Hydroponic kits an answer to soil, space, time woes

If you’re one of those folks lacking a green thumb, space and time for a garden, a researcher and a teacher on the Big Island have an answer for you.

It’s the best hydroponic system with everything needed to grow plants without dirt.

“You can get yourself a nice little hobby and something you can eat,” said the inventor, horticulturist Bernard Kratky of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawaii-Hilo.

J. Patrick Sager, a ninth-grade physical science teacher in Hilo High School, uses the kits to teach chemistry and mathematics.

Sager has established a company, Home Hydroponics Systems, to market the kits. He hires high school students to assemble them. Right now it’s a “garage business,” but he’s building a new home with greenhouse facilities.

The UH has received a patent for the kit and the UH Office of Technology Transfer and Economic Development grated a license to Sager to make and sell the kits.

A percentage of all sales goes back to the UH for research, Sager said.

Kratky, who looks for better and cheaper ways of growing vegetable crops, said he got the idea during a 1985-86 sabbatical leave in Taiwan.

“My boss there started work on hydroponics. I got interested in it because it solves some of problems we have here in Hawaii-soil- related problems, the worst of which is not having any.”

Other gardeners battle soil diseases and nematodes, requiring chemical control methods, he said.

The kit basically is a floral tube, 8 inches long and 1-1/2 inches in diameter, with extra holes drilled into it, he said. Potting medium, seeds, pre-measured plant nutrients and instructions are included.

He originally planned to have a bucket and lid in the kitchen, then decided buckets are hard to move and bulky to sell and most people already have them.

“So we made sort of a universal lid, about 1 foot square. It fits anything from a 3- to 5-gallon bucket. Also, it’s good if you have an aquarium,” Kratky said.

“You can grow fish in the bottom and lettuce or a crop on the top.”

Sager said beans grow well in kits atop aquariums. “I have them growing at school–beans crawling up trellises. Fish swim around on the roots.”

Now he’s looking for food the fish will digest to refertilize the water and re-nutrify the plant.

Kratky pointed out that traditional hydroponics involves circulating or aerating water, which requires pumps and electricity. His kit does not needs any of that.

Just fill a bucket two-thirds with water so the bottom inch or two of the tube, held by the lid, is in water, he said.

In the case of lettuce, he said, you put a couple teaspoons of special blended hydroponic fertilizer in the water, mix it a little and walk away from it until it’s ready to harvest.

The kit must be placed where it gets sun and no rain because rain raises the water and level and drowns the plant.

The kits are ideal for classrooms, Kratky said, because no one has to worry about watering on weekends.

Sager uses the kits to show students how plant food breaks down into elements.

He said he teaches students about volumes and circles because there are a lot of water catchment systems in the Hilo area. They learn how to calculate water so they can calculate it in their tanks at home, he said.

“It gives them reality-based science. And they can eat their experiments.”

Kratky said several commercial growers are using the system to raise gourmet lettuce and other vegetables.

With sugar plantations closing on the island, alternative agricultural enterprises are needed, Sager said.

Successful gardening tips

CONSERVATION: April is usually the beginning of our drought period. Conserve water by using mulches around plants and in annual or vegetable beds. Weeds use a lot of water, so pull or hoe them out. This is also a good time to consider putting in a drip irrigation system. Studies prove that less water is used with drip irrigation, and less is lost to evaporation.

AZALEAS: Established plants should be pruned after blooming. Several light prunings early in the spring and up until July will encourage numerous branches and produce a more compact shrub.

BROMELIADS: Have you tried Bromeliads? They adapt to conditions found in the home, require little care and therefore make excellent house plants.

Bromeliads are members of the pineapple family, native to the American tropics. Two very familiar members of this family are the common pineapple and Spanish moss.

Most bromeliads are air plants or epiphytes. In the wild they grow on trees, attaching themselves by special roots. But they’re not a parasite, like mistletoe, because they use the host plant only as a support; all their nutrition comes from rain and air.

The nearly two thousand species of bromeliads provide plant lovers with an unbelievable selection of form, color, size and blooming characteristics.

Normal temperatures found inside homes are very acceptable for bromeliad culture. Homes with and without air conditioning are fine.

Plant trees and shrubs to give a garden structure. Accessorize with annuals, perennials and wine grape vines.

Know the characteristics of a plant before you buy it.

Pick up dead leaves and discarded matter to keep insects under control.

Don’t space plants too closely. Proper air circulation and spacing will keep pests from transferring from one plant to another.

Take weeds out by the roots.

If a plant is infested with insects and you can’t remove them with soapy water, rubbing alcohol or a pressure hose, get rid of the plant.

To attract butterflies, plant lots of flowering plants, including plants that bloom late and early in the season, because the New Orleans area has butterflies almost all year long. If possible, include milkweed, lantana, butterfly bush and globe amaranth.

To attract hummingbirds, plant flowers that are red or yellow, have a tubular shape and strong scent. Good choices are plants that produce lots of flowers over an extended period of time.

Practical tips to conserve water

Of all the plants around your home, grass is the greatest user of water. Consider replacing your lawn with shrubs and flowers that require the least water. Native plants use less water than do sophisticated hybrids.

Where permitted, install a drip irrigation or leaky hose system for lawns and gardens. Each uses water more efficiently than above-ground sprinklers and is available in garden centers.

If you insist on using Sprinkler Systems Phoenix, sprinkle in early morning or late afternoon when there is less evaporation from the sun. Water grass only when it looks wilted; it’s telling you it needs water.

Disconnect automatic irrigation systems that water by a clock rather than by need. Set your sprinklers where they don’t flood driveways and sidewalks and allow water to run into drainage systems. Don’t use a hand-held hose for watering.

Consider using hydrogels, the gelatin-type substances you put in containers or soil when planting. They’re supposed to hold water and release it gradually, although gardening authorities disagree on whether hydrogels work.

Buy a booklet on xeriscaping (planting to save watering.)

Eliminate weeds; they soak up a lot of water.

Mow higher – at least 3 inches; this will allow your grass to go longer without water.

Experts at North Carolina State University remind us that many Southern plants wilt during the heat of the day but recover in the evening cool. If plants remain wilted in evening and early morning, it is time to water – and hope for rain.

Gardening and landscaping tips

Now is the time to start preparing your plans for landscaping your property. In order to avoid costly mistakes, you may want to contact a landscape architect. If you are doing your own landscaping be sure to draw up a plan before you start to plant. It is easier to move a plant on paper than to move one that has been planted in the wrong location. Keep maintenance in mind as you plan and plant.

January is a good month to plant camellias. Plant camellias in a partially shaded location, which is not exposed to strong winds. Camellias require cool, moist soil that is well-drained and has some acid. Camellias grow best in a soil pH between 5.0 and 6.0. A soil test might be needed to determine the pH balance of your soil.

Mulch camellias with pine needles, oak leaves, or sawdust. Compost is always a good mulch right after planting camellias. Additional mulch should be applied during cold weather. Water thoroughly once a week if there is no rainfall.

When choosing a tree for the yard most of us only think about it with its leaves on. But deciduous trees don’t have leaves several months out of the year. So winter appearance should be taken into consideration when planning your Landscaping.

– Amur Maple (Acer ginnala) – Reaching 15 to 25 feet tall at maturity, this tree can be used for screening purposes. It can be grown under utility lines and if you buy a variety such as Flame it gets a fiery-red fall color. The tree is hardy to much colder climates and grows well here. It can also be grown in containers.

– Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum) – This tree is a slow, upright grower, that will reach 20 to 25 feet high. The peeling cinnamon-colored or red-brown bark provides winter interest. This is a fine tree for use as a focal point in the landscape.

– Serviceberry (Amelanchier) – These trees or shrubs, native to this area, produce white flowers in mid to late-April, and edible small fruit in June. The berries attract birds. Fall color is a yellow-orange or apricot-red. In winter, the grayish white bark provides interest. The trees perform well in woodlands or naturalized areas, but could be used in a small yard if kept pruned. These trees thrive in good soil and are often found in wetter areas.

– Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) – This multi-stemmed tree will mature at about 20 to 25 feet. It grows in a nicely rounded form, has heart-shaped leaves, pinkish-purple flowers in late-April and early-May and turns yellow in the fall. These trees are not as graceful or refined as a serviceberry, but they do tolerate drier soil and can be trained to a single stem. Canker, which causes twig and stem dieback, can sometimes be a problem, so if you buy one, get a multi-stemmed plant.

– American Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) – This multi-stemmed tree will grow to about 20 to 30 feet and can spread as wide as it is tall. The white fragrant flowers in late-May and early-June hang like fringe, hence the name. In fall it sports a good yellow color. Younger plants have an appealing smooth gray bark. It makes a nice patio tree or would look fine planted near a creek or stream. It is air pollution tolerant.

– Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa) – This native of Japan, Korea and China will top off at about 20 to 25 feet, but it is a slow to medium grower. (Slow-growing trees push 12 inches or less of new growth per year; medium growers 12 to 24 inches per year.) Kousa dogwoods are used in many plantings as a replacement for the American dogwood, which has been plagued by disease. Though this tree blooms at a young age, it is not as prolific a bloomer as the American dogwood until it becomes established. The tree has a reddish-purple fall color and a good winter form as it matures, developing exfoliating bark. Although these trees make a fine lawn specimen, the homeowner should be aware they do form fruit, which drop, so trees should be planted away from sidewalks and driveways. On the upside, the birds like the fruit.

– Washington Hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) and Green Hawthorn (Crateagus viridis “Winter King”) – These trees bloom with white flowers in mid to late May and show a reddish-purple color in fall. The red fruit stays on the tree through much of the winter, and will look especially beautiful after a snowfall. A good tough tree.

– Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha) – A slow growing tree with a narrow form when young, it widens slightly as it matures. It bears white fragrant flowers from July through September, has a scarlet-red fall color and a pleasing winter form. Now extinct in its native Georgia, this tree benefits from a protected location, where it will look good in all seasons. It can be used in a small garden and requires a moist well-drained soil.

– Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) – This tree matures at about 25 feet and is beautiful in all seasons. Japanese Stewartia grows in a pyramid-oval shape, pushing out white flowers in July and sometimes August. In fall the leaves turn yellow or red to dark reddish purple. As the tree matures, the bark begins to exfoliate (peel) and becomes mottled, giving added interest.

Calling pro takes sting out of stirring up bees

If you find a swarm of honeybees on your property, some experts recommend that you treat it as an Africanized swarm and keep everyone away from it.

Do not disturb the swarm or try to remove it yourself. Check the Yellow Pages under “Bee Removal”or “Pest Control Services”, current specials and have a professional remove the swarm.

To prevent bees from settling in your garden or house, professionals recommend that you:

Cover or fill all holes 1/7-inch in diameter or larger in block walls, trees or cactuses .

Caulk cracks in the roof, walls, and the foundation .

Check for separation between the chimney and the house, and make sure chimneys are properly covered.

Place window-screen mesh over rain spouts, drains, attic vents and irrigation-valve boxes.

Remove any debris or trash that might serve as a shelter for bees, such as old appliances,  automobile parts, overturned clay pots, cardboard boxes, tires or stacks of crates.

Cover or fill animal burrows in the ground.

When inspecting your home or yard for bee colonies, look for bees passing into and out of an opening, or hovering in front of one, and listen for the hum of active insects. Look for colonies near the ground.


If you like starting perennials from seed, it looks like there are some winners in the seed catalogs to try this year. This is an inexpensive way to get perennial plants and have enough to fill out new borders.

The plant that’s really caught my eye in several seed catalogs is Knautia macedonia Melton Pastels. The crimson-red version of this flower, which likes a sunny spot in the garden, has been available from garden centers for a few years. Flowers that look like scabiosa blooms top wiry stems that get about 2 feet tall. It’s a summer bloomer here.

Park Seed says that Melton Pastels will get about 3 feet tall. The colors are yummy – purple, lilac, blue, rose and crimson – and it’s supposed to be easy to start from seed.

Both Parks and Burpee have some really pretty single hollyhocks, Country Garden and Country Romance, that are very easy to start from seed. The color mix of apricot, ivory, rose, pink and mahogany is a very nice one.

