More to Learn – A Look at a Book

The indoor Water Gardner’s How-To Handbook written and illustrated by Peter Loewer

In my search to learn more about hydroculture, I came across this old book published back in 1973.  Peter Loewer had ten years experience raising houseplants in nothing but water.  I had to read the book twice because I just couldn’t comprehend what he was saying at first.  You see, Mr. Loewer’s plants were submerged in water up to the stem in containers with no aeration.  Some of the containers even have a narrow neck.

This flies in the face of everything I have learned about hydroculture.  So how could it be that these plants survive with no oxygen?  This man has ten years of experience, after all, he must know something I, a mere novice, do not know.  One important factor is that Mr. Loewer removes the plants from their containers and replaces the water once a week.  Still, many materials I have read indicate plants need aerated several times per day.

It just so happens that as I was reading this book, a plant I haven’t yet introduced sat on the table next to me, limp and unhappy.  I have been waiting patiently for this plant to grow its water roots so I could post its progress.  After reading Mr. Loewer’s book, however, I decided to try his method on this plant.

Moses is a mosaic plant.  When I first brought him home, he would droop any time the soil even came close to getting dry.  His little sister, Maisey, exhibited the same behaviors.  I thought they would be well-suited to hydroculture and transplanted them while they were strong and tall.  The day after I transplanted them, though, both were drooping heavily, hanging over the sites of their containers.  I gave them each a bit of QuickStart root booster and a lot of patience.  About a week later, both were still very droopy, but the stems seemed to be pulling upward just slightly.

Both plants were still alive, but were clearly unhappy.  Peter Loewer turned my notions of hydroculture upside down and I spent a couple of days considering whether I should try his methods on Moses and Maisey.  Both were still looking unhappy, so I decided to give it a try.  I left Maisey in her hydroballs and filled her container up to the stem so that her roots were submerged.  By the end of the day, she was standing upright and looking like a happy, healthy plant.  I pulled Moses from his hydroballs and put him in a jar of water, letting the sides of the jar act as his support.  He, also immediately pulled his stems and leave up, standing strong and tall despite being in nothing but water.

Both plants have been submerged for several days and are showing no signs of stress or damage.  I check them every day, concerned they will meet the same fate as the Maters and Nanners.  Now I wonder if it was really too much water that did them in.  What else could it be?  Are some plants capable of living with their roots submerged and some not?  Could there be another contributing factor?  Could fresh air only once a week be enough?

Overall, I found the book a pleasant read.  The bulk of the book is dedicated to specific plants with a brief mention of useful materials and another brief section on containers including battery jars and beakers.  I will refer to this book and try some of the plants Mr. Loewer recommends using his method.  I expect they will be lovely and what could be simpler than simply plopping a plant in a container of water?  Ok, ok, I have to rinse and repeat every week, but that shouldn’t be too difficult if I keep the plants to a minimum and I do have four kids who would absolutely love to help out with this!  I also wonder if using oxygen tablets could lengthen the time between water changes.

Only time and expirimentations will tell!  Muahahahahahahahahaha!

Update – How Everybody is Doing

Sago is a happy camper in his hydroballs.  He gets lots of morning sun in his eastern facing window and apparently he’s quite happy.  He has sprouted seven new palm fronds that are opening beautifully!

Vrissy is looking as lovely as ever and has had a baby!  I’ll let the little one grow a bit bigger before separating them.

Heather is looking feathery and standing tall and Porthos seems to be growing larger by the day.  I have been so pleased with Lucky that my kids now have their own lucky bamboos.

I do have some sad news to report.  Nanners took another turn for the worse.  I had made a water level indicator for his pot, but it malfunctioned and the rain he had been caught in one afternoon filled his pot more than I had realized.  His poor roots rotted and it doesn’t look like he’ll be recovering this time. His pot is sitting next to Sago’s, a little brown stump standing in hydroballs in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, he isn’t as dead as he looks.

Also, I’m terrible at getting seeds to grow.  Some of our herb, veggie, and flower seeds didn’t grow at all and a few that did grew some sort of fungus.  I will have to research a bit more on starting from seed.  I don’t want to be a baby plant killer!

Finally, I would like to revisit the Maters.  Maters 1 and 2 came to me as seeds with a little hanging basket and a brick of coir in a kit called “Patio/Deck Grape Tomato”.  I didn’t have high hopes for this cheap little kit and of all the seeds that came with it, Maters 1 and 2 were the only to sprout.

Well, when I started transplanting my other plants, I picked up a bottle of MiracleGro QuickStart (not having any hydroponics stores nearby where I could get nutrients specific to hydroponics).  Those other tomato seeds had been sitting dormant in that plastic hanging pot for over a month, but on a whim, I went ahead and fed them.

Holy mackerel!  I now have a bunch of little tomato plants sprouting up in the coir on my front porch.  Maters 1 and 2 may have left this world, but they certainly left behind their legacy in that little white patio pot!

The Not So Flowering Cactus

I’ve never purchased a cactus before.  I once had a traumatic experience with one.  As a teenager, I worked for a cleaning company.  I was cleaning a house full of houseplants, including little cacti, when one was knocked from the table.  I saw something falling and, reacting quickly and without thinking, I reached out to grab it.

