It’s good to regularly check that the pH balance of the nutrient solution feeding your plants is correct. Plants have an optimal growth range of about 6-6.5.
First you need something to test with. Electric testers are cool but expensive. pH testing solution takes a bit more work but not much, it simply consists of a dropper of solution and a small vial to test with.
Fill the vial half way with the water you want to test. Add 4-5 drops of testing fluid and shake it up.
Compare it to the diagram on the side. This looks to be about 7.5-8 pH, it’s going to have to come down at least a full point.
To actually adjust the pH you need pH adjuster, one up and one down. They come printed with the measurements to adjust the pH, in this case 1 tsp adjusts 4 gallons.
I found using an medicinal dropper is the easiest way to get the right amount, you don’t want to spill and get this stuff on you.
At 10 gallons for the nutrient reservoir it’s 2 tsp to adjust down (better too little than too much). Now another measurement is showing much closer to the ideal 6.5 range.
The reservoir for this system only holds 10 gallons and in the recent heat the plants go through about 3-4 gallons of water a day. But because of the way hydroponics systems work as the nutrient passes over the roots they absorb the water and what nutrients they need. The rest drains back into the system and is recycled.
So while the water may be run through in a couple days, the nutrient lasts a couple weeks.
After a couple weeks the water is no longer providing anything but moisture. Plants will still grow, the majority of their mass actually comes from the CO2 they absorb from the air, but without the extra nutrients the growth is slow and stunted. So we have to dump the old depleted nutrient and put in new.
It’s best to dump out the depleted nutrient rather than keep adding more to the system, some nutrients may have been used less so you could end up with high Phosphorus content or something. Just dump the reservoir out on the lawn or soil garden and mix a fresh batch.
Before I dump out the nutrient I usually turn the system on to get a fresh layer of moisture on the roots. It only takes about 10 minutes to dump and refill everything but I’d rather not run the risk of drying out the roots too much. The more shock and abuse the plants suffer they slower they will grow.
First step is to dump out the old. The problem is that you don’t want the pump to get dirty so I like to put all the gear into a small tray to keep it off the ground. It’s also a good time to back wash any filters you can get to.
I mix the nutrient in a small bucket so I can get it all to dissolve (it’s a solid water soluble fertilizer). The ratio for this is 1tsp fertilizer to 1gallon water.
Get it all dissolved in a small amount of water. Now it’s super concentrated liquid fertilizer; in reality this is probably still more diluted than liquid fertilizer you spray on a normal soil garden.
Then rinse the equipment and reservoir off. And reassemble.
Pour the nutrient in, then fill with water till full. Before leaving it alone I like to check and balance the pH levels since with new nutrient it can be a little off (next blog post we’ll cover that).
Surprisingly long, although I wouldn’t recommend it.
Had a little problem last week. Temperatures in Utah have been reaching triple digits with sunny clear blue skies all day long. I had gotten used to the water requirements of the hydroponic garden being about a loss of 4 gallons every two days or so. However with the days getting hotter and the plants getting larger (more surface area and breathable surfaces), the water requirements have been getting bigger.
The problem was that I let the plants go 3 days without topping off the water supply.
I knew that with the smaller nutrient reservoir watering would be more frequent and even thought I might setup a second reservoir with a siphon of something to double the usable volume. Unfortunately this all came to a head when I checked my plants and they had been basically dry for most of the day.
Everything was extremely wilted looking and a few leaves on the cucumbers had dried up (they feel rough and dry even when healthy so it’s hard to tell). I immediately refilled the water and turned the pump on to wet the plants again. By evening everything was looking better but it was obvious the cucumbers hadn’t weathered the dry spell as well as the peppers.
The cucumbers on the far ends lost the tips of some of the leaves but bounced back really well besides that.
The peppers looked just fine afterward. I can only figure this is because their roots are thicker than the cucumbers which have fine roots. Enough moisture is retained in the plant that the cells didn’t die and when water was brought back they revived like putting a dry sponge in water.
But the cucumbers nearest the drain didn’t do so well. While enough survived that I could probably have kept them alive they weren’t likely to produce much fruit and what they did would likely be at the end of the season. Better to just chuck them and star anew with a late season plant.
So when the weekend came round I got the tallest pre-planted cucumber at the farmers market and swapped it into place.
The first evening was a bit rough, the above picture was taken about 30 minutes after transplant in the middle of the 100F afternoon. In just 30 minutes the plant went from looking normal to looking faint. Obviously the shock of going from soil to liquid + heat + a root system not adapted to the hydro system was a bit of a shock. But although the leaves looked and felt flimsy they were still soft with moisture and not dry like the plants that had been left without water; by the next day they looked vibrant and were already perking up.
Here’s the wilty peppers from the same time. Obviously it’s hard on plants dealing with 100 degree heat just like it is with humans. It’s no wonder they’re going through about 4 gallons a day right now. Luckily I don’t need to re-do the nutrient each day. The plants take what they need from the nutrient and leave the rest, so as the water level goes down it’s mostly H2O being used and the nutrient solution becomes more condensed. Adding water brings the nutrient back to the normal PPM. Although for that reason it’s good not to let the water get too low and the nutrient solution too condensed.
