I’ve been experimenting with a hydroponic growing system donated to our office by Worm’s Way. I’ve enjoyed the experience, and I thought I’d get some additional information from Worm’s Way Director of Consumer Operations Richard Florey. He shared some of his advice on growing hydroponically, ways to save money and more.
Photo by Fotolia/photokanok_1984
1. What are some of the key reasons someone might consider hydroponic gardening?
In my mind, the main reasons someone would want to move in the direction of hydroponic gardening is: increase yield, garden year round, the ability to regulate your environment (i.e. air, temperature, nutrients, ph), as well as full control over what is going into your plants from seed to harvest.
2. Hydroponic setups are kind of expensive. How soon can that expense be recouped?
There are many types of hydroponic setups: ebb-and-flow, drip, aeroponic, nutrient film technique (NFT), wick, etc. Depending on what system you’re going to go with, the intricacy and ability to DIY fluctuates. So with that in mind, the price and investment is scalable with how you’re going to grow, the size of your setup, and how much DIY you want to do. You could easily purchase a very nice 2’x2’ pre-fabricated hydroponic system for less than $250 that you could keep running all year round to grow different vegetables and herbs. A lot of growing media is reusable too, so even with a nutrient investment you’re looking at a relatively low buy-in.
Think about how much you spend at the grocery store; if you were even able to grow a small amount of your veggies and herbs, you make your money back relatively quickly. Instead of thinking about the cost of getting into hydroponics, which really can be reasonable, think about the cost of the produce at your grocer! Again, you’re in full control of everything in these setups.
3. What are three key things to consider before starting a hydroponic garden?
Ask: What are my goals?
Ask: What is my budget?
Be ready to learn (through continued research, failures, as well as input from local experts)
4. What are the minimal items one needs to start a hydro system?
Hydroponics can range from the simplest thing in the world, to the most intricate—such a breadth of possibility! That’s what is so great about it, and so very interesting. At its core, hydroponics is just growing without soil. Simple.
In starting a “real” hydroponic growing system at a basic, minimal, but functional, level you’ll want to have: some growing media, pots, a pump and an airstone, a raft/tray, and a reservoir…just add water! From there you need to work out how your system will flow, what nutrients you want to feed your plants, and (the fun part) what you want to grow!
The hydroponics system really exploded over the past week. It’s quite amazing how fast everything grows—speed and efficiency are indeed among the biggest benefits of hydroponics growing, and it’s shocking to see these plants just explode every week! I continue to add nutrients to the water every week, and every Monday I’m amazed at the growth the plants make over the weekend.
Here's the garden on week 2. Note how much it's grown since the pics of week 1! (You might also notice that my husband's office wall was painted in the interim... we didn't move the system!) The water looks murky because of the nutrients you add.
Doing this experiment made me interested in learning more about the differences between hydroponic gardening and conventional gardening, so I started looking into it. From what I’ve researched, here are some key differences I’ve found.
This infographic shares some pros and cons of hydroponics.
Among the pros: Hydroponics uses as little as 1/10th the water as conventional farming; the average yield of hydroponic tomato gardening is 18 times more per acre than conventional; and hydroponics require zero chemical fertilizers and encounter zero pest problems. Hydroponic growing is also not dependent on the seasons—I can assure you that, although our office grows a community garden each year—I’m the only one who was eating fresh greens in February.
Among the cons: Hydroponics systems cost more to set up than a conventional garden; they are reliant on nutrients added to the system weekly; they often require specialty fertilizers; and they require more attention and care than conventional gardens. I have heard that, instead of the nutrients you have to buy, one can use worm castings for the nutrients, which could save money in the maintenance costs of a hydroponics system.
In this SF Gate article on the pros and cons of hydroponics, similar issues are discussed: Hydroponics is incredibly efficient, using only what the plants absolutely need to grow and thrive. Hydroponics minimizes water waste and completely eliminates the need for pesticides or herbicides—potentially very good for commercial operations.
I also found this article discussing the pros and cons—written by a master gardener—interesting. She added the point that hydroponics systems are reliant on electricity, so that’s a con.
Often it seems people are looking at hydroponics and—fairly or not—criticizing the growing method as inferior to regular gardening in the ground. However, I see hydroponics as more useful for people who don’t have the option: Urban dwellers who want to grow their own food but have no access to land (or, for herbs and greens that are best harvested and eaten daily, want something at home instead of or in addition to a remote community garden plot), or those who live where the growing season is very short. It might also be good for those without arable soil or highly polluted soil.
