Hydroponic Strawberries: Berries Grown Without Soil

Ed Wike
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Why Grow Hydroponic Strawberries?

Strawberries have long been known as a nutritious and delicious fruit but they are not particularly popular. The main reason for this is that strawberries require a long crop time, compared to other fruit.

Strawberry plants take around 2 years to be able to produce a decent quantity of berries, and they don’t produce every year.

Another problem with growing strawberries is that they need to be planted in soil.

Growing in soil can be a difficult task, especially for a beginner.

Another problem with growing strawberries is that they don’t produce much fruit, and they need quite a large area for good harvests. Growing hydroponic strawberries solves a lot of these problems.

Airlift hydroponics, a technique that’s gaining in popularity, allows you to grow a great number of strawberries in less space and with a fraction of the work involved. It can be easy to do, the results are outstanding, and you don’t need any previous experience.

Pros

Here are the pros and cons to growing strawberries in containers, with the most important ones at the top:

PRO: Containers spread out the plants so you can plant more of them in the same space. When you grow your strawberries in the ground, you have to keep them about four feet apart (the more room you provide, the more you will have when they are ready to harvest). By growing them in containers, you can grow as many as you want for a fraction of that cost.

PRO: Containers spread out the cost of growing strawberries by appealing to your pocketbook. You don't have to spend a lot of money to grow your own food in containers.

PRO: Strawberries grow well in containers. They need deep, loose, soil and plenty of it. Because they are hearty plants, strawberries grow and bloom in containers.

PRO: Containers will speed up the growing process. It only takes a few weeks to grow strawberries in containers.

PRO: Containers are mobile. If you just want to give your strawberries a little vacation during the summer heat, moving your containers to a shady place or a place that gets more afternoon sun will make them happy.

CON: Containers can warm up. The closer they are to the sun, the more they will heat up, so if you live in a warm environment, berries will need to be watered more.

Cons

One of the biggest downsides to growing strawberries in soil is the ripening process. When strawberries are grown in soil, the berries are ripe when the roots reach a certain level of nitrogen. Nitrogen is what allows the plant to create amino acids which allow the berries to ripen. The soil contains microorganisms that are responsible for the nitrogen absorption. But a lot of soil also has other elements that are absorbed by the roots that make the berries inedible. That's why if you try to pick a berry too early, you’ll end up with a bland or sour flavor.

Growing strawberries hydroponically eliminates this problem. In this system, the plant is fed a balanced set of nutrients with no organic contaminants. The result is that you can pick the berries at any time, and they will always taste good. They can also be selectively picked for their culinary uses.

Another perk of hydroponic strawberries is that it's a year-round fruit. You don't have to wait for the soil to warm up to plant them. In your container, the temperature is always the same and the berries will stay healthy and ripe as long as the plant is getting the right amount of nutrients and light. The producers of this system also boast that this system uses 90% less water than traditional growing methods.

What you’ll need to get started

Literally all you need to get things going is berries, their seeds and some water, but they do require full sun and a number of different nutrients to thrive. Here’s a rough cost breakdown:

The Containers

You can get divided containers, plastic boxes, or anything else that you can put your berries in. Just make sure that you can lift the container and I’d opt for something that you can easily access and move around, at least for the first year. I bought four 42cm (1.5 foot) tall, 12cm (5 inch) square wooden boxes for 35 dollars at my local hardware store and after pruning I used one for each row.

The Media

You'll need to prepare the nets or whatever cells you are using to hold your plants. The first time I grew strawberries I used clay pots mixed with coconut fiber. The coconut fiber isn't necessary but I tried to over-engineer everything. Now I use plastic pots nearly the same size as my containers filled with either an expanded clay (the same stuff that goes into chicken feed) or the coconut fiber with perlite.

I bought my expanded clay for 8 dollars per 20 kilos (44 pounds) at my local gardening store. The coconut fiber costs about the same. The perlite is about 40 cents per liter.

