Growing Saffron Hydroponically, by Peyam Barghassa
Being of Iranian background, I use saffron in practically every dish; let’s just say we are addicted to the stuff. So the thought of growing my own saffron, a spice that costs more by weight than gold, exhilarated me!
I was inspired to embark on this journey by reading an article in Maximum Yield, entitled “Strands of Gold—Growing Saffron,” written by Dr. Lynette Morgan. The article explained that there is no one way to grow saffron indoors, and that I would need to experiment to find out what method would be best for me. I’m an avid hydroponic gardener, so I was happy to learn that saffron can indeed thrive without soil. A controlled environment is preferred, so that the delicate stigmas (the part we harvest and eat) will be protected. I also learned that you plant the bulbs and harvest the stigmas in the fall (saffron comes from the Crocus Sativus plant, which flowers in the fall). After you’ve harvested the stigmas, you let the corms (the bulbs) winter out, then dig them up before the next summer.
In 2012, I began by purchasing some corms from a local garden center as well as a Kashmiri type from www.odysseybulbs.com . I grew them on my Hydrofarm Active Aqua flood tables in my 14×20 greenhouse with natural light. I first planted the corms in Grodan 1.5” A-OK Starter Plugs, following all the directions on how to properly condition rockwool. Once they were rooted, I transplanted them into 3” Pargro QD blocks. For nutrients, I chose the GH Flora series—initially using Flora Grow and Micro at an EC of 1.0, then switching to Bloom and Micro at an EC of about 1.5 as soon as the flower buds began to appear. I top watered with fresh solution each time, allowing the blocks to get close to 50% dry before watering again.
They did well, but I realized that I didn’t need that much rockwool because the corms didn’t root into the block much. After harvest, I transplanted the corms outside in my plant bed so they could overwinter. I added some Foxfarm Happy Frog Bulb starter to the soil before planting. I actually removed the A-OK plugs from the blocks, then transplanted the corms in the plugs outdoors. Here in North Carolina, the crocus grew well throughout the winter—it’s a pretty hardy plant and should withstand the cold even in Northern climates. At the end of May, I dug up the corms and dried them on a drying rack, then stored the corms in a box and kept it in a well-ventilated area for my 2013 cultivation.
In 2013, I decided to grow my saffron a little differently. Since I discovered that the 3” rockwool blocks were overkill, I am now growing them directly in 2” Grodan Starter Mini-Blocks. I also decided to experiment with ROCK nutrients this time. I had good results with the GH Flora series, but I wanted to see what ROCK would do for a crocus bulb that produces an aromatic spice. Bulbs, including crocus, like it heavy on P and K for good growth. The ROCK Fusion Grow (6-2-6) coupled with Supercharge Root Tonic (0-10-12) then later using the Fusion Bloom (4-2-9) coupled with Resinator (1-4-16) would provide lots of P and K, and just the right amount of N. I am hoping that the Resinator will induce more production of safranal, which is the organic compound that is responsible for the aroma of saffron.
I started by soaking the 2” Minis in pH5.5 water. I used the excess water on some plants outside, then soaked the Minis in a 1.0 EC solution of Fusion Grow and Supercharge Root Tonic. I then lined the Minis up on my Active Aqua flood table and began top watering with fresh solution every time, a method I prefer over ebb and flow for growing saffron.
This being my second crop, I sorted through the corms that I had been storing, and chose only the ones that were an inch or more in size. Anything smaller might not flower. I’ll plant the smaller corms outside in my plant bed to allow them to grow bigger for my 2014 cultivation.
I pressed each of the larger corms into one of the 2” Minis and continued to water with Fusion Grow and Supercharge Root Tonic, gradually increasing the EC. As the leaves broke open on the corms, I switched to Fusion Bloom and Resinator at an EC of 1.4.
In my North Carolina climate, my greenhouse stays warm enough in the fall during the day so that the plants flower before winter sets in. Those growing saffron further North may need a heated greenhouse or an indoor growing situation under grow lights. Another idea would be to use Hydrofarm heat mats placed under the saffron and perhaps a Humidome over the flood table to keep the plants warm. Just make sure it doesn’t get too hot under the dome—you want to keep good air circulation and temperatures in the 60F range.
As I write this, I’m just about to start harvesting the stigmas. Then I’ll start the cycle all over again by transplanting the corms in their Minis into my outdoor plant bed for the winter. I’ll harvest the stigmas using tweezers—then I place them on a paper towel and dry them in the microwave for 20 seconds at a time for up to a minute. That does a good job, or you can dry them in a dehydrator. Then I store in a cool and dark place with a packet of desiccant to keep the stigmas dry.
Just before summer, I will once again harvest the corms and store them in a cool, dry place until it’s time to plant them again next fall. The only drawback is that I may run out of room for all the corms, since they duplicate themselves over the winter. Not a bad problem to have!