I grew up on a cattle ranch near the Oregon Coast and we grew most of our food. We had chickens and eggs, apple trees and a huge vegetable garden. My childhood summers were spent grazing in the garden and fighting horses for fallen apples. My love of gardening was born then, and wherever I lived, including Alaska, I was able to grow some veggies. That is until I moved to a few miles South of Bend. I am a sucker for vine ripened tomatoes and generally find store bought tomatoes tasteless. So, of course, I wanted to grow tomatoes in Central Oregon. Like any Cheechako (Alaskan name for “newcomer”) I thought I could plant tomato starts in April or even May. Several trips to the nursery later to replace my frozen tomatoes, I realized we didn’t have the same growing season I grew up with.
So, in the Spring of 2011 when our wellness company called and asked if we would like to be test marketers for a new vertical aeroponic growing system, we jumped at the chance. Having lived in Central Oregon for 24 years by that time, having tried to grow a vegetable garden and knowing how challenging it can be in our climate, I knew firsthand the heartbreak and frustration of getting your tomato plants heavy with green tomatoes (usually first part of September) and waiting for them to ripen — only to have a “sneak” freeze in early September ruin the whole crop. Because we had a thriving home-based business, we eventually gave up on the idea of growing our own food. Business travel meant I couldn’t be the slave to watering and pulling weeds that Central Oregon demands.
That first year we planted tomato starts in the vertical aeroponic growing system on Memorial Day weekend and watched it grow seemingly as fast as a Chia pet. By August we had our first ripe tomatoes. We put the tower on wheels and could pull it into the garage at night if it was going to freeze, and back out into the driveway the next day. Already we were able to extend our growing season by several months. That first year we kept our towers growing until November by moving them in and out of the garage.
Since we had two towers, I let one of them be devoted to tomatoes and the other one we planted a large variety of lettuces, kale, herbs, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans and strawberries. We were told we could grow anything that is not a root crop or a tree. Everything flourished.
Along the way, we were educating ourselves on the science and concept of aeroponic growing with the self contained tower. We learned that it uses 90 percent less water than conventional “dirt” farming, because the reservoir holds 20 gallons of water and a pump inside the reservoir delivers water and nutrients from the included tonic (100 land and sea minerals) to the roots of the plants. A timer is set to have the pump operate for 15 minutes on and 30 minutes off. When the pump is off, the roots are exposed to air, hence the name aeroponic. Because the footprint of a tower is only 30 inches in diameter and the tower is vertical, it uses 90 percent less land, so it is perfect for apartment dwellers and urban farming. And since the tower waters and feeds itself around the clock, we are free to take off on business and pleasure trips knowing our plants won’t dry up!
The following spring, my husband Jerry built us a greenhouse that can hold six towers. I had one for tomatoes, one for peppers and one for strawberries. On the others I grew zucchini and yellow squash, cucumbers, sugar snap peas, tomatillos, broccoli rabe, Asian greens, kale, lettuces, arugula and, of course, a wide variety of herbs. I even grew cantaloupe! We put a heat stove in the greenhouse and our growing season became April through December.
By June we are able to have a couple of towers on our deck for things like tomatillos and squash, and we bought a weather blanket offered by the company that works amazingly well for the occasional summer frost, and helps extend the plants to the end of September.
And then, the company introduced a game changer in the form of a set of four grow lights with reflectors and a timer. We bought four sets and became year-round farmers. As late fall approaches, I start new crops of herbs and all kinds of greens: bok choi, arugula, romaine and butter lettuces, chives, oregano, basil, dill, fennel, rosemary, thyme, tarragon, sage and lemon basil, to name a few. We enjoy these crops all through the winter.
In mid January I plant my tomato and pepper seeds, as well as cucumbers, melons and squash. In two to four weeks the seedlings are ready to be planted in the towers under the grow lights. This can be done in a spare bedroom or sunroom of your house. The past two years we have moved these “early bird” towers to the greenhouse in mid March and start picking squash and cucumbers about a month or six weeks later. I have always had a ripe tomato by the Fourth of July.
As we head into November, we are still picking tomatoes, peppers and eggplants from the greenhouse and will continue until about mid December, when we will shut the greenhouse down until March. I already have my seeds planted for my winter greens tower and will have fresh lettuce by mid December. After the Holidays, we will start our summer crops indoors and do it all over again.