Daniel Ebbecke would prefer that his wife and friends — and the birds — not pick his strawberries. In his experimental hydroponic growing operation, he needs to weigh the harvest to determine the pilot project's worthiness. And strawberries that end up in the kitchen or the mouth can't be tallied.
"If taken by the birds or wives, I don't think it counts," said the former Merchant Marine and boat captain who turned his focus from sea to land 13 years ago.
Ebbecke launched his farming endeavor off Ayers Road with a blueberry patch. He has since added vegetables and now an uncommon technique for producing strawberries.
Last year, Ebbecke, 52, constructed what are known as "stacks" for growing strawberries. Hanging from stout central posts about 5 feet tall are five expanded foam pots, nearly a gallon in size, containing four berry plants each.
This micro-farm boasts of 2,000 plants on a 40- by 60-foot plot.
Not only does the system require less space, it uses less water and lesser amounts of nutrients than in-ground production, Ebbecke said. A good rain can wash away fertilizer spread on the land, he explained, not only wasting the pricey resource but potentially creating pollution.
And talk about ease of picking: No back-wrenching bending or crawling is required. The fruit is at knee to head level.
Ebbecke's experiment is modified hydroponic. Strict hydroponic means the plants are grown in nutrient-rich water. To fill his pots, Ebbecke mixes compost, perlite and coconut coir.
Through irrigation, he administers an organic fertilizer with components that come from nature, not from petrochemicals. Sources of the organic product, with an 8-5-5 analysis, include feathers, mined materials such as sulfate of potash, bone meal providing phosphorus, and green manure — leaves of legumes — for nitrogen.
"The hydroponic water comes on three times a day for about six minutes," Ebbecke said. "The total delivery is about like turning a garden hose on for 18 minutes a day.
"I would like to see 1 pound per plant of strawberries," he said. If attained, a single stack could yield 20 pounds of fruit. He hasn't yet reached that goal. Also, the berries are not yet available to the general public.
Emphasizing that he's still experimenting, Ebbecke said he needs to boost micronutrients, adjust the hydroponic pH and maybe employ larger growing pots.
He has invested some $6,000 in his trial plot: plumbing, overhead shades for summertime, plastic sheeting when necessary to ward off frost, electricity to pump well water. A conventional in-ground plantation can cost up to $20,000 an acre to establish, Ebbecke said.
Of his project, he stressed, "It conserves resources." On top of that, Ebbecke said, he's having fun.
And the strawberries so far are extra sweet.
Beth Gray can be reached at [email protected]