When people talk about gardening, one of the quintessential plants that come to mind are tomatoes. This popular fruit (although used like a vegetable, it is botanically considered a fruit!) comes in many shapes, sizes, and types: some tomato plants are determinate, meaning they will produce fruit and ripen all at once, and others are indeterminate and will grow until killed by frost or other intervention, producing fruit throughout the growing season.
Growing intriguing new varieties of tomatoes has been a regular hobby at Boswyck Farms for the past few years. We’ve had many successes, such as the Green Zebra, which featured both a refreshing tartness and striking coloration.
One of the drawbacks to indoor hydroponic tomato production is that options are limited on how to grow them. Tomato plants take up A LOT of room:
Tomato plants also develop very large root systems to support upward growth and need a lot more space than your leafy greens and herbs. We’ve generally grown our tomatoes in bucket systems, as seen above, to accommodate the root mass.
This winter, we’ve used our indoor off-season to explore a new variety of tomato plant: Minibel. The potential benefit of this cultivar was that, unlike other tomato varieties, this plant was marketed to only grow to be about a foot tall, meaning it could be an option for the home grower with limited (vertical) space. Plus, we reasoned, if the plant would not grow as tall and prolific as the other types, would it have a root mass that would be a suitable match for other types of hydroponic systems?
Putting this plant to the test, we set up two grow spaces:
One batch of seedlings went into an NFT system.
The other went into our custom flood and drain system, housed in a cabinet.
The beginning vegetative cycle for the tomatoes lasted about three months. While we were (im)patiently awaiting the first tomato for a taste test, we were able to satisfy our curiosity about the possibility of growing these tomatoes in a wider range of hydroponic systems.
About a month in, we could see that the NFT systems would probably not be ideal for these tomatoes. First, the standard spacing of the Crop King rail (8″ apart) were too close. The plants were crowded and pushing each other out of the light canopy provided for the system. Second, the root mass was filling the NFT channels and left the system vulnerable to clogging. Hypothesis failed, dwarf tomatoes were not a good fit for an NFT system.
The four plants in the cabinet flood and drain system, however, were looking mighty fine. The plants had much more room to grow, both for roots and vegetation. Definitely a better match than the NFT systems.
(The roots were growing in 4″x4″ pots)
When March rolled around, we started to see our first ripening tomatoes and that meant the final test could take place.
While the red cherry-sized fruits look delectable, the flavor didn’t hold up to our usual bombastic standards. We can safely say they taste better than what can be found in the supermarket, but it’s doubtful we’d grow them in lieu of our past favorites, even with the versatility offered by their unusual height. Tomatoes are resource-heavy plants to grow hydroponically, and it would be better to devote the space, nutrients, and time to a crop that will pack a more palate-pleasing punch.
And that’s is why we do what we do. We like to test out new crop varieties, hybrid systems, and other zany ideas so that we can help create the best matched system (and give ideal crop suggestions!) for our clients. We’ll keep you posted on the next adventure!