It’s About That Thyme: Hydro-Grow Your Herbs and Veggies This Winter

The Hill Gardener

Basil clippings begin to grow healthy roots in the hydroponic system. 

Winter is coming, but plunging temperatures don’t mean you have to give up on gardening. The art and science of hydroponic gardening not only brings this enjoyable hobby indoors, it can keep you eating healthy and save money on your grocery bill.

Tucked away in an alley off Upshur Street is Capital City Hydroponics. The boutique shop caters to the local community and specializes in a unique gardening method. “We understand that there are a lot of novice gardeners out there and we give extra attention to them,” says owner Michael Bayard.

What makes this indoor, water-based technique so appealing to urban gardeners is that you can work with the space you have available. Whether on a shelf in your kitchen or in a tent in your closet, Bayard promises a successful grow.

Hydroponic gardening doesn’t involve soil. The plants literally grow in water. The method involves investing in solutions that add nutrients to the water such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and calcium. Some plants prefer different growth mediums, like pebbles above the trough of water. “Their success is our success as we try to grow our business,” says Bayard.

Chris Hauser, an avid gardener, is the manager at Capital City Hydroponics. Hauser describes hydroponic growing as “the high-tech way of gardening.” Wanting to hydro-grow is a passion for some, economical for others. Pros to hydro-growing include: grow more in less space; have total control of the nutrients; and bring your plants indoors so you can have a garden all year.

One major drawback for some is that the recommended plant food compounds are synthetic, not organic. The thick consistency of the organic plant food is not recommended by Capital City Hydroponics because it doesn’t mix as well with the water.

Leafy Greens vs. Flowering Plants

Hydroponic systems rely heavily on correct lighting. Hauser advises to start your growing journey with salad greens, because leafy greens don’t need fancy, electricity-guzzling lightbulbs; fluorescent bulbs will do. The boutique shop sells grow lights for leafy greens in the $100-$244 price range.

For budding or blooming plants like flowers, tomatoes, or peppers, you’ll need a ventilation system and pricier HID (high-intensity discharge) lights. HID lighting can consume about 1,000 watts of power. If you have the lights running daily on an 18-hour cycle, electricity alone could cost about $100 a month.That's a one-time investment of about $500 on ventilation and a recurring annual expense of about $1,200 on lighting.

Cannabis in the District

District voters approved a measure this year that allows residents to grow up to six cannabis plants, with three mature budding plants at once, per person. According to DC.gov, up to one ounce of the product may be transferred to another person if they are age 21 or older and no money, goods or services are exchanged.

When it comes to answering customers’ cannabis questions, Bayard says it’s a tricky situation. “In the past we would frown upon talk of growing anything not approved under city laws,” he says, adding that since the District legalized growing cannabis, some of the officers looking to prosecute such activities are now inquiring about growing the plant themselves. 

Bayard adds that his business has seen a spike in sales since cannabis laws changed at the end of February. If you choose to grow, make sure you know the law. If you are a renter, you should make sure your gardening is approved by the property owner.

The Hydroponic Gardener Needs More Tools

Hauser says that the hydroponic gardener needs time and patience. “You’re testing the water every day,” he says. “The maintenance is time consuming but very rewarding if you love to garden.” Here is a shopping list you’ll need to get started:

  • PH meter and TDS combo pack = $199
  • Buffering solution to adjust PH levels= $15
  • Air stone = $12-$15
  • Pump = $10
  • Tubing – 19 cents/foot
  • Fluorescent lights = $100-244 (leafy green plants)
  • HID lights = $350-1,200 (budding plants)
  • HID ventilation, ducking, fans, and filters = $500 (budding plants)
  • Tray = $10
  • Starter cubes = $12
  • Solution nutrition = $11.50

You may need to supplement sunlight with a fluorescent light. This may be your best bet if you’re looking to grow kitchen-friendly garden herbs like mint, basil, or thyme.

“It’s a DIY kind of project. That’s why it’s hard to really have a starter kit,” says Hauser, “but with a little knowledge of the space you have and what kinds of greens you want to grow, you should be all set.” It’s all about how much you’re comfortable spending on electricity and the environmental impact of each method. Bayard says he plans on opening another location in Northeast in the new year.

Capital City Hydroponics is located at 821 Upshur St. NW, Washington, DC 20001, 202-758-2572.

Capital City Hydroponics shop manager Chris Hauser holds up some of the liquid nutrients hydroponic gardeners must add to the water in their grow system.
One DC household grows cannabis, a budding plant, using the hydroponic gardening method. This photo was taken at a private residence.
Chris Hauser holds up his favorite brand of organic soil. If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative, good old soil works too.
Upshur Street with Petworth’s iconic mural.
Take a right after Petworth Citizen and the red brick alley leads you to Capital City Hydroponics

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