Here’s the cucumber that needed to be removed. A shame to lose it, it was the largest and had already produced 3 cucumbers this year. As you can see one plant was still very green and could have pulled through, however since they’re both in the pot together there is no easy way to separated them and just replace one.
Also notice how dense the root mat had gotten, it actually continued to the right just as far but because of the peppers next door I couldn’t separate the roots and had to cut them off to get the plant out. The ½ to 1 inch thick mat at the bottom of the planter retains a lot of moisture due to wicking action once the pumps go off (or water runs out) which probably helped them survive going a day without water. It would also explain why the plant closest the drain fared the worst, since it drained off quicker than the cucumbers at the other end of the planter.
Here the root cup after the plants had been cut and tossed to the compost. You can see how much the roots come out of the cup in every direction, the cup is held above the bottom root mat so most of these roots are held above the nutrient with the sprayers spraying the sides. But the plant still branches out in every direction to soak up every drop it can.
Jump started my plants a week ahead.
Something I noticed today. The cucumbers that I planted about two weeks ago in the beans place is just starting to adapt and start growing. But the cucumbers that I planted just a couple days ago have already caught up and might be passing them.
The different was when I planted the first set I just let the roots sit at the bottom of the net pot and put “dirt” on top. With the new ones I cut a small hole in the bottom and threaded some of the roots through.
The result is that the new plants have roots on the bottom of the planter where they can soak up fresh nutrient. The older plants needed to slowly absorb it from the “dirt” and grow their own roots to the bottom; then once on the bottom they started growing quicker.
First the older plant:
When planted they had the two seed leaves (Cotyledon) and one true leaf. During the transition I noticed that the first true leaf (that was grown while in soil) seems to be burned and suffers a bit. Then the second true leaf (grown while in nutrient solution) has adapted and there is less or no damage to it.
Second the 2 week younger plants. These guys replaced the cucumber that was crushed and torn out in the wind storm.
I planted more than what was needed so I can thin the two weaker plants later. As you can see having roots go to the bottom of the planter has given them a good headstart. They were transplanted the same as the others, with the two dicot leaves and one true leaf. They already have a second leaf and their first true leaf didn’t look as poorly as the other plant.
Sorry this post is still a week late
On Wednesday I was sick and didn’t go to work. Outside mirroring my feelings an early summer thunder storm was rolling over making the sky dark even at noon. The only light came in bursts from lightning shortly followed by loud thunder.
The wind was thrashing the trees about, leaves and small branches were rattling off the side of the house. When the small amounts of rain did come down it slapped noisily against the windows.
I laid in bed slowly recovering, wondering why the wind had me so much on edge; something just didn’t seem right but it hid at the back of my brain. It was a whirlwind outside but I was safe indoors buried under a blanket. It not like the wind could knock the house over on top of me, crushing me like a small cucumber plan-
SHIT THE PLANTS!!!
I jumped out of bed, yanked on a pair of shorts and shoes without putting on socks and ran outside to check the hydroponic setup.
The A-frame was really good at keeping things from falling away from the plants so when it collapsed it did right on top of everything, yanking some of the plants out of their positions and knocking one of the planting tubes off to the side.
The pump can pump through the whole reservoir of nutrient in less than the 15 minutes that the timer runs so with the planter knocked off to the side it drained everything out onto the ground leaving the plants dry for however long it had been sitting there. Luckily there was enough humidity in the planter that it kept the roots alive except for the cucumbers on the end which were pulled completely out. Its root mat had gotten big enough that the roots stayed in the planter and ripped apart from the plant itself.
It’s amazing how little you think of being sick when you’ve got something else to worry about. But I didn’t really feel upto rebuilding everything so I pulled the wreckage of the trellis off, put the planter back together and filled the reservoir up with water. That should hold everything until to Friday when I could rebuild everything properly.
Over the next 2 days the cucumber that had been yanked out didn’t fully recover and might as well be replaced. One of the peppers had a lot of its new upper growth smashed off but should be ok. The peas had already been producing but lost a few stems that had to be trimmed.
This weekend I got a replacement cucumber and a bunch of hardware to reinforce the trellis rack to support the plants. Plus the remaining cucumber has gotten large enough it needs some support to grow up so I needed to get some twine for it to hold to and some gardening velco strips that can support the vine.
The reservoir lid was yanked part way off and one of the hoses came off. Now everything is nice and neat again.
Finally all back together and with some good reinforcements to keep it from falling over again.
Well weather doesn’t always want to play fair. We were past the final freeze of the spring when I planted the hydroponic system and temperatures were in the 60’s. Then the increasingly unstable weather decided to get cold again and for 2 weeks we had overcast late winter weather.
It never got down to freezing but it did get within a few degrees of freezing; now I know that Beans and Cucumbers hate the cold. The beans (nearly) died and I haven’t found replacements. Luckily cucumbers are plentiful so I just dumped the dead ones, rinsed out their net pots and put in new cucumbers.
The peppers grew slow but they showed new roots growing out of the pots so I knew they would pull through. The Snow peas lived up to their name and did really well in the cold weather and are now in need of support they’ve gotten so big.
I’ve been debating how to create an overhead support for the plants. I’m trying to emulate being on an apartment balcony where they is usually another overhead balcony or cover. In that case it’s a simple matter of screwing a few heavy duty hooks into the above floor and suspending a pole three inches from the top using wire or something.
