All I can think about at the sight of a sunny, green, perfectly trimmed front yard is the amount of food that could be grown. It’s incredible what a mere quarter acre can produce. Teddy Bolkas of Thera Farms works one such miracle on his two-acre farm on Motor Parkway in Ronkonkoma. While the array of tomatoes, zucchini and figs are surprising in a typical suburban neighborhood, his most impressive use of space has to be his 26- by 100- foot hydroponic greenhouse.
Even in the dead of winter, Bolkas’ yard is a green jungle of lettuce just inside plastic walls. His system produces thousands of heads of different varieties of lettuce and arugula, 365 days a year. The plants grow in long channels of nutrient- and oxygen-rich water kept between 55-65° F. Colder water prohibits nutrient absorption while warmer water provokes uninvited algae growth. Since there is no soil in hydroponics, you may be wondering where the seeds are planted.
Enter Rockwool. Bolkas describes it as spun fibers of melted basaltic rock bound and compressed into large slabs. Its high mineral oil content and hydrophobic characteristics make it the perfect growing medium for hydroponics. Bolkas plants organic, GMO-free seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in the tiny holes in the slabs that are then submerged in water. Until they’re big enough to move into the larger channels, Bolkas keeps the freshly planted Rockwool in trays submerged under strong UV lights. Once the plants sprout, he selects the best seedlings, which are transferred to the larger channels where they grow until harvest.
Bolkas’ operation requires precision, constant monitoring, and planning ahead. Since he doesn’t use pesticides, he must monitor the pH, temperature, nutrient content, water flow and growing rate of the plants every day. Although it is a lot of work, Bolkas is excited to expand his operation. As he prepares to plant outside for spring, he is also readying a new greenhouse for a second hydroponic system. As urban farming gets more popular, perhaps farmer/scientists like Bolkas will inspire the residents of western Suffolk County to contribute to our own suburban farming movement.
Cristina Cosentino enjoys mushrooms, kickboxing and playing music. You’ll most likely find her eating or volunteering on local farms or hangin’ with the honeybees. She has a B.A. in anthropology and an M.A. in Italian studies specializing in Slow Food. She lives in Smithtown with her awesome family.
Check out her blog at greenwormagriculture.