Bioponics: Organics Marry Hydroponics

By: Jody Bates
Would you like to have succu- lent, juicy tomatoes and an Italian herb garden ready for your next salad? Chris Freeman, a recent Masters of Agriculture graduate of Texas A&M University, has devised a unique system called "bioponics" that has all the advantages of hydroponics, yet is certified organic by the Texas Department of Agriculture.

If you are a commercial gardener, the organic stamp of approval can command higher prices in the marketplace, and bioponics assure crops with high aesthetic value and consumer appeal.

"Organically grown produce is a catchphrase that elicits strong - even passionate - responses from those who support it, and from those who question it," states Freeman. "But one thing is clear - sales of these products are growing every year as a result of health-conscious consumer concerns over the safety of the food supply."

Freeman thinks he has found a unique growing method to produce high-quality, certified organic vegetables, particularly fancy varieties of lettuce and fresh herbs. "This method is a hybrid of two distinctive growing techniques - hydroponics and organic farming," he said.

"Bioponics is a name created by Dr. Luther Thomas of Utah, and through experimentation I have found that it is possible to grow crops using nutrients that are acceptable in a certified organic crop program within a hydroponics system," Freeman explains.

"I have used this hybridized method (known as bioponics) to successfully grow a variety of crops, including gourmet lettuce varieties, basil, oregano, thyme, parsley and edible flowers," specified Freeman. He originally created his own nutrient formulas, but now there are different products on the market developed for this growing technique.

Bioponics At Home

To get started, buy basil, oregano, thyme and parsley seeds. Start them in Oasis or Rockwool cubes, keep seeds moist until they sprout. Once sprouted, place them 1 to 2 inches under a cool fluorescent light or a sunny window.

Use two containers that will set on top of one another. Rubbermaid(tm) type containers are ideal. Get one that is slightly larger than the other. In the bottom (larger) container is the reservoir of solution.

In the top container make a combination of perlite and vermiculite. This provides oxygen and keeps soil loose, the vermiculite holds the water like a sponge and stores elements for the plant roots.

Use woven cotton for wicks (like you buy for lanterns) between containers to pull up the solution in capillary action (the same principal you use with African violets).

Mix a standard hydroponic solution to half strength. The formulations are usually either "grow" or "bloom." Freeman suggests a combination of both, either one to one or more grow than bloom. The elements in the bloom formulation provide for root growth as well.

You will need an electrocon-ductivity (EC) meter or a pH meter. The EC meter tells how strong the solution is. Measure it when first mixed, and then add water as needed to dilute the solution as the plants take up water. Replace the solution completely every two weeks.

Measure the pH daily, and adjust with pH up or pH down solutions, available from your fertilizer source. Freeman states that there are several advantages to bioponics.

"The grower can benefit from a controlled-environment agriculture, so you are less dependent on favorable climatic conditions, and there is a faster time to harvest, plus year-round harvest and high yield per square foot."

A recent event may accelerate the acceptance of organically grown produce. According to Freeman, the emergence of the new E.coli bacteria strain that has been found in fancy mixed salad can infect consumers. Previously, E.coli was only recognized as dangerous in meat products.