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Part 2 Hydroponic Tomato Adventures

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When Chef Paul asked about hydroponics, Jeff said gruffly, “It’s your first year growing tomatoes? Don’t even try hydroponics. Too many things can go wrong,” Ha ha ha ha. He was so right.
But just in case all of the hydroponic tomatoes dropped dead, we divided up the “growing environment”. We grew one third in the odd little clay balls and buckets with tubes, another third was also in the greenhouse in soil bags and the remaining third was outside.
In our quest to keep our tender little shoots happy in the greenhouse –sixty five degrees at night, seventy five degrees during the day with just the right amount of “sun” from our giant sodium grow-light making each day a few hours longer, we had an interesting side effect inside our home. In the morning, the microwave could only be used at certain times; before or after our pump, heater and/or light kicked on. And in the evening, movie watching also couldn’t happen for the same reason. The entire north wall of our house would blow more than one breaker when our human day-to-day living conflicted with the spa & tanning times of our green friends.
After a few of weeks of this really annoying recurring event, we beefed up our capacity with a new electrical outlet. At this point, we were fast approaching the $128 tomato and they were still small – and pale – and green!
If the pump system doesn’t deliver water and nutrients, of course, the plants die.
Soon though, all plants were getting love and attention through tickling the stems every morning to help pollination plust the correct allotments of food, water and temperatures. But then the dreaded tiny white fly appeared (mostly in the greenhouse).
If there’s too many of these ugly albino gnat-like things, well, uh the plants die.
So we ordered ladybugs and stinky, sticky lace wings to sprinkle and smear around the plants. I was somewhat astonished that hundreds of the cute red and black armored lady bugs could survive through our postal service in a cardboard box. The bugs did a terrific job eating the bugs eating our plants. Finally, everything was growing beautifully – and fast!

But we didn’t know that two more potential plant-killing events were just around the corner!
Do you remember last summer? In Western Washington, it was beautiful, sunny and hot! Hot, dry days are AWEsome for tomato plants — unless they’re in a greenhouse. When we discovered tiny flowers sprinkled on the ground like confetti, we learned about “Blossom Drop.”
Too Hot? No blossoms.
No blossoms, of course the tomatoes aren’t even “born”.
Oh Come ON!
Up went the shade cloth and in went bigger, better fans. Whew! Chef Paul could breathe again.
By now though with the unusual heat, our barrel that fed the hydroponic group started growing microscopic stuff in the water…stuff that was clearly giving our tomatoes indigestion.
Do the problems never cease!??
After frantic googling and consulting, the solution was to simply drop several giant frozen pop bottles into the barrel of water – daily, to keep the water temperatures down.
Good thing it worked, because the plants could have died! And at this point Paul was looking like he might not make it!
So months of learning what to do and what not to do along with water testing and tweaking, light and heat adjusting, pruning, tying, supporting and training the branches and cradling the fruit every day, I asked Paul what he thought about giving it another try. I laughed when he summed up the previous season. “There were so many things that happened that I didn’t understand.”
But we’re doing it again. Crazy? Maybe. The fun and enjoyment our staff and customers had was all worth it though. And every tomato picked to share with our diners was first tucked away for a couple of days in a dark cupboard to sweeten to perfection. Chef Paul even decided to hand- craft Mozzarella Cheese to compliment the tomatoes in our Caprese Dishes.
So if you had some of our tomatoes last season, thank you. Now you know the L-O-V-E that went into them. All plants definitely grew better IN the greenhouse than OUT and miraculously, neither Chef Paul nor the plants died, so I’m excited and a little nervous to say that we have enlarged our greenhouse to grow even more this year!
A special thank you goes out to the Jeff The Tomato Man, Jeff and his crew from NW Green Panels, the staff at the Indoor Garden and Lighting Store and Matt who had the inside scoop on our hydroponic system.

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