Growing Hydroponic Strawberries

A hydroponic strawberry system is one of the most efficient ways to grow it.

Strawberries are very sensitive and they absorb anything around them. It makes sense to grow them in pots and as a result the plant has less distance and contact with any potential contamination, which leads to better health and taste of the berries grown.

Here's what you need to get started:

  • Strawberry plants
  • Grow bed for strawberry plants (styrofoam containers work great for this as they are 1 gallon sized, easy to source, and affordable)
  • Rockwool – Hydroponic Strawberry Grow Cubes
  • Pots – To hold the grow cube (1-2 gallon sizes)
  • Epsom salt – For magnesium and sulfur
  • Plant nutrients – A good brand is General Hydroponics Flora Trio
  • Water – Make sure all your water is purified
  • Vermiculite – Prepare to grow using it
  • H2O2 – For sterilizing and cleaning the grow beds

Please note: If you have your hands on a commercial hydroponic system with water pumps and aerators you can use that system to grow the vegetables. However, using it for personal use is not possible.

Planting Techniques

Hydroponics is the way to go if you want to get the best possible strawberries for eating. You can get bigger berries with more flavor. You can even get strawberries that are part of a recipe that can be used when making ice cream and pies! They taste better and look amazing when compared to strawberries that were grown with conventional farming.

They will even yield more pounds of fresh strawberries. Growing them without a container is called "in the ground", and it could be your only option. Others might have restrictions on what you can grow inside or have to use specific containers.

When you have the option to use any containers, plan the design of the container, making it suited to your growing needs. Varying your containers will also give you the option of growing many types of plants in the same container.

When you are making your plans, make sure you are keeping the long-term in mind. It is best to grow the plants in the growing container until they produce a harvest. Throw the plants in the compost, or sell them and then reuse the container for another type of plant.

Light & Temperature

Temperature is one of the most important factors that must be taken into consideration. Strawberries need a minimum temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16°C) or higher for best results.

The soil should be damp but not sopping wet. The top two inches should be as damp as a wrung-out sponge.

Your plant might be over- or under-watered if either of the following two factors exist:

The entire root ball is wet soil. This can happen if the plant is planted in a large pot. As the roots spread, when the soil is only moderately damp. This can happen if the plant is planted in a small planting container.

Temperature is a big deal for fruit. Most vegetables don’t respond as dramatically to fluctuations, but many types of berries do. If your strawberries have no blooms on them and the stems are lying straight down, it can mean the temperature is too low.

Over the winter in cooler areas, your strawberries should be inside near a window. Brassica crops (spinach, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, etc.) should be next to the strawberries. Tomatoes, peppers, and basil keep any pests away.

Mulch down with 4 inches of straw to insulate and keep in moisture.

Water Quality & pH Levels

The quality of the water is a critical aspect of the success of your hydroponic plants. In the case of strawberries, just like with plant nutrient solutions, pH levels are going to be the biggest factor for growing conditions.

You can establish water quality quickly by adding 25 ml of hydrogen peroxide for every 250 ml of water.

The use of this hydrogen peroxide allows you to measure the pH levels easily and precisely.

If you need to adjust your pH levels, you can do it in several different ways.

The primary way is to use a buffering agent.

You can try using calcium carbonate, hydrated lime, or sodium bicarbonate to adjust your pH. If none of those are available, use crushed eggshells, shrimp shells, or bone meal.

When you measure the pH level of the water, be sure to take multiple measurements and observe the changes over several days. Do this frequently.

You also need to take into consideration that varying levels of feeding, sunlight, and the health of the plant will also have a considerable effect on the pH levels that you can expect.

Growing Medium

One of the exciting advantages of hydroponic gardening is that fruit growing is really simple. In fact, you don't need to know anything about gardening! A simple explanation of how the hydroponic growing system works is all you will need.