The south side of the house has no overhead and I don’t want to punch holes in the siding. I need to create something that stands on the ground, is about 7.5 feet tall, will support the weight of the plants hanging off it, and won’t tip or blow over in the wind.
First the plants as they are now. As you can see the peas are looking for something to grow up. The peppers are getting bigger with a blossom here and there (I’m actually clipping them off since I want all energy to grow large plants right now). The 2 new cucumbers are about 7 days old, have gotten over the shock of transplanting out of soil and are starting to get bigger. The poor bean plant that seemed dead actually struggled out a few new leaves but its so far gone I don’t want to wait for it to come back, it will be replaced in a few days.
As it’s been about 3 or so weeks since the last nutrient solution went in. It probably doesn’t need it but since over half of the system got overhauled with new plants I decided to refresh it by dumping the old and mixing a new batch. I found that if I dissolve the solid nutrients by hand in about 4 cups of water then filling up the rest of the water it get much more of it to dissolve (I actually learned it from mixing cornstarch in to foods while cooking).
You can see all the Ph balancing stuff still out from getting the nutrient ready.
I decided an A-Frame setup holding a rod of electrical conduit above the plants is the way to go. It’s very stable front to back but from side to side a baby could knock it over. I had some ideas to stabilize it but figured they could wait till next weekend.
A very costly mistake.
I’ve been really lagging in posting updates on the hydroponic garden so I’ll post the last few weeks this week. Just pretend you’re speeding forward through the last month in the next 3 days. However here’s the main points learned this year:
-The system NEEDS an air bubbler to airate the water.
-There is about a 1 week adjustment process from transplanting for the roots to start growing in nutrients.
-Many plants die at freezing point.
-Unstable homemade trellises need to be able to hold up to the wind or they’ll smash your plants.
Now the full story, Planting day!
Today the whole setup is going live. I actually purchased the plants about a weeks ago but between work and lazyness didn’t plant them.
First I needed the official place that I could plant everything that was out of the way, had good sunlight, didn’t interfere with the normal garden. The cool thing with hydroponics is all you need is the floor space and you’re good to go, the actual ground can be poor quality, contaminated, or solid asphalt.
South side of the house is where the garbage cans are stored and naturally becomes a storage area for garbage and mostly green trash that is waiting to be fed into the garbage and hauled off. Currently is was about 2 feet deep of bags of landscaping sand covered in 3 feet of dead branches. Once cleared and all the spiders were scared off it left a perfect longs narrow strip just under the garage window so I could feed a power line out to the system.
Next I had to get the plants ready to plant.
Ideally I would be germinating my own seeds straight into hydroponic ready growing media, but that is an experiment for next year. This year is to try to make it as easily accessible to the average person as possible so I’m taking normal potted starter plants and moving them into hydroponic media.
The process isn’t really that hard but it seems weird to people used to normal gardening. Instead of taking a plant out of a plastic tray and moving to the ground we’re going to wash all the dirt off and transfer the bare plant & roots to our own medium.
From right to left the first two buckets are full of water. The third is full of coconut coir and water giving it the consistency of wet potting soil. A few unused but rinsed off plants are on the ground.
1. Start with the plants of choice.
2. Take out of the pot or plastic tray and rinse most of the dirt out of the roots.
Just soak the root ball in the water and alternate between gently massaging the roots and swirling it in the water. All the soil will rinse without needing to be manhandled.
!!!Remember that the roots are the life of the plant, try to keep and protect them as much as possible!!!
3. In the second bucket you can rinse the last of the potting soil off with ease.
4. Then take a plastic 3” net pot and hold the plant in the center with the roots at the bottom.
5. Fill the netpot up with coconut coir, gently packing it down with your fingers till it’s full to the rim. Try to position it so the roots start at .5” to 1” below the rim.
6. Set aside and you’re done. It’s important the roots stay moist so I put them in a container with an inch of water in the bottom. Plus I found it’s good to keep the tags with the plants so you don’t forget what is what later on.
Now the setup need to be put together and filled with fresh nutrient. I found a nice little nylon filter bag at the pet store that I could put on the end of the drain tubes. I rightly figure that for the first few days a lot of coir would wash out of the netpots into the reservoir. Hopefully keeping as little from getting into the pump will limit the lines getting clogged even though the pump has it’s own filter as well.
You can see a little bit of the leftover solid nutrient at the bottom of the reservoir. No matter how hard I try to mix it in some of it never dissolves. Liquid nutrient would obviously not have that problem.
The plug for the pump is outdoors and exposed so I wrapped it with a few overlapping layers of “Stretch and Seal” Tape and a couple layers of electrical tape. Pull the electrical tape tight as you wrap, overlap each row, and make sure your last layer goes from bottom to top to shed water better.
And here is everything planted and running, kind of small and unassuming at this point. I still have on planter empty for something else in the future. Hopefully pole beans.
I didn’t like the drains on the end caps. It worked great at first but it was too easy to bump the drain hose and dislodge the end cap; then they leaked. So I went back to the original method, just drill a hole in the bottom, beneath the drain access hole. This is also where the feeder lines will come out since the caps will be on both ends.
