It's still a little too early to plant tomatoes and peppers outdoors in Minnesota, where a late spring frost can nip plants and dash the dreams of overeager gardeners. But Master Gardener Larry Cipolla grows even heat-loving fruits, veggies and herbs year-round — in water-filled containers in his Edina basement.
Homegrown food has been a way of life for Cipolla since his youth on a farm in Connecticut. In his new book, "Creating Sustainable Victory Gardens" (CCi Gardening Connections and on Amazon), the prolific gardener and author shows how to take control of what you eat by combining hydroponic and traditional gardening methods to produce healthful produce all year long.
We talked with Cipolla about the pandemic-era resurgence of Victory gardens, how to get started and the best crops for rookies. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You advocate integrating soil and soilless gardening. Tell us how you do that at home.
A: I garden 12 months of the year. Starting in September, when my in-ground garden is fading, I start hydroponic systems indoors. I have close to 100 plants in my basement, including six to seven varieties of lettuce, and we've been harvesting tomatoes and cucumbers since January. In May, I will break down my indoor garden and grow mostly in soil outdoors.
Q: Victory gardens first gained popularity during World War I food shortages. Why are they coming back?
A: This last year especially, there's growing interest and demand for homegrown vegetables and herbs. There's risk to our food supply from salmonella and E. coli. People also were telling me they started hydroponics to reduce trips to the store and risk becoming infected [with coronavirus].
I'm trying to link the past, the traditional gardening techniques, to the new, more innovative techniques. Hydroponics has been around a long time but it has mushroomed in the last five to 10 years. With a Victory garden, I just harvest what I want for that evening. That's fresh! No Costco, no having food go to waste in my fridge. And there's no transportation. You're not hauling green tomatoes from California to Edina or Eden Prairie.
Q: The introduction of your book makes the case for change. Explain.
A: People are familiar with soil-based gardening, but not alternatives — there's community resistance. Hydroponics is an alternative. If you're interested in year-round gardening, you can't do that in the northern part of the U.S. It's not an either/or. You can do both. Or a senior who had a yard garden but is now in a small unit in assisted living can have a soilless container right on their countertop.
Q: What crops are best suited to hydroponic growing? What crops are more difficult?
A: I always push the leafy greens. Lettuce is easy. It will germinate within a week. Basil is easy. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplant — that's for later. I don't like to recommend those to people who are new to hydroponics. They take longer to germinate and you get frustrated and bored.
Q: What prompted you to write this book?
A: COVID, quite frankly. I started listening, reading and taking notes when the world started shutting down. First-time gardeners were wanting a low-maintenance way of growing some of their own food. I was trying to gear it to homeowners with no garden experience. There are over 100 DIY projects [in the book]. I tried to keep things as simple and ordinary as possible. Everything I talk about you can get at Home Depot or Menards.
Q: How did you first become interested in hydroponic gardening?
A: I've traveled all over [as a business consultant], to Southeast Asia. After two or three trips, I became impressed with Singapore. The whole country is about as big as Chicago. They have no farmland like we do. The gardens were vertical because their space was so limited. I saw a 10-story high-rise garden for residents on a rooftop. I saw a parking garage where the top floor was turned into gardens. Often it was hydroponics. Everything was growing in water.
Q: What's the most common mistake rookie gardeners make in hydroponic gardening?
A: They tend to overanalyze it. A lot of people will get obsessed with pH levels. If you're doing this commercially, I think that's relevant. For a homeowner, forget it. I might check the pH initially when I set up a system. Most veggies will grow very well in a range of 6 to 7.
People immediately want to dump some chemicals in. My reaction is, look at the plant. If the plant is growing well, stay out of the way. If lettuce is yellow, it needs more nitrogen. If it's purple, more phosphorus. If it's brown, there's too much fertilizer.
Q: What are the basic supplies needed to start?
A: Not a lot. A food-safe container — it could be a bucket, a 10-gallon tote. You need a support system to hold the plant — a net pot or wide-lip basket that fits over the bucket. You need a substrate; I use a mix of 80% perlite, 20% peat.
You need hydroponic fertilizer, which is more complete than soil-based fertilizer; you don't need to add anything. The fertilizer is the most expensive; a 14-ounce can costs $20 to $25. But you use only 1 teaspoon per gallon, so it will last a long time.
You need a light source. I never recommend window light. Sunlight is weak; you need good exposure. You can buy an LED light that clips onto the edge of a table. I've seen them for as low as $15. That's basically all you need. Everything except your seeds and fertilizer is a one-time cost.
Q: You've worked with a lot of schools, and your book includes activities and lessons for kids. What's one of your favorites?
A: My most rewarding one was growing strawberries, and demonstrating how they could use a Q-tip to hand-pollinate the buds. They were eating strawberries within six weeks. Kids love strawberries. That was fun.
The compost one is a little more involved. What I like about that is that students can see garbage turned into soil. It involves going to the cafeteria and negotiating with the cooks to separate [food scraps]. No meat or fat. Green stuff. The kids pick it up every day and put it in compost bins. At the beginning, there are a lot of skeptics — "How is lettuce going to turn into dirt?"
The hardest DIY project I have in there is aquaponics. That really takes a higher-level instructor and a higher-level student. To get the pH balance between the fish and plants can be a bear. I've only had two schools that did that.
Q: What's the future for hydroponic growing?
A: It's not a fad. People are getting serious. As we look at expanding world population, what we're doing to the land, with more fertilizer, more runoff and more pollution, hydroponics is going to be a great alternative to land-based farming. I'm liking the trend.
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784