Modern hydroponics makes use of high tech growing mediums designed to maximize plant productivity, and because hydroponics uses different growing mediums for each of the various stages of development, the plants grow better than if they were grown in soil.

The best hydroponic growing mediums for germinating seeds are peat/perlite and rockwool, so you can purchase inexpensive growing medium starter kits for seeds. As a bonus, they are ideal for germinating seeds using a hydroponic seed starter, so you will end up with an edge over other gardeners.

The best replacement for soil during the vegetative stage of growth are the soiless seed starter growing mediums discussed in the germinating seed section.

The best hydroponic growing medium for fruiting plants is actually a hydro-soil medium that consists of a 50/50 blend of expanded rock gravel or small gold lava rocks, with perlite for drainage. This is made into a paste and then spread in a thin layer on the growing tray or pot.

Nutrient Solution

For Hydroponic Strawberries: How to Mix It and What Things to Consider

Name Your Primary Nutrient

Vegetative growth emits less red light than it should to inhibit the formation of the stems, and encourages the growth of more leaves, which is what you want. Mycelia (roots) absorb too much red and infra-red light, and you need these to be as dense as possible and well attached to the wooden framework.

For this reason, you should chose a vegetative nutrient, such as seaweed or nitrate and monitor your red and blue ratios.

Keep Track of pH Levels

The importance of maintaining the water pH between 6.2 and 6.5 is heavily stressed by hydroponic growers because it will affect the nutrient solubility and cause accelerated nutrient burn.

You need to use caution when adjusting the pH levels because it can become unstable very quickly.

Monitor your nutrient solution regularly because you want the plants to absorb as much as the nutrients as possible.

This will also help you avoid algae problems.

Maintain Organic and Inorganic Matter

Use an organic nutrient such as Bio-Stim 100 from General Hydroponics and an inorganic source of nutrients, such as Phosphorous (P).

The process is so easy that you barely have to set it up.

Pollination

Although the nickname “strawberry” doesn’t do they justice in the vegetable category, strawberries are true berries rather than berries.

Strawberries are prized for their red fruit and sweet-and-sour taste.

The two parent plants are a red-fruiting cultivar known as “Camarosa” and a white-fruiting cultivar called “Lanai.”

The plant grows in loose, sandy soil, at least six inches deep, using its runners to spread out from its base. Though the plant can form flowers, it is only the second “runners” that plants will produce that flower.

Once planted, the plant will flower in about three to four weeks.

In fact, the mature fruit and flower can appear on the same plant within the same growing season.

When you pick the fruit, be sure to remove it from the stem by cutting the stem down to the fruit.

Pruning

Many people know about growing tomatoes and lettuce and other veggies in straw or some sort of hydroponic system, but recently growing strawberries hydroponically has been a popular topic, too.

Growing strawberries hydroponically can be done, and the results of growing are similar to growing them in soil in that they will be grown faster and require much less hands on work. There is no back breaking labor involved and the plants do not take up a lot of time to care for.

There is no back breaking labor involved and the plants do not take up a lot of time to care for.

Some people have had problems with aphid infestation. Aphids are a hard enemy to kill. The best way, is to use a strong spray of water directly to the plant. This will make the aphids disappear. You should wait a day for the plant to follow through with the spraying process on your own before trying to spray another time.

Growing outside in a hydroponic system is the preferred method since the natural sunlight will provide your berries with all the vitamins and minerals it needs to keep growing rapidly. But if you are growing indoors, there is no need to worry since strawberries are sun-lovers and the artificial light will suffice.

Propagation

There are two ways to propagate strawberries:

Stem Cuttings

Stem cuttings are the preferred method of propagation since they are easier and more cost effective than other methods. These cuttings can be taken from the mother plant anytime from spring until early autumn.

Stem cuttings take 2 to 3 weeks for the roots to develop and 5 to 6 weeks to produce fruit. When making the cut, make sure you leave 2 inches or more of the stem attached to the cutting. Cut back all leaves except for the top 2 leaves. Then, place the cutting into a 6-inch pot filled with a mix of half peat and half perlite. These cuttings do not need an air stone.

