Growing vegetables and herbs without soil

A greenhouse at Water Fresh Farm in Hopkinton has a variety of vegetables growing in a hydroponic medium, with no soil involved.
Christopher J. Gaffney for the boston globe
A greenhouse at Water Fresh Farm in Hopkinton has a variety of vegetables growing in a hydroponic medium, with no soil involved.

Jeff Barton was a salesman in the high technology field itching to get out of that world and into something he could call his own.

Along with a boyhood friend, he was looking for a business model that would be successful as well as environmentally responsible.

“Then I read a story in The Boston Globe about hydroponic gardening,” said Barton. “So we decided to start a small farm in Hopkinton that provided locally grown produce to the area.’’


That was 15 years ago.

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“People looked at us like we had two heads,” he said.

Today Barton and his friend, Phil Todaro, as owners of Water Fresh Farm and Marketplace, are at the forefront of a growing movement toward locally sourced food. Their farm provides fresh tomatoes year-round to Whole Foods Markets, Roche Bros., and some Stop & Shop stores. In addition, they grow cucumbers, a variety of herbs, Boston bibb lettuce, baby spinach, and strawberries that they sell in their market, which opened in January.

Their crops are all grown hydroponically, or in a nonsoil medium, in greenhouses that cover a little more than half an acre, according to Barton, who learned about the technique from a leader in the field, Merle H. Jensen, a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona.

“We knew enough to know what we didn’t know,” Barton said. So they went out to Arizona for an intensive weeklong course taught by Jensen.


Jensen became a consultant for Water Fresh Farm, and is still in weekly touch with Barton to go over results of water and tissue samples from the plants; the tests are needed to tweak the formula providing the growing conditions.

Jensen was at the farm on Hayden Rowe Street over Memorial Day weekend.

During a talk he gave to about 30 people interested in hydroponic gardening techniques, the Washington state native described how he’s spent his career traveling the globe, teaching people in climates inhospitable to growing vegetables how to create environments where they can flourish.

“I decided my field of expertise would be the world,” Jensen said.

He’s built greenhouses in the deserts of Abu Dhabi, in the frigid conditions of Antarctica, and throughout China. He and his team also designed an exhibition in the Epcot theme park at Walt Disney World in Florida.


“In dirt, roots go down into the ground over a meter and you don’t have any control over that, they become the boss,” said Jensen. “We contain the roots and have full control against diseases, and full control over all the food that goes into the plants. It took a great deal of research and science to develop these systems.”

At Water Fresh Farm, they also control the humidity, light, and temperature in the greenhouses using computer systems that constantly monitor the conditions. And they adjust the feed solutions and water ratio based on the weather, and to manage the taste of the vegetables.

“When it’s cold and cloudy, you don’t feed them as much as when it’s hot and sunny,” Barton said.

Christopher J Gaffney for The Boston Globe
A crop of Boston bibb lettuce is checked by visiting mentor Merle Jensen (left) and Jeff Barton, one of the Hopkinton farm’s founders.

To grow a sweeter tomato, “you give them a little extra salt,” Jensen said. “Salt has a propensity to hold water, so more sugar is formed in the tomato,” he said.

Many of the herbs such as cilantro and basil are anchored onto a thin sheet of burlap with their roots submerged in water filled with specific blend of minerals and nutrients. Once the herbs are ready for harvest, the burlap sheets are taken out of the water and hung to dry until the full-grown plants can be cut off and packaged for sale in the market next door.

No pesticides are used. Instead, tiny, predatory wasps developed in Holland are used to wipe out any white fly infestations that could destroy the plants.

Jensen said the wasps arrive unhatched on small cards.

“We keep the cards cool so they don’t hatch and then put them in the greenhouse where they hatch,” he said. The cards are put into the greenhouse whether white flies are detected or not, to insure there is no problem.

Hydroponic gardening needs far less space than traditional growing in outdoor fields and has higher yields, especially in places such as New England where the growing season is relatively short.

Otho Wells, a retired professor at the University of New Hampshire who was in Hopkinton with his friend and former colleague Jensen, said he spent years studying outdoor plant production.

“In New England, 10 to 15 tons an acre would be an extremely good yield per year” for a crop of tomatoes, he said, estimating that a hydroponic garden would produce about 10 times more than a regular field farm of the same size.

Barton said most of the produce at the farm’s new market comes directly from the greenhouses out back, and the market’s fruits, meats, dairy, honey, and other products come from local sources.

“Most of my work now is with small growers because people want to see where their food came from,’’ Jensen said. “It’s happening, and it’s happening all across America.

“Locally grown is miles better,” he said with a smile. “Isn’t that a great way of saying it?”

Ellen Ishkanian can be e-mailed at eishkanian@gmail.com.