Growing plants without soil sounds like science fiction, but patrons of Nelson’s Greenhouse in Clinton, Ind. can see it is not only real, but also a passion for co-owner Kenny …
Growing plants without soil sounds like science fiction, but patrons of Nelson’s Greenhouse in Clinton, Ind. can see it is not only real, but also a passion for co-owner Kenny Nelson.
“I’m really enthusiastic about it (hydroponics), I enjoy it,” he said.
Hydroponics is the science of growing plants in oxygen- and nutrient-rich water instead of soil. Paradoxically, it uses 90% less water than traditional farming. It also grows plants faster, negates the risk of ground contaminants and eliminates the need for herbicides or pesticides in the right conditions.
Arid places like Saudi Arabia or the American Southwest are the obvious beneficiaries of hydroponics, but its advantages and high yields mean its use is growing across the U.S., Europe and Asia.
“It’s the way of the future, it’s what the world’s coming to,” Kenny Nelson said.
Perhaps fittingly, he was inspired to try his hand at this futuristic endeavor in a place where fiction and reality blur: Walt Disney World.
“What got us going on this is about 20 years ago we went to Disney World, to Epcot, and they were growing hydroponic plants,” Becky Nelson said, adding that her husband took the Living with the Land boat ride over and over just to view the hydroponics exhibit.
The Nelson’s are also motivated by health. Kenny Nelson is a cancer survivor, and both he and his wife credit his diagnosis 18 years ago with their concerns over food safety and chemical contaminants.
“It was like, being in your 50s you feel invincible, and then you think maybe you need to start taking better care of yourself,” Becky Nelson said.
Kenny Nelson’s hydroponics are organic and fed with carefully tested well water. There are two systems, one a maze of pipes fed by reservoirs and the second a collection of deep-water cultures in their own greenhouse. The pipe garden consists of aisles of sloping PVC pipe with holes for plants to nestle in. Pumps on the ground send water and nutrients to the top of the rig for gravity to carry downward, until it reaches the reservoir again and the cycle repeats. Kenny Nelson already has an eye on expanding it.
“What we’re striving for is about 10,000 feet of system next year,” he said.
He confessed the late snow and high winds have set him back in loading the pipes this spring, but his deep-water cultures are thriving. These systems are vats of water, oxygenated and monitored, with plants trailing their roots down below the trailing their roots down below the surface. These are ideal for another gardening method: cloning.
“A clone is a part of another plant that you stick in a cloning solution,” Kenny Nelson explained.
Cloning solutions are generally rich in nutrients and minerals encouraging the clipping to put out roots. This method keeps up with hydroponics’ speedy yields. The normal process of from seed to bloom is seven or eight weeks, but a clone can get there in 10 days.
Despite the complexity of the systems, Kenny Nelson said hydroponics are remarkably easy to maintain once they get going, and the only thing to do is watch the water’s pH level and nutrients.
“It pretty much takes care of itself,” he remarked.
The Nelson’s Greenhouse hydroponics are even more impressive considering Kenny Nelson is self-taught. His systems are a combination of online learning and individual ingenuity, with lots of experimenting in between.
“It’s all geometry,” said Becky Nelson when describing the design process. “You have to have the angles correct.”
“And chemistry,” her husband added.
Kenny Nelson’s best laboratory is the state of Florida, where he and his wife migrate every winter. His work with the state parks there allows him to engage his green thumb and try new techniques without pressure. He previously designed several hydroponic systems for the parks, one of which grows native plants, and plans to build another at Suwannee State Park next.
“I get to experiment with a lot of things down there,” he said.
Building and operating hydroponics on top of a greenhouse is hard work, Becky Nelson said, but it is also extremely rewarding.
“He loves doing this,” she stated.
Between expanding the hydroponic system and the demands of business, the Nelsons know they will need full-time help next year. Summer makes the greenhouse environment intense, but for those who can hack it, Nelson’s Greenhouse has open doors.
“We’re always looking for dedicated, hardworking people,” Becky Nelson said.
Nelson’s Greenhouse is located at 1445 E. State Road 163 in Clinton. More information can be found at the Nelson’s Greenhouse Facebook page or by calling 765-832-7989.