Since grew the plants ancient on Egyptians manure-coated first reed mats floating on the Nile, hydroponic gardening has offered an attractive alternative to the trials of coaxing plants to grow in unyielding soil. Europeans now use modern hydroponic methods extensively, feeding plants on a solution of nutrients in water. But in North America, apart from the rapidly increasing commercial ventures into hydroponic crops, home gardens without soil are the preserve of the dedicated hobbyist. One reason for the lack of mainstream acceptance in Canada stems from the traditionally ungainly growing apparatus—large industrial tubs topped by tube lighting —which even hobbyists prefer to confine to the basement. But a new flock of Canadian entrepreneurs is now attempting to elevate hydroponic gardening from dingy basement units to elegant living room furniture. They hope to sell Canadians nothing less than a vision of eternal spring and the prospect of inexpensive beds of carrots in
the kitchen and tomato plants towering over the piano.
The new entrepreneurs are offering nothing new in hydroponic chemistry. The plants would still root in a waterand-nutrient solution and require support from trellises or from bases of gravel, vermiculite, sawdust or rock wool, an insulating material. Given correct care, all crops grown hydroponically can be as much as 10 times more productive than soil-grown ones and mature three times as fast in one-tenth the space.
But promoters like Edmontonian Franklin Thomas, 36, are now selling the sizzle along with the steak. A former solar house builder, Thomas has designed a line of hydroponic sunrooms reminiscent of Victorian conservatories. Since production began last month, his company, Miracle House Hydroponics Ltd., has sold six sunrooms ranging from freestanding backyard units at about $2,000 to $3,000 to a compact $1,000 model for apartment balconies. The apartment unit encases the balcony in a wood frame with an acrylic or double-ply plastic shell that permits apartment dwellers to throw open the doors and step year-round into a garden. Miracle House custom-designs the hydroponic beds, with options such as perforated vertical tubes for
strawberry plants and tubs in designer colors. Thomas, who owns one of the balcony greenhouses himself, says: “My apartment always smells like summer. And you should see the reaction when I harvest a handful of snow peas and give them to a friend.”
Calgarian Larry Darling has gone one step further, with a living room tabletop unit. Darling, 54, established The Futura Co. last year to manufacture five-square-foot, cream-colored plastic tubs that he claims can grow as much as a 60-square-foot garden. Since last January, Darling has sold more than 500 planters at $149.50 each to gardeners in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba. Geared for an eventual production rate of 7,000 a month, Darling is now expanding distribution throughout Canada and the United States and plans to invade the European markets next year. One purchaser, Eleanor Stryvoke, of Maple Ridge, B.C., is already harvesting Swiss chard and butter-crunch lettuce from the unit on a table in the dining room. “We got fantastic tomato plants—24 inches high,” she says. Stryvoke is looking forward to chives and cucumbers in June. Because the unit is in her dining room, she says, “we will just pick them off and put them on the table.”
While the mass-market push may appeal to some would-be gardeners in search of clean fingernails and cheap produce, promoters often fail to point out the less attractive qualities of hydroponics. Successful hydroponicists must siphon out the nutrient solution every three to four weeks, replace it with fresh water, check levels regularly and monitor the pH (acid-alkali) balance carefully. “There is a lot of garbage being put out by hydroponics promoters,” says John Wiebe, director of the Alberta Horticultural Research Centre at Brooks, Alta. Indeed, dark Canadian winters force most hydroponics purchasers to buy auxiliary lights. Futura’s light unit, while sleek, costs an extra $100. That, together with the added heat for outdoor or balcony hydroponics, says Wiebe, means that soilless gardening will always be more therapeutic than economic.
Veteran hydroponics sellers, such as the 10-year-old Canadian Hydrogardens Ltd. in Ancaster, Ont., are bemused by the miniboom but hold out little hope for a major trend. Darling and Thomas, however, maintain that hydroponics has never been promoted properly. “I am not normally a gardener,” allows Edmontonian Dwayne Hemmaway, “but it is great to have the snow flying around outside while you are sitting in the hot tub watching the hydroponic geraniums grow.”
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