Then I glued a garden hose adapter to the bottom to attach the drain lines to. You don’t really need that but I thought it would allow a bit more flexibility in how the planters can be placed. The alternative is to just glue a PVC piece over the hole, drill a hole in the top of the reservoir and drop line up the PVC pipe over the hole (that’s how I did it last time).
A bead of plumbers putty will be used to seal the end caps. Just pretend you’re in kindergarten making snakes.
Then put the bead in the bottom of the cap. It doesn’t need to go all around because the nutrient level will never be more than a quarter of an inch up.
Here’s what it looks like on the inside when the caps are pushed on.
Filtering was a problem on the last attempt. Here I have a simple aquarium pump and a cheap aquarium bio-filter from the pet store.
Carve a hole halfway into the filter so it can go over the intake.
Here it is fitted on.
And you can see it inside when all bottled up.
Here are all the components for the manifold that will split the pump into the 4 feeder lines.
And again all glued together. The black end pieces were just screwed on so that they can be disassembled to get to the filters inside.
Now we can immerse the pump in water, position the drains over the reservoir and give it all a test. Looking straight down you can see how holes sprat at the planter positions.
It’s a bit hard to see but on the right of the netpot you can see the stream of water spraying in.
And the view looking down the whole system. The streams may not spray with much force but they don’t need to. As it is they already pump much more solution into the system than they need. But unlike a drip garden this will drain out one end and be recycled back into the lines.
We finally had some sunny weather to go outside and show everything in action. The system is complete setup and running, the only thing missing was the cover to a the reservoir and some plants to start growing.
The planters can be doubled up if length is an issue.
It can even be bent to go on the corner of a balcony. The PVC legs are handmade, more professional looking ones can be bought online or like I did last year you can just flip over buckets or use cinderblocks. The important part is that one be at least an inch taller than the other so nutrient drains easily and not pool (which can cause rot).
When hauling this out of the garage and onto the back deck I realized how well it all packs up. The legs, pump, drain hoses, and end caps fit in the reservoir with room to spare. The small tote on top has the nutrient fertilizers and pH balance solutions in it. All of this can easily be carried around and stashed in any storage space for the winter.
Although it snowed here for the last 3 days it’s the last snow of the year and next week I should be able to clean up a space outside to put this and get a few plants in it.
I’m going to round up all the receipts I have and figure exactly what the costs was for this. I’m estimating about $100-$120, and that’s only because of the $40 pump and $30 for the 8ft vinyl post.
Treehugger has a cool concept from a green design challenge. It’s a clip on shed for apartments; although I prefer the term one of the comments used, “Parasitic Architechture.” I have to say it’s a great idea, I just posted on my own desire for the same thing.
Those of us lucky enough to have yards can consider a garden shed as way of getting a little more space. But what about those in apartments and condominiums? They don’t have basements or spare rooms or space for a shed.
The Plant Room solves this problem. It is a “a prefabricated room that bolts-on to a variety of existing apartment types, improving the quality of living, reducing energy and water use, and generally making the building more sustainable.”
I still like my idea more: It’s not a concept. The price is so affordable anybody can do it. It doesn’t violate any building codes. Somebody can make their own over the weekend.
But a clip on shed is still a cool idea. If properly built it could allow for some extra features, although it seems like it requires alot of materials to create a small area. I like using a handful of easy access materials to make better use of existing space and resources.
The basic idea of using hydroponics instead of a pot of soil you can maximize the growing potential of a small space. It’s a myth that growing with hydroponics is better than soil; it’s more accurate that hydroponics grow as well as the perfect soil culture, and often in a smaller area or with denser plantings. You MAY get just as much from 20 pots on your balcony, but why not be sure you get the best growth and save a little floor space in the process?
The drawback is that it’s not as simple as pouring dirt in a pot, adding a plant and watering daily. A hydroponic system needs a bit of forethought and planning. Luckily it’s easier than it first looks, and using commonly available components for your local hardware store it’s not as expensive as one might think.
I really wanted this to fit the typical urban living space so the idea I came up with was a long narrow growing area; 8ft long, and about 1 foot wide. Since most apartments have another apartment overhead there would be a place to dangle supporting wires to clip the growing plants to as they got bigger. That way you wouldn’t have to worry about wind knocking the plants over or the narrow hydroponic trays having to support the plants. I also decided that by splitting the system into two halves you can adjust the footprint from 8×1ft, to 4×2ft and have some flexibility in the configuration (like bending it around a corner, 4ft per side).
Last year I tested out the basic idea, seeing if an NFT setup would even work outside in a non-greenhouse setting. It worked and was spectacular, outperforming the regular soil garden many times over. The main lessons I learned is that external plant support is a must, plants “drink” more water out in the heat, and even though soil-borne pests are eliminated it can be harder to manage pests that can climb easily (no slugs or snails but earwigs were awful).
So this year I’m making the “production” model of the 8×1ft hydroponic garden. I’m going to try tracking resource usage a bit closer; I tracked electricity usage last year but water was just estimated. Electricity usage was quite minor (only $30 for all summer), less than leaving a porch light on at night. Water usage was MUCH less than a traditional garden. In fact Lifehacker linked how to make a window garden; the comment “…let’s mother nature take care of the feeding and watering.” really caught my eye. Obviously these people don’t live in the western US, if you want fruit bearing plants you have to add massive amounts of water here. Which isn’t good because we’re already technically a desert, we’re told to conserve all that water so it can go downstream to California so they can grow produce there, or to Las Vegas to be used in the Belagio fountains.
