maybe those questions are too deep even for the depth of winter, and you just want a little light, a bit of green freshness in your life.

No matter what your needs or motivations are, there is probably something in the ever-expanding indoor gardening realm to suit you. This new realm can mean traditional, soil-based gardening or hydroponic (soilless, or literally “working with water”) gardening.

With hydroponic gardening, the plant takes its nutrients from water (generally from the roots being in the water) rather than soil.

My only experience with hydroponic gardening is with the AeroGarden, a line of countertop units ranging from the size of a small coffee maker to that of a microwave. I bought mine several years ago. You put your seeds in little peat plugs suspended in a reservoir of aerated water. Over the reservoir is a light you can adjust as the plants grow. It’s easy to set up and program to turn lights on and off and flash a red light when it’s time to add nutrients to the water.

You can buy pre-loaded seed kits or plain peat plugs (say that three times fast) and use your own seeds. The kits come in delightful combinations of herbs, greens and flowers, but I’ve had more fun creating my own assortments. The results have generally been good, apart from one plant occasionally overshadowing another in such tight quarters.

The AeroGarden has undergone some improvements over the years – LED lights instead of CFL bulbs, for one. Some units are now Wi-Fi enabled for reminders, tips and customer support. You can find the product line at www.aerogarden.com, and sometimes they turn up at local retailers.

Customers of all types are drawn to indoor gardening, said Corey Fuller, co-owner of Hops & Harvest, 10812 Coldwater Road. “People can get a head start on the growing season or grow through the winter,” he said. Plus, with food contamination making the headlines, “there is value in knowing exactly where (your food) came from.”

Hydroponic gardening is part of Hops & Harvest’s indoor gardening focus, Fuller said, but soil is still the preferred medium: “It’s more forgiving, for one thing.” With hydroponics, he explained, a number of plants are all growing in the same water – so disease spreads faster and errors with nutrients are more costly.

And they do take soil seriously at Hops & Harvest. In the back of the store are neatly stacked, huge bags of premium soil loaded with micronutrients and beneficial bacteria. A private-label, pH-balanced premium organic potting mix comes from a Michigan company. Call this stuff dirt at your peril.

“All you have to do is add water,” Fuller said.

Hops & Harvest has a selection of flats of various sizes and configurations – with some, you add soil; with others, you just poke a seed or cutting into a little cube of peat or other growing medium. Then you need a really good light source. A sunny window by itself just isn’t enough, especially in winter.

Caleb McCollough, one of the store’s go-to garden experts, said you can get started or get by with a plain old fluorescent shop light, but the lights the store carries have much more range in terms of color spectrum. “And they have less mercury,” he added.

Plants developing roots and leaves need blue spectrum lights, he explained, but then they need the red spectrum for fruiting and flowering. What you are replicating with these premium lights is not only color spectrum but timing – how a plant knows when to do what.

Beginners can start with a small flat of herbs, Fuller suggested. “There’s lots of stuff they can graduate into.”

Here’s to a New Year full of growth.

First appeared in the January 2017 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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