Tomatoes in January? Basil in February? Green beans in March?
If you put a premium on eating fresh and seasonal, all the above may seem improbable — unless you’re a fan of Philip and Nancy Langston’s SLO Grown Produce. Visit their booth at any of several farmers markets and you’ll find all of that farm-fresh bounty, and often cucumbers, eggplants and peppers as well.
The married couple’s “farm” is actually a 21,600-square-foot greenhouse in Arroyo Grande. Mostly built by the Langstons from a kit, it showcases several ingenious methods of hydroponically growing crops, including a system that Philip Langston developed for his crop science senior project at Cal Poly.
Throughout the operation, there’s emphasis on efficient use of water, using every possible inch of vertical space, recycling and composting.
Those who cling to the belief that hydroponic fruits and veggies are lacking in flavor should give SLO Grown Produce a try. The Langstons have been winning over people with picky palates since 1993, when they first began selling their produce at farmers markets.
“We’ve done trials to determine not only what grows best in our system, but also what has the most taste and most market appeal,” said Langston, who’s recently honed in on some successful heirloom tomato varieties. Before planting anything full scale, however, he brings the potential produce candidates to the markets to get feedback from customers.
Plants that aren’t tall and leggy — such as basil, green beans and peppers — are grown in Langston’s hydroponic system.
Seeds are started in divided trays kept just sufficiently moist enough for germination, and transplanted to small plastic mesh baskets. Each has its own hydro-emitter so that the plants receive the least amount of water necessary to promote strong, steady growth — a schedule that relies on quick frequent blasts instead of extended dousing.
The openings in the baskets allow the roots of the plants to grow right through. When the root balls are well-established, the baskets are dropped into openings in 24 long PVC tubes through which water and dissolved nutrients are recirculated. To maximize vertical space, the tubes are positioned in six rows across with four lined up in each row.
When the next crop is ready to get going, all the trays and baskets are reused.
Bigger plants such as tomatoes and cucumbers are grown in plastic bags that essentially serve as pots. For a while, the Langstons tried a more conventional in-ground approach, but found that going back to a purer hydroponic method resulted in a water savings of about 60 percent.
Also started from seed, the tomatoes are transplanted to the bags. Each one has a dedicated emitter to deliver the optimum amount of water.
As the tomatoes grow, their vines are methodically pruned for suckers — all the green waste goes in the operation’s compost pile — and entwined around coiled cords dangling from above.
That system cleverly keeps the vines manageable in a vertical context. The attached cords are lowered as the vines grow, and the vines are laid down on the ground as the lower parts cease production.
Typically, the vines get to be about 20 to 30 feet long, with the top part continuing to produce tasty tomatoes for about six months.
In addition to maintaining a longer growing period, the system keeps the tops of the plants at a constant and comfortable height for harvesting. There’s little need for bending over or reaching.
“We’re small for a commercial greenhouse,” acknowledged Nancy Langston, “but finding our niche has allowed us to do what we love doing and to bring certain types of fresh, local produce to the markets at a time when it’s not usually available.”
Katy Budge is a freelance writer from Atascadero. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Farmers markets: Baywood Park, 2 to 4:30 p.m. Monday; Arroyo Grande, 8:30 to 11 a.m. Wednesday; Morro Bay, 2:30-5 p.m. Thursday; San Luis Obispo, 8 to 10:45 a.m. Saturday; and Arroyo Grande, noon to 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
Available produce, changes in scheduling and other news are posted on the SLO Grown Produce Facebook page.
Hints from SLO Grown Produce
- Never refrigerate tomatoes.
- Keep a short part of the stem on. It will keep the end of the tomato from drying out. (The same trick works with other fruits and vegetables.)
- Store tomatoes stem side down, as the fleshier bottom side can bruise easier.
- Store basil by trimming the stems and placing them in a glass of water on the counter, just as you would treat cut flowers. The basil will typically last a week, or even longer. (This works for many fresh herbs such as parsley.)
- Wrap European and Persian cucumbers in plastic wrap or place in a plastic bag and keep them on your counter or in the pantry — never in the refrigerator.