How forgiving are hydroponic systems for experimenting with rare crops? “Generally they’re just not,” says Tyler Baras with a laugh. Baras, a.k.a. Farmer Tyler, should know – he’s managing a 12,000 sq ft experimental greenhouse and is a master of controlled environment agriculture. But while it’s hard, he says there is a way to do extraordinary crops correctly in hydroponics and vertical farming. And it’s worth it – people are captivated and drawn to unusual plants and flavors. Keep reading this exclusive interview with Tyler to learn:
- What types of hydroponic systems work best for rare crops
- What rare plants to grow in your hydroponic systems
- What plants struggle in hydroponics
- And after all of that…does growing rare plants even make money? How are you going to do it?
*This is a HUGE 2000 word post of absolutely free information. It’s broken down into bullets and subheadings for easier following, so feel free to jump around.
Hydroponic Systems For Rare Plants
A few months ago Tyler was on stage at George Washington University in Washington, DC talking about the commercial viability of urban agriculture with a panel of local entrepreneurs. He was flipping off advanced concepts, ideas like keeping your plants in the seedling stage for as long as possible to save money on lights through planting density, like they were the easiest thing in the world.
You see, farming is almost a game to Tyler, and two of the biggest companies in commercial hydroponics (Hort Americas and HydroFarm) essentially help him play it. They sponsor the greenhouse he has set up with dozens of trials and product comparisons going on. He also has a goofy-fun hydroponics youtube channel and has been featured on networks like PBS and Fox where he shares his knowledge. Talking with him about his greenhouse projects is a consultation course in itself. But our relationship started somewhere much more integral.
It started with the element most essential to all farming; the seed. The seeds you select and how you take care of them decide your farm’s success or failure.
But what Tyler’s game has shown, or maybe it’s more like a grand experiment, is that there is certainly a right and a wrong way to push the limits of genetic diversity and unique cultivars in controlled environment agriculture.
And a lot of that has to do with how you design your system from the beginning. “When I was working at GrowHaus in Colorado, we used NFT systems,” he says. “And it was pretty tricky to grow a wide variety of crops.” He goes on to explain that when his arugula and cilantro were talking off his lettuce was suffering, and when his lettuce was blowing up, everything else was barely getting by.
Part of that failure was the NFT system itself. NFT is maybe the best hydroponic system for purely pushing yields, but it is such a tight system with such a small buffer (for hydroponics, the more water you have in your system, the higher your buffer/margin for error. With outdoor growing, soil with a quality microbiome performs the same function) that any little change in something like EC (or PPM if you’re more familiar with that term) is going to have a disproportionately large effect.
So, setting his pH and EC for lettuce was leaving his other crops out to dry. “I thought if I was going to go safe I would have two systems, one with high EC and one slightly lower, and split up my crops like that,” he explains how he decided to tackle the problem. This requires setting up different plumbing systems and using different reservoirs for different sets of crops (something we’d already been doing with my farm), but it’s still not the perfect scenario for more unusual crops.
Tyler has realized that “It’s a little easier to grow a wide range of crops in DWC as long as I’m keeping a high dissolved oxygen level.” To do that, he uses one of the Active Aqua pumps with a venturi attachment (here’s the one I’m using) as he’s found more success with that than any airstone setup. I tell him that I’d seen that but had usually ignored it. He laughs and says “Most people do, but that’s probably the best attachment that comes with a pump.”
- Use separate circulation systems for different crops. Tyler recommends a safe zone and then one where you really push your ppms.
- Use a DWC system for experimental growing – it’s safer than something like an NFT setup.
- Keep your oxygen levels high. A venturi attachment is your best solution.
Unusual Plants For Hydroponics
This simple principle pushes five star chefs to experiment with new ingredients and for ethnic cuisine to always find fans abroad. People like trying new foods. And for farmers, ethnic crops sell.
Tyler is a machine gun of information on crop varieties for hydroponics. It seems like he’s tried them all. His brain is like a lighting fast Wikipedia when I was talking to him and the easiest way to share what he knows is probably just bullet points with some of his favorites.
Hydroponic Monsters: Not your usual suspects of lettuce and tomatoes, but these little-known plants kill it in hydroponic systems
- Mizuna – “Mizuna is just a beast in hydroponics,” Tyler says. “It’s just the easiest crop to grow.” Mizuna’s serrated leaves look like saw teeth and it has a peppery, spiced taste, like a more mild version of arugula, something most people are already familiar with.
- Mint – My farm already has 7 different mint varieties growing and we are still trying to get up and running fully. That 7 could easily double. Tyler says that some of the more unique flavors of mint are “a good way to really surprise someone. Though some of them are just gross.” He gags at the memory of lavender mint. But, anyone who has made the mistake of planting mint directly into a garden bed knows it’s a voracious plant, and it’s no different in hydroponics. Varieties that many people have never heard of (including the bartenders that make great customers for this specific plant) include: chocolate, pear, and pineapple.
