Larry Cipolla is a well-known Twin Cities University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener and garden speaker, who tends a wonderful garden in Edina. It combines a Japanese garden with an abundance of water features with innovative vegetable-growing strategies. He’s taken one of his special interests—hydroponic gardening—and provided a detailed discussion of how home gardeners can adopt this technique in his book.
Hydroponic Gardening The Very Easy Way 2018 offers a “proven indoor and outdoor system for year-round gardening.” Cipolla focuses on the deep-water culture system of hydroponic gardening. In this system, some of the plant’s roots are in water, while others are in air. The system uses food-safe containers (buckets, PVC pipes, styrofoam containers), net pots, and a media for the plants to be anchored in. It is the easiest of hydroponic techniques to set up, and
Cipolla provides detailed instructions for both setting the system up and using it over time.
The book is organized in “modules,” which cover start-to-finish steps for setting up and expanding your system. Cipolla starts with an outdoor hydroponic garden but also offers instructions for establishing an indoor garden with lights, which allows hydroponic growers to harvest vegetables and herbs all year long.
The book covers all the bases: grow media, a variety of set up options, what to grow, how hydroponic food may taste slightly different from food grown in soil, fertilizers, potential pest problems and diseases. Hydroponic Gardening also includes several appendices, including a helpful chapter on “Mistakes I Made (and Make).” The book is illustrated with black-and-white photos and many instructive drawings and charts.
For those who like to try new gardening techniques or are interested in hydroponics because of a lack of space or poor soil, Hydroponic Gardening is a complete introduction to the benefits and challenges of growing food in water.
Larry Cipolla is a star gardener in Edina whose passion for planting and weeding sprouted at a very young age. Cipolla grew up on a vegetable farm in East Hartford, Conn. But his passion would later mean finding ways to garden with little space.
When Cipolla bought his first townhouse in 1972, he would become association president and help make container gardening and planting in other outdoor spaces permissible. Cipolla moved to Edina in 1976, and when his house was being built, he asked the construction crew to leave the dug-up soil that would normally be hauled away. He had the mound of dirt spread in his backyard, creating a space for what is now his vegetable garden. He also has 50 containers of soil that are hosts to vegetables, herbs and flowers in addition to a pollinator gardens, hosta garden (with 125 different varieties), and a Japanese garden with 10 water features.
Cipolla’s love of gardening has spread beyond his backyard. He’s worked to help establish a community garden in Edina and is part of the School Yard Gardening Program. He teaches at the Edina Community Center, a past docent at the University of Minnesota Arboretum and has been a speaker at both the St. Paul and Minneapolis Home and Garden Shows and teaches a range of topics through the master gardener program.
Cipolla’s goal is “to get people to understand that gardening can really be fun and rewarding.” He says there’s nothing better than “picking up a tomato and eating it immediately—no pesticides, no shipping and handling, just fresh and pretty darn healthy for you.”
Edina author's new book explains how to grow food year-round in Minnesota
Author updates an American garden tradition for today's locavores with a new how-to guidebook. Star Tribune.
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.
Growing food in water, at home
Twin Cities gardeners are putting produce on the table with hydroponic gardening. Shared from the 5/24/2020 Star Tribune eEdition.
When Kate Netwal wants a fresh, crisp salad, she doesn’t have to go to the grocery store. She makes one from the greens growing in her Minnetonka closet.
Yes, her closet. That’s where Netwal has two 10-gallon tubs under grow lights in which she grows lettuces and other veggies hydroponically, in water, even in the dead of winter.
“I love it! It’s really easy. This is my fourth year,” said the Master Gardener, who also grows veggies outdoors during Minnesota’s gardening season.
“I’ve always been interested in ways to grow food year-round,” Netwal said. Recent romaine salmonella outbreaks and now grocery shopping in the pandemic era have made her even more interested in growing some of her own produce. And with hydroponic gardening, she can do it even when it’s too cold to garden outside. “It’s so wonderful to have fresh vegetables.”
Netwal learned hydroponic gardening from her mentor in the Hennepin County Master Gardener program, Larry Cipolla , author of “Hydroponic Gardening the Very Easy Way” (available at Amazon, $23.70), who has been teaching the method at schools, garden clubs, senior centers and conferences.
Cipolla, who grew up on a small farm in Connecticut, gardens in soil at his Edina home but also grows herbs, greens and other vegetables in water-filled containers in his basement from Labor Day to May, when he brings many of his plants outside.