Hollyhocks won’t bloom until the second year from seed, so you won’t know what colors you’ve got until then. You may want to start them outdoors in a nursery bed and grow them on there till next year.

If you’ve got the space for more tall plants, Verbascum Southern Charm looks like a winner. The wild verbascum, or mullein, grows in hot, dry, sunny places in poor soil along roadsides. The cultivated variety should be just as undemanding, and Burpee says it will bloom the first year from seed if started indoors in February or March. Plants make a rosette of leaves at the base and shoot up flower stems that get about 3 feet tall. Colors in this mix are lavender, buff and rose, and it’s supposed to be a great flower for cutting. They also sell started plants.

Columbines are very easy to start from seed and both Burpee and Parks have new varieties. Burpee’s William Guiness is a very dark purple and white, a very striking mix. It’s a single flower and it looks like it has long spurs. It would look very well with Parks’ Irish Elegance, a very double ivory flower with a greenish blush on the tips. They look like camellias. Both will reach 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall and will grow in full sun or partial shade. These too will bloom the first year from seed if started soon indoors.

Thompson Morgan is reintroducing a fragrant columbine that dates back to 1839, Aquilegia fragrans. Single white flowers have outer petals that are tinged with blue and short spurs. T&M describes the fragrance as soft and says the foliage has a hint of apple when rubbed.

Parks has seed for a new variety of catmint or Nepeta, this one Nepeta nervosa Blue Carpet. The Nepeta mussini that I grow is very low-growing, with silvery foliage that has a pleasant smell when bruised and tiny lilac blue flowers that cover the plant in spring. If you cut it back after flowering, it will give you another flush of bloom in fall. Blue Carpet will bloom the first year from seed on 10-inch plants that spread out over the ground to form a mat. Nepeta likes full sun and a dry soil.

Too much moisture will rot out the plant.

I’ve always had luck starting perennial salvias from seed and I imagine Park’s Salvia x superba Rose Princess would be easy to get going. This rosy pink version of Blue Queen gets 20 inches tall and will bloom all summer long if you deadhead it. It’s best in full sun and can take a dry spot in the garden.

Penstemons are favorite perennial plants of mine. They bloom in late spring and early summer with little lipped bells up and down the stems. Parks is offering a new variety called Rondo that they say you can direct seed in the garden and still get to bloom this year. There aren’t many perennials that will do that. The plants will get 16 inches tall and the color mix is pink, red, lilac and purple. It’s supposed to be a good cutting flower. They grow well in full to part sun.

T&M is offering seed for a Penstemon that they can’t identify. Known in their catalog only as “Up-named species,” this lavender-blue flowered plant will get 18- to 24-inches tall and will flower in summer. If any of you can identify it, either from the photo in their catalog or by growing it from their seed, they want to hear from you.

Malaysia can become main source of oil palm seeds

Besides being a main exporter of palm oil in the global market, Malaysia can also become the main source of oil palm seeds, Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia (Porim) director-general Dr Yusof Basiron said.

High quality oil palm seeds are needed by the oil palm industry.

“In the future, Malaysia may export these seeds because the market for them is big,” he said at a seminar on oil palm cultivation in Bangi, Selangor yesterday.

Porim has the largest collection of high quality oil palm seeds in the world and is one of the main provider of high quality seedlings.

“We possess good mother palms, which can be leased out for further cultivation of oil palm seeds,” Yusof said.

He said there are now 12 agencies involved in producing these seeds in the country including Golden Hope Plantations, Guthrie dan United Plantations.

However, he added, that these agencies may not be able to meet all the demands.

There are plenty of opportunities for bumiputera entrepreneurs in the business of providing oil palm seeds for cultivation, he added.

He urged Bumiputera entrepreneurs, including members of the National Cooperative Organisation of Malaysia (Angkasa), to partake in oil palm seeds cultivation.

In his speech, Yusof said that the opening of the Advanced Technology Centre in May next year will see Porim shifting its focus towards research and development and the production of oleochemical-based products.

Economically, he said, oleochemical-based products fetch a much higher value in the marketplace. “For instance, a 600gm body lotion, which is an oleochemical-based product, costs RM8 compared with cooking oil, a palm olein product, which is priced at RM3.50 a kg.”

