Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Adventure Continues

I gave my standard Hobby Hydroponics talk in Harrisonburg, VA yesterday evening to an audience of about 23 people.  I always enjoy spreading the word about hydroponics.  I'm one of those people who can't grow anything in dirt.  Some people are said to have a "green thumb", I, by contrast have the "thumb of desolation and destruction".  That's why hydroponics was just great fun for me.

I'm a tad lazy so I don't want too much work.  Getting down on my hands and knees, especially now that I'm an old dude isn't something I look forward to; so hydroponics was and continues to be the way I approach gardening.  I like to tinker a bit and I've evolved a whole system to create NFT (Nutrient Film Technique) hydroponics systems.

Kinds of Hydroponic Systems
There are many kinds of hydroponics systems and I'm not an 'expert' on any of them, but I think they are all cool.  Below I'll give a brief summary of kinds and maybe a picture if I can find one.

1. NFT Systems are my favorite kind partly because is some ways they are the most ideal or pure embodiment of the hydroponic idea.  Water with nutrients in it and sunlight.  Check out the site here for any number of examples of NFT systems.  The illustration here is of the Star System, six PVC tubes fed from a single tank with gravity feed back to the tank.  Works incredibly well and is great fun.  The system will grow tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers on the same nutrient solution and all turn out very well.

2. Flood and Drain Systems operate by periodically flowing nutrient into the system with a medium to retain the moisture and then a rest interval followed by another flood.  I only built one such system and it worked well enough but required a timed switching system to turn the pumps on and off and pumps run better continuously than when started and stopped.

3. Wick Systems are particularly easy since you wind a wick into your medium and extend the wick into your nutrient solution.  Now power required.  Works reasonably well although I think figuring a way to ensure oxygenation of the roots might improve my few experiences with the technique.

4. Float Systems are my favorite systems after the NFT systems.  I like them because they work well and are easy to do.  (Note: easy to do is very high on my list since I'm lazy.  I do this because it is fun and I like tomatoes and peppers and basil, etc.)  The picture on the right is me with a little tub float system.  You put a slab of Styrofoam with holes cut in it for the plants and the plants just lower their roots into the solution and away you go.  The one thing you need to do is make sure the nutrient is oxygenated which can be done with an aquarium bubbler or if your system is larger you can create a fountain.  The water splashing into the nutrient bath oxygenates the system.  The system in the photograph just had a bubbler in it and was in a small plastic tub.  The basil plant obviously likes it.

5. Aeroponic Systems are systems that mist the roots instead of immerse the roots.  I have not personally made any, although HERE is a link to a hobbyist How-To on making such a system.  I may try it in the future.

Obviously you can do whatever you want and see if it works.  As a scientist that is always part of the attraction of hydroponics for me.  I hope this page gives you a little motivation to explore hydroponics and join the weedless garden adventure.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Beginning A Recap

Recapitulation of my Hydroponics Adventures seems like a fun thing to do so I thought I'd start updating my blog with a little retrospective of how I got started with hydroponics.

Frankly it all started with bad gardening experiences.  Don't get me wrong, I like gardening.  I just don't like digging around in dirt.  I don't like mulching.  I don't like bugs.  I really don't like slugs.  I don't like weeds.  Whenever I did gardening it seemed like all of those things as well as others like critters would come out of the woodwork or maybe just out of the woods to mess up my plants by eating them, crawling on them, giving them diseases, splitting the tomatoes and generally spoiling the experience.

I'm also a computer person since I am, among other fun technical things, a computer programmer.  So I was a fairly early adopter of personal computers and even ran what was called a bulletin board in the early 1980's in Minnesota in the Twin Cities area called Terminal Station.  HERE is a peek at the past.  I got into email and message boards pretty early and so it was natural when I got to wondering "What's that hydroponics stuff I've read science fiction about anyway?" to look around and see if there was an interest group.  Well I found one and started reading about what hobbyists were doing and though, "That doesn't sound too hard, I think I'll try it."

Of course the first thing you need to do if you're a scientist type is do some literature research so I started reading books.  Here's a picture of some of the books I acquired and read up on as I tryied to learn more about hydroponics.
As I read the books I ran into lots of ideas for hydroponics systems.  Some were very simple like wick systems where you just dipped a wick into a nutrient (fertilizer) solution and it clued the plants in to where to find nutrition.  Others were a lot fancier requiring pumps and timers and instruments.  They all sounded like great fun so I decided to make a few systems to try it out.  My wife gave me permission to set systems up on the side deck of the house and I was off and running.

The problem was that there were so many kinds of systems and people on the message board kept talking about different kinds of systems so that no sooner did I get one system going that it seemed like a good idea to set up another.  It wasn't very long before I had the whole deck covered with systems.

I had a Nutrient Flow Technique (NFT) system.  I had a flood and drain system.  I had a wick system.  I had a sort of passive valve system that was supposed to add its own nutrient by gravity feed whenever the plants drew the nutrient down enough.
Pretty soon the deck was covered with systems.  I learned a lot that first summer of 1997.  Meanwhile, the editor of The Growing Edge came on the message board looking for a hydroponics hobbyist to write articles.  I sent her some email and pictures of what I was doing and she asked me to write an article.  What could be greater than combining my hydroponics hobby with one of my other loves, writing.  That was the launch of a fun association with The Growing Edge, sadly no longer published having met the fate of so many other specialty magazines.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Weedless Garden: What's Next?

I gave my talk on Hobby Hydroponics at the library in Harrisonburg this afternoon.  It's always a lot of fun for me and the folks that came seemed to enjoy it.  In the talk I cover hydroponics basics and talk about the various kinds of systems I've made over the years.  HERE is a link to one of my early stories for The Growing Edge magazine which is no longer published having met the fate of many small specialty magazine with the growing dominance of the internet.  I think I'll have to put together some sort of mosaic image showing all the different system designs I've played with over the years.

