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Aquaponics and Indoor, Winter Tomatoes

March 8, 2010

My favorite plants to grow in an aquaponics system are definitely indeterminate, heirloom tomatoes. OK, really they are my favorite plants to grow anywhere, anytime. The long, gangly vines seem almost prehistoric in their un-hybridized nature. They just keep growing and growing, and giving and giving delicious fruit until cut down by frost or old age. I used to know a guy who worked in a greenhouse in Hawaii and he told me that they would let these vines grow for almost a year and that they could get to be as much as 30′ long. More of a python than a fruiting plant.

If you have a half acre of backyard for all this unruliness to occur, and warm sunny weather year-round (like Hawaii) you are set. For the rest of us mortals, however, we have to figure out how to grow the beasts indoors. Assuming you have an aquaponic system all set up and ready to go, there are two other things you will need:

  1. Knowing how to “tomato wrangle” – I’ve pulled together a video lesson on this. Hope you like it! 
  2. Serious HID (high intensity discharge) lights – I know they are energy hogs, but unless you are willing to side-light with T5 fluorescents you will need the reach down into the plant canopy that only a HID can provide.

That’s it. Order some seeds from an heirloom seed provider, like Seeds of Change, germinate them, and let the fun begin!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. john thompson permalink
    March 8, 2010 10:59 pm

    I’m getting the first flowers now on sungold cherries in my basement aquaponic setup. Because I’m really cheap, I’m growing under flourescent shop lights. (I have also grown under 1000 watt metal halides, but couldn’t justify the $50 per month electric bill). I have successfully grown larger varieties of tomatoes under shop lights as well.

    There’s two ways I’ve tried to grow under shop lights (and I’m talking 4 foot long, $10 each fixture, 2 bulb, plain jane shop lights). One is to trellis the plants up at about a 30 degree angle from the planting surface. You can grow them up twine or a stick or trellis. Just run the shop lights (paralell to the angle of the trellis, about 6 inches over it). When they get to the top of the light, turn them around and run them back down. You can pull the leaves off the bottom as they finish producing. Trim back the suckers to leave just the main stem. You need 2-3 shop lights, about 100 to 150 watts total to do this. Yields will be less than a big light, but so will your electric bill.

    The other way is to hang the shop lights vertically in a circle around a vertically staked tomato. This works better with determinates, but you can circle up with as many shop lights as you want for really compact growth.

    Both work well, and result in good tomatoes. Probably the most important variable for good indoor tomatoes in a basement (cold temps and no sun) is the variety. Early varieties like early girl, first lady, etc., or cherries should perform best. Manitoba is a great big cherry and high producer.

    The other thing I dislike about HID lights (besides the cost) is that while they likely grow great marijuana and are a good supplement when growing in a greenhouse with good sun, they are lousy sole suppliers of good light in a basement application for things like lettuce and herbs. They do fine for tomatoes, but I need a more one-size-fits-lots light and have found HID’s don’t do green leafy growth as well as shop lights.

    • March 9, 2010 8:59 am

      Hi John. A few comments to your comments. While I agree that you might be able to eak out some well-selected cherries and early tomatoes by surrounding your plants with inexpensive shop lights that would both be a less-than-optimal tomato experience (I’m talking about Black Krims, Hillbilly Potato Leaf, mega, yummy tomatoes here) as well as a whole lot of shop lights blaring into a room. As I said in the post, side lighting with florescents will work (I’d recommend T5 grow lights as for a little more money you can actually get a good plant growing spectrum) IF you side light. This is exactly what you are talking about. A 4′ florescent bulb will pull 54 watts per bulb. If you use 3 2-bulb fixtures you are using 324 watts of power. OR you can use a 400 watt HID fixture (no need to go up to 1000 since I think we are just talking about one plant here) and get the right spectrum for fruiting plants and go deep into the canopy….with ONE fixture that is pointed downwards…and grow any tomato variety your heart desires. Second, I agree that red-orange spectrum HID lights are geared at a fruiting spectrum and do a lousy with greens and herbs. That is why I’d recommend getting one of the convertible ballast driven products (Hydrofarm’s Sunburst system, for example) that allows you to switch to a sodium, blue spectrum bulb if you are at the beginning stages of tomato growing, or want to focus on greens and herbs instead. Best of both worlds.