- Sorrel – Sorrel leaves have an interesting lemony tang similar to oxalis, an easily forageable edible plant most people think is a clover-like weed. In fact, oxalic acid gives both of these plants their flavor. Tyler recommends that when giving samples to chefs “Start with eating the stems and then the leaves. And, usually you just see the red vein sorrel, but the green sorrel is way tastier.”
- Watercress – “It just explodes in any system I put it in,” says Tyler. “But it’s a magnet for aphids so you have to have a pretty good pest control program.” Tyler has found that it’s also a good plant for the farmers market. “Usually I think of it as something that people aren’t super familiar with, but if they know it they love it.”
Remember, it’s not as easy to experiment in hydroponics as it is in soil. The systems are much more sensitive to input and this has traditionally constrained growers. So, while these plants maybe aren’t as voracious or unusual as the ones above, they are still relatively safe bets for branching out.
- Basil – Most people are familiar with the classic napolitano or genovese varieties known for their big, dark green leaves, but there are others like lemon basil and different red basils that are more unusual. “And basil flowers are really good edible flowers,” Tyler adds.
- Kale – Tyler likes doing kale mixes, making sure he’s using at least one that has a really vibrant red coloration. While he’s trialed many different varieties for this quality, he now uses a mix with scarlet, tuscano, red russian, and blue curled kales.
- Ice Plant – Though Tyler laments that it’s just “an 1/8 the size of the lettuce at thirty days,” ice plant is a salty succulent with leaves covered in glittery, water-carrying trichomes. It is a real rarity that adds a unique salty flavor to traditional greens mixes. The only thing holding it back is its slow growth.
- Bok Chois – Selling for more than lettuce with a quick growth rate, bok choi is another good species not usually seen in hydroponics that has a high potential for asian markets and adventurous chefs. While it comes in many sizes and colors, Tyler favors baby cultivars planted densely in a single grow cube and sold as a living plant.
- Oak Leaf – a lettuce variety that surprises many people with its unique shape and dark red coloration. Tyler’s favorite lettuces to grow are this and another variety called Breen.
Be careful trying…
So what crops don’t work? “I haven’t had any species that were complete failures, mostly they were just very slow,” Tyler says. But there are definitely ones he doesn’t think would be worth your while for hydroponics.
- Epazote – This sharp, herbal leaf is too slow to be worth it, but it’s a unique flavor for Latin American cuisine.
- Woody Stems – Plants like thyme and oregano aren’t as healthy when grown hydroponically, and their slow growth rate makes them a pass.
- Nasturtium Flowers – While growing nasturtium hydroponically is actually pretty easy, it’s more difficult to do the flowers. The problem is that it’s too comfortable for the plants. Nasturtiums need stress before they start to flower, so letting them dry out in fast-draining soil will yield a higher volume of the edible flowers than trying to do it hydroponically.
Does any of this actually make money? Maybe… if you’re smart. There are some great resources to help
“I try not to build the economics of my farm around rare crops,” admits Tyler. “I haven’t found it to be a sustainable sort of path. For me, what happens is a restaurant will request one of these crops that they’ve heard of somewhere that sounds amazing, but 6 weeks later they get it and they’re not that excited.”
And, if you’re taking the time to learn how to grow these specialty crops hydroponically, figuring out the pH, EC, and climate controls for example, and then adapting your hydroponics systems to those crops, you hope to have a longer term relationship with both the customer and the product instead of a dud.
What Tyler has found is that “It only makes sense for me if they’re buying my other crops like lettuce and basil.” In other words, the rare crops are a hook for his core products. “My main market is going to be the general public and what they love is butterhead lettuce and romaine.”
^^A sampling of what’s happening at Tyler’s Youtube
He also doesn’t like the price point of some of these varieties. While he’s growing in areas of greater agricultural abundance and diversity than say a New York or DC, “It’s tough for me to sell something I wouldn’t personally buy [because of the price].” He thinks about it and laughs. “But then again, I’m not a high end restaurant.” The more we talk, the more he seems to think that rare crops are more likely to be successful in a situation where high end chefs are a grower’s primary clients, especially if you can get a long term agreement.
But even for normal people, these unique plants are intriguing and Tyler loves using them as a hook, especially at farmers markets. Tyler tells the story of how he used to bring Mimosa pudica to his stand and laugh with people after their shrieks of surprise when the plant would instantaneously flop at the lightest touch. It was always a great opportunity for Tyler to walk customers through his selection and start a conversation based on a memorable experience.
Because again, people are captivated by unusual plants and flavors. This applies even more for chefs, and vertical farms like Farm One have been taking advantage of that.
And even with his apprehension, Tyler revels in growing anything. In fact, he’s writing a “Guide for commercial leafy greens production” on the subject for HortAmericas. This book is going to be a compilation of all the data that’s come out of Tyler’s work in the research greenhouse. If you liked or learned anything from this article, it’ll be a must as he’ll have entire chapters devoted to growing specific crop varieties and what the needs are of each plant, covering a wide range of rare plants, edible flowers, and high profit crops. It’s going to be a fantastic resource for any vertical farm or controlled environment agriculture operation.