Yea, bad idea.

I have had no desire to own a cactus since.  But I was recently browsing the plant offerings at my local Home Depot when I came across a nifty little cactus with pretty blue flowers.  “What a fantastic contradiction,” I thought and bought it.

The label on the plant provided no name, so I diligently researched the plant online, trying desperately to find what this cactus could be.  Guess what I found out?  It’s a Fairy Castle Cactus and it doesn’t bloom blue flowers.  It turns out those pretty little blue flowers aren’t flowers at all, they are made of straw and glued onto the cactus.  So, next time you’re shopping for a cactus, just remember to check for glue blobs under the flowers.

Feeding the Hungry

I keep hearing about the problems of poor children who suffer through the summer when school lunch programs aren’t available.  The Richmond soup kitchen serves food every weekday in the summer to city children whose families are too poor to feed them when they can’t get free meals at school.

Hydroponics and hydroculture could put a dent in this problem.  Community programs striving to feed hungry children should consider operating rooftop and vacant lot community greenhouses that supply large amounts of fruits and vegetables in a relatively small location year round via hydro systems that use no soil and less water than soil-based systems.  Even a corner of a storage area could be turned into a hydrogarden serving several families.  Hydroponics and hydroculture systems are already in place in several other countries to feed poor populations.  Why isn’t it catching on here in the USA?

Mourning the Maters

The Maters have drowned.  One of my dear children wanted to help and watered the Maters for me.  I didn’t know about this help until it was too late and both maters were found shriveled and laying at the edge of their jars.  They have since grown crunchy, a sure sign of their demise.

I may have mentioned this already, but roots need oxygen.  In hydroculture, the water level sits below the roots with the hydroballs delivering liquid and nutrients to the plants via capillary action.  This ensures that the roots get everything they need.  If the roots are submerged, the water must be in motion to retain sufficient oxygen for the roots.  So, when my well-meaning kiddo added water to the Maters’ jars the water level rose above the roots, suffocating them.

RIP Maters.  We hardly knew you, but you will be missed.

Pot Size

I like to spend time over at Dave’s Garden learning about plants and planting. I never learned much about either growing up, but I adore plants. I wanted to make sure I was getting the right size pots for my plants and I knew that pot size is an issue with plants in soil.

Tapla is one of those knowledgeable individuals I am privileged to have met over at Dave’s Garden. This is what he had to say about pot size in hydroculture when I asked how to determine mature plant size in order to pick a large enough pot:

“In hydroculture, there would be no upper limit to pot size. Plants adapt to hydroculture by forming roots that are considerably different than the roots in solid media. Parenchyma cells primarily make up the root cortex of plants grown in soils or other solid media that are well aerated, but a different type of cell groupings called aerenchyma forms in roots that are subject to periods of anoxia (w/o air) when they are submerged. Aerenchyma tissue has elongated air channels that allow the oxygen roots need for function/metabolism/growth to diffuse (move) from the foliage to the roots. This difference in tissue is why rooting plants in water you will eventually move to soil is not as productive as rooting in a well-aerated solid medium.

Plants don’t really have a mature size. We, like plants, go through several life stages – embryonic, juvenile, adolescent (intermediate in plants), and sexually mature – all stages roughly shared by humans and plants. Where we vary greatly is in the way our cells age. Plants must grow to live. A plant that is not growing is dying, so your plants will always be growing, even after reaching a ‘mature’ size. Depending on what types of plants you are tending, you can keep most them at the size you prefer by judicious pruning of both the top and roots. Call it hydro-bonsai, if you would like to coin a term. ;o)

Don’t be concerned about having to “pot-up” plants in hydroculture – it’s no big deal. Just be sure you select pots w/o constrictions at the throat or reverse tapers, so they will allow you to easily lift the plant from the pot for root pruning.”

Thank you, Tapla!

New Friends

Lucky

Welcome three new friends to the air purifying brigade!  First up is a lucky bamboo (which isn’t really bamboo at all).  Dracaena sanderiana is extremely easy to care for.  Just pop it in water and keep it out of direct sunlight.  These often look great in a pot of well wetted little rocks.  I currently have Lucky in an antique bottle, which I think he looks great in, but he may suffer in there due to the nature of the neck of the bottle.  Oxygen flow will be almost non-existent.  I am debating leaving him in there to see if it really is a problem for a plant such as he.

Porthos

Next up is Porthos, a golden pothos plant.  These are a pretty common houseplant and generally easy to care for.  I picked this leafy guy up at Walmart for $6.  The golden pothos at Lowes were of similar size and in similar health, but cost $14 and change.  I went with the chick’s advice, “cheap, cheap, cheap”!

Heather

Finally, meet Heather.  I spotted bunches of this most interesting plant in the yard out by the barn.  I hadn’t seen them before, but we’ve had a strange year with floods in the fall and drought early in the summer.  I believe it to be a Eupatorium capillifolium, more commonly known as the elegant feather dog fennel.  These grow multiple stalks like this one from a single root, but I wanted just one.  The root was L shaped, so I couldn’t center her well in her jar (which was all I had on hand big enough).  I plan on getting something bigger for her to hang out in, but I think the gallon pickle jar suits her.

Welcome to the family, Lucky, Porthos, and Heather!

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