Deb Babcock: Growing plants without soil

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Growing plants hydroponically avoids one of the biggest problems with indoor plants: over-watering or forgetting to water and then drowning our plants when they start to wilt and wither. It also avoids the messiness associated with soil and repotting as plants outgrow their space, and it avoids the bug problems associated with insects that live in soil.

Hydroponics is the art of growing plants without using soil. This method of growing plants goes back in time as far as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the famous floating gardens of the Aztecs.

For the arid climate we experience here in the Steamboat area, a small hydroponic indoor garden is a wonderful way to enjoy gardening during our long, gray winters while infusing our indoor air with much-needed humidity.

Although gardeners tend to place a lot of emphasis on the importance of good soil, it's not necessary if we can provide water, oxygen and nutrients to the plant roots by other means. Instead of using soil, plants can be anchored by washed gravel, glass marbles, washed silica-sand, peat moss, vermiculite and wood shavings placed into a water-tight container.

Tepid nonchlorinated (and non-softened) water is then added to keep roots moist. Softened water contains sodium, which will kill your plants, and some well water in the county has high levels of sodium. Do not add plant food until roots are well-developed (about a month). If your water contains minerals that might accumulate in your anchor material, you'll need to flush out the minerals periodically by flooding the material and draining it off before adding fresh water.

Because we have such low humidity here, you'll need to check the water levels frequently and replenish when needed. If the roots dry out, the plant will die. As soon as the roots are well-developed, feed your plant about once a month with a weak solution of liquid plant food. Garden centers carry special hydroponic nutrient solutions. Beware of a build-up of nutrients by keeping an adequate amount of fresh water in your container. As water evaporates, a higher concentration of nutrients may be left, which could burn the roots of your plants.

To provide enough oxygen to your hydroponic plant, it may be necessary to bubble air through the liquid around the roots of the plant. A small water pump such as is used in aquariums or a culture pot insert that forces air into the anchor material as the water level goes down will work.

Plants that grow well in a hydroponic environment include Peace Lilies (Spathiphyllum), Pepermonia,, Dieffenbachia, Spiderplant (Chlorophytum comosum), Lucky Bamboo(Dracaena sanderiana), Jade (Crassula ovata), English Ivy (Hedera helix), Philodendrons, Schefflera, Wandering Jew (Tradescantia pallida,), Pothos (Epipremnum aureum), Grape Ivy (Cissus rhombifolia) and even Avocado (submerge half the seed in water) and Sweet Potato.

So, if you feel you have a 'black thumb' when it comes to houseplants, consider hydroponics. For more information on this topic, visit www.hydroponicsonline.com.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or e-mail to gardeners@co.routt.co.us.

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