How to Grow Tomatoes in a Hydroponic System

Last time we looked at potting up dahlias but for us at Pig Row the beating furnace of the garden is the greenhouse, it was one of the first things we bought after clearing the quarter acre site of weeds all those years ago. There was a simple reason why we wanted a greenhouse and that was...tomatoes. They are for me so synonymous with my Dad, the smell of them is one of my earliest memories but I am strange when it comes to tomatoes. I can eat them sliced, I can eat them in a wonderful salad but I struggle to eat them off the vine, I think it may be a texture thing. Don't judge me. I love growing and eating tomatoes but would run a mile if I had to bite into one like an apple. We all have our oddities. We became slightly more odd last year when we embraced hydroponics and saw the benefits of growing our tomatoes in a closed water system. Today, I'm starting the pots off in a 50:50 mix of coir and organic multipurpose compost and I'm going to take you step by step through how we plant our tomatoes in our hydroponic system. We're hoping to trial this beside a traditional form of tomato growing this year so we can measure, pound for pound, whether it is worth ditching open soil. This year we're going to show you how to grow tomatoes in both ways, in open borders in the greenhouse and in hydroponic pots. Today, it's hydroponic tomatoes.

Coir and compost mix, hydroponics

I start by mixing our coir and multipurpose on the bench, you are best potting any plants on in a compost tray on a bench. We have two of these, one given to us as a present and another from a skip (can't walk past one). That way any spills will just go back into your compost tray and can be used again. I always start my tomatoes on a windowsill indoors in February, alongside my chillies, doing this means that I don't sow too many, I only want sixteen tomato plants for the greenhouse and that means I sow my first seeds in a small tray because my windowsill can't hold a hundred tomato plants. This year we're growing Tomato Costoluto Of Parma (£1.99 a packet from Seeds of Italy) and Tomato Baby Plum Muscato (£2.99 a packet from Seeds of Italy). You can also see what chillies we're sowing here. We've already pricked out our tomatoes into small pots and grown on indoors. Now we're ready to get them into their final hydroponic pots.

Tomato plant

You can see we are still using plastic, and we will continue to do so until the pots can no longer be used. When they split and are beyond use we will not replace them but throwing them all out seems a little stupid until that happens. Waste not. Want not. Remember, many plastic pots cannot be recycled and by discarding them you are consigning them to landfill or furnaces. Better to use rather than buy something new that still eats up resources. I have placed a piece of membrane in the bottom of this pot to stop the roots clogging up the flood trays in the hydroponic system. I then place a layer of clay balls around two inches deep, the clay balls retain moisture and provide a level of coolness for the roots. They also promote a strong root system. I place the tomato plant deep in the pot so that the root ball is in contact with the clay ball layer.

Clay balls, hydroponics, life on pig row

It's then a matter of topping up with that 50:50 blend burying the lower leaves. Don't worry about this as the act of planting tomatoes deep is a traditional method which promotes more roots from the main stem, anchoring the tomatoes into a pot or ground. Just remember to gently firm the compost around the tomato plant so that it stands up and doesn't flop over. You could go a step further with this system and ditch the soil completely by washing away the compost on the roots and planting into the clay balls. Remember though in both methods the plants will rely on you for watering and feeding.

Hydroponic tomato

Then it's just a case of writing a plant label and watering them. I will cover these with fleece at night until the threat of frost has passed and they will then be placed within the hydroponic system. You can see our setup for that here. In a few weeks we will look at how to plant into a greenhouse border which is the traditional way of growing tomatoes undercover.

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