Growing food is so normal and natural. It happens all around us in nature with no help or intervention. Unfortunately most of us have become so detached from the process that it seems intimidating and we feel it is beyond our grasp. It is important to understand that plants are not all delicate, fragile things. Most are hearty and resilient (like KIDS!) If their basic needs are met they will grow. Every environment brings slight variations and each plant takes a slightly different path of growth depending on that environment, but we do not have to be experts in order to succeed. We just have to try.
This article is offered as an invitation to set fear aside and try. It is also a chance to propose a few bits of advice to ease you into the new experience of growing food at home, and likely the even newer experience of doing so without soil - AEROPONICS!
If you are brand new beginner there are just a couple key things to learn:
1) Plants do not need soil to grow. They need moisture, oxygen, light (to a certain extent warmth) and nutrients
2) Most plants prefer a moderately acidic water in the range of 5.5 - 7, with an ideal PH of 6. Measuring PH is as simple as dipping a meter or strip in the water. Adjusting PH is as simple as adding some vinegar (for seeding purposes only) or PH adjuster liquid if required during the growth phases. The entire process takes a matter of minutes.
3) PPM is a measure of the mineral particles in water. Plants thrive best with a PPM of 700-1400. Measuring PPM is as simple as measuring PH and we adjust PPM by either using fresh water, or adding nutrient rich solutions to our system.
4) The nutrition we use is typically labelled using three numbers eg. 3-2-4 (N-P-K) These numbers (and letters) represent the amount of specific nutrients present in the mixture, N - nitrogen P - phosphates and K - potassium *. These are the essential elements to develop shoots, roots and fruits.
THERE is your basic info! Not too bad eh?! You can become an expert - and indeed in time you will; but to get started that is about all you need to know.
Just like people, certain plants seem to be a little less sensitive to imperfect conditions. We highly recommend as a new grower you select one or two crops from this category and stay focused on them until you feel good about your yield. Like any new endeavor there may be some hiccups. Don't be discouraged if it takes a few cycles before you start to see progress. Just trust that you CAN do this, and increase your crop variety as you gain confidence and experience.
YOUR HEARTY PLANT SELECTION:
Green Leafy Veggies
Green Leafy vegetables tend to grow well in cooler conditions. They do not depend on as much light and also flourish indoors. Since leafy veggies are not fruiting plants they do not need pollination. For these reasons we recommend kale, lettuce or spinach. The nice thing about these crops is that they can be harvested and used for salads, micro greens, sandwich toppings or smoothies at any various times in their growth cycle and tend to get used in volume. You won't be wasting crops and you can get used to growing before you need to think about seeding cycles.
*These are not the only suitable greens, but they are the most commonly enjoyed.
Basil, cilantro, mint, and parsley grow well and are highly useful. Again they do not need pollination and are quite hearty. You may find basil drives better with the addition of a grow light. However we have had abundant success with different varieties. Smaller plants still produce a good quantity of beautiful herbs.
A few words about fruiting plants
You truly can grow anything in an aeroponic tower. The key is to go forward with a "growth mentality" meaning in time, with practice, everything is possible. Fruiting plants will grow and will produce beautifully, but they require additional effort and attention. For this reason we do not exclude them, but also do not recommend trying them as your first crop.
Fruits need longer exposure to light, and different spectrums of light. They need pollination (either by natural pollinators or by hand), additional space and support for the fruits to develop, and sometimes pruning. None of this work is overly intense, but can be a lot to think about when just embarking on your food journey. Think about your own time commitment and style before you add tomatoes, cucumbers or beans to your tower. If you DO give it a whirl, be patient and don't get discouraged :)
Let's talk about how to start.
In most cases you will be growing from seed. Seeds already contain the elements needed to get them through to sprouting. Your job is to provide a suitable environment. Namely a warm, moist space. Our preference for aeroponic growing is a material called rock wool. Rock wool is literally spun rock (picture someone making cotton candy, but instead of sugar they use rocks - I know...amazing). We refer to the individual segments as plugs.
Simply dipping your rockwool in PH balanced water for 10 seconds provides a suitable balance of moisture and oxygen for your seeds to be "planted". It is simple and efficient. Cover for a couple days until the sprouts are visible, then remove the cover and transfer your plugs to the tower when seedlings are about 12-14 days old (when roots are beginning to form under the plug).
Depending on your tower system watering will vary slightly. The key is to keep the growing medium (plugs/ rock wool) damp but not saturated. As long as you have added the appropriate nutrition to your water reservoir the tower will take over the work for you at this point. All you do it observe, and enjoy.
This is not a comprehensive growing guide (we have a full guide on our site which is free to use or print), I will stop here for the moment. It is my hope that you have learned something, and gained some sense of how achievable this process is. Growing food IS for you - it's for everyone. What a wonderful way to bring healthy food to your table and a sense of connection to what you eat?!