• Jon Mychal Heatherly

How Smart Folks Grow Delicious Herbs

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

Read about my first foray into hydroponics. City dwellers may lack yards, but we can still garden. Grow herbs, food, and flowers in water.

Source: jmheatherly.medium.com

Photo by nikkytok


Most of my gardening happens in the soil. As a community gardener, I meet regularly with others on a shared plot to grow our choice of things. Unfortunately, I live in an apartment, and there really isn’t a place for me to garden in the ground where I live. A few houseplants soak up the sun in my windowsill, though.


What if you want to grow something to eat but don’t have a yard? Recall here where we reviewed soil-based methods to grow food in an apartment — including containers, raised beds, and more. I briefly mentioned the idea of hydroponics but didn’t talk at length about it.


Let’s change that. I purchased an All-In-One hydroponics system from my local big box store (not sponsored) in February. With relatively more significant purchases like this, I will keep looking at it for months, deciding whether to buy and watch for sales. I had a coupon for the box store, so I seized the opportunity before it expired.


Typically, I try to share cheap or free ideas because I want gardening to be as accessible as possible, but I sometimes share novel things I like. For example, the Kratky Method is an inexpensive way to raise plants without soil.


If you are interested in a consumer product, I arranged these five comparable choices from cheapest to most expensive. GrowLED, iDOO, Aerogarden, Vegebox, Click and Grow. Again, I’m not sponsored by them, but I want to help save you some time.


Opening the Box

When I got home with my new unit, I immediately pulled open the packaging to see everything included. I found a white Harvest model, gourmet herb seed pods, liquid nutrients, and plastic semi-domes. The water reservoir holds about a gallon of water, and the LED light array is suspended above the pool on a plastic, extendable arm.


Photo by Lilkin


These models are a modified form of a Deep Water Culture hydroponics setup. The seed pods hold a few seeds encased in a grow sponge within the plastic cones labeled per variety. A water pump inside the reservoir circulates the water into the lid to drip onto the base of your seeds pods to keep them nourished.


Roots get oxygen because of a gap between them and the water level. The pump measure lies within the water port, reminding you to add only a certain amount. An LED light array provides all the necessary energy for your plants to make food. We grow herbs for their leaves, so we don’t need as much light as edible plant fruits.


With my pieces assembled, I began my new journey into the world of hydroponic cultivation. I filled my Harvest with tap water, popped in the seed pods, added nutrients per instructions, and plugged it up at 7 am local time. Let’s see where this adventure goes!


Photo by author


Getting Started

Most of this is automated, so the light cycle begins whenever you plug it in. The manufacturer programs the light to be on for 14 hours and then off for 10. So, it turned off at 9 pm and back on at 7 am. The water pump automatically waters the base of your plants at preset intervals.


There are three buttons to press on the front of the unit. The right one toggles the light on and off without changing your cycle. The middle button shines blue if your water is full or red when it is shallow. The left button shines green during a nutrient cycle and red when it’s time to add more.


Automated gardening such as this requires less worry and unknown variables. For example, I took care of my herbs by keeping the water full and maintaining the nutrient schedule. I pruned root and top growth and cleaned the reservoir once a month.


In other words, there was a lot less to worry about than conventional gardening. I did not have to amend the soil, check moisture, worry about light, etc. Now that we understand a bit about this model and method, let’s review our progress.


Progress

Photos by author


Everything was set up, so I proceeded with 6 seed pods of possibility. The gourmet herb kit includes Genovese Basil, Thai Basil, Dill, Italian Parsley, Thyme, and Mint. The plastic domes cover each seed pod — only to be removed right before the first leaves touch it.


The manufacturer claims that you can grow five times faster with this method than in soil. In fact, your plants need not put as much effort into root growth, so that saves time. There are some limitations, though — as you can only grow leafy greens, herbs, and small fruits like tomatoes or strawberries.


This model consumes about 23 watts of electricity. At $0.11 per kilowatt-hour, that costs about $1.33 per month to power. This calculation considers the whole unit.


Photo by author


All 6 plants sprouted within about a week; even I was a bit shocked at their expediency. Dill sprung up the quickest, and Genovese Basil was not far behind.


The slowest growers to start were parsley, mint, and the last took its thyme. After reading online, I planted the basils on the left to not take over — didn’t want the others choked out.


The domes came off within another week or two. Touching them could damage the tender growth of the first leaves. I would soon notice a pattern between growth and when I added nutrients — as it was most vigorous right after.


Photo by author


I wanted to keep the light low instead of fully extended. Pruning would be necessary to keep the varieties relatively level. Dill was the first to get a haircut as its vertical growth would soon touch the light.


As my herbs grew, I kept them trimmed as necessary. For example, I cut the older, taller dill around the perimeter and left the fleshy, young growth in the middle. I culled the tallest parsley before it grew too large or woody. The other four I pruned right above nodes where leaves and stems sprouted.


Several cycles of pruning ensued as the baby herbs kept growing. Each cycle contained more robust growth, and I took special care that no one plant took over everything else. I kept a close watch on the mint because it liked sending out runners above and below the seed pod lid.


Photos by author


After-Thoughts

I produced more herbs than I could use in a reasonable amount of time. Air-drying the herbs was one solution. The room would fill with herbaceous aromas every time I harvested or even touched them. I most enjoyed smelling the spiciness of the two basils.


Your plants really only last 2 or 3 months in these units. As they grow, they soak up water faster, requiring refills more frequently. Pruning becomes more tedious with each cycle; and be sure to cut the top and bottom of your plants on different days. On the other hand, I marveled at some online forums where others kept their plants going for over a year.


Transplanting seems the most traveled course of action to extend the life of these hydroponic herbs. People use vases, buckets, and even plastic totes. Start plants in the system a couple months before the last frost and transplant them with robust root systems into the ground for a head-start. Furthermore, many folks moved their seed pods to mason jars in a sort of ad hoc Kratky setup.


Photo by Maridav


Even though you can’t grow things like potatoes with this, you can still do a lot with a DWC (Deep Water Culture) hydroponic setup. People post online where they grow anything from peppers to petunias, fairytale eggplants to bok choy. You could grow in quantity by setting up your own hydroponic unit in a plastic tote.


Next time, I want to try strawberries, at least. They need a special grow tray with bowls to place their root crowns, but it is a distinct possibility. Tomatoes tempt me, too.


Hydroponic systems tend to be modular. Unlike this all-in-one, you could just grow in a five-gallon bucket on a patio. I wanted to share ideas that inspire me and sustain my plant passion even though I don’t have a yard.


Have you grown food with hydroponics? If not, realize that it’s easier than it sounds. Many methods are simplified, so you don’t need a degree in horticulture to figure it out. What would you grow in water?


Make Your Own


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