Interested in starting your own hydroponic garden? Autopots are available at Savannah Hydroponics on Highway 80, right next to the farmer's market, and the company can be reached at 912-349-4030, McCartney said. You can also find more information at www.autopot.co.uk.
Liberty County resident and amateur hydroponic farmer Bruce McCartney is happy to share his ever-expanding garden’s nutrient-rich bounty with friends, neighbors and area residents.
The fresh-food enthusiast and his wife, Chin McCartney, first took an interest in hydroponics, a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water without soil, more than two decades ago. After a lot of experimenting and hard work, they’re enjoying the fruits of their labor — and so are those who know them.
The McCartneys, who live in the Trade Hill community in the county’s east end, tend the gardens with frequent help from granddaughters Alyssa, 4, and Whitney, 3.
“I’m really big on education,” he said. “You know, if you get the kids interested early, in the math and the science and growing and eating healthy, how great is that?”
McCartney, who was medically retired after 17 1/2 years in the Army, acquired the green house with the help of the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs Independent Living Program, which helps veterans live independently and participate in family and community life.
“Twenty-five years ago, 30 years ago, when our kids were small, we went to Disney World and we saw the hydroponics down there,” he said. “And when we finally got the green house put up, we said, ‘Well, let’s do some hydroponics.’”
McCartney and his wife did research and found a United Kingdom-based distributor of Autopots, a valve-based feeding system that cycles water and nutrients into the plants from below. They began growing hydroponically in December 2007.
“We ordered 10, and then we ordered another 10, and it was all trial and error,” he said.
Gradually, the couple mastered balancing the pH of the water and providing the proper amount of nutrients. By last year, the couple’s hydroponic tomato plants grew up to 25-feet tall, and McCartney expects the 180 tomato plants they planted mid-December will grow to similar lengths by March or April, when they anticipate their highest yields.
After that, it likely will be too hot to grow inside the greenhouse.
“These are really organic; there are no pesticides whatsoever here,” he said. “They could be certified organic.”
A majority of the food the couple eats grows on about half of their nine-acre spread. But they grow enough to give and sell it, too.
A white sign that says “Eggs” sits at the entrance to the couple’s property on Islands Highway, just a couple miles east of the Sunbury County Market. Feet away, a larger wood sign has room to display a long list of items, but on Tuesday, “tomatoes” were the only ones listed.
Down their driveway, the couple has a hut set up with a table for vegetables and a refrigerator to hold eggs from their chickens.
“We have eggs that we sell out there. We leave them in the fridge and people help themselves, and they leave their money in the jar,” he said. “And we’ve got a scale out there, and we’ll harvest some tomatoes today and stick them out there, and they come and help themselves and weigh them and bag them themselves and leave the money in the jar.”
Eggs go for $2 per dozen, and tomatoes are currently $2 per pound. But they’ll go down to $1.50 soon.
“We like to stay below the store prices,” he added. “If we can give our neighbors a break, that’s great.”
Trade Hill residents know the place as “Miss Chin’s,” “Bruce’s,” or “the Crab Man’s,” because they also used to crab years ago, he added. “We’re on first-name basis with all the neighbors.”
Outside of the greenhouse, about 300-400 blueberry bushes are growing, and the couple also will plant tomatoes, onions, asparagus, scallions and more in the ground.
When it comes to taste, McCartney prefers the hydroponic tomatoes, which are more economical to grow.
“Down there, you see that tank; it’s 55 gallons of water — that’s supporting all the plants in these two rows,” he said, gesturing down the greenhouse. “When it’s not too hot, it will take a week before that runs out — for us to water 100 plants while they’re in the ground, would probably take 10 times that amount.”
Other plants in the green house include papaya, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, deer corn, cucumbers and herbs.
For the couple, the project is a “hobby farm,” and their primary goal is to have fun while offering the community food and a chance to learn.
“This has really been a blessing for us,” he said. “It’s a place where I go for my solitude, you know, I still have nightmares sometimes, so I come out here and sit and watch the fire.”