But how does it taste?


Michael Tortorello of the New York Times has an interesting piece this week about aquaponics…in other words, growing your vegetables in fish water rather than soil.

Some of the hobby farmers Tortorello interviewed brag about the incredible yields they get from fish droppings.  And I'm all for any kind of farming that takes advantage of the miraculous plant/animal/human cycle of life, where we all wind up feeding each other.

But growing vegetables without soil…that I am very suspicious of.  There are so many different organisms in the smallest bit of garden soil that scientists strain to describe its biodiversity.  And these creatures are so intricately interconnected that scientists can't manage even to culture many of them in the lab.

You can't convince an old dirt-lover like me that every one of these organisms doesn't contribute something essential to the taste of my produce.  So yeah, you might get great yields on nothing more than the excreted nitrogen of goldfish.  But the question is, how's the flavor?  Where's the perfume?

One of my country neighbors has built a thriving hydroponics business in tomatoes, basil, and cilantro.  And I do buy his basil in the winter, when I have no other choice.  But I have to confess, it tastes like nothing with a hint of basil…like a frustrating dream of basil.  Not like the real thing.


  1. I read that article and to be honest I thought it was interesting but a little pointless. Even its advocates (interviewed in the article) say that the system isn’t for most people.

    And that title? “The Spotless Garden”? I confess – I like to get dirty in the garden. I don’t want my garden to be spotless. And I agree with you that the dirt is part of the flavor.

  2. Michelle – I see your point, and i don’t know that I’ve ever had any hydroponically grown vegetables, but I do like the idea that this is one way some crops could be grown all year long on small farms in New England.

  3. You can’t convince an old dirt-lover like me that every one of these organisms doesn’t contribute something essential to the taste of my produce. So yeah, you might get great yields on nothing more than the excreted nitrogen of goldfish. But the question is, how’s the flavor? Where’s the perfume?

    I’m reminded of the only time when I had a thriving gardenia. I watered it from the fish tank. I smelled fabulous.

    I’m guessing your neighbors’ basil needs more light and heat than it can get in the winter.

  4. I say ditto to Deirdre on the Basil: It is almost certainly a light and heat thing — and maybe growth rate, as rapid, lush growth is almost always milder tasting than slower growth. But nothing inherent in hydroponics. Though soil is almost unbelievably complex, plant roots don’t uptake that complexity directly. Roots absorb only very simple chemical compounds (which that marvelous complexity helps make available) — and then use those (along with air) to create all the marvelous flavors.

  5. I bought a hydroponically grown lettuce once. It was on the bland side.

    I mean, sure, it is lettuce so how much flavor can one expect, but it didn’t even taste like a butter leaf.

    I will say this though… it was a snap to clean up.

  6. I live in Oregon and there are often hydroponically-grown tomatoes from Canada in the grocery stores in the Winter. I kick myself whenever I buy them, because they are mealy and anemic. They do ripen once I get them home, after a few days, but they remain mushy and not so flavorful.

  7. sounds like someone is trying a little too hard, and belive it or not, I think it’s easier and more rewarding to collect our chicken manure and spread it in the garden. I’ll let our sunnies and koi poop in the pond and feed our lily pads and pond grasses.

  8. You can see aquaponics up close in July, Michele. The Massachusetts Avenue Project on Buffalo’s West Side has been doing it since last summer, as I posted a while back. I must admit I am as interested in trying the tilapia as I am the tomatoes.

  9. Is it really worth the trouble. Having some ugly plastic water garden that sounds like dribble.
    Black plastic garden chic 1/2 a mile from the main check out ailse at Walmart.

  10. I’ve seen some hydroponics setups in the horticulture departments at Merritt College and at Cabrillo College and they had the most beautiful looking veggies I’ve ever seen. (Didn’t get to taste, unfortunately.) I think that the setup costs can be higher than for a regular garden, but once you’re past the initial investment, you’re pretty much set and you save a lot in water costs. I don’t think we should be pooh-poohing this. As water becomes more and more a scarce resource, hydroponics or aquaponics could become essential. And if flavor is less than optimal, I suspect that will improve as new varieties will probably be bred especially for hydroponic growing. And consider this: if it’s such a lousy way to grow, how come so many pot growers have gotten rich doing it?

  11. Hydroponics will continue to gain in popularity as generation y and younger get involved in gardening. They love this stuff. It’s gardening with high tech. Like anything, you can’t compare the “hothouse” (that’s code for hydroponics)grown vegetables in the grocery store with home grown hydroponic vegetables.

    To see the future of gardening watch the fringe groups who push the limits of what is being done with horticulture. Claire is correct in her comment above.

    Sure it’s nice to have a country home with a plot of land to garden in. Not everyone has that luxury.

  12. I dunno. Is fish manure really any different than cow or horse manure for plant fertilizer? Nitrogen is nitrogen no matter what the source. The only difference I could see would be that the plants are too hydrated. Much like those ginormous grapes in the grocery store that have been treated with a water retention agent to make them swell. Too much water and they taste, well, watery.

  13. it seems a little bit too antiseptic and plasticy to me. and aesthetically–not that nice. you wouldn’t be planting flowers in your fancy set up would you? i like to feel like i’m improving the soil and environment for pollinators and other living things. somehow this just misses it for me

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