Vegetable Grower’s News – March 1998

By Lee Dean, Managing Editor

Growing tomatoes without soil is no longer a novelty. An increasing number of greenhouses are being devoted to the practice.Ray Cogo of Webberville, Michigan also grows soilless tomatoes, but with a difference – his are grown outside.The tomatoes growing from 144 by 18 feet structures get plenty of attention from people driving by since he started in the late 1980s. He also grows a much smaller quantity of lettuce, burpless cucumbers and sweet bell peppers, all using the same method.

Cogo says one of his initial jobs was to let the community know that the bushy plants snaking their way up the white PVC pipe frameworks were not illegal. He’s overcome those opinions and those of the people who call what he does “artificial farming”

“What I have now is my own system. It’s one that costs me less money and produces higher yeilds” says Cogo

A back injury forced Cogo out of his first occupation, the cement business, in 1986. He read about soilless farming (he prefers the term over “hydroponic”) in The Netherlands and went there to learn more from two greenhouse operations.

Plants sit on benches two feet off the ground. Holes are drilled in the pipes to accomodate six inch pots. The pots are filled with 1.5 liters of clay fired pebbles called lava rock which help hold the root system in place.

Two 300 gallon tanks are used as reservoirs for irragation and fertilization in a gravity fed system. If the pump fails, the plants will still be able to wick the material from the tank through the tubing. He has30 % shade cloth available for use in case of hot weather or high winds.

“I tried to design a unit anyone can use” said Cogo. “You don’t need any pH, EC or PPM meters. Generally, the basic person can get similar yeilds without the sophisticated equipment. I can double yeilds.”

Cogo uses a fertilizer brought back from The Netherlands from Masterblend Products, which is now manufactured in Plymouth, Michigan and called Gourmet Gardens. Nutrients are recycled, and not allowed to drip through the plants and into the ground. Cogo adds water as needed to compensate for evaporation.

He conducts tissue culture tests and tests for nitrate in the leaves. Otherwise, he uses his eyes to determine when to add nutrients.

“I don’t use meters. If it looks nice, green and healthy, then I must be doing something right,” he said.

Cogo makes rare applications of non-synthethic insecticides and no fungicide applications. He’s learned to lessen the chances of blight by not putting his plants too close together.

Even though this approach may lead to more cracks and blemishes on his tomatoes, he says it works in the marketplace.

“I have nothing against herbacides and pesticides, but the market trend is to not use them,” Cogo said”Are there cracks in the tomatoes? The real question is what do they taste like? Commercial varieties are bred for a long shelf life and they’re very good for shipping. Mine have the taste and twice the vitamin content. I want to let the market decide – I’m not trying to step on anyone’s toes.”

For many years, Cogo predominantly grew Brandywine, a variety dating back to the 1890s. They eventually developed too many problems with insects and cracking Now he tries varieties that give high yeilds and still have shelf life. In recent years, these have included Big Boy, Better Boy, Bonnie Best, Celebrity and Northern Exposure.

The tomatoes are sold to markets in the area and from Cogo’s home. He plans to start his own store within the next year.

For home gardeners who want to try to grow soilless crops, Cogo builds and sells units people can buy. Cogo says the units are cost effective, require minimum management and can be used by anyone.The framework of the gardens is made of acryllic tile. Plants are fed through a similar PVC pipe framework as the outdoor unit.

“they can be very simple or something that looks like furniture,” said Cogo. “They can be used as a point of purchase unit for restaurants and salad bars.” Cogo has built and sold many of the portable gardens without advertising them. He also has a home video depicting how the units can be constructed.

Tami L. Slingerland, Staff Writer

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