Smile Plants manager Raj Pundarik started his hydroponic garden when his wife challenged him to it a few years ago. The challenge turned into a hobby, and when friends started asking how they could emulate his green garden, he invested around Bt30,000 in equipment and turned his hobby into a business.
After experimenting with lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes and flowers, he now sells mainly lettuce, and also kits for people to grow their own hydroponic plants at home. "It’s not always convenient for people to get out to the farms to buy their equipment," he explains.
When imported butterhead lettuce were selling for Bt60 each from supermarkets, he was able to sell his own produce for Bt25 and make a profit; now that the imported price has fallen to Bt35 to 40, demand has fallen somewhat, but the demand for equipment has stayed steady.
So what is hydroponics?
Hydroponics is the growing of plants without soil. Instead, plants are grown in an inert medium, such as water, and are fed a nutrient solution that provides the elements necessary for plant growth. Hydroponics makes it possible to grow plants in locations where it might not normally be possible – such as on a small balcony in Bangkok. Because all the nutrients and water the plant needs are supplied directly to it, more plants can also be grown in that small space than if dirt were used.
Although with artificial lighting, it is possible to successfully garden indoors, thanks to Bangkok’s good weather – and the expense of the lights – these systems haven’t taken off the way they have in cooler climes.
Other advantages of using the hydroponic method include that you don’t need to weed your garden, plants are more resistant to pests and diseases (thus eliminating the need for pesticides), and that as the plants are grown in a more controlled environment, they will be of a higher quality and often have a better flavour.
Healthy and cheap
Home hydroponics is definitely on the rise, says Ack Hydro Farm’s assistant managing director Pannida Kiangsiri. The company, which has been selling hobby kits as well as distributing its own produce to supermarkets, hotels and restaurants in Bangkok for two years, is the busiest it has ever been. "We mostly sell to mothers who want to grow their own healthy vegetables for their families," Pannida says. Some purchase kits simply to have a green garden and others hope to save money.
Pannida does point out, however, that growing Thai vegetables hydroponically is not yet price competitive. Salad vegetables that used to have to be imported such as red oak leaf, green oak leaf, butter head, red romaine, watercress, cos, and rocket remain the most popular and are usually cheaper.
Beginners usually start with the smallest kit (Bt3,900), which has 18 holes. The kit includes the trays in which the plants sit, a pump, tank, and covering net that helps protect plants from insects and the rain, as well as the first set of seedlings, which take around six to seven weeks to mature from the day they were planted. Later on, seedlings two to three weeks cost Bt5 to 8 each. Buying seedlings rather than seeds to plant yourself increases the likelihood that your plants will grow to be healthy, as most things that can go wrong will happen when the plants are very young. After sales service is also provided.
Ongoing costs include an estimated Bt20 per month to power the pump, and around Bt100 per month for the nutrients. Enthusiasts will often progress to buying the three-metre, 48-plant set (Bt9,500). Due to its size, the six-metre set is not quite as popular.