“I harvest almost every evening,” he said. “Most nights we eat something we grew.”
Hydroponic gardening offers many advantages, especially for those in cold climates, he said.
“You can garden year-round. That’s a huge plus up here.”
It’s also more sustainable than growing in soil because it requires less water and less fertilizer, he said. “And there’s no runoff in lakes, ponds or drinking water.” Also heavy rains can cause fertilizer to leach out of soil, he noted. “With hydroponics, you don’t have the issue.”
Hydroponic growing is an ancient practice that dates back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, built in 600 B.C. Cipolla, a management consultant, first encountered hydroponics during a trip to Singapore in the mid-’90s, and his interest grew during subsequent visits there.
“I became fascinated by it,” he said. He marveled at the sight of tomato plants growing and thriving 4 inches apart. “That’s the thing with water. The roots grow vertically vs. spreading out. The roots don’t have to look for food. It’s there. So they can grow in a small space.”
Hydroponic gardening is ideal for people who don’t have a lot of space for soil-based gardening or who have poor soil quality, as well as for seniors and others who don’t want to deal with bugs or humidity, he added.
Cipolla’s book and his teaching focus on the passive deep-water culture system, which is the easiest to set up, he said. It’s basically a form of container gardening. All that’s required are plastic buckets sold at home-supply stores, baskets or net cups, a growing medium to support the plant structure (Cipolla advocates a mix of peat and perlite), hydroponic fertilizer and grow lights.
His book includes step-by-step DIY instructions, including suggestions for inexpensive supply sources. Startup costs can range from about $100 to $250; Netwal, who already owned grow lights, estimated that she spent about $70 to set up her hydroponic system.
Hydroponic gardeners can start plants from seed or “cheat” with store-bought plants, both of which are addressed in the book.
Some crops work better than others for hydroponic growing. Herbs and greens are good candidates. When he works with schools, Cipolla usually starts with quick-germination crops, such as lettuce, he said.
“You can grow so many different kinds of lettuce,” said Netwal. Her favorite is Crispino , an iceberg variety. “It forms little heads, a little bigger than a fist. A perfect amount of lettuce.”
She prefers hydroponic lettuce to soil-grown lettuce. “What I like is the greens are so clean. With greens grown in the ground you have to rinse and rinse.”
She’s had mixed success with other crops.
“I did try peppers from seeds. But I don’t think it was warm enough” — her growing closet is against an outside wall. “I experimented with some beets, and I actually did get a little beet,” she said. “It’s fun to experiment.”
Many other vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers and beans, also can be grown hydroponically, according to Cipolla, whose book includes detailed directions for various crops, including optimal container size.
Breck School in Golden Valley has been putting hydroponic gardening to the test in a corner of the school’s common area.
“Last year they set up a hydroponic system with the help of Larry [Cipolla],” said Kati Kragtorp , a biology teacher who advises the school’s Food Justice service-learning group. The goal was to grow fresh food and donate it to a food shelf.
“I was blown away by how easy it was,” Kragtorp said. “It’s a simple system — Rubbermaid bins with holes cut in the top, nets, water and liquid fertilizer. You get it started, and it’s very low-maintenance. The students had so much fun with it.”
Breck students grew lettuces and herbs, which they harvested and donated to the PRISM food shelf in Golden Valley, Kragtorp said. “It’s a great way to get fresh food in the middle of winter. The food shelf was happy to get something green when all they had was potatoes and root vegetables.”
Kragtorp polled her students on what they wanted to grow next, and they said strawberries. Those required starting with plants rather than seeds, and spider mites came along with them, she said. “We got some fabulous strawberries, but it was not as productive as we hoped.”
Breck’s hydroponic garden is dormant now that schools have closed due to the pandemic. But Kragtorp plans to resume growing once the school reopens. “Absolutely, we will do it again,” she said. “Now that we know what we’re doing, we’ll hit the ground running.”
Working with the students has inspired her to think about hydroponic gardening at home.
“I was totally converted,” she said. “I absolutely want to have one. I couldn’t get over how easy it is. You don’t have to worry about weeds or about insects or rabbits eating it. It’s fun to weed, but it never ends.”
Netwal converted her son, who recently moved to Rochester.
“He’s got a system in his closet, too,” she said. “I’m so sold on the idea. I think everyone should have one.”