I’ve heard some questions about the nutrient levels in hydroponics, and found people online claiming both that hydroponics are more and less nutritious. There is also some controversy surrounding organics and hydroponics. I’ll discuss all of that in the next blog on hydroponic growing!
Here at Mother Earth Living, we frequently hear from people who would love to garden but don’t have outdoor space to call their own. Of course we always advise people to look to the community to find gardening space and give tips on small-space growing, but there is nothing that can replace the delight of growing fresh food right in your own home. So when Worm’s Way offered to let me try out one of their hydroponic growing kits in our office, I thought it would be a great way to test out a growing system I had no experience with—not to mention get some fresh salad greens and herbs to enjoy at lunch—to see if it was something that made sense to recommend to our readers.
When I first got all the parts, I will admit I was a little overwhelmed. Constructing anything—even the simplest of things—is not my strong suit. Fortunately, my husband, programming director for the Mother Earth News Fairs, offered to help me and house the system in his office.
The first steps were to put it all together. With some help from the staff at Worm’s Way, James was able to make that happen. Then we started seeds in the “plugs” provided to us until we had little growing seedlings. We chose to grow lettuces and basil, one of our favorite herbs. The next step is to add water to the reservoir (yes, many people were wondering what I was doing hauling bucketsful of water from our break room to James’ office) and—now for the fun science part!—testing the water and adjusting the pH until it’s in the right range for growing.
Finally, we put our little seedlings in the growing containers, surrounded them with rock, and turned on the pump. Our system was ready to grow! Here is a pic of it the second week. I’ll keep you posted as it continues to grow and let you know how hydroponic growing is working for me.
Here is a view of the hydroponics system at the end of the first week. The water looks murky because of the nutrients you add to help the plants grow—more on that in the Hydroponics in the Office, Post 2!
Here's another view of our sweet little seedlings. Doesn't this look refreshing in the midst of a February snowstorm???
This is the stuff you use to adjust the pH levels. You simply take a sample of your water and put it in the little vial, then add a few drops of the pH test indicator to see what color it is. You're looking for a nice yellow-green color. The charts on the back tell you what to do: Too red? Add the pH down solution, too blue, add the pH up. Pretty simple and super fun!
When the holidays roll around, it can be tempting to toss our usual standards out the window and buy whatever’s cheap and convenient. But this time of year is one of the most important for retailers—which means exercising your “dollar as your vote” at this time of year is particularly effective. Rather than buying inexpensive, mass-produced items made with questionable materials and manufacturing practices, try choosing handmade gifts made by artisans in the United States. A wide array of Etsy shops offer affordable and beautifully crafted items for just about anyone on your list. Here are a few of my favorite shops.
1. Oh, Little Rabbit
One of my long-time favorite Etsy shops, Oh, Little Rabbit offers tea towels, cloth bags, onesies and more, all created and screenprinted at the owners’ Albany, Oregon, home. I was lucky to visit their home for an upcoming Mother Earth Living profile, and the couple is incredibly nice and hardworking. They make all their own designs, and they’ve grown their business from a closet-in-an-apartment operation to now offering pieces in retail outlets nationwide. Check out their superfun Christmas tea towel designs—perfect for a holiday hostess or a housewarming gift.
2. Hill Country Woodcraft
Hill Country Woodcraft offers wooden toys handcrafted by a Texas family out of sustainable hardwoods. Dedicated to supporting local business and customer service, the HC Woodcraft family purchases its non-wood materials in Central Texas and guarantees each product they sell. Their adorable wood (finished with tung oil), leather and yarn stick horses sell for a very reasonable $40, and they also offer adorable customized wood blocks, stacking rings, bowling sets, tractors, animals, cars and rattles.
Elucx (Eco & Luxury) is a brand dedicated to handcrafted and luxurious skin and body-care products. Made by a crafter and mom in Montreal, the line features certified organic ingredients, reusable packaging and is 100 percent free of chemicals. Considering their handcrafted nature and gorgeous, high-end packaging, Elucx products are priced fairly—the Spa Gift Set (with pink clay facial mask, lavender and vanilla body scrub, milk bath soak and four lip balms) makes a great stocking stuffer at $41.
Vintage jewelry makes for a beautiful, thoughtful and unique gift, but it can be hard to come by high-quality pieces for a decent price. Luckily, Etsy shop FreshyFig offers a slew (432 items as of right now) of beautiful, reworked vintage pieces at excellent prices. The Portland, Oregon-based shop owner refreshes old lockets and adds water-resistant coatings to make them highly durable. Her offerings range from delicate filigree to whimsical animals—unique accessories for affordable prices (nearly all around $30 or less).
