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!

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!

Compost Drove Me to It

Several things led me to hydroculture, but perhaps none so much more than failure to compost.  How hard can it be to turn natural waste into nutrient rich compost?  Well, I thought it would be easy.  I spent a poo-load of money on a tumbling composter a couple of years ago and was careful to ensure proper ratios of browns and greens.  My first batch included browns of dry crunchy leaves and dry crunchy grass, greens of household food wastes and horse manure, and deer dung for an accelerator.  But nothing excelled about it.  I tumbled it and tumbled it, but a year and a half later I had a lumpy mess.  I could have sworn the tumbler is supposed to compost in mere weeks or months.  I had chopped most everything up to small bits.  I couldn’t figure out what went wrong and why I had giant lumps in my compost rather than rich brown plant food that smelled like soil and ran through my fingers.

I started my second batch two months ago, something simple I figured would compost quickly: dry grass and bunny poop.  Bunny poop is supposed to be an accelerator and we have lots of bunny poop.  Two months later I still have dry grass and lots of little round bunny balls.  I’ve even kept dampening it despite the near-drought conditions.

I sat pondering this one evening.  For years, I have been a failure at gardening and I was convinced it was largely to do with my inability to perfect my soil levels, which was the purpose for composting.  Then it dawned on me that there must be a better way, so I went in search of a better way.

During my search, I lamely bought one of those cheapo “grow grape tomatoes on your deck” kits and found something interesting in it.  The growing medium wasn’t soil at all.  It was coir, a substance made of coconut fiber.  It comes as a hard little brick and expands in a bowl of water.  The kids and I were mesmerized watching that brick poof up into a whole bowl of growing medium!

I began researching coir and stumbled upon hydroponics.  I’d heard of hydroponics but hadn’t really given it much thought.  Further research on the matter turned out to be frustrating.  It sounded great, but the mechanical systems required to keep the water moving were restrictive.  I thought of setting up a hydroponic garden in a closet or in a corner of the living room, but I lamented over not being able to have plants in every room without each one including expensive machinery.

I had almost given up the search when something caught my eye.  I saw mentioned “static hydroponics”.  Further research on this term turned up hydroculture and I heard angels singing!  I could do this in any container and put the pots anywhere in the house.  I wondered if it could be as simple as it sounds and the mere thought of it sent me head over heels in search of a local hydroponics shop selling Hydroton.

So, here I am with a useless expensive composter and a collection of mostly happy plants living soilless (except for Nanners who took it as a bit of a shock and the cucumbers – perhaps they weren’t big enough to transplant yet).  I’m going to keep trying and I am convinced that I am finally getting it right.  Soil doesn’t like me.  I’ll leave the soil to the weeds!

I don’t hate soil.  After all, I wouldn’t have a yard full of edible wild plants and nifty fruit trees without it.  But it can just stay outside and grow whatever it likes while I play with my happy hydroballs.

What is hydroculture?

We’ve been taught that plants need soil, water, and sunshine to grow, but this isn’t entirely accurate.  They definitely need sun and water, but do they really need soil?  What purpose does soil fulfill?  Soil serves two purposes: it supports plants and acts as a delivery system for nutrients.  The problem with soil is that it doesn’t perform these tasks all that efficiently and can cause problems, particularly for houseplants.

In soil, over-watering and under-watering are both problems.  In addition, soil can harbor mold and bacteria, which contaminate your environment.  The issue of delivering oxygen to the roots is also an issue.  Did you know that plant roots need oxygen?  Soil is not the best at getting oxygen to breathing roots.  Soil is also quite messy if the dog or kids spill it on the carpet!

Is there a better way?  I think so and I invite you to share my journey into the under-practiced method of hydroculture.  Instead of growing plants in soil, we find a way to deliver water and nutrients more directly to the plant.  After some research, I’ve chosen to use LECA (Light Expanded Clay Aggregate).  These are what I like to call hydroballs and are little clay balls that deliver liquid and nutrients to roots via capillary action.  These little balls support the plant and its roots while providing oxygen filled gaps around the roots.

This method gives roots needed oxygen, support, water, and nutrients.  It also uses less water.  How?  You don’t have to provide water for the plant and the soil if you aren’t using soil.  Because hydroculture is a more efficient delivery system, you use less water to feed your happy plants.

Is hydroculture the same as hydroponics?  Not exactly.  In some circles, hydroculture is considered a type of hydroponics, but in technical terms they bear a significant difference.  Both use water, nutrients, and the same supportive substrates (LECA, coir, etc), but hydroponics requires roots to be fully submerged.  In order to provide oxygen to the roots, the water must be aerated.  This is accomplished by keeping the water moving, which restricts the grower to an electrical source and machine systems.

Hydroculture, on the other hand, provides oxygen to the roots by raising them (or at least part of them) above the water level.  Roots can reach down into the liquid and nutrients and liquid are delivered by capillary action through the substrate.  This is a very simple system and is not restrictive.  Hydrocultured plants can be placed anywhere a traditional pot can be placed and require no electricity.  Simply replenish the water as needed and add nutrients as needed.

I, by the way, do not have a green thumb!  Soil has been the bane of my existence.  Can my plants manage to survive in their hydro-environment?

Stick with me and we’ll see!