Hydroponics simply means using water to add nutrients rather than soil, there are many different methods to actually carry that out. However with size being an issue the best solution in my eyes was the “Nutrient Film Technique”. DIY guides has some excellent articles on this and other hydroponic methods.
The way NFT hydroponics works is by running a small amount of nutrient solution over the roots, allowing oxygen to still reach the roots rather than complete immersion.
Contrary to what many believe the roots of a plant also need to breathe just as much as the leaves. In fact the more moist air around the roots the better. Some hydroponic systems completely immerse plant roots in water but use air bubblers to introduce oxygen to the nutrient solution so the roots don’t suffocate. Aeroponics takes this to the extreme by spraying the nutrient solution into the air as a mist to maximize the roots ability to absorb water, nutrients, and oxygen.
Our NFT method will run nutrient over the roots for 15 minutes, then shut off for 15; a more ideal ratio would be 5 minutes on, 10 minutes off, but getting a more specialize timer costs more (maybe later). The idea is that fresh nutrient is sprayed on the roots then given a chance to be absorbed along with oxygen from the air. The risk is that if the roots dry up the plant dies. The closed nature of our setup will allow some lag time if the power goes out, or a sprayer gets clogged but be aware that on a hot day if you lose power for 12 hours you may lose plants if you don’t water them. You’ll also want to check the plants once a day, if there is improper filtering and debris clogs a sprayer you’ll notice the plant looking wilted.
The cool thing about NFT hydroponics is that it’s very easy to scale up the size and capacity of your system. Many commercial hydroponics users make use of this to create huge deployments with the same basic equipment we’ll be using.
Also the system is a closed system, in that virtually nothing gets in or out including light, keeping things as dark as possible reduces algae buildup in the system. Properly sealed there will be little to no evaporation of water, and very little water or debris will get in (but some always does). So everything is used by the plants, if there is excess it runs back into the system and is used again. Again this means that you do have to keep an eye on things. It’s amazing how much water plants will drink up and evaporate off their leaves on a hot day.
I found that topping of the water supply needed to be done about 3 times every 2 weeks on average. On hot weeks water needed to be added about every 3 days. Nutrient are only absorbed as needed so as water levels fall the nutrient solution gets more concentrated, but so long as more water is added it should never be too much of a problem.
About every 2-3 weeks it’s good to dump the nutrient solution and mix up some more. Since nutrient solution is just a very diluted fertilizer (and most the nutrient is absorbed by the plants when you change it) you can dump in any growing soil area, it will just help the plants there. Use it to water your potted plants, pour it out on the grass, in your soil garden, or in flower planters by your door. Avoid dumping it directly in the water supply down a drain; even though the fertilizer in it is negligible the ocean doesn’t need any help with all the crop runoff there already is.
Building the system
Last year’s test was a bit unwieldy. With apartment dwellers in mind I want this one to be small and manageable. I started by getting a8 foot long 4” diameter vinyl fencepost from the local home and garden shop. Then cut it in half.
I just used a simple hacksaw and it was done in about 3 minutes. I marked straight lines but the bit at the top wasn’t perfectly straight, nor does it need to be. When the caps finally go on we’ll put plumbers putty on the seam and it will fill any imperfections.
Some quick work with a file to get rid of the burrs.
Now it’s time to mark where the planting stations will go. I used the complex method of scribbling on the back of an envelope to plan the positions. As an experiment I’m putting 4 plants on one section and 5 on the other. They start 4” from the end of the tube, and stop 7” short of the hole drilled for access to the drain. The hole for the drain is 3” from the other end of the tube. This is to give enough distance from the last plant so that it’s roots won’t clog up the drain. As you can see in this shot of last year’s system the root systems will fill up the tube quite alot.
Once you know the correct distances between holes mark them along a measuring tape along the length of the tube. Then mark the center point horizontally for each position. Measure twice, cut once.
To drill the hole I just used a 3” hole drill bit from the hardware store. However using it with a handheld drill is a bit tricky. Make sure the fence post is properly secured and you have a very firm grip on the drill. Start slow. After the sawtooth part of the hole saw has started into the post you can speed up the drill. Don’t apply much pressure, just let the teeth slowly cut their way in. Once the first few teeth cut all the way through the drill will try to wrench itself out of your hand so be VERY CAUTIOUS!!!!
It’s better to damage and replace the post or the drill than to slice, gouge, or destroy part of your body.
If this seems a bit out of hand for you don’t be afraid to give up and have a professional with a drill press do it for you.
All sites drilled. On the far right are the drain access holes. Notice the spacing to fit 5 planters on one and 4 on the other.
Here’s the netpot in the hole after drilling and de-burring with a file.
Clearance is pretty good.
Just like the planting locations the holes for the feeder lines need to be positioned correctly so they will spray into the planters. So figure out where the holes in the feeder lines will be then drill corresponding holes in the vinyl tube a couple inches down so they don’t overlap.
The hole in the feeder will be two inches to the right of the dot marking the mounting hole in the vinyl so it will spray onto the rear of the netpot, drip down, and flow to the drain (to the left in thie shot).
