By Amaris Castillo
James Pelletier says he'd cry if he ever came home to find his tomato plants wilted.
"The biggest fear every hydroponic gardener has is a power failure," he says.
The Dracut orthodontist circles around his labor of love on a recent Friday to make sure the solar-powered garden in his backyard is running seamlessly. The Big Boy tomatoes that grow in bato buckets are not yet ripe. All are bright green, some plumper than others.
As the sun bears down on Pelletier and the tight rows of tomato plants, he says he has trained them to thrive on one vine "because one vine doesn't allow them to grow bushy and get wet and get diseases."
Reaching out to pull a velvety sucker from one plant, he adds, "You only want one grow point, and that's how you have one vine."
After years of trouble with growing tomatoes and, subsequently, running out of space in his yard for more tries, Pelletier, 57, wanted to find a way to grow the vegetables every year without having to move garden to a new spot. He wanted something easier than conventional gardening. Pelletier read books on hydroponic gardening -- a method of growing plants without soil -- and made several attempts at the garden before building his current one two years ago.
Three solar panels supply energy to batteries that run two special pumps and an aerator that, in turn, feed the tomato plants. Instead of soil, Pelletier uses coconut fiber and perlite. He regularly pours different liquid nutrients into a reservoir built into the ground, and the nutrients are then pumped into each tomato plant.
"I'm a scientist in my heart. I just get a lot of satisfaction out of doing it," Pelletier says. "I am creating something from nothing and tweaking it this way and that way over the years to get it to do exactly what I want it to do. It's like a big, huge science experiment and, when it goes good like this, it feels great."
The garden's greatest threat, according to Pelletier, is blight, a plant disease that hasn't affected his garden. There's also a pesky chipmunk who sneaks into the garden to steal tomatoes. On one recent day, the chipmunk made an appearance, having stolen a small, green tomato.
After the science comes the fruit of Pelletier's labor. Once the tomatoes have ripened, he and his wife, Karen, pluck them and prepare them for canning, sometimes with the help of their daughter, Mollie Andrews, 30. On weekends, they sit on their deck to can the tomatoes in mason jars before storing them away. Karen makes sauce from the tomatoes, as well as dishes that incorporate the other vegetables growing in their backyard, including zucchini. Pelletier says he also gives out canned tomatoes to relatives and neighbors.
"I love it. He works very hard on it," says Karen, 58. "It takes a lot of time, but he enjoys gardening so we get a lot of beautiful vegetables from it."