Another area which has tremendous potential is the use of bio-mass of oil palm.

Hand garden tools

Only few days until Christmas! In case you’re like me and haven’t started to think about gifts here are a few ideas for that green-thumb friend.

Now would be a good time to take inventory of your hand garden tools and get them ready for the weeks of hard work ahead.

Just look at the site hand-garden-tools.com

Quality is the name of the game when buying all garden tools and equipment. If secateurs are lightweight and top-of-the-range they will last a lifetime. Pruning saws should cut on the forward and backward strokes.

Add a spade, garden rake, long and short-armed loppers, a garden hoe, cultivating tools, edging shears, a leaf and gravel rake, mattock, digging and gardening fork, wheelbarrow, bucket, trowel, a garden weasel, broom, watering can and small hand-digging fork.

Really serious gardeners would be delighted with a shredder, electric hedge shears or lawn trimmer.

Winter is a good time to sharpen blades and change oil and filters, unless you did all this work before putting the equipment away for the winter.

Power equipment should get plenty of attention before the season starts. Follow owner’s manuals for getting lawn mowers, tillers and the like ready for spring use.

Give all lawn and gardening equipment a “once-over” before tilling the garden or mowing the lawn. Longer equipment life and a safe work environment will be your reward. Inspect for loose bolts and screws. Lubricate moving parts. Check for frayed electrical cords and broken insulation. Be sure that all extension cords have three prongs. Change the oil even if it looks clean and clean or replace the air filter. Sharpen the mower blade. Replace spark plugs if they are fouled. Hard-starting engines probably were stored with gas in the tanks, and a visit to the repair shop will be in order. Read the service manual. If you totaled the cost for all the power and hand garden tools you own, it would represent quite an investment. Protect that investment by spending one day of service this spring for hours of trouble-free performance.

The hidden garden

Judith Siegel gave herself two presents when she turned the narrow yard behind her house into a hidden garden (above). One was an inviting outdoor room, cozy with color, fragrance, and the sound of water. The other was enough privacy to dine on the patio, or just relax with coffee and a newspaperfor a-while. Judith laughs. "I can’t stay there and read because I jump up and start gardening."

In the beginning, nine years ago, Judith had privacy and no reason to use it. "The backyard was an ugly, square patio, with a bent-grass lawn and a hedge on two sides." Why so spare? A previous owner was allergic to flowers. Judith wanted color, but nothing seemed to thrive at the foot of the hedge. She coped. "I grew lots of things in pots, and every year I took out a little more of the lawn."

Finally, Judith and her husband Howard agreed the yard need a big makeover. She had joined the Perennial Society of Northern Ohio and learned how perennial beds can offer color and fragrance from spring through fall. She hired David Bier, a landscape architect, and told him she wanted a place to live outdoors, complete with perennials, water, privacy, and a view of her Cleveland neighborhood.

To make room for plants and open the view, the hedge had to go. "That was a big step, taking out a mature hedge that some people would die for." Judith decided to leave the side of the hedge that ran along the property line, screening the neighbor’s house. David recommended making a mound of dirt, a berm, to replace the other side. "The berm clinched it," Judith says. Farewell, hedge. Now, a path from the sidewalk (above) leads across the yard and around the berm on its way to the hidden garden. small yard will look and feel roomier when it’s divided into several pieces, each with a different style and purpose. Judith’s hidden garden has three. The sweep of lawn in the center sets off the beds around it and lets Judith see the whole garden from inside the house. The path from the street flows into a patio that sits next to the house (bottom, far right). Across the lawn from the house, there’s a stone-paved alcove with a garden bench (right). All this in a yard that’s less than 30 feet wide and feels much bigger. In three words, the trick is: add by dividing.

The path and the lawn turn around the berm on the right to enter the hidden garden. On the left, a hedge of hemlocks, a perennial bed, and vine-covered arbors screen the neighbor’s house. A Mugho pine accents the end of the berm and pachysandra spreads a tidy, evergreen carpet beside the path. Mugho pine is slowgrowing and short, good for a tight spot.

