Growing tasty tomatoes has changed quite a bit since the Incas of antiquity first began cultivating the native American plant. Today, Americans consume about 4.3 billion pounds of tomatoes annually. While farmers continue to produce field-grown tomatoes, advances in hydroponics now allow commercial operations and hobbyist gardeners to maximize their yield and minimize crop degradation. Despite criticism regarding commercially grown hydroponic tomatoes, the knowledgeable gardener can produce tomatoes equally as succulent as their field-grown counterpart.
Hydroponics is the method of growing plants in nutrient solutions -- water and fertilizers. In its simplest form, it uses basic technology in a systematic and controlled way to optimize growth rate, crop yield and quality. Crucial elements to any hydroponic tomato growing operation are:
The green house is an essential structure to any hydroponic operation, providing temperature and evaporation control, and reducing disease and pest infestation. The dimensions of a green house will depend on the size of the operation, whether it is a large commercial operation or a hobbyist garden. Glass is less commonly used; most growers prefer polyethylene sheets for affordability and durability. The selective film absorbs ultraviolet radiation while transmitting visible light for photosynthesis.
Photosynthesis is vital to a healthy crop yield. It is important to avoid trees or larger structures that might cast shadows over the growing tomato plants. The green house and rows of plants should be oriented north and south. Painting the floor white can also optimize photosynthesis by reflecting light back onto the plants.
Temperatures during day and night significantly influence plant development. Daytime temperatures for tomatoes should be between 70 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit. Nighttime temperatures should be between 61 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Different seed companies may have varying temperature specifications.
Creating a proper airflow system helps in cooling, CO2 replenishment, and removal of undesirable gases. A horizontal airflow system is capable of moving larger amounts of air around, offering better circulation. A simple horizontal airflow system requires large fans mounted above the tomato plants, facing one direction -- with fans facing the opposite direction in an adjacent section.
Drip irrigation is the most basic method of providing nutrient solution to the tomato seeds. This involves perforated tubing mounted above the plants connected to a reservoir and a pump. The reservoir and pump should be mounted at an angle to allow gravity to assist in the flow of solution.