5. Maggie's Microgreens
Give your loved ones the gift of gardening—and fresh food—with these superadorable microgreen indoor growing kits from Maggie’s Microgreens. New Mexico-based Maggie Briggs found gardening a challenge when she moved to the high desert mountains of New Mexico, but then she discovered microgreens, which are easy to grow inside and delicious to eat any time of year. Her kits include six of her best-selling organic microgreen seeds with detailed growing instructions for $18, or get a vintage growing vessel with seeds, rocks and instructions for around $10.
Creams, lotions, moisturizers, shampoos—body care is expensive! Especially for those of us who want to the avoid potentially toxic chemicals found in many conventional body-care products. The great news is that nature provides us with affordable and effective alternatives—after all, who hasn’t heard of Cleopatra’s alleged natural beauty regimen, which included milk and honey baths and essential oil perfumes? We love offering natural DIY beauty tips throughout the year in Mother Earth Living, and many excellent blogs provide the same kind of recipes on a weekly basis. Here are a few of my favorite recipes from the blogs of natural health pros. Mix away and enjoy!
Coffee Body Scrub by Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is a fabulous organization fighting the use of toxic chemicals in makeup. The group’s site is an excellent source of information and, as an added bonus, they also have some great recipes for DIY body care. Try this invigorating coffee scrub!
• 2 cups coarsely ground coffee
• 1/2 cup raw sugar or sea salt
• 2 to 3 tablespoons massage oil
Mix all ingredients together. Take a hot shower to moisten your skin and open your pores. Using wide, circular motions, rub the coffee exfoliant onto your skin with strong, even pressure. Shower off, pat skin dry and apply a thin layer of your favorite body lotion. Read more.
DIY Dry Shampoo by In Sonnet's Kitchen
Certified holistic health coach Sonnet offers delicious recipes for food and body care on her blog. Here’s a simple DIY dry shampoo.
• 2 tablespoons arrowroot powder
• 2 tablespoons organic cacao or cocoa powder (omit if blonde)
Combine ingredients and store in a small container. Use a makeup or blush brush to apply a small amount of dry shampoo to the roots. Then, working in sections, brush powder through hair until it blends in with hair and oil is absorbed. If needed, apply a bit more and repeat. Read more.
Luxe Homemade Facial Oil by Vintage Amanda
Certified health coach Amanda offers excellent recipes and advice on her blog. Here is her recipe for a home version of a rich face oil.
• 50 milliliters (about 2 ounces) of carrier oil
• 15 drops of essential oils (either 15 of 1 oil, or 5 drops each of 3 different oils … just make it 15 drops total)
• 1 vitamin E capsule (optional)
Put a few drops of oil on your hands, rub your hands together gently and massage into your face, concentrating on the drier areas. I like to do a few minutes of facial massage in the evening when I apply the oil. Relaxing! Read more.
Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, but it’s not necessarily the best for our health with its combination of sugary treats and cheap plastic costumes. This year, I’m trying to make my holiday fun a little healthier for my family and the environment. Here are a few ideas I’ve come up with. Please share your tips with me!
1. Host a costume-swap party. I love this idea of saving and passing on used Halloween costumes, especially for kids. If you have a group of parent friends, especially whose children are a few years apart in ages, make it an annual tradition to save your children’s costumes and swap them next year. The site National Costume Swap Day offers registration and tips for hosting a swap. A friend of mine used to host an annual "soup swap" party. Everyone would make a large batch of soup, then package it in 1-quart plastic freezer bags. Everyone would bring four to six servings and trade. We all left with many kinds of soup for the freezer. You could host such a party and add a costume swap into the mix.
2. Get thee to the thrift store. I love thrift store shopping, but depending where you live it can require some hunting to find nice, normal day-to-day clothing. Lucky for us we aren’t looking for nice or normal when it comes to Halloween. Take a few hours on an upcoming Saturday to visit your local thrift store and see what inspirational (aka weird) clothing options you can find.
3. Make your own face paint. When the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tested children’s face paint for lead and other heavy chemicals, they found lead present in 10 of 10 samples. Fortunately, it’s fun and easy to make your own nontoxic version by mixing natural food coloring (available at health food stores or here) into unscented lotion or pure cocoa butter. Greenhalloween.org offers video instructions.
4. Candy, man! It’s a major bummer, but most conventional chocolates are made using horrible working conditions and in some cases child slave labor. The good news, though, is that you can find a number of delicious organic, fair trade candies via the Natural Candy Store. Try the OCHO bite-sized organic candy bars or Halloween lollipops. All Natural Candy Store candies are also free of artificial colors, dyes, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives.
