Rob Andrews looks after some very happy lettuces.

Fed daily with the exact amount of water and nutrients they need, they’re leafy, lush, large and healthy.

The lettuces – and a whole host of other leafy greens – are grown in a soil-free system known as hydroponics, which Rob and wife Narelle have been using on their Burringbar farm for almost thirty years.

“Hydroponics is similar to conventional farming, but we don’t have a medium  like soil,” Rob explained.

“Our plants are in pipes where the nutrient flows through underneath and the root system grows in the nutrients.”

Rob has tanks in the ground to which he adds fertiliser – just as conventional farmers would add to the soil – which is then circulated around the system of pipes.

“The plants get a bit spoiled because most of the time the water is flowing underneath and they’ve got all the nutrients they need,” Rob said.

Hydroponics has many advantages, including water efficiency (Rob estimates he saves 1.5 million litres of water by using the recirculation method) and reduces the need for pesticides as the plants are grown off the ground.

It also results in great tasting, healthy leafy greens that are snapped up by their customers at their farmers market stall, The Gourmet Salad Hut, each week.

Alongside their fancy lettuces, Rob and Narelle have greens such as baby spinach, baby beetroot leaves, mizuna, pak choy, kale, rocket, tatsoi and watercress, and herbs including basil, dill, coriander and parsley.

Drawing on her country childhood and her mum’s traditional recipes, Narelle also creates fresh pestos, pickles, relishes, jams and her famous lime, passionfruit and lemon butters, using excess from the market as well as her own home-grown produce.

“I started doing the butter and jams out of stuff I had around here – I had the lemons and passionfruit – and then the pesto I started making because we always had leftover basil and herbs  and I hated throwing it out. Now we actually grow some for it because it’s so popular,” she said.

Rob and Narelle had initially sold all their produce wholesale, but gradually shifted to local weekend markets and then to farmers markets, where they have built a loyal following and strong relationships with their customers over the years.

“You build real friendships,” said Narelle.

• Story and photos by Kate O’Neill.

 lettuce  basilpassionfruit