Master Gardeners teach hydroponic techniques to grow herbs indoors
FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP — Under the direction of Monmouth County Rutgers Ag Extension Agent Bill Sciarappa, Monmouth County Master Gardeners demonstrated simple hydroponic techniques farmers and backyard gardeners can use to grow herbs indoors throughout the year.
Monmouth Master Gardener volunteers Juanita Lamaute and Nancy Koenig were in the ag tent on the last day of the Monmouth County Fair on Kozloski Road.
“Rutgers has been doing a lot with hydroponics the last couple of years now and what we have here is one of the more portable setups,” Lamaute said.
“This way, we can talk with the public and show them how to grow more herbs and more food, vertically, instead of having to spread out,” Koenig said.
“We’re just getting into it ourselves,” Koenig said, noting they both have in-kitchen hydroponic herbal setups in their homes.
Seeds are placed in rock wool and begin to sprout right in the kitchen, usually near a kitchen window, they explained, “we mostly grow our own herbs, but you can grow fresh lettuce through the fall and winter with this kit,” Lamaute noted.
“We demonstrate these kits here and let them know how they can get their own kits online or at Walmart or K-Mart,” Lamaute explained.
On display at the Monmouth County RU Master Gardeners’ booth at the fair were other hydroponic pods bursting with everything from fresh kale to Scarlet red lettuce to wheatgrass, as well as a variety of healthy herbs.
Earlier this year, Sciarappa led classes on indoor hydroponics growing at the Monmouth County Ag Extension Service offices.
“One of our hydroponics classes drew about 200 interested patrons earlier this year,” Sciarappa explained, “and then we had another class for teachers for school community gardens where we had about 150 school teachers, so we’re trying to outreach what I already know through my team.”
Hydroponic growing techniques came into fashion about 40 years ago, he noted, and related he first saw hydroponics on display at Disney World on a trip to Orlando, Fla.
“They had some of the first hydroponics set-ups there for the astronauts and their trips to the moon and Mars in space stations,” he recalled, “then about 30 years ago, Ed Doerner started vertical towers with strawberries at the Rutgers research facility in Cream Ridge. Then when I came to Rutgers 20 years ago — after 20 years in research at BASF — we started at the RU Eco Complex in Bordentown. We grew hydroponic tomatoes there, and they tasted okay, though they were not as good as field grown ones. Then we grew basil and we were the first registered [hydroponic] basil production in the U.S.,” he recalled.
“With my assistant Brian Hulme, the basil we raised there tasted better than field grown, so we registered with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.”
About five years ago, Sciarappa said, he got a call from Theresa Reed of Beyond Organics Hydroponics in Freehold, who said she was starting a hydroponic greenhouse.
“Then it dawned on me, we’ve got to teach this to both commercial farmers and residents, because it fits urban agriculture in New Jersey very well,” he explained, noting, “already, a half dozen of my kids have gotten jobs in hydroponics greenhouses.”
“As you can see here, our newest expansion is into homeowners and kitchen growers, these larger ones are semi-commercial mini-pods for hydroponic growing and these towers contain Rutgers red lettuce, kale, basil, marigolds, nasturtium, wheat grass, a diversity of different crops. Instead of taking 60 to 70 days to grow, these are all grown in 30 to 35 days,” he explained.
In response to passers-by, Scirappa pointed out, “wheat grass is very good for you, and everything we’re growing here is good for you. You can grow them fast and turn them into a smoothie quickly and you don’t really have that many problems with insects or diseases, and you know how and where it was grown.”
“So nutrition-consciousness is driving sales of these hydroponic systems,” he said. For example, regular, field-grown lettuce has almost no nutritional value whatsoever, he said, in terms of nutrients and minerals.
“But [hydroponic] red lettuce has more anti-oxidants than blueberries and kale,” he said, “if you add the antioxidants of blueberries and kale — the super foods of today — this red lettuce has more, and we can feed it exactly what we want and boost up the nutritional content, so it’s super-healthy for people.”