DRACUT — 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 shares that 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,” he explains, reaching out to pull a velvety sucker from one plant. “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 it 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, which are then pumped into each tomato plant. Once the buckets the plants are in reach a certain level, the fluid drains back into the reservoir. The cycle repeats four times a day.
“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 actually hasn’t affected his garden. There’s also a pesky chipmunk who sneaks into the garden to steal tomatoes. On this recent Friday, the chipmunk made an appearance, having stolen a small, green one.
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 the weekends they sit on their deck to can the tomatoes in Mason jars before storing them away. Karen makes sauce from the tomatoes, and dishes that also incorporate the other vegetables growing in their backyard such as zucchini. Pelletier says he also gives out canned tomatoes to relatives and neighbors across the street.
“I love it. He works very hard on it,” Karen, 58, says. “It takes a lot of time, but he enjoys gardening so we get a lot of beautiful vegetables from it.”
Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo