Hydroponics vs Border Growing

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Tomatoes in autopots

Last year Pig Row responded to Gardeners' World saying after a visit to Incredible Edible Aqua Garden in Todmorden that what they were doing was somewhat 'Frankenstein', this throwaway comment by Monty wasn't meant to hurt but is did come a few months before the sad demise of the Aqua Garden. It also comes on top of a rather negative viewpoint of hydroponics due to its active use by gangs to grow cannabis. Such comments and views do influence many new and established home gardeners. Hydroponics and aquaponics in the UK has been embraced by commercial growers and many of the tomatoes and lettuces you buy today in the supermarket have come out of that system. Except many consumers don't know this because there is a perception that somehow you are cheating nature and creating a monster but the fact remains that consumers and supermarkets demand perfect fruit and vegetables, and that cannot be maintained in an open field system without application of chemicals. Now, I am guilty of such throwaway comments about these systems, I have in the past called them names that I am not proud of because I did not have all the facts at hand. In an age of social media it is so easy to let that knee jerk and pay the price for it. Here at Pig Row our trial never set out to disparage Monty. We love him! We set out to see whether a simple hydroponic system would deliver everything the producer claims it would. To stack facts and statistics up so we could all see as growers whether old or new was the way forward. A few years ago I spent time working with Andy, Martyna and Aine at the Aqua Garden to build my skills and I was struck back then by how the Aqua Garden was a vibrant growers community that trained others from the UK and abroad, took in students from the local community, worked with other organisations and built up a wide network to sell vegetables and made a real impact in the community without once having to involve a supermarket. Just like allotments. We miss that project. Last year we started our trial with hydroponic autopot system and have noted since that trial there are similar systems now available from several of the mainstream seed companies under the guise of 'holiday watering'. In 2018 I grew two crops in this system: tomatoes and chillies, I kept updates through the growing season and shared our final thoughts. However, I always thought that this initial trial was a knee jerk reaction and wouldn't hush those claims of 'unnatural' and 'Frankenstein' without a comparison to old ways of growing. I want to keep a record that will be in one post rather than several, a more in depth report of what was grown, how it was grown and how it grew. I still believe there is a real need to discuss in home gardening about hydroponics and whether they maximise growth and yields for those who are new to it. Back in April 2019, I started the trial, showing you how to plant tomatoes in an autopot system and planting the open ground tomatoes at the same time. I selected Tomato Costoluto Of Parma (Seeds of Italy £1.99) and Tomato Baby Plum Muscato (Seeds of Italy £2.99). I grew 16 strong tomato plants, selecting from a wider range and employing quality control to only select plants of the same variety, health and size. Likewise, I selected 16 chilli plants, 8 of Palivec Long Red Chilli Pepper (Real Seeds £2.44) and 8 of Basque Chilli (Real Seeds £2.46). All 32 plants were treated the same, they were fleeced during the cold, watered at the same time and grown on in a blend of coir, organic compost and garden compost. This was mixed at the same time, at the same rations. The only marked difference at this point was that the hydroponic system was on the south side of the greenhouse and the open border on the north side. I had concerns that this may cause variations in the growth patterns. There was an opportunity here to have split the two systems over two beds and this is my error but as this is a large greenhouse there are fluctuations in light (due to a nearby hedge) and heat over the length (see fluctuations around auto-vent windows and doorways) that would impact on all the plants. 


By May there was a distinct difference between border and autopot. The border was struggling to getaway with signs of nitrogen deficiency. I put this down to the soil not warming up but as we have a short growing season at Pig Row it is important for us to get our tomatoes growing (I sow our seeds in February in most years). This was the case in the autopot system, fruit was forming on the tomatoes and chillies.

Green tomatoes

Green chillies

The growth though in the autopot system was faster compared to the open bed. You can see this in the photos below. Please note that in the open border system I have sunk pots into the ground to act as reservoirs. This is an old technique to get water to the roots and to promote strong root growth. It's an old Alan Titchmarsh and Geoff Hamilton tip (see, we do love you Gardeners' World).


Greenhouse tomatoes

By late June, the tomatoes in the open border were catching up with the autopot system - though Tomato Baby Plum Muscato in this autopot system had reached the eaves of the greenhouse and were being pinched out. The chillies in the autopot system were also stronger with lots of fruit setting and strong side shoots in comparison to those in the open border. 

Tomatoes in autopots

Tomatoes in the greenhouse

Chillies in autopots

I decided to plant our remaining chillies into pots on the staging. This again is an old way of growing chillies when seed sowing has ended. I would like them all to be terracotta because I am huge fan of the Victorian Kitchen Garden and also I find terracotta easier to manage in terms of watering - a quick ding on the edge of a pot with a bamboo cane tells you whether to water or not, hollow ding = water away, dull ding = leave. 