A parade of arbors heightens the illusion of roominess. Built of pressure-treated posts topped with sturdy lath, they add a third dimension to the garden, rising high above the shrubs and perennials. (A small tree can also enliven a bed without crowding other plants.) On purpose, the tallest arbors are at the back of the yard. Judith says, "You look under the ones that are closer to the house and see the other ones going around the curve of the bed. That makes the yard feel wider."

Judith dedicated the bench to the memory of her mother. Placed in the shade and surrounded by bloom, the bench attracts visitors. "People like to sit in that enclosed little area."

Judith Siegel has discovered a way to help a clematis climb a post. The result is a beautiful column of leaves and flowers, wrapped neatly around the post from bottom to top.

A clematis needs help on a post because it dings and climbs in an unusual way. When the stem of a new leaf touches something, it curls, trying to wrap around it. (See illustration, above right). The stem is short, so it can’t grab anything thicker than about one-half inch, which rules out most lattices and all posts. In nature, clematis climbs on shrubs and trees.

Judith lees her vines climb on plastic bird netting. She fastens the netting around the post (right with a staple every foot or two and lets it stand away from the post so the leaves have room to wrap around the mesh. Judith’s trick will work in other places-on a tree trunk, a porch column, or a fence.

The pond nestles into the back of the berm. Pushed by a submerged pump, water circulates through a tube to the top of a broad, flat rock, then cascades into the pond, filling the garden with a pink-flowered variety.

Judith entertains on the patio (bottom left) hidden by the berm. For height, she grows a few big perennials, including Joe-Pye weed, which can reach 8 feet tall. "I can still see the neighborhood, but the patio is hidden from the street." The plan (below) shows how the lawn and the path climb the slope and broaden inside the hidden garden.

Clematis Jackmanii wraps o royal robe around the shoulders of an arbor. It’s a hardy, vigorous vine that comes back year oher year, blooming in late spring and early summer for almost two mons. Any garden has room for a clematis or two because the vine has a small footprint. It can fit between plants even in a crowded bed. And on eye catching exclamation point rising above the shorter plants makes any garden look more dramatic.

No need to weed

Even if you have expansive perennial gardens, yard work does not have to be hard work Just ask Kathleen Nelson, whose gardens now cover almost two acres. Kathe, like you and me, hates to weed-so she rarely does. Fact is, she rarely has to. She’s got her low-maintenance, anti-weed method down to a science. But it’s not rocket science. It’s simple stuff-stuff that saves her so much time that right now she is off planting more and more flowers.

Kathe fought tenacious invaders for two years. "Then a friend brought a truckload of mulch. That’s when the garden began," she says. "For me, mulch was the key. I couldn’t stop myself from having huge gardens. With mulch, I could keep weeds under control-so I could have even more gardens."

"When I first started gardening, I just kept weeding," says Kathe Nelson. "I had an incredible mess, and I struggled." Then she discovered the wonders of mulch.

Mulch keeps water from evaporating, deprives weed seeds of light, and prevents germination, Kathe says. She recommends at least an inch of mulch in flower beds, and as much as two.

But don’t overdo your mulching, she cautions: Huge piles will prevent deeply buried roots from receiving oxygen. Kathe uses several kinds of mulch: sawmill chips, shredded tree trimmings, bagged pine chips, buckwheat hulls, and on occasion, crushed rock. And if you’ve ever wondered about wood chips depleting the nitrogen in your beds, Kathe says, relax. "That hasn’t been a problem," she says. "My plants are so happy to not have weeds that they don’t notice any nitrogen problem." A

A blanket of plants prevents sun from reaching soil, so weed seeds can’t germinate between them. Drifts also reinforce themes and knit a garden together.

Kathe doesn’t believe in being able to see the dirt in her beds. She plants her flowers thc, covering every inch of soil with perennials in a kind of living mulch.

Kathe replenishes mukhes, such as these barkfree wood chips (left), every fall. While this tall switch grass covers a lot of territory by the end of the season, it starts in spring from ground zero.

A native bowman’sroot (in flower above) is skirted by two hostas, which in turn are surrounded by a ground cover. See any dirt? Of course not.