We’ve all seen plants grown vertically, such as pole beans, but how many have seen a hydroponic greenhouse operation where many different vegetable varieties are grown vertically? Why do they do that – isn’t it a lot of extra work, to string everything up like that? What’s the point, anyway?
The “point” or the reason for growing vertically is to maximize the yield of healthy fruit in a given space, and to eliminate losses from bugs, rodents and other small animals, moisture, disease and foot traffic.
It may be hard to imagine, but the best hydroponic growers can produce 330 tons of tomatoes on a single acre. That’s 660,000 pounds of food! Imagine what you could do on just a hundredth of an acre if you could replicate the hydroponic grower’s results. Could your family live on 6,600 pounds of produce? I think so! And what you will learn about today is sometimes called “the poor man’s hydroponic method” of gardening because we have adapted some of the most important elements of hydroponic growing to the backyard garden while keeping all the benefits of growing in the soil and direct sunshine.Now, don’t expect to replicate the hydroponic grower’s results exactly, after all they have up to a million dollars invested PER ACRE in buildings and equipment, and their labor costs are high as well, not to mention the fact that they grow year-round, instead of the 6-8 months we get.
To put things in perspective, a tractor farmer can reasonably expect to produce between 30 and 35 tons of tomatoes per acre if he has a good crop. That’s one tenth of the hydroponic grower’s yield – and the tractor farmer has a significant investment in equipment, etc. also.
So what CAN the family gardener expect to produce on his little plot of 1/100th of an acre? Between a half and one ton of fruits and vegetables is not unreasonable to expect, if it’s done right. That’s 1,000-2,000# in only 450 square feet of garden space (which translates into 50-100 tons per acre!).
Is this really possible? Yes it is, and here’s how: Grow vining plants vertically, and grow ever-bearing crops, or multiple plantings of single-crop varieties. And feed your plants properly and well, to assure they continue to produce throughout the season. The formula for a complete balanced natural mineral nutrient mix is available at www.growfood.com in the Learn section.
And don’t just go for volume, but grow high value crops! Tomatoes, even at the summer bargain price of $1 per pound, are a much more valuable choice than potatoes, corn or most other choices. For example, a 15 foot row of tomatoes can produce 400-600# of luscious fruit, while that same space planted in potatoes will yield 100-150#, and corn would give you 45-60 ears.
How is it done, and what investment is required? You can grow right in your native soil, with no soil amendments, and accomplish the numbers I’ve mentioned, but let’s talk about another option that can give you even more in that limited space, and that’s growing in containers, which we call Grow-Boxes.
Find a sunny level space just 16’ by 28’ and build 4 open-bottom frames of 2” X 8” treated lumber 4’ wide and 16’ long, spacing them so as to have 3’ aisles.
If you were to plant 4 rows of non-climbing plants in each box, you would have 256 feet of plants, which is great, but I’m going to recommend you use much of your space for growing just two rows of climbing or vining plants in each box. It’s called vertical growing, and this is how you will really maximize your yields in limited space.
To grow your plants tall you’ll need to start with indeterminate, rather than determinate, bush, or patio varieties. Why? Determinate tomatoes, beans, etc. generally grow only 18-24" tall, and set their fruit in a fairly short time span. Indeterminate varieties continue to grow and produce fruit over many months, until killed by frost.
The details of growing healthy seedlings and transplanting into your garden are an article for another day, so I’ll assume you already have healthy seedlings or you’re growing from seeds in the garden. If you are buying plants avoid those with long thin stems. These plants have “stretched” looking for sunlight because of crowded growing conditions. They never fully recover from the thin, weak stems this causes and your yields will suffer greatly.
All tall-growing plants are sensitive to frost damage, so wait to put them into the garden until the danger of frost is past.