The hole is as wide as the zip tie but smaller than the head of the zip tie, so it goes in the hole, around the feeder line, back out the same hole, then through the head of the zip tie. This way you can pull it tight and not worry about drilling two holes.
Finished mounting the feeder lines. This tube has two feeder lines as an experiment but last year worked fine with one. The higher line on the right will spray onto the netpot to keep it wet. The lower line on the right is positioned to spray directly onto the roots “upstream” of the netpots.
And what the feeder lines look like on the inside.
I just started throwing together this year’s hydroponic garden. Last year was a test to see if I could even do it. It was so successful that this year I’m going all out, fully documenting it and showing exactly what’s involved.
I realize there is a lot to go over so I will break this into three main parts:
Why, What, and How.
First today I’ll break down the Why I’m doing this and why I think it will appeal to others, next I’ll show exactly what I’m making and what it takes to get it done, then finally over the summer I’ll post updates on how to do it and how it’s all going.
I’ve always had a general interest in hydroponics; it’s just an interesting science to grow plants without needing a big open piece of land to put them. And growing up in an arid climate it was even more amazing that not only did it only use water, but it used less water than traditional gardening. This month’s National Geographic Magazine is dedicated to the limited resource of fresh water; while studying at University my geological professor (and the state’s scientific adviser to geologic water issues) pressed upon us the importance of fresh water, and the fact that it’s already in greater scarcity than oil (run out of oil no cars, run out of water, no food or drink). Although the only people feeling the pressure now are farmers if the Geographic is right you and me will see stresses all too soon.
The second interest of mine is in general gardening itself. I grew up in the suburbs and my family had a decent garden in the backyard, some years it was a great source of vegetables, others it was a giant neglected patch of weeds. One thing that the family always agreed on was that it was much more satisfying when we had a nice garden going full of plants.
There’s just something about growing things that appeals to people, whether it’s your own home garden or just a tiny plant brightening up your cubicle in the office. I think the appeal is that you made something live; maybe one part god complex of sustaining life, and another part knowing that for whatever negative impact you’ve had at least there’s something that you’ve made a little greener and a little more alive. Being surrounded by growth and life at your own hand is a very satisfying thing.
There’s also the appeal of creating something useful from the empty dirt. While growing flowers is nice it’s especially nice to grow vegetables that you can eat yourself. And the effect of making virtually free food isn’t imaginary. JD Roth and his wife over at Get Rich Slowly always document their garden and quantify it into actual money saved by having his own fresh vegetables and not buying imported stuff from the store. This effect is such a big deal that there is a term for it, a “Victory Garden”. Coined during World War 2 a victory garden was encouraged by the government as a way to help the war effort. By converting your yard into a garden you could supply your own vegetables and fruit, thus commercial produce could be shipped to the troops fighting overseas. Check this old war era government PSA, 20min so I won’t embed it. These days the reasons are more conservational and economic but the idea remains the same.
Home gardening is all nice but for anybody living in the city it’s just a dream, and with housing prices constantly getting further out of reach less of us have the ability to get the house in the ‘burbs with the white picket fence and room for a victory garden. In a world of concrete and asphalt there isn’t space to put a garden to augment your groceries. A few lucky communities may be able to convert rooftop space or setup a community garden in an abandoned lot. But all it takes is some quick rezoning or a jerkhole landlord to end it all.
I came up with the solution while in Japan. I was walking past a large apartment complex and looked up wondering how anybody could make use of the tiny balcony space each apartment had. Some people had set out chairs to sit and look out at the city after work, some had equipment for outdoor cooking, many used it simply to store junk. But one apartment had filled every square inch with plants. There were easily 20 large potted plants in an 8×3ft area creating a tiny bright green forest in the middle of a wall of concrete. And as a nice side benefit the plants blocked the view into their apartment and kept the hot summer sun from streaming into their window.
I thought what greater way to make the most of the small space given than to turn it into something pleasant and less sterile than the rest of the city. While thinking of how many pots it would take to create a green barrier between your home and the rest of the city I thought of the hydroponic setups I’d seen. It would be perfect, a small self-watering system that didn’t need any soil and made use of the fact that you didn’t need a large flat space to work.
Now the idea isn’t really that new, others have done similar things before. But almost everything I’ve seen is small and not productive enough to be of any interest to me. Either the system is a tiny window full of plants no bigger than a foot, or it’s simply a potted plant like Ficus that is self watering. I want a “Pocket Victory Garden” that will grow me vegetables at a rate that I can actually plan more than one meal a month with my produce.
I had a decent knowledge of hydroponic methods so I figured what would work best in the small narrow space of an apartment balcony. After all you still need to be able to go out on the balcony to harvest and monitor the plants. Even better if the garden grew vertical to create a green summer sunshade while you relaxed in a chair on the balcony with a nice cool drink.
I figured the best method is a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) hydroponic setup. Not only did it look coolest and fit most closely with what people picture as hydroponic but except for the nutrient reservoir nothing is wider than 4-5 inches. The plants will be wider than the growing area. So you can save as much floor space as possible while still having a nice little garden to call your own and even provide you with some fresh home grown ingredients to go with your home cooking.
Infrastructurist linked a story about how Detroit is trying to figure out what to do with the masses of abandoned space they have in the wake of the auto industry collapse.