  2. Rose D permalink
    March 9, 2010 10:26 am


    I really want to thank you for all of your videos, including this latest one. I recently stumbled on your blog and forum, and have been gaining lots of wonderful practical knowledge from them. I think a lot of times in aquaponics, people tend to complicate different aspects of their systems and it makes it tougher for the newbie to cut thru the fancy additions to the basic “good stuff”. What I’m trying to say is, you simplify things so well, and I’ve found your blog to be the most practical out of all of the blogs, forums, and magazines I’ve read. So thank you, and please keep posting and making videos. I live in a cold climate in Canada, like you (actually much colder!), so it helps to have a buddy who understands the constraints of weather that I go through.

    Question: Do you find that your tomatoes have slightly less yield than if bees were pollinating them outside? Do you have an outdoor garden in the summer to compare your greenhouse tomato yield to your outdoor yield? The reason I ask is I am considering buying a beehive for my 1000 sq. ft. greenhouse, given that I will be producing lots of fruiting crops besides tomatoes (cucumbers, melons, strawberries, etc.).

    Also, it was great to see your face for the first time in this video! I sure wish I had the resources to take your class in Denver next week. Happy gardening!

    • March 9, 2010 10:35 am

      Wow. Thank you so much for your kind encouragement. As you have adeptly picked up, I’m a big fan of simplifying things to make them more accessible. Thanks for acknowledging that mission!

      I do actually find that I get more production outside than in. I have actually grown the same cherry tomato variety in aquaponics in both environments and found that I got more tomatoes outside. Not only do you have bees outside, but also beneficial insects and lights are free! Looking forward to closing up the greenhouse and moving out onto the deck soon. And those other fruiting crops you speak of are pretty challenging to pollinate…need actual plant sex instead of just love taps ;-). Good luck!

  3. John thompson permalink
    March 9, 2010 3:32 pm

    Sylvia you know I’m going to try to build the cheapest, most basic system possible, and the shop lights work for that. A couple of points- shop lights are about 50 watts per fixture, not bulb, so three throw off 150 watts. They dual purpose for tomatoes and greens and they are $30 for 3 instead of $200, and $7 a month instead of $25. And they will grow heirlooms in a basement, for something less than the $20 a tomato from more expensive systems. I’ve grown with both, and prefer the shop lights! I like to test the edges!

  4. March 9, 2010 3:52 pm

    John, 4′ T5 fluorescent bulbs use 54 watts of power. You can use your cheap shop lights and grow your handful of cherry tomatoes, and I’ll grow my black krims and beefsteaks. Believe me, I’m getting far more than $18 a month worth of tomatoes right now so I’ll stick to my HID lights, thanks.

    • March 10, 2010 8:36 am

      John, after our email exchange last night I thought that I should probably let the readers know that you and I worked side by side for almost 7 years in the development of the AeroGarden. Our birthdays are within a day of each other, and I consider you to be as close as a brother. As such, we tend to bicker like siblings – and good things usually came of those tiffs. Those who worked with us at AeroGrow were used to it; those just reading this blog probably thought this was an actual important arguement. It’s not. It’s our “process”. Love you, man.

  5. john thompson permalink
    March 10, 2010 8:44 am

    I didn’t say I was getting big yields of big tomatoes, I said I was cheap!

    You are correct, you will definitely get bigger harvests of bigger tomatoes using HID lighting, ESPECIALLY when growing larger plants like heirlooms, and that is 100% the most foolproof way to start with indoor tomatoes.

    PS I use Energy Star rated T-8’s in my shop lights and that’s why we have the wattage confusion.

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