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Aquaponic Strawberries

May 3, 2010

original AeroGarden control panel

When I was in charge of plant R&D at AeroGrow International we used to say that our holy grail was being able to offer a strawberry kit for customers of the AeroGarden.  We were so confident that we would be able to achieve this goal that we actually printed “Strawberry” as a setting option on the control panels of the initial gardens (to the right of the green Select button in the image).  Strawberries grew well in the AeroGarden, so it was just a matter of figuring out how to source the seeds and/ or ship live plants.  Companies do that every day, right?  That was the naiveté that launched our odyssey into trying to deliver strawberries to our customers in a way that was reasonably priced, reliably delivered, and disease and insect free.

We started by trying to find a strawberry plant seed variety.  We were already set up to manufacture seed kits, so this would be by far the easiest solution.  Problem was that these seeds were unreliable germinators, and those that did germinate did so very slowly and then the plants required 4 – 5 more months of growth before a strawberry was produced.  The strawberries that were produced were always of the small, tart, alpine varieties.  Not an option.

Shipping live plants from normal nursery sources was also not an option as we were growing in a soilless environment in baskets of a specific and unusually small size.  We needed a source that would start the plants for us without soil.  We eventually contracted with a couple professors at the University of Maryland, one of whom is a worldwide specialist in strawberries and raspberries.  Their mandate was to clone strawberries from tissue culture and ship them directly to our customers once they had roots and a few true leaves.  All seemed to be working out well until we started getting calls from our customers about mysteriously dying plants, followed by insect infestations.  After a month of analysis we figured out that although the plants appeared clean when they were shipped, the Maryland site was actually sending out plants with the beginnings of a hydroponic disease called pythium as well as with spider mite eggs.  After a couple more months of trying to solve the problems (not to mention managing customers and management within AeroGrow) we declared the problem unsolvable without a completely sterile greenhouse environment.  Back to the drawing board.

Our next attempt was to create our own sterile hydroponic greenhouse within our manufacturing facility at AeroGrow to grow strawberries, then pluck off the runners (AKA “daughter plants”) and get them to root in our grow pods.  We had quite a setup, and were on the verge of success after a couple months of

strawberry runners

Strawberry mother and daughter plants

trial and error, when a new CEO took over and declared that we shouldn’t be in the live plant business.  Probably the right business decision, but a huge disappointment to me and my team none the less.  Mention “strawberries” to me and it still carries a certain emotional weight.

So why am I telling you all this?  Perhaps as therapy.  Perhaps to give background to segue into my new life as an aquaponic gardener who is now growing strawberries in her aquaponic greenhouse without concern of shipping catastrophes or corporate decisions.  Strawberries typically grow very well in soilless environments, and mine is no exception.  Once again, aquaponics seems to be providing an excellent nutrient environment as witnessed by my thriving plants. Check out the video below about my planting experience and the first few weeks of growth.  This time is going to be different…

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. RupertofOZ permalink
    May 6, 2010 6:18 am

    I’ve had reasonable success with strawberries in NFT… but mixed success in aquaponics…

    What’s your take on optimal pH… and water regime?

    • May 6, 2010 8:12 am

      Hi RupertofOz,

      We were using NFT in our bio-secure greenhouse at AeroGrow and I know that that is the preferred technique for most commercial growers. So far I’m having great success in my hydroton media bed, but I’m only about 3 1/2 weeks into it at this point so I’ll keep you posted – the real proof is in the fruit. I try to shoot for a 7.0, but I’m usually between 7.2 and 7.4. I’d probably get better growth in my plants if I fussed with it more and kept it down lower but in an effort => return analysis (re: laziness 😉 I’ve decided that going from really great growth to greater growth isn’t worth my fussing time. I’m running my pumps 15 minutes on, 15 off, which is on the high side of frequency (my understanding is that most are at 15 on / 45 off) but I’m in an overstock situation with my fish right now and am more concerned about getting as much oxygen to them as I can than, again, optimizing my plants which would probably be better served by a longer drying out time. What do you run your systems at? Are you on siphon?

  2. May 10, 2010 9:15 pm

    Hi there!

    I’m growing strawberries in my Aerogarden (7 pod classic model) from starter plants purchased from a nursery.

    Since the Strawberry Patch kit instructions aren’t available to me, I’m hoping you might remember the care instructions, dear author! I read something on someone’s blog about not allowing flowers nor runners until there are 7 leaf sets. Is this accurate, and how should I remove the flowers? Some are on little stalks and some seem to be in the beginning of formation close to the crown of the plant and aren’t really accessible. I haven’t seen runners yet.

    Thanks! David

    • May 10, 2010 9:28 pm

      Hi David,

      Happy to help. The idea here is to let the plant establish itself and start growing new roots before it is tasked with focusing on reproduction (strawberries and runners). The 7 leaf sets isn’t really a hard and fast rule, just a guideline. I’d keep buds and runners removed until you see new white root growth (easy with the AeroGarden – just lift the grow deck up and check them out!), then let your strawberry plants do what they do so well! And be careful to keep that crown up out of the water! Good luck.

      • May 11, 2010 5:36 pm

        Hello there Sly one! I appreciate the advise very much. I checked out the roots, and all 7 plants have small hair-like fuzzy new root growth here and there. Do I want to wait for longer (none of these are even half inch), maybe not even a quarter inch long yet) strands of roots, then, before allowing buds/runners?

        I actually got one of those topsy-turvy strawberry planters for the remaining plants, considering that the nursery sold the plants in lots of 25 and the Aerogarden holds just 7.

        Thanks again. Do you still have a fun [sounding] job like when you were at AeroGrow?

      • May 11, 2010 5:46 pm

        How did you know my nickname? 😉

        Sounds to me like your strawberry plants are ready to rumble, but it’s up to you. Worse case is you will have some pathetic first fruits – no big deal.

        Yes, I’m working on something now that is much more fun… more to come…

  3. May 11, 2010 6:00 pm

    I was just making talk, had no idea of any nicknames.

    Incidentally how did YOU know that my fave colour is orange? The little box/icon to the right of my name is lovely and I didn’t even pick it.

    I meant to continue by saying that the strawberries outdoors getting plenty of sun and water in the Topsy Turvy planter after 3 days looked paltry compared to the first 3 days in the AeroGarden and I’ve got pix to prove! Plenty of pleasantries and if there are worthy updates, I’ll post!

    • May 11, 2010 7:08 pm

      Sure, love to see them!

      And somehow you just seemed like an orange kind of guy…

  4. May 18, 2010 3:31 am

    I tried growing strawberries in my Aerogarden and it worked out better than growing them in my yard because i didn’t have to worry about slugs, birds and pests steeling my crop. Aerogarden was definately a worth-while purchase for me and my hubby.

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