S&W Greenhouse

Hydroponically grown strawberries
a popular item at S&W Greenhouse

Where can you get fresh strawberries
in the dead of winter? Carrollton, of course.

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

CARROLLTON, Ky. – (March 2003) Faced with developing a way to bring tourists to Carrollton during February, the Carrollton-Carroll County Tourism Commission came up with a novel idea backed by a catchy slogan: “Where can you get fresh strawberries in the dead of winter? Carrollton, of course.”
“S&W Greenhouse’s hydroponically grown strawberries have developed into a tourist attraction,” said tourism executive director Robin Caldwell.
Hydroponic strawberries fill two greenhouses at S&W Greenhouse. In one greenhouse, the plants are grown in long perlite bags supported underneath by troughs. A nutrient solution flows through the bags, eliminating the need for soil, said owner Tommy Williams.

Tommy Williams

Tommy Williams at S&W Greenhouse.

In the second greenhouse, the plants are grown in stacked foam pots. A PVC tube circulates the water though the pots from overhead drip lines. Williams said he has observed two other sites in western Kentucky that grow strawberries in this stacked pot fashion, which reduces space requirements.
The first recorded use of hydroponics occurred in one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. According to historians, the plants were grown in a steady stream of water. Many centuries later, U.S. troops stationed on infertile Pacific Islands during World War II ate fresh fruits and vegetables produced by this same method.
Williams said he was looking for ways to diversify his business due to recent tobacco cutbacks. In the past, he grew tobacco plants in all of his greenhouses. Williams, Bruce Wash, Jerry Stafford and their wives own S&W Greenhouse.
Now in his third year of producing hydroponically grown fruit, Williams said he obtained tips on growing the berries from a West Virginia researcher. Afterward, he decided to “just jump in” and try this new system.
Williams said the Environmental Protection Agency is trying to terminate the use of soil fumigants, which are used to combat fungal diseases in California and Florida, the major strawberry producing states. Many strawberry growers fumigate the soil with methyl bromide before planting to control soil borne insects, diseases and weeds. The process has been essential to produce high yields and high-quality fruit.
As a result, growers are looking for alternate means of producing strawberries. Most experts say the hydroponically grown berries are far better than field-grown strawberries, he said.
So far, results have been positive and the idea has “worked in well with the garden center,” he said. The berries are juicy and so large that Williams said he has been harvesting eight berries to a pound.
The berries are sold at the S&W garden center and to a few groceries and restaurants in Owenton, Ky., where Williams lives. He recently struck a deal with a Midway, Ky., restaurant that promotes Kentucky-grown food.
Williams began by purchasing plug plants, which developed roots. From these rooted tips he was able to start some of his own plants this year.
Hydroponic systems reduce the growing time needed to produce a crop of berries. Since the plants are sensitive to day lengths, they begin producing flowers in the fall, then fruit in winter months. There is no production past early June.
There are boxes of bees in each greenhouse, which Williams said are used to pollinate the berries. The bees are useful in giving a good shape to the berries, he said.
Environmental factors are not a problem in greenhouse grown plants because lighting, temperature, humidity and irrigation can be controlled. Light intensity greatly affects strawberry growth and development.
Harvesting berries grown hydroponically is also easier on laborers. While field harvesting requires backbreaking labor, hydroponic plants may be harvested from a standing position. Because there is no soil, there are no weeds, no digging, no cultivating, no soil-borne diseases nor any need to rotate crops.
But things do not slow down this time of year for employees at S&W Greenhouse, said employee Lynn Vaught. We start seeding the other plants that we grow in January, she said. This includes all of the flowers sold at S&W because none are shipped in as with other nursery businesses.
Vaught said even in slow times, when there are few customers, there is still plenty of labor involved in growing the food and plants that S&W sells.
Caldwell summed up this unique process by saying, “S&W strawberries gives me that special something that sets us apart from other small rural communities searching for winter weekend getaways.”

• Tours of the two greenhouses may be scheduled if Williams or his staff are available to do so. To make reservations call (502) 732-0472.

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