Holland is the global heartland of horticulture, and the Dutch are a passionate people. They are passionate about growing both efficiently, and sustainably because the horrors of World War II taught them what it felt like to be hungry.
Greg and I travelled to the Netherlands in October of 2019 with a desire to learn from the best. This was our first time to Holland and after being in the greenhouse business for almost twenty years, it was such a thrill to be in the middle of it all!
We visited the trial / research gardens of one of our seed suppliers in the region of Fijnaart, which in English translates to 'fine earth' and as we drove the narrow roads closely bordered by dykes, it was plainly obvious that this piece of Europe was indeed a place of 'fine earth' growing crops that boasted of the Dutch's proud legacy of growing top quality vegetables. Our gracious host at the research gardens explained that land here is not priced based on $ /acre or $ /hectare,but rather euros m2, which is the underpinning reason why productivity and quality is an absolute driver when developing new vegetable varieties, land is finite and it is precious.
We toured the field trials of hundreds of veggie varieities and if there is such a thing as a 'living quilt' then the lettuce trials were it. Puffy, luscious, colourful lettuces in shades of green, emerald, light green, red and burgundy; we got to cut them open to look at their structure, and nibble them to appreciate their texture. As it was mid October, we were likely one of the last visitors to the garden for the season so we got to enjoy before the rabbits did!
Not far down the road, as we drove past farms and greenhouses, every square metre of land productive and growing something, we came to our next stop to visit a hydroponic greenhouse that specializes in growing lettuces and greens in deep water culture. This is where we met Maurice!
We grow our tomatoes and cucumbers hydroponically, and we have for years, but there are different ways to grow food without soil. So let's revisit the beauty of hydroponic growing. The number one benefit of hydroponic growing ( that is without soil) is the efficient use of precious resources namely water and nutrition. With the sun as the driving force, hydroponic growing allows the farmer to grow a crop to precisely meet its water and nutritional needs depending on its stage of growth. Crops grown hydroponically are irrigated with water that has elements required for growth added to it , such as nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and a host of other minor nutrients. These elements would be present to some degree in soil, but not all soil has the exact nutritional profile for each specific crop, so growing in a greenhouse , a closed environment, affords the farmer the opportunity to tailor her growing exactly as to what the crop needs to be the most productive. And that irrigation water is 100% reused/ recycled so that both water and nutrients are conserved, completely consumed for their intended use and no surplus is inadvertently released into the environment.
So why can't we grow our lettuce the same way as we grow our tomatoes? Well , for starters they are two different crops, tomatoes a long crop and lettuce a much shorter one, that is, shorter period of time from seeding to time of harvest. We have always grown our hydroponic lettuce using the nutrient film technique, which has lettuce sitting in a trough with its roots floating in a very shallow stream of water. Emphasis on the stream of water. Water that is not moving, is stagnant, oxygen-deprived , and that is the nemesis of hydroponic growing. Even though roots are constantly submerged, oxygen must be present in sufficient quantities to produce a healthy crop . If you were growing in a field, a farmer would grab a handful of soil, and comb through it to examine its tilth, its balance of organic matter and particles of clay , sand and silt to support healthy roots ,its aeration capacity.
And bottom line, our lettuce growing space is small, sharing real estate in the tomato house, and with our growing customer base who deserves a superior product for great value, we decided to renovate a different part of our greenhouse to expand for year-round lettuce production using this deep water culture system.
So back to Maurice. Talk about your passionate Dutch, Maurice is the son of an orhid grower, who has embarked on a crusade of opening our eyes to see how the world is moving back to a 'local to local' movement, and he happens to be selling ponds for growing lettuces and greens at the same time all over the world. People want to connect with their communities with every purchase they make and food is at the heart of it, is what Maurice believes. Does this message resonate with you? Remember this was in the fall of 2019, and the pandemic did not arrive until March of 2020 and suddenly everyone realized that indeed, our communities are everything! Local to local is becoming how we live our lives everyday. That Maurice, a compelling character for sure. Anyhow, the deep water culture system allows for lettuce to be successively planted into floating rafts in an aerated pond, and as the crop matures it floats to the end of the pond for picking and packing.
Needless to say we enjoyed so much more that the Netherlands had to offer in our short time there with visits to Rotterdam, the largest economic port in Europe, the Van Gogh Museum, a walk in Amsterdam's Red Light district and stops at some extraordinary Garden Centres.
Fast forward to August of 2020, when our pond system arrived in a few large crates from the port of Rotterdam and then it was time to get started on the greenhouse renovation at home. We began by installing our shade /energy curtain in the designated greenhouse space for the lettuce ponds, as well as LED grow lights for those short days in late fall /winter when we want to keep our customers richly supplied with tender, fresh local lettuces. Greg was busy all fall with the construction of the ponds, with help from great tradesmen like Rob B. , Shawn G., Rob S., Doug D ( Beehler Electric) and Sam D (Plantech Systems).
January 2021 arrives and it is time to fill the ponds with water. All of the water used to fill the pond was collected and stored from rainwater collected from greenhouse roof runoff from rains that we had in the fall and over Christmas (remember how gloomy December was). Another way that we wanted to lessen our impact on the environment with this project.
So here we are in early February with our lettuce transplants now happily floating their way to a late February/early March harvest. We are grateful for your enthusiastic response to our social media posts about this crop. It feels like it has taken a long time to get to this point, but in the end we just want to keep growing the best tasting food for you and your family at great value.
Thanks for allowing me to share our story , a story about 'LoveYour lettuce' , and we look forward to filling half your plate with delicious veggies grown right here in our family greenhouse/farm in Glenburnie.