5. Make a healthier treat. While candy doesn’t offer much in terms of nutritional value, a few Halloween favorites are better from a health perspective. Caramel apples, for example, offer all of the fibery goodness of the fruit and, if you add them, nuts provide healthy fats. This recipe from Whole Lifestyle Nutrition uses cream, sucanat (unrefined cane sugar) and honey to make caramel. Another tasty treat that’s pretty good for us: Caramel corn. This healthier version uses almond or peanut butter and honey to make a sweet topping for popped corn (always avoid microwave popcorn bags, which are lined with the chemical PFOA—instead opt for air-popped, skillet-popped or simply use a brown paper bag in the microwave).
Photo By Whole Lifestyle Nutrition
It may not be a metropolis, but my home of Lawrence, Kansas, is pretty cool. A college town filled with art, music and intellectuals (we’re the 9th-smartest city in America, according to this recent study), we’re also lucky to have access to some pretty amazing food. One of our leading businesspeople is Hilary Brown. The founder of the visionary café Local Burger—think healthy, local fast food—Hilary has now moved on to be the owner of an expanding veggie burger business, Hilary’s Eat Well, making her delicious burgers available at Whole Foods and other grocery chains nationwide. We’re all proud of this local dynamo (and quite lucky that she will be catering some events surrounding our upcoming Lawrence Mother Earth News Fair). Hilary agreed to share some of her recipes with us. The great thing about these delicious vegan recipes is that they are much healthier alternatives to the conventional versions of these classic comfort foods: nachos, sloppy Joes and Swedish meatballs. Enjoy!
Hilary’s Nacho Typical Nachos!
Adzuki Bean Burgers add amazing flavor and extra crunch to these nachos. The secret to great vegan nachos is the cheese—we love WayFare cheese dips because they're dairy-, soy-, egg- and gluten-free and taste really (really) good! Also great with black olives, WayFare sour cream, jalapenos and extra salsa!
• 30 tortilla chips
• 2 Hilary's Eat Well Adzuki Bean Burgers (toasted)
• 1/2 cup black beans (rinsed)
• 4 green onions (chopped)
• 3/4 cup WayFare Mexi Cheddar Spread
• 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes (quartered)
1. Heat cheddar spread in a small saucepan over low heat.
2. Arrange chips on large plate. Crumble toasted burgers over chips and add black beans.
3. Drizzle with cheese dip and top with green onions and tomatoes.
Hilary’s "Sloppy Joannas" Vegan Sloppy Joes Recipe
This is a great gluten-, soy- and meat-free version of sloppy Joes! Sir Kensington's Spicy Ketchup is perfect with this recipe—it has great flavor and is made with real, whole-food ingredients.
• 1 medium onion, chopped
• 1 clove garlic, minced
• 1 green pepper, chopped
• 4 Hilary's Eat Well Adzuki Bean Burgers, chopped into ¼-inch cubes
• 1 tablespoon oil
• 1 tablespoon brown sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
• 1/4 cup yellow mustard
• 1 cup Sir Kensington's Gourmet Scooping Ketchup, Spicy
• 1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
• Gluten-free hamburger bun
• Sliced red onion (to serve, optional)
1. Heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until translucent.
2. Add bell pepper and cook another 3 minutes or until softened.
3. Add burgers and cook until browned and heated through.
4. Stir in brown sugar and chili powder. Add mustard and ketchup and stir until combined. Add salt to taste.
5. Serve heaping on a gluten-free bun with sliced red onion.
Hilary’s Vegan Swedish “Meat” Balls Recipe
This easy-to-make vegetarian version of Swedish meatballs is great for parties!
• 4 Adzuki Bean Burgers, crumbled
• 1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
• 1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
• 1/3 cup raw unsalted almonds, chopped
• 1-1/2 cup vegan, soy-free Diaya
• 3 clove garlic, finely chopped
• 1 tablespoon corn starch
• 1/3 cup almond milk
• 1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
• 1 tablespoon Pickapeppa or vegetarian Worcestershire sauce
• 1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
• 2 teaspoon salt
• 1 egg (omit if vegan)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Combine all ingredients in a bowl, and shape mixture to walnut sized balls.
3. Place in a lightly greased or oiled pan and bake covered with foil for 20 minutes. Turn periodically to brown each side.
4. Remove from pan and let sit 5 minutes before serving. For Vegan Swedish Meatball Sauce follow a traditional recipe and substitute Vegan Sour Cream or find a recipe here.