Air Layered Plants

Air layering works best when propagating your strawberry plants just before they flower. The reason for this is that the air layer process works best during the later portion of the mother plant's growing season when its growth slows down.

Since the top of the root ball is removed, the plants need to be grown up in pots so that the air layer does not dry out. The size of the pot depends on the size of the plant. It is best to use enough potting mix to fill the pot to the same level of the soil on the strawberry plant that was removed.

Troubleshooting

Strawberry flowers will turn into fruit only if they develop mature ovaries. This takes around seven days. If you think that you have a berry grower waiting to set fruit, look for the classic strawberry shape, strawberry color, and leaf size. You might have to wait for an extra 7 or so days for the flower to develop into the strawberry.

If you are growing strawberries without soil, you can prevent aphids by screening your community of strawberry plants. This means having the strawberries in a greenhouse or some other enclosed area. It will help control how many aphids are in your agricultural system. Putting your strawberries in a greenhouse, also works well for controlling water and increasing fertilization.

Growing Problems

Growing strawberries hydroponically can be frustrating, and you may be tempted to give up after your first attempt. You have to do it right if you want to avoid wasting money, hours of work, and valuable strawberries.

A pH imbalance can prevent your strawberry roots from absorbing water and nutrients. Use pH test kits to determine when you need to add nutrients or pH down to the nutrient solution. The fertilizer test kit should help you determine when your plants need more fertilizer.

Pests

In order to grow strawberries without the common mold and mildew issues that occur when growing strawberries in soil, use the straw substrate recipe that we have discussed. You will need to feed your strawberries with the nutrients that they need in order to grow them successfully.

If you are growing them in soil, you can use organic fertilizers. A great choice would be using the all-natural, organic fertilizers by Giving Nature Organic Fertilizers. You will add the organic fertilizers to your soil to feed your strawberries in order to yield a delicious crop of strawberries.

Once you have the organic fertilizer all setup, you will need to change the soil in the pot every two weeks. You will want to start with the organic fertilizer, then follow by watering the strawberries with the organic fertilizer, and lastly water the strawberries with a good water source. With soil, you will need to change the water source every day.

Diseases

Many diseases affecting strawberries are caused by viruses, but that doesn’t mean that they are not treatable. Prior to application of pesticides, a virus has already damaged the plant to some extent. You just can't see it yet. Fungal infections are another problem you might have to deal with. Sometimes they can also be effectively treated with some effort. If they are caused by the fungus Botrytis, their control is quite easy.

A number of other viruses also have a devastating effect on strawberry plants. Such viruses are spread by buds or by planting material, such as runners. Next spring, usually in early April, new plants are planted where the previous year's plants were. This is the most important time in the life of the plants because viral infection occurs most often at this time. When planting, only certified disease-free planting material should be used. A detailed investigation of the planting site will reveal unhealthy plants. If they are found at the wrong time, and they are not removed, it is very likely that the viruses will pass from the mother plants to all of the plants in the bed.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Can hydroponics be done at home?

A: Yes, you can grow strawberries without soil in your own home but it's easier if you have an actual hydroponics system, although it's possible to do in a plastic bucket.

Q: What does it mean to grow hydroponic strawberries?

A: Hydroponics strawberries means that the plants are grown using water, mineral rich soil substitute, and nutrients, rather than in a container made of soil. This type of growing is called "soilless" or "nutrient film technique" (NFT).

Q: How do I know if NFT or container gardening is right for me?

A: First, how much space do you have? Do you want to start small and scale up as you go along? If so, you might find you're more comfortable with container gardening. This way, you don't make big initial expenditures on a system that you may never need to use again. It also allows you to try out hydroponics and see how much you enjoy it. Then, when you're ready to expand, you can feel confident in your ability to size your system correctly.

Q: How do I create NFT?