LODI, Ohio — You don’t often see tomatoes ripening on the vine on a January day in Northeast Ohio.
But you do at CropKing.
Even as a snowstorm was icing roads last week, Natalie Bumgarner was plucking a few red fruits from tomato vines that snaked up support cords in the Lodi, Ohio, company’s experimental greenhouse. The flavor of the tomatoes couldn’t rival that of one warmed by the late summer sun, but “they’re going to be better tasting than what you get in the grocery store,” said Bumgarner, the company’s horticulturist.
CropKing specializes in hydroponics, a growing method that uses nutrient-enriched water rather than soil. The company sells hydroponic systems and supplies, mostly to commercial growers but also to hobby gardeners.
Its experimental greenhouse allows the company to test new plant varieties so it can fine-tune the micronutrient and pH levels of the nutrient solutions it recommends for those plants, and it recently started researching the use of various types of artificial lights to supplement sunlight. The greenhouse also provides space to grow plants that serve as guinea pigs when the company trains commercial clients on the plants’ care.
That’s where the tomato plants came in. Although employees had just pulled out the last of the trial tomato plants growing in the experimental greenhouse, they were still nurturing a cluster of plants used to teach growers such maintenance tasks as removing suckers and managing plants that can grow dozens of feet long.
The tomato plants are quirky looking, their long vines looped again and again around buckets where their roots grow in perlite. The ends of the vines are trained up strings attached to an overhead track, and fruits hang from the vertical growth in various stages of ripeness.
The plants don’t get enough sunlight this time of year to produce the level of sugar that gives tomatoes that summertime sweetness, explained Bumgarner, who holds a doctorate from Ohio State University. But the vine-ripened fruit is still sweeter than commercially grown tomatoes found in stores this time of year, which usually are shipped green from warmer climates and then ripened with ethylene gas.
Tomatoes and cucumbers — both plants that demand a lot of sunlight — will continue to produce fruit in winter in a hydroponic greenhouse in this part of the country, but not enough to make commercial production economical, said Bumgarner and Marilyn Brentlinger, who owns CropKing along with her sons, Mark and Paul. But the company’s employees can still enjoy both kinds of veggies from the experimental greenhouse, along with the lettuce, kale and other leafy vegetables that grow more readily in a greenhouse environment in winter.
CropKing doesn’t sell any of the vegetables it produces, Brentlinger said. Instead, it shares some with its staff and donates the rest to local food-related charities.
Granted, growing tomatoes in the dead of winter might be overly ambitious for most home gardeners. Nevertheless, Brentlinger said those gardeners can still use hydroponics to raise an array of fresh produce throughout the year, either in their homes or in small backyard greenhouses.
CropKing’s hobby hydroponic systems use either PVC channels or specially designed growing pots called Bato Buckets.
The channel system is typically used for leafy crops, such as lettuce, spinach, kale and herbs. The channels look much like lidded gutters, with openings in the top — 8 inches apart — to accommodate plants growing in small plugs of a soilless growing medium.
The nutrient solution flows through each channel, slowly enough to allow the roots to absorb what they need. The solution also flows from one channel to the next before returning to a small tank to be recirculated by a submersible pump.
Multiple channels are arranged in a configuration that’s tilted slightly in two directions, so gravity moves the water through each channel and from one channel to the next.
CropKing’s smallest channel system, which is a little more than 4 ˝ feet square, accommodates 36 plants and could even fit in a kitchen, Bumgarner said. It’s priced at $375 with free shipping, but Brentlinger said local residents can get a discount if they pick up the equipment instead of having it shipped.
Bato Buckets are used for plants that produce fruits, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and melons. The plants are grown one or two to a bucket, depending on how much space their roots need.
The square buckets hold perlite granules, which Brentlinger said create spaces that allow both nutrient solution and air to reach the roots. A timer determines when the solution is added to the buckets via drip irrigation emitters.
A 10-bucket system costs $695.
Brentlinger said CropKing is also getting “quite a bit of interest” in its heated hobby greenhouse, which at 12 by 20 feet is big enough to accommodate six 4-foot channels and 10 buckets. That’s enough growing space for 36 leafy plants and either 10 cucumber plants or 20 tomato plants.
The greenhouse comes with a hydroponic system, a heater, a fan and a wet wall, a feature that promotes cooling through water evaporation. It costs $4,500 and would use about $30 to $40 a month in energy to run — about the cost of a hot tub, Brentlinger said.
The products can be ordered via its website, www.cropking.com.