Grit-Free Chard

Think you need dirt to grow veggies? Think again.



Hydroponics, today’s buzz-centric, soil-less agricultural method, has surfaced as a beneficial alternative to conventional farming. Plants are cultivated in greenhouses, their roots submerged in nutrient-laden solutions that render soil irrelevant. Simply put, it’s the soil’s minerals they require, not the soil itself. On a horticultural level, hydroponics’ results of higher crop yields, lack of soil-borne diseases, and quality control are impressive. But on a social level, the implications are staggering. Fertile land won’t be necessary for access to healthful greens.

But what about taste and nutrition? “You can’t beat perfect soil,” says Kevin Ferry, greenhouse and farm manager at Mount Kisco’s hydroponics-focused Cabbage Hill Farm. But barring perfection, hydroponic agriculture is an advantageous option. As with all pursuits, standards are key: light and temperature conditions, mineral-solution formulation. “The quality of nutrients and the plants’ ability to utilize it is what matters,” Ferry says. “Sometimes hydroponics can result in bitterness or higher levels of nitrates.”

As hydroponics farmer Perry Hack of Connecticut’s Two Guys From Woodbridge Farm sees it, hydroponically grown products actually can be superior. “They should taste better,” he says. “All plants need the same nutrients, whether grown with hydroponics or in soil. We know the calculations and ratios of the minerals the plants need, and hydroponics makes them readily available.” His certified organic greens have small root balls, since the plants can put their energy into making tastier leaves rather than heartier roots. And what’s easier for the plants can be healthier for us. “In general,” Hack notes, “hydroponics is a cleaner way to grow. There’s no manure, no E. coli, no salmonella.”

Of course, it’s an environmentally cleaner way to grow as well. There’s little need for pesticides, no topsoil erosion, and limited water use (no wonder it’s planned for NASA’s Martian outposts). “With climate change, hydroponics offers a controlled indoor, year-round growing method,” says Cabbage Hill head grower Anne Marcarian. And then there’s the humanitarian aspect. “The best reason for hydroponics is to bring nutritious food to areas that lack it,” Cabbage Hill’s Ferry says. “There’s the ability to provide quality, viable vitamins fifty-two weeks a year regardless of where you’re living.”

Fortunately, we don’t have to go far, just up the road to Cabbage Hill’s stand at the Mount Kisco greenmarket May through October, and, in winter, indoors at White Plains’s County Center monthly Sunday market. Cabbage Hill’s cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuces, chard, and herbs (the last three grown with filtered, recirculated water from its sustainable fish-farming aquaculture program) are also planted throughout the menus of The Flying Pig (251 Lexington Ave, Mount Kisco 914-666-7445), Croton Creek Steakhouse (4 W Cross St, Croton Falls 914-276-0437) and The Farmhouse at Bedford Post (954 Old Post Rd, Bedford 914-234-7800).

Why not go and order a sampling? You just might find them the tastiest greens this side of Mars.