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When I set up my hydroponic WindowFarm, I bought a great big bag of something called Hydroton. It looks like fifty litres of Chocolate Covered Sugar Bombs, but really they are clay marbles, more or less, manufactured with a special process that makes them hold water and nutrients but still allow plants got get lots of air.
You see, plants drink lots of water and nutrients through their roots, but the roots also need to be exposed to air or the plant will suffocate and die. This mix of water and air is essential to plant health. Hydroton neatly solves this problem – and, it solves one of my problems, too. This stuff is easy to pick up if you spill some on the floor, unlike potting soil. (I’m a bit clumsy, so this is a bigger advantage than you might expect.)
Thanks to the kind and wonderful Ev, I have a little bag of garlic that I intended to plant in the fall, but didn’t manage to get in the ground before the snow came. When I stood there, staring at this giant bag of hydroton and wondering what I could possibly plant in it that would grow right now, I remembered I had garlic. Wonder if it would grow in this stuff?
So, I filled a pickle jar with hydroton, stuck a clove of garlic in there, green tip up, and put more hydroton around it to hold it upright. Poured in water about halfway up the side of the garlic and waited.
Look what happened in just a few days!
See those roots, reaching into the spaces between the clay marbles? Cool, eh?
I should technically have this covered up so that algae doesn’t grow in the water, but it’s too much fun to watch the roots do their thing. I’ll probably get organized and make a jar cover (which would be prettier anyway) at some point, but there’s no algae yet. I can probably speed the growth by adding some of the hydroponic nutrients (liquid fertilizer) but for now I’m waiting to see what water alone will do. Between evaporation and the garlic drinking the water, I’ve had to top it up a couple of times already, but the nice thing about hydroton is that it buffers the plant from water stress. If I forget and the water level gets low, the plant has some reserves of water stashed in the clay and can get to that until I clue in. When I do top it up, I just fill the jar until I’ve covered all but the top part of the root system – I want it to be able to breathe, so it doesn’t get filled right to the top.
I do have another pot in a different window that uses a wick: this is what people usually call a ‘self watering pot’, which is, of course, a misnomer as they don’t walk themselves to the tap every time they need a drink. A wick pot is really simple: just take your average pot-with-holes-in-the-bottom and tear a strip or two of rags from something, probably cotton or something else that gets good and soggy when wet, about half the height of your pot plus a couple of inches. Stuff the wick through the hole in the bottom leaving an inch or two dangling out (if it’s a big pot use two or three wicks) and then put in a bit of not-dirt (perlite/vermiculite/peat moss mix, the soilless mix you can get in bags at the store).
(Yeah, I spill this stuff every time. Get a broom, you’ll probably need it too.)
Pull the wicks up a little bit so that they reach at least halfway into the pot, then fill the pot the rest of the way with your soilless mix and add your plant (garlic works great!). Now set your pot on an inverted canning jar ring (or some other device to raise it up a bit while allowing the wicks to dangle through) in the bottom of a bowl. I have a few cereal bowls with chipped edges, so I’ve repurposed them as pot saucers for my wick pots, which are just regular garden centre plastic pots, nothing special, but the bowl improves the overall appearance quite a bit.
Pour water into the bowl so that it just comes to the bottom of your pot (but doesn’t soak it, you don’t want it always sitting in water). Now, thanks to the wonder of capillary action, water will move up the wick and into the soil at just the right pace for the plant. The perlite/vermiculite in the mix help keep the soil aerated and the peat moss helps the moisture move throughout the whole pot (hydroton is great for holding moisture, but doesn’t wick it up from the pot very well, so you can’t use it for this kind of thing). All you have to do is put water in the bowl whenever it gets dry, and not soak your plant, although the first time you water the plant you should also water from the top to make sure all the soil has been dampened, that helps kick start things.
Technically, both of these processes fall under the category of passive hydroponics. If you live in a cold climate, have nowhere to garden, love growing things but hate spilling dirt on your floor … maybe give this a try. It’s pretty easy.
Plus, how could anyone not be thrilled to be growing garlic in January when it’s –40 outside?