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Hydroponic gardeners focus on freshness

A freshly planted garden faces a multitude of potentially disastrous enemies: A bit of bad weather, an insect infestation, a run-in with a rodent or a smidge of dry soil can spell death for seedlings struggling to flourish.

Cat and Steve Elliott were well aware of those risks when they first decided to build a hydroponic greenhouse in their backyard more than 10 years ago. Their biggest adversary, however, ended up being one they’d never considered: the home owner’s association.

“The neighbors were fine with it, but the HOA put up a fight,” said Cat, a self-described full-time jack-of-all-trades, laughing. “They made us wait a very long time before they’d OK it.”

The Elliotts persevered, despite the contention, and soon had erected a small greenhouse in the backyard of their Frisco neighborhood. They began experimenting with crops and “fell in love” with the idea of growing their own organic produce — a notion they’d toyed with for years, starting from the time they planted seedlings in plastic Coke bottles and left them to germinate in the back room of their house.

As their interest in raising crops grew, so did the desire to move to an area where they could do it right. They hopped from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city, and were repeatedly smacked with never-before-heard-of city codes and ordinances. After being ordered around for years, the final straw came when they were told they needed yet another specific permit for a backyard tomato trellis. The Elliotts decided they’d had enough.

“At that point, it was just goofy,” Cat said, “and we moved outside city limits, where there weren’t as many permits. Every time we moved, the greenhouse grew. So eventually we decided we were just going to buy land, and we ended up here in Pilot Point. We have a 95-foot-long greenhouse now, filled to capacity.”

Basil, arugula, watercress and mizuna (a Japanese mustard green) are all within the walls of their greenhouse in the Mustang Community. The veggies are so well received that Cat and Steve have been able to turn their shared hobby into a booming business. Every Saturday, Cat takes produce to the Coppell Farmer’s Market, while Steve heads to the one at St. Michaels. Despite growing many different crops, the thing the Elliotts are best known for — and what they refer to as their “niche” — is lettuce.

Depending on the time of year, Cat said, they can have five to six different varieties of lettuce growing in the greenhouse at once. Although lettuce thrives in mild temperatures and is traditionally raised during the spring and autumn, the Elliotts grow their lettuce year-round by using a water-wall to regulate the greenhouse’s temperature. Extreme heatwaves and cold-snaps can still have a negative effect on the crop, however, and recently the butterhead lettuce has been struggling to produce in the elements.

“We’ll have regulars run to our booth after a bad season and say ‘We need your lettuce—we haven’t had a decent salad in months!’” Cat said. “Because the store-bought stuff just isn’t the same, and they’re not satisfied.”

In that sentiment the consumers are not alone—in fact, part of Cat and Steve’s initial decision to begin growing their own produce stemmed from a general distrust of store-bought vegetables. After hearing horror stories about pesticides, foreign contaminants, dangerous chemicals and even crops being fertilized with human feces, the couple wanted to make sure that the greens they consumed were clean, organic and nutritious.

Cat and Steve agreed that hydroponics seemed like the best option. A hydroponic greenhouse is a greenhouse in which all the crops are grown in water. By reducing the amount of energy a plant’s root system uses searching through soil to find hydration, hydroponic greenhouses allow crops to grow up to 50 percent faster. Hydroponics also allow farmers like the Elliotts to control the amount of nutrients given to their crops by adding additional nutrients to the water.

After getting into the “lettuce business” years ago, Cat and Steve have faced their fair share of challenges. All their crops were once almost entirely wiped out by a swarm of grasshoppers, and because of their refusal to use chemicals to kill the insects, the Elliotts feared they might lose everything. It wasn’t until their neighbor encouraged them to purchase guinea fowl, an insect-eating bird from West Africa, to keep the bugs at bay that the grasshoppers receded. Every challenge after that has been overcome with a similarly creative solution—and Cat says that’s part of the fun.

“We never know what we’re going to end up with,” she said. “This thing has really just taken on a life of its own.”

The Elliots have big plans for their greenhouse and intend to continue growing their farm and business. In addition to the Coppell and St. Michaels farmer’s markets, the Elliott’s produce will soon also be sold at the Singleton Farms Farm Fresh Market, owned by Andy and Lisa Singleton, at 1900 N. Saint James Road in Pilot Point.

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