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
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…