The story follows John Hantz and his idea that piques my interest in two different ways.
In fact, Hantz’s operation will bear little resemblance to a traditional farm. Mike Score, who recently left Michigan State’s agricultural extension program to join Hantz Farms as president, has written a business plan that calls for the deployment of the latest in farm technology, from compost-heated greenhouses to hydroponic (water only, no soil) and aeroponic (air only) growing systems designed to maximize productivity in cramped settings.
Did somebody say Hydroponic?
“Ah, now the ball’s in Farnsworth’s court!”
Even before reading this I was thinking of urban hydroponic farms. Here in SLC there is a huge parking lot taking up a full city block that is never used by more than 5-6 cars. They had to tear down a bunch of longstanding and popular bars, venues, and hangouts plus demolishing a hotel to turn it into an unused parking lot that spends all day doing nothing but heating up under the summer sun. With a moderate initial investment the same area could likely feed hundreds with fresh local produce using no more water than what we get in natural rainfall.
There is another quote in the article I’d like to point out:
This is possibly not as crazy as it sounds. Granted, the notion of devoting valuable city land to agriculture would be unfathomable in New York, London, or Tokyo. But Detroit is a special case.
Unfathomable my ass, I actually just watched a TV program from Japan that was touting urban farming in Tokyo as a modern way of making use of land in a country that has little land to spare. They referred to it more as a food factory where everything was grown under lights inside a building that for all intents and purposes from the outside looked like a 4 story factory. The idea of greenhouses in Detroit actually makes more sense, no electricity issues with lighting unless you want to extend the growing season even more than the greenhouses provide.
Detroit makes more sense for urban hydroponics, more land is going to waste and the city is desperate finding ways to make it more productive. Ideally it would be more profitable to fill the land with high density office space; but when what you have is blight, upgrading to clean farming is still a much better option.
However Hantz is a little misguided.
Hantz thinks farming could do his city a lot of good: restore big chunks of tax-delinquent, resource-draining urban blight to pastoral productivity; provide decent jobs with benefits; supply local markets and restaurants with fresh produce; attract tourists from all over the world; and — most important of all — stimulate development around the edges as the local land market tilts from stultifying abundance to something more like scarcity and investors move in.
I agree with everything there but the tourist attraction, this is a farm not Disneyland. Don’t factor tourist income into this investment in any way. But all the other benefits are spot on. Hydroponics requires an initial upfront investment which Hantz is apparently willing to pay in cash. Then it’s just a matter of monitoring the crops, harvesting, and shipping to where they’re needed. The system is incredibly low maintenance, and the land can be tied up in a productive way until the city starts growing again.
There is a second reason this article is interesting to me.
Houses in Detroit are selling for an average of $15,000.
That sounds like a buying opportunity, and in fact Detroit looks pretty good right now to a young artist or entrepreneur who can’t afford anyplace else — but not yet to an investor.
Damn straight $15,000 looks pretty good right now. I was looking at getting a condo downtown here and they wanted $250,000 for a loft! A quarter of a million dollars and you don’t even get a separate bedroom!
Hey, Mr. Hantz! You need a guy to help with your farms? I’ll start tomorrow and using the “first time home buyer” clause of the 401k I can even afford a home TODAY!
I mean Holy Cow, I can’t believe that I could be owning a car and home free and clear right now along with a steady job. All I need is enough money to buy food and utilities, anything else is icing on the cake.
The economy and the world itself are in a serious state of flux right now. That means this is the perfect time to change the status quo when it comes to our infrastructure. There is a possibility for failure but this is also the time when you can get in on the ground floor. And when it comes to investing and development there are two constants.
1. People need food to eat.
2. People need a place to live.
The situation in Detroit create a lack easily accessable #1 and an over abundance (read: cheap) of #2.
Here’s the haul I got today. I was mostly just pulling out the largest peppers since some are getting over-ripe. Not bad from 7 plants total. There is about the same amount of peppers still on the vine but they could use another week or so of ripening.
Since new blossoms were coming up I decided to refresh the nutrients to give the plants a boost. They probably pulled most of the nutrient out of the last batch and were just running on sun and water.
The process of refreshing the nutrient solution is pretty simple. The system has a pump, just let it do all the work for you. It can drain the reservoir in about 5 minutes, the nutrient was thrown over the normal garden so it didn’t go to waste. But it would be even better if there was a sump because the last 2 inches of water needs to be pulled out by hand with a mason jar, I guess that’s the drawback of setting the reservoir lower in the ground, you can just dump it out till the end of the season.
But the whole process only takes about 15 minutes to drain and refill and is relatively mess free. The hardest part was working out the measurements of water and nutrients but I know how many buckets and how many spoonfuls of nutrient (it’s solid and needs to be dissolved in the water).
Just a simple immersion pump like you get for aquariums or fountains (with a sponge filter, that’s important!!).
The PVC manifold just splits the nutrient to the two 1/4″ drip lines. Also on the bottom in the sediment you can see the two blue air stones to keep the water aerated. I probably only need one but the air pump had two outlets and only has a draw of 5 watts, might as well put them to use.
The whole system is immersed because I couldn’t totally get rid of leaks between the pump and the nutrient feed lines so this way any leaks are contained and not leaked into the soil outside the reservoir.
