Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I've always liked keeping notes. There is something about making little drawings or lists of things or just trying to capture one's thoughts in a quick brief caption or blurb that gives me a sense of proportion. I am engaging the universe in the incredible dance of existence if only in a small way.

Wintertime when it's too cold to grow things since I don't have a greenhouse and even a greenhouse would have to be heated to grow much, then is just the time to kick back and think about the systems to come or how things might have gone differently in the past.

I particularly like quadrille tablets since I can lay out designs precisely on the grids and they also make it easy to organize data into columns. The picture is of tracking tomatoes in season but I keep a notebook all year around. I've graduated from the little spring scale seen here to one of those nice electronic scales which instantly give you a precise digital figure up to five pounds which easily handles all my tomatoes. I did have a 2 pound one once, but it was cheating a little by growing together with another tomato.

I'm actually all set for the Spring and Summer of 2009 with seeds, nutrient, some basic components for the Year of the Passive Systems, like float valves and smart valves. But I still have some design and further conceptualization to do. I'm thinking about some wick systems, maybe some float systems, using the smart valves you basically have a sort of float and drain system. Right now the idea is to have a big nutrient tank on the side deck running down to feed nutrient to the systems on the ground level below the deck. That way the system will auto-feed and I'll only have to top off the tank now and then. But if I create a lot of systems I'll also have to have bigger tanks so there is a size compromise to consider. Just like my eyes are often bigger than my stomach when I'm contemplating food, my appetite for hydroponics systems often exceeds my common sense and need for hundreds of pounds of tomatoes. I do have six seed varieties picked out for the system and one really needs to have at least maybe four of each kind so that puts about 24 plant sites as the minimum. Scaling that with my NFT systems of the past would make it equivalent of a four tube system, and maybe that will turn out to be a six tub system. You can see that that creates other questions. Each tub will require a feed so the nutrient tank will have to split the feeds so we need ... well you get the idea.

Design is a bifurcating process, one thought leading to another, one requirement for one part of the system demanding something from another part. It's a logical chain and fun to think about. That's when you get out the notebook and start sketching. Sketching and reading and sipping hot chocolate on a cold Winter day is just the ticket.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Video from Growing Edge

Loafing around the house on Christmas day, presents opened, just relaxing I thought I'd do a little web-surfing through YouTube and came across this little hydroponics video. YouTube has a whole lot of interesting hydroponics videos and when I get the chance I'm going to look through a bunch of them and feature some that are worthwhile.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Functional Assemblies

Functional Assemblies is a fancy name for "parts" — the parts of the system. Any design requires something like an inventory of parts and a review of how they function. So let's start doing a little thinking about that.

The basic elements of a hydroponics system are:
1) A nutrient reservoir or tank (I usually use plastic 30 gallon trash cans but anything watertight that doesn't leach anything into the nutrient would be fine), 2) some sort of delivery system to make the nutrient available to the plants, 3) plant growing sites, 4) support for the plants as required, and 5) a monitoring system for making sure the system works and continues working properly.

We've addressed the nutrient problem by buying a bunch of Total Gro 8-5-16. We've only thought a little about the delivery system. Right now I think a tank on the side deck with gravity feed to the passive plant sites will maintain the nutrient delivery. The tank will have a flexible hose with splitters to deliver individual feeds to different plant sites. To facilitate that design I've picked up a couple of Jim Fah's Smartvalves and for the sites that are not smart valved I'm planning to limit the nutrient with float valves. That only leaves the support system to worry about.

Tomatoes need a support system because they are heavy. Right now I'm thinking that using thin-wall conduit supports similar to those I've used on the NFT systems will fill the bill. We'll see when you go into more detailed design mode. I'm going to need at least twelve plants sites since I have six tomato varieties and I want to plant at least two of each. But if plans go as they usually do I may expand that. I don't want to have to pay too much attention to the system so that either will limit the number of plant sites or expand the size of the nutrient tank.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Design Evolution

Designing a system is a matter of sorting out the parts you're going to need and finding suitable candidates. I always like to walk through hardware stores and home supply stores that stock all kind of gardening and other plastic containers and things that can be turned to hydroponics use.

He's a little float valve I found which I think might come in useful for my passive systems this Summer. I found this little value on ebay
so I bought a couple at $7 each. They are cute little devils, only about four inches and the seem well suited to controlling the nutrient depth in the subordinate growing tubs I envision for one of the variants of the passive systems. I looked at some other float valves too but they were bigger and made for animal feed troughs.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The French Dona

I have a sig line on my email that I've used for years. On the search for the PERFECT tomato It's a line that is meant to work on a number of levels. PERFECT-anything is beyond this world and a search is a quest. tomato is an old slang word for an attractive girl. Early in my hydroponics tomato growing I did fall in love with the French Dona, a medium size indeterminate hybrid tomato that is perfectly beautiful, round, a luscious red, and simply delicious. It doesn't hurt that my wife has some French heritage so I kid her that she is the PERFECT tomato, and a French Dona (Lady) as well.

But don't just take my word for the fact that this is a great tomato. When I was looking for seeds yesterday I first looked in my Totally Tomatoes catalog where I have usually purchased my seeds. No French Dona was to be found. Then I googled French Dona and found a nice entry on Reimer Seeds but they didn't have any. Renee's Garden gave me the horrible news:

"Dona is a hybrid tomato from an old French seed company. As you may know, hybrids need to be made by hand each generation. A seed company has to maintain a pure line of both the mother and the father tomatoes, and cross them each time the hybrid seed is being produced. The company decided for their own reasons that they wanted to discontinue making the variety Dona - probably they have something they think is better, but still want to keep the parent lines for their own continued use, so the breeding material isn't available to other people to make the hybrid cross themselves. So that ends Dona as we have known it. ..."

Frankly I'm horrified, so part of my seed quest is to see what can replace the Dona in my tomato love life. Just in case you think I'm exaggerating let me point you at another link that talks about the Dona. Dave's Garden

So I was pretty happy when I found some Dona seeds (see yesterday's post) I also may have some old one's in the basement but they may be too old to germinate. It should be an interesting Spring.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Now We Need Seeds!

This is the first year I've bought seeds at Gary Ibsen's TomatoFest, but when I visited their internet site at I couldn't resist getting some of the seeds that would make my coming Summer of the Passive Systems a real adventure in diversity.

The pictures and descriptions are both drawn from their site. You should check it out. The tomatoes are arranged in the picture above with the Abe Lincoln in the upper left and the rest read left to right.

Abe Lincoln 12 oz

A popular heirloom tomato introduced in Illinois in 1923 by the Buckbee Seed Co. These organic tomato seeds produce brilliant red, round, medium-sized, 12 oz. tomatoes in clusters up to 9. A good disease resistant tomato. Delicious, rich, slightly acidic tomato flavors. You'll want to grow these certified organic tomato seeds year after year.

Dona 6 oz

This excellent variety was bred by the French specifically for their customers in markets, where flavor and quality standards are uncompromising. Slightly flattened, almost seedless, round tomato with a sweet/acid balance (just like the commercial hybrid) that few modern tomatoes can match. The heavily producing plants yield 6 ounce, juicy fruits that are smooth, meaty, and deep-red in hue. Good disease resistance.

Amy's Sugar Gem 2 oz

Developed by Dr. Jeff McCormack who crossed the small fruited 'Red Cherry' with the larger heirloom 'Tappy's Finest'. 'Amy's Sugar Gem' is named in appreciation of Amy Hereford whose grandmother "Tappy" introduced Jeff to heirloom tomatoes in 1982. The 'Sugar Gem' portion of the name refers to the sweet flavor and the tiny light gold sparkles in the red skin. Our TomatoFest organic tomato seed produces indeterminate, regular-leaf, tall, sprawling, vigorous tomato plants that yield HUGE crops of 2 oz., 1 1/2" golf ball sized, red, meaty, juicy tomatoes that have a small core and delicious sweet, well-balanced flavors. A perfect choice as a snacking tomato, salad tomato or for tomato sauces. Sweet! "Candy-on-the-vine," not to be missed!

Atkinson 8 oz to 1 lb

Introduced 1966 for southern, hot and humid areