Soil vs. Hydroponics Deep Water Culture – Tomatoes and Eggplants in South Florida (from seed)

    Gardening is a hobby. Farming is something that when you walk into it, already you have made the decision that it matters. My focus on this prepping column has been to prepare for the unknown with things that matter. So if you are going to grow food in hopes that you, or your descendants will survive off of it, you better put your head into the mindset of a farmer, not a gardener.

    I live in South Florida, and when I first moved here back in 2005, I was moving from a farm project that I had created in Western Massachusetts. I pushed the envelope with my methodology there, and was able to grow everything from lush heirloom tomatoes to perfect corn, to watermelons about 2 feet long and sweet as a Georgia peach when I had been told this was impossible in the short growing season of the Berkshires.

    When I got here, I planted some of the same stuff in containers, right in my back yard. I figured that I would have at least two, if not three growing seasons. Don’t worry, I told everyone. None of us are going to have to buy fresh vegetables anymore.

    My plants grew fabulously. Tomato plants 3 feet high. Eggplant and zucchini leaves deep green and lush. And my favorite, winter squash, a dozen feet long in a matter of weeks. Then it all started flowering.

    And flowering, and flowering, and flowering. Oh, and flowering.

    I got nothing but a lot of flowers. Even zucchinis wouldn’t grow here. It was just too hot in the summer to set fruit. It was devastating to me, so much so that I did not even try to grow anything for over 15 years.

    Then a prepper friend turned me on to David the Good, otherwise known as The Survival Gardener. He has a website, a Youtube channel, and a lot of really simple and easy to understand books on the ins and outs of gardening for someone without a lot of prior knowledge. Best of all, he has books just on Florida. David used to live right here in Hollywood Florida, and has explored a ton of gardening both here, and in Granada, both a 100% tropical climate.

    This was the first book I obtained by David the Good. I now have all of his Florida books, including the newest that just came out, but they do tend to get repetitive, and sometimes to the level of copy and paste. This book is a great eye opening overview, especially if you have prior gardening experience. David’s Youtube and website are also a wealth of information, and his books on propagation and composting are great outside the box approaches to those subjects, that really work.

    After reading Davids books, I decided to dive back in to growing things. As many of you know, I have not been a big proponent of gardening to survive. As a former farmer, I know how risky growing food can be, and it requires almost constant problem solving. But with David’s books in hand, this past February I took up my hoe and rototiller and started back out on this old familiar path.

    This time, instead of growing tomatoes and squash, I stuck to root vegetables and other tropical options straight from David’s books. And since I have a small five acre place in a former swamp, my own piece of Florida paradise, I have taken the farmer approach.

    This is the broadfork that David suggests in his books. It works great, but this small patch took me about 4 hours to dig, because the soil on my high ground is what they call hard pan.

    So for this prepping column, I am planning to walk everyone through what you would call Garden Farming. This involves growing mostly garden type vegetables, but a lot of them. David is big on hand tools, and I started with the tools he suggests, but I quickly moved back to tractors, because my soil on high ground is what they call “hard pan” here. You can grow in it, but it is like rocks that have to be broken up first.

    This is my ridiculous soil.
    I have since dispensed with the hand tool nonsense. For a decent size scale, you need a small tractor and inexpensive farm implements. You may be saying, hey I can’t afford that. But is all priorities. This tractor cost about the same as a 2005 Camry that has 130k on it. And the ripper attachment was $500. I hope to explain all of the farm implements I have employed to attempt my garden farm project.

    Monoculture has become the norm in farming these days. It is the only way a farmer can survive financially. But we are not talking about commercial farming here. We are growing enough food to eat year round, and to trade. Of course I will revisiting my canning topics as well as other food preservation techniques.

    And because I am in South Florida, my successes and failures will be couched inside the tropics. I still do not suggest that anyone plan to “live off the land,” because I guarantee you will fail (well the overwhelming majority will). But for the generations ahead, growing your own food and trading locally with it may end up becoming very important. I think that if you can, at least learn what it involves.

    Soil vs. Hydroponics

    Now onto our topic at hand, growing in regular soil, versus figuring out a hydroponic growing system.

    There are a few different types of hydroponic setups. I am going to start with DWC, which stands for Deep Water Culture. It sounds very advanced, but it is painfully simple. You start your plant in a rockwool block, and “pot it out” to a net pot filled with clay pebbles. Under the net pot you fill the underlying container with water, and place a fishtank aerator under it.

    I am planning to follow these seedlings through their lifespan for this column, and I will be sending it out as part of Grid Down. Subscribe to the South Florida Garden Farming channel for short videos along the way, and a lot of tiny little interesting subjects I encounter that you may be interested in if you are going to take this stuff seriously.

    Like with everything, you have to start somewhere, so I started with seedlings. And everyone wants to grow tomatoes, so why not try that first, with some eggplants. They both love sun and heat, up to a point. So I started the seeds in July, and will be potting them out in late august.

    The soil plants I will be growing in bags instead of directly in the ground, because I don’t spend time at my paradise in the swamp right now, and tomatoes are something you have to keep on top of every day. My residential neighborhood was build on fill made of limestone shell rock and coral, so it is tough to grow in it. Tomatoes tend to get eaten by either leaf rot or hornworms here in South Florida, so I will be taking specific countermeasures to guard against all of that, and other potential pitfalls.

    The hydroponic angle is something that David hasn’t had much success with, but I have, so I figured why not stand on my head and do tricks for this column, or its equivalent in gardening. I am not counting on the food to survive anyway, so growing with no soil is an adventure we can all share.

    But no matter where you grow, if you can’t grow in your actual soil, above ground growing is going to be your best bet. Don’t discount your own dirt and assume you have to use a raised bed. It is a standing joke in one of my gardening groups that you often see people building elaborate raised bed systems on top of perfectly good soil.

    Raised container beds have the same issues as hydroponics, running out of water, so there is no real advantage. Soil bags are heavy. You need a lot of them, and they are dangerous to use right now because of Grazon, a newer high tech weed killer that is being used on pasture and hay fields these days. It kills anything but grasses.

    Hydroponics does not have nematodes, and it is easier to keep them bug and disease free to a large extent. Most vegetables like a PH of 5.5 or so, and I just add a little lemon juice to the water to get it close.

    So if you bought some expensive “compost” or “manure” in an expensive bag, and your plants shriveled up after they sprouted and got nothing but stunted and malformed, that was probably the problem.

    Hydroponics has none of that. It is risky, because the plants can run dry. But I will show you how to get around that as we progress (I hope), and like I said, raised container bed gardens have the same issue. The power can also go out of course, robbing your aerators from pumping air. But there are solar 12v options to solve that.

    One thing I should address right up front is that I DO NOT BELIEVE IN ORGANIC. Twenty years ago I had an organic farm, right at the beginning of the USDA taking over the word “organic” and making it a license. Prior to that, there was no legal definition of organic, so you could claim it no matter what you did, and nobody really cared. Whole Foods (which was called Bread and Circus back then believe it or not), got all of their organic options from California, which did have an organic cerfiication system. USDA Organic co-opted that system, and here we are today.

    Organic today is a complete scam. You can use certain types of human waste sludge and be qualified for USDA Organic, but that allowance has backfired recently with the discovery of “forever” chemicals in many “organic” farms that will now never be used for farming again. These lands are planned to be stolen for solar farms now.

    Blood meal, fish emulsion and seaweed, along with traditional “organic” compost are no more organic in most cases than phosphate dug out of the ground, which is actually organic. But the lines are so blurred now, that organic has become a sales pitch and little else. Believe what you want, but that is my take. Twenty years ago I saw that organic was a scam, when I was paying twice as much for organic turkey feed and it came in hot because it was composting itself.

    As you will see, I will be treating my soil pretty much like hydroponic media anyway. I started with this soil block maker from Ladbrooke. It creates blocks that fit in the two inch blocks I covered many weeks ago. This is the time for planting in South Florida, so get going. Links are below to the product references.

    In South Florida, good luck at trying to improve your soil. For a small patch, if you till in a large amount of organic matter, natural compost and other soil enhancements, it will be great at first. Mulch it heavily, and it may guard you from all of your hard work being washed away for a time.

    But that time does not last long. Our torrential rains, where the sky can unload a foot of rain in an hour, will eventually wash even the most lovingly attended garden patch down to zero in short order. David the Good has experimented some with “biochar,” which is just a new agey sounding name for fertilizer soaked charcoal mixed into the soil. But on a larger scale garden farming approach, even David admits that you will need some kind of chemical fertilizer for most crops in South Florida.

    I don’t think you should limit yourself to organic methodology in any survival preparation. It is like when someone tells me that they bought two ten pound bags of organic gluten free flour at Costco for their prepping stash. I call them a jackass and tell them to return it and buy four to six times as much regular Walmart All Purpose Flour. Likewise organic gardening. If you are regular old soil gardening, go to Home Depot and buy ten 40 pound bags of 10-10-10. It is just safer, and smarter.

    My approach to gardening, or garden farming, in soil in South Florida is to treat the dirt as hydroponic media. There are some things that don’t need a lot to grow, like the stuff David the Good suggests, cassava, malanga, sweet potatoes, Mexican tree spinach, etc. But others do need inputs, and for inputs, expect to have to refresh them frequently.

    This patch is on my low ground, which can sometimes have 2″ of standing water during the fall. It now has sugar cane over 4 feet tall, which will survive the wet conditions if they should happen this year, and I will be spreading regular lawn fertilizer throughout. It takes a couple years for sugar cane to get established, but it is a perennial that keeps on growing.

    For some things I will use plastic to mulch, with drip lines underneath. David suggests traditional wood chip mulch, or straw or whatever organic material you can find. But on a larger scale, forget it. Drip lines allow you to run fertilizer right to the plants, with a healthy amount of water, and the plastic will protect them from the torrential rains and being washed down to sand.

    Hydroponics is fairly constant fertilizer. The plants grow in water, and you add a soluble or liquid fertilizer as you go. It is more work, but when you see how I plan to lay things out, you will see that the systems turn out to be almost identical.

    …for South Florida.

    When I was in Western Massachusetts, my land had been a cow pasture for decades, and fallow for decades after that. I had black dirt over two feet thick, and I could grow people if I could find the seeds. If you find yourself in these circumstances, by all means take advantage of it, and get growing. Maybe add a little lime to bring your soil PH to 7, but otherwise you probably will be fine for years, especially if you grow a cover crop at the end of the season and till it in before the freeze.

    If you think you have nowhere to grow, you are probably incorrect. Find a local old person who has some space, and ask them to partner up. You will invest the money and time, tend the crops, and they can have some of the spoils. Think outside the box.

    The important thing is to get going now, before you need it. Maybe you’ll never need it, but people who know how to bring value to the world are going to be who thrive in this new world we enter today. It’s not going to be pretty for a while. All you have to do is survive, and hope that on the other side of it we will see a new era of real prosperity and peace, in a world with full knowledge of the Creator and why we are all here.


    Soil Blocks Make Bigger Seedlings – Has link to soil blocker.

    Ladbrooke 1cm Soil Block Maker – creates the tiny blocks like in the video, which fit into the above 2″ block.

    Southeast Seeds Ebay Store – This is a link to the Florida Market Eggplant

    Truelove Seeds – Ethnic varieties that may work better in similar climates. And may be more robust long term.

    Southern Exposure Seed Exchange – Lots of different commonly grown vegetables and fruits. Great reputation.

    For the Love of Seeds – Etsy store

    Paul Helinski

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