Our first harvest comes in the first week of July. We could have taken tomatoes earlier but we noted that the border tomatoes were putting on some fast growth as the weather warmed up. I will produce a final tally at the bottom of this post so you can see a complete listing of produce harvested at several different points during summer. I won't do a complete yield because I want to take an average over the next few weeks that replicates how we actually pick tomatoes at home; you know that you have a tendency to eat them off the vine. 

Tomatoes being weighed

From the autopot system we received 92g but from the border we harvested 0g. There are green fruits forming and these are somewhat healthier than the hydroponic system which is showing signs of blossom end rot and lack of phosphorous. There has also been signs of scorching to the leaves due to several hot days and cool nights, though the greenhouse has been shaded I haven't always been there to put it up on hot days. This is quite common in home growing as we cannot all race home from work yelling at out boss, 'I need to save the tomatoes!' I may invest in white out for the glass next year but some of the products on the market have had mixed reviews, so that may be another trial in the making. There were no chillies from either system. We have chosen not to weigh these but to count them instead.

Scorched tomatoes

It would be easy to state that the hydroponic autopot system is the winner at this point, to dismiss the whole 'Frankenstein' comment but by mid-July I was struck by how much the hydroponic tomatoes were suffering in comparison to the open border. I added epsom salts to help these plants along but in the end the leaves yellowed and wilted, we noted some blossom end rot, which you normally associate with lack of watering. However, there was a difference between the location of these plants and the border ones as stated before the hydroponic system was in the south facing border and the open border was north facing. Early July in terms of sunshine and heat was rather a washout with too wide a range of fluctuating temperatures, one night saw a drop of over fifteen degrees celsius from daytime temperatures. It was here that we started to get chillies coming in, see final tally below.

Greenhouse growing

The hydroponic system in the south facing bed with its black pots meant that I had concerns about heat transference to the roots and to the plants.


The border tomatoes which are on the north side of the greenhouse suffered no scorching or nutrient deficiency by mid-July. In fact, deficiencies of nitrogen seen early in the season had retreated and the foliage was growing fast, though fruits were slower to form. These plants actually carry the largest beefsteak tomato we have ever grown and keep watching on our Facebook Page to see whether it turns red! A weeding rota also had to be implemented in this border to keep down unwanted growth but there was opportunity in a wider area to grow basil and salads. The salads did bolt due to the weather fluctuations and the basil never really took off.

Tomato plants

Towards the end of July and crops start coming in with larger quantities from both areas and now we are looking not just at weight but taste and texture. Is there a difference between border and hydroponics?



I set up a taste test in which the participants don't know which tomato comes from which system. Both participants (yes, they're related and no they haven't been bribed) opt for the cherry tomato due the look of it, Tomato Baby Plum Muscato, we label one A (hydroponic) and the other B (open border). Carol thinks the open border tomato is sweet but thick skinned in comparison to the hydroponic offering - in fact both Carol and D think this is from the hydroponic system as the tomato is rounder and fuller. When they eat the hydroponic cherry tomato they both agree that it is sweeter, very tasty with a thinner and easier to chew skin. D states that this tomato has 'a long lasting taste' unlike the tomato from the open border.

Taste test

In the end though it does come down to the picking tally and here are the final results:

Wednesday 3rd July
Autopot System 92g of tomatoes.
Open Border 0g of tomatoes.
Autopot System 0 chillies.
Open Border 0 chillies.

Tuesday 23rd July
Autopot System 502g of tomatoes.
Open Border 246g of tomatoes.
Autopot System 8 chillies.
Open Border 0 chillies.

Monday 5th August
Autopot system 1.2kg of tomatoes.
Open border 504g of tomatoes.
Autopot System 5 chillies.
Open Border 2 chillies.

Monday 26th August
Autopot system 614g of tomatoes.
Open Border 294g of tomatoes.
Autopot System 12 chillies.
Open Border 5 chillies.

The yields speak for themselves but there are some notes of interest. Hydroponics does benefit chillies more than beefsteak tomatoes. The autopot system seemed to cope better with the cherry tomatoes, they was seen in last years trial which was 100% cherry tomatoes. Next year I wouldn't grow beefsteak in an autopot system but I would plant all my cherry tomatoes in this system and plant my beefsteak in an open border system. In the end, chillies were happier in a hydroponic system, if we take into account our control plants in pots, the yields there over the trial were only 5 compared to 25 in the autopot system. That's a 400% difference between the control and the autopot system with the open border only yielding 7 chillies over the entire trial. So, would we embrace a 'Frankenstein' future? Yes. It benefits certain varieties and types, it speeds up the growing process and means we can plant earlier but from a day to day way of living point of view it means if we forget to shade or water, the crops won't suffer. However, as we have stated, we'll keep our beefsteak tomatoes in the ground as they need that slower way of growing.


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