by Phil Easter

Stacks of hydroponically grown tomatoes and strawberries using the Hydro-Stacker growing system at Barber Berry Farm.

Every once in a while those of us who have been in the gardening-horticultural field for years find something totally unexpected, and sometimes in unexpected places. For example, take the interesting, vertical "white things" I first noticed along the Alabama River Parkway, between Montgomery and Prattville, Ala., earlier this year. In checking with fellow Master Gardener Anida Wishnietsky, who with her husband, Ken Barber, owns Barber Berry Farm, L.L.C. just north of the toll station, I was told they were hydroponic planters. I must admit that I subsequently forgot about them.

I was returning from Millbrook early one recent evening, and on approaching the berry farm, decided to check out those vertical white things more closely. Anida and Ken kindly spent nearly 45 minutes (and two subsequent meetings) showing me their latest innovations on the 8 acre "you-pick" berry farm they started just three years ago along the parkway. To say the least, I was, and still am, blown away by what they're doing!

Ken explained that the hydroponic growing system is called Hydro-Stacker, a unique growing system that can yield 3-5 times higher production of crops than in the ground in a very limited space utilizing greatly reduced amounts of water. In fact, just a quart of water and nutrients applied three to four times daily to each stack of Styrofoam planters is said to be able to produce up to 70 pounds of tomatoes or 20 quarts of strawberries per stack. And, yes, the Hydro-Stacker can be utilized by home gardeners, but most likely without the automated watering, etc.

Standing 7 feet or 5 feet tall respectively, each of Ken's stacks consists of up to three containers of tomato plants or five strawberry planters. With four openings per Styrofoam container, that translates into 20 strawberry plants, grown vertically in an area no larger that 2 feet by 2 feet. At that rate, it's conceivable that the Barber Berry Farm could eventually include up to 75,000 strawberry plants (and quarts of berries) per acre. Conventional, in-the-ground methods would max out at 7,500 plants per acre. And remember, no container is less than 18 inches from the ground, meaning no bending and stooping to plant, cultivate or harvest hundreds of quarts of strawberries per acre!

Strawberries were added to the Barber Berry Farm hydroponic experiment because so many customers were requesting them. However, Ken and Anida did not want the difficulties of production involved in traditional, in-the-ground cultivation. The Hydro-Stacker system obviously provides the opportunity to produce large quantities of strawberries with very little labor and difficulty. By choosing "day-neutral" strawberries, one planting in March will provide the first crop of fruit in six weeks and will continue producing until the first freeze in November. During the hottest months, the strawberry production does slow down, but bounces back when cooler weather returns. Ken chose the variety 'Seascape' for 2010 but their production seems to drop off drastically during hot summer days. For 2011, he will plant a variety called 'EV2', which is said to handle hot temperatures a little better.

Each stack of planters is mounted on a 1/2-inch steel conduit that goes 2 feet into the ground and extends 16 inches above ground. Over this pipe fits 3/4-inch steel conduit that goes 6 inches into the ground and extends 54 inches above ground (for the strawberries). This installation provides adequate support for the stack, even during wind gusts. Larger plants, such as tomatoes, could receive wind damage but the stack should remain stable. In addition, this allows each of the planters in the stack to be hand rotated if desired, which means each plant in the stack can receive the greatest amount of sunlight for maximum production. Although not practical in a commercial installation, this feature could be valuable for the home gardener with limited direct sunlight.

OK, let's go back a bit. Hydroponics may be an unfamiliar term for some. Strictly speaking, it means growing plants in water, something recorded as used by the Egyptians several hundred years B.C. In the case of the Hydro-Stacker system, the Styrofoam container pockets are filled with a non-soil, sterile growing medium that supports the plants and their roots. Interestingly, this medium can be used repeatedly for as long as six or eight years.

Ken Barber points to part of the nutrient injection system that allows Barber Berry Farm to produce hydroponically grown strawberries and tomatoes.

A quart of water and nutrient solution is, in the case of the installation at Barber Berry Farm, applied automatically three to four times daily depending on temperature, and flows from the top level to all the lower levels with any overflow going into the ground. Interestingly, the nutrient solution is the same for any crop, whether it's strawberries, tomatoes, lettuce, herbs, flowering plants or just about any plants from our gardens. A batch of the nutrients lasts up to six weeks before needing replacement. And, yes, the Hydro-Stacker system is available in a non-automated version for the home gardener with limited space.

In addition to all the above information, the question remains: What led two career military people and confessed computer geeks to establish Barber Berry Farm upon retirement from the service? Anida had no previous plant growing experience, while Ken remembers the enjoyment he received by being involved in growing 75 rose bushes many years before. They are also interested in providing educational opportunities for parents with young children. In fact, the majority of their customers are moms or families with kids learning that fruit comes from plants instead of appearing mysteriously in the grocery store.

In addition to the hydroponically grown tomatoes and strawberries, Barber Berry Farm grows a wide assortment of you-pick thornless blackberries, blueberries, muscadines, nectarines, peaches, persimmons and plums.

I've mentioned tomatoes and strawberries growing in the Hydro-Stacker system, but Ken and Anida are also growing multiple varieties of thornless blackberries, blueberries, muscadines, nectarines, peaches, persimmons and plums in the ground. Each plant or tree receives water through an extensive irrigation system. The berry farm is open for you-pick from late May-early June through early October. As crops of each type of fruit begin declining, you pick changes to "we-pick" so that customers don't have to spend so much time trying to fill their containers.

So, what's on the schedule for 2011 for the Barber Berry Farm? The assortment of varieties of each type of in-the-ground fruit will continue to provide the longest production time possible. Following Ken's desire to educate, the hydroponic section of the operation will expand to include a demonstration garden, which will show customers and tour groups how various crops can be grown by this method. Included in the demo garden will be tomatoes, strawberries, sweet corn, peppers, squash, zucchini, onions and herbs.

Ken and Anida's Barber Berry Farm is an excellent opportunity for families (and others) to experience the great, just-picked flavor of a wide variety of fruits and learn a lot about how fruits are grown. For more information see barberberryfarm.com.

 

Ken Barber and wife Anida Wishnietsky, show off strawberries being grown in their Hydro-Stacker growing system. It could potentially allow them to grow as many as 75,000 plants per acre at their Barber Berry Farm near Montgomery, Ala.
(Click on any photo to enlarge)


Phil Easter is a Master Gardener and a member of the American Institute of Floral Designers, American Academy of Florists and Professional Floral Designers, who has lived and gardened in Montgomery, Ala. for the past 30 years.



 

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Container Recipes for Sun and Shade
Barber Berry Farm
How to: Pruning Fruit Trees
Indoor Container Combinations
Upcoming Magazine - Highlights from September