I really like the nutrient film technique (NFT) systems but they need continuous flow which means if you lose power you may have a problem since the flow stops so you might want to ensure that there is a little nutrient retention in the design to keep the plants from drying out if that happens.

I'm also growing increasingly fond of float systems but I don't have a good tomato support design for those.  I really want to get back to doing hydroponics and giving talks like I did today are very self-motivational.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Summarizing The Journey

The hydroponics adventure I've been on since sometime in the 1990s has been slowing down of late mostly due to an injury I sustained when I fell and tore my medial tendon in my right leg.  That had to be surgically repaired but all the injury wasn't reversible so I've been pretty cautious about walking around especially on hills and grass outside.  As you can imagine that puts a crimp in one's hydroponics style.

Wife and I were talking about getting a small hobby greenhouse because in our new house in Woodstock, Virginia (about forty miles from Harrisonburg, Virginia where we used to live and moved from in 2012) we have discovered that there are quite a few deer shopping for treats so if you expect to grow tomatoes, for example, in an NFT system like I've usually done, the deer will be thrilled and come and eat all your tomatoes.  Whatever system you build needs to be deer-proofed.

I thought a little LINK PAGE might be helpful so herewith are links which can be used to check out hydroponics topics.  I may add to this as time goes on.  To return from a link just hit your browser's back arrow button.


1, Starting Plants in Rockwool Cubes  SEE HERE
2. A fairly simple NFT system design  SEE HERE
3. Preparing your nutrient solution (here using TotalGro) SEE HERE
4. Keeping data as you experiment  SEE HERE
5. The baby pool float system adventure SEE HERE Design
6.  (a) Here it comes! SEE HERE
7.  (b) Early in the adventure SEE HERE
8.  (c) A little later SEE HERE
9.  (d) Tomatoes need supports and we can't sink the float SEE HERE
10.(e) Did we mention jungle phase? SEE HERE

That's probably enough for now.  I'll probably add to this later if the inspiration so moves me.  Meanwhile I'm still thinking about a small tomato system that would be deer-proof and easy to manage maybe right off the back patio.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

What To Do As Spring Approaches

Well last year's container experiment was a loser, mostly because the plants got a blight early on for reasons I'm not quite certain of. I think maybe it was something in the potting soil I used but I'm not sure. I rank it as a failure however, which is very annoying.

Then a couple of weeks ago in the early twilight my wife and I turned onto our road to find what at first looked like four or five large dogs in the street. As we came closer and the headlights picked up the animals we were surprised to see five large deer ambling down the center of the paved road like they owned the place. We drove very slowly because we didn't want to spook them, but it was quite uncanny. I joked that it looked like enough deer to keep us in venison for a few years.

Finally they ambled off onto the neighbors front yard and watched us drive by to back into the next door driveway. That event highlighted the fact that you can't just grow things around here because as soon as there's something good you'll have hooved raiders eating your produce. You need a fence. Our last house had a fenced in back yard that we'd put up so we never had deer problems although there was a gopher that liked to come out now and then. I never knew where he came from exactly, but he was a brazen beast and would appear in the backyard near the shed and watch us looking at him from the kitchen window.

I've been starting to think about what to do for this coming year. I think a hydroponics system would be nice but given that I have to worry about deer I'm not quite sure how to do it. I don't want to fence in the back yard. I'll have to think about this. Stay tuned.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Not A Good Year

I suppose I ought to put up some more pictures.  This has not been a good year.  No hydroponics for example except in a stretch the plants left in trays and fed hydroponic nutrient.  The plants planted in containers managed to get some sort of blight and I found myself fighting all summer with them and not really making much progress.  Now it is October and I've just about given up the fight.  I really should go out and plant some of the herbs along the side of the house.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

June And Progress ... And Some Complaints

It's June 18th and I'm rather annoyed by the progress I've made.  I decided to go with pots this year and found some really cool pots.  I started a whole bunch of herbs and tomato plants in little peat pots whatever they're called.  They work well for seeds.  After they got started I watered them, at first just with water, but then with dilute hydroponic nutrient, and more recently with standard strength nutrient.  As usual the plants flourished in the peat pots.  When I'm planning on doing straight hydroponics I usually use rockwool cubes, but since I was planning to pot these plants anyway I just did the peat pots.
That's a picture of the green plastic tray with herb plants in it that I took a couple of days ago.  They're flourishing on the whole, especially the basil which is the largest plant in the picture.  Now the next picture is of a basil plant (same cultivar) that was transferred to a pot with potting soil.  The potting soil was a Miracle Grow related product purchased at a local store.  It advertised how healthy it was for plants.
This is what it looks like.  Same cultivar, started at the same time.  Trust me, I'm not happy about this.  I'm not sure what the reason is.  I'm imagining that there is too much fertilizer in the potting soil and that it "burns" the plants stunting their growth at first.  But I don't know if that's actually the case.  I have had the same problem with my tomato plants.
There are two tomato plants in the pot.  The one with the larger leaves was in the green tray much longer than the one with the smaller leaves and was only transferred about a week ago while the other was transferred somewhat longer ago (don't remember exactly when but the same time the stunted basil plant was transferred).  I was thinking about starting a pot with passive media and only using hydroponics nutrient and now I'm sorry I didn't.  It would probably be a revelation to see how much better the hydroponically fed plant did.  I'm hoping that over time the plants will acclimate to the higher fertilizer content or whatever it is that is stunting them and start to do better, but we'll see.  Just this moment I'm not a happy camper.