Well the massive harvests from the hydroponic garden will be ending soon. I haven’t been keeping up as much as I should and the plants have stopped sending up new blossoms, so it should all be wrapping up soon.
Recently all the basil came out. The earwigs tore through a lot of it but there were still enough untouched leaves to makeup about 4 cups of pesto. Considering that 50% of the basil was trashed that’s pretty good, I can’t eat food I know a bug was eating so anything with a hole in it was tossed into the composter.
All the plants were getting so many peppers that they were leaning all over the place. One of the drawbacks with Hydroponics is that the roots don’t provide an anchor anymore. I tried using zip ties to hold the root baskets down but they still had a tendency to lean over so I had to run some twine around the plants and tie it to the nearby grape fence to hold things up. Next time I’m building an overhead frame or bar that I can run wires down to the planter tube and then just clip the stems to the wires as they grow up.
Look at all the peppers!
Here’s one with the peppers still in and growing. Since the sprayers only hit one side all the roots prefer to grow there but the wicking action of the root mat actually pulls the solution over all the roots pretty well. However I would like to run a second watering rail down the otherside just to keep the nutrients in the planter cycling regularly. The power drain by the system is virtually non existent so even if I need another pump it will still be very economical.
The pepper section of the “normal garden”, not bad but the square footage is a bit larger and the output a bit smaller. Plus the water usage is significantly more, and in an arid climate like Utah water can get expensive for large deployments.
The normal garden looks good. I want to plant cucumbers in the hyroponics next year, but to do so I’ll need good supports like the angled cucumber racks in the center of the shot. Plus the vines are growing up to 12ft without signs of stopping, I was hoping for 6ft vertical with hydroponics but I may have to look at the possibility of them growing up then looping back down just to fit them in the space requirements I’m thinking of.
Full Hydroponics Flickr set here.
I’ve been meaning to make this update for weeks now, so it’s a little out of date. Hopefully I’ll follow it up early next week.
At first I was worried that the hydroponic foods I was growing were going to make me sick or would taste funny. I know that there’s no reason they should but it’s weird when you actually grow a plant on nothing other than water and carefully mixed chemicals. You’re afraid that those chemicals from the water would add some odd taste to the plant simply because you saw the chemicals separated on their own rather than mixed in with the dirt and soil in a normal growing setup. Anyway not only does all the produce taste fine, it’s growing faster than I can figure out what to do with it.
Here’s how the setup looks now:
All the lettuce was just taken out. It was growing nicely in the cool overcast days but when the full dry Utah summer heat hit them they bolted and started spending all their energy in sending up seeds. So they were pulled out and every leaf that could be harvested was plucked and set aside for salads.
At first I thought 12″ spacing was too much but the plants are almost too close together. I didn’t have much choice where to put the hydroponics for this test so they’re a bit close to the grape vines (on the left). And the two hydro tubes could probably a bit further apart but at least they’re staggered to try to increase the distance between plants.
Pablanos for chili rellenos. I was running a plant growth fertilizer mix while these guys were coming on. Shortly after I switched to a bloom and fruit mix and the plants exploded with flower buds for more peppers.
Jalapenos are going like crazy. I just wanted a few to make salsa with, I don’t really like them on anything else. Right now I’m getting about 900% more peppers that I know what to do with. As they ripen I’ve been taking them off to keep the plant sending out flower buds but then I don’t use them and they go on the compost pile.
Bell peppers on the otherhand are growing at just the right pace. I can think of a million dishes that require Green Peppers so the more the merrier. Sautéing onions and green peppers is probably the best smell in the world of cooking and a key component in a huge majority of foods. Everytime a green pepper comes on I have an excuse to make Chicken Enchiladas, Fajitas, etc.
A simple salad with hydroponic Buttercrunch lettuce, shredded cheese, and some balsalmic Italian dressing. Tasted great with a very light flavor. Amazingly even a week and a half later the leaves were still storing pretty well in the fridge with no preservative other than a light washing in the sink when they were picked. A bag of Doll mixed greens that was purchased about the same time and forgotten in the bottom of the fridge drawer had turned to a bag of brown slime. So it even has good storage life in addition to being preservative free.
So far so great! A lot of free* produce, too much for me actually, that was home-grown had no added preservatives or chemicals to allow for transport cross country. My produce didn’t incur high carbon/fossil fuel costs by being transported from farms in California and beyond, not even the cost of driving my car down to the supermarket to buy it. And finally it was just fun as hell to grow plants in a geeky futuristic way that I used to think only existed in Antartica, the Epcot Center, and NASA colonization plans.
To top it off this is working in Utah, one of the most arid states of the nation, and growing better than plants in a traditional garden. As far as this experiment is concerned it’s a 100% success, easy to accomplish, and is a great potential technology going forward into a future more attentive to making the most of available resources.
My secondary test was to see if it was possible to make a highly productive garden that could sit on somebodies apartment balcony so even in the city you could have an urban garden. I got the idea when I saw a tiny balcony in Tokyo packed with so many plants it looked like a tiny 3×8ft jungle. The problem is I have to wait another season to try that out. But I think I’ve learned enough this time around that it shouldn’t be too hard to make a great 10 site planter.
*Electric usage: $2.00
Water usage: ~100 gallons (a few bathtubs full)
Fertilizer usage: ~$10