Starting Hydroponics: A Response to Gardeners' World

I am a big fan of Monty Don, I love his writing and his work on Gardeners' World but a couple of months ago Gardeners' World struck out North for a change and ended up at Incredible Edible Aqua Garden in Todmorden. The Aqua Garden was run, and yes I am using past tense here because they sadly closed earlier this year due to lack of funding, by the innovative and forward looking gardeners and growers, Aine Douglas, Martyna Krol and Andy McConville. This triumvirate of growers challenged how we saw the future proofing of food in the UK. In 2017, I was fortunate to work with them to bring new gardeners to train with them and to undertake some training myself. They were passionate, funny and committed to the education of children and adults in growing food in an ancient system of growing that can be traced back to South America, Egypt and India. That was why I was sad that when they were featured on Gardeners' World, Monty referred to what they were doing as something that he felt was a little 'Frankenstein'. That term was incredibly loaded from the nation's favourite gardener and in one swift swoop dismissed what hydroponics was, is and could be. For the record, there is no mad genius behind the creation of hydroponics, hydroponics is not a monster but something that helped millions in the ancient world to feed themselves and which in the future will be vital for billions to feed themselves. It saves soil and water, in a world where our population control is out of control. Monty's comment was poorly judged, I would have preferred for him to try the system first before commenting on it. So, because Monty didn't do it, we will. We are turning over our glasshouse to hydroponics.

Hydroponic set up

We have embraced an autopot system, they're not cheap, between £40-60 a tray but they last for years and the initial outlay outweighs the waste and loss of water when producing tomatoes. We are often very glib about how we use water as gardeners in the UK. To produce one tomato we need 3.3 gallons of water. Much of this is run off into the soil as soil has only a finite water holding capacity it leaches out into our waterways and is lost. Which means, in our greenhouse alone, we use around 1400 gallons of water to produce our tomatoes. Which means in 8 years we have gone through 12,000 gallons of water to produce tomatoes. Our greenhouse is 12 x 8 feet, now imagine the scale of water loss and waste in the commercial industry. Now, our maths isn't the greatest but the UK produces around 92,000 metric tonnes of tomatoes each year. Tomatoes weigh roughly 62g and that equates to roughly 1.5 million tomatoes. That means we use nearly 5 million gallons of water a year. That's roughly 8 Olympic Swimming pools, and only 1 of those pools will be taken up by the final fruit and the rest will wash away, chemicals and all. Remember that we use phosphorous to feed tomatoes and too much phosphorous in the sea leads to too much algae and plankton, creating a bloom, and starts a cycle that drags oxygen out of the sea, killing marine life. Even if you water with comfrey tea, high in phosphorous, you too are adding to this water run off cycle. In hydroponics this waste can be lowered by up to 90%. The water here is contained in a flood system, the plants take up what they need, the trays run dry and then flood again. Nothing is lost to the soil.


The tank we are using holds 2 gallons and over the next 12 weeks we will use around 30-40 gallons of water because there is no run off, no water will be lost to the soil. That's a massive reduction from 1400 gallons. It means we can control feed too, meaning that no feed is lost into the soil to cause damage or harm in the seas. Even organic feed can cause problems for plants, bugs and fish. We are not saying that the future will be hydroponic, but neither will it be an open field operation. There will be a balance and there will be no monsters, just the sensible application of science rather than ignorance and fear. So, Monty, we throw down the cap to you, try hydroponics too next year and let the nation know that it isn't a Frankenstein future but a future in which we take responsibility for our planet using the most ancient of growing methods. You can see Andrew is the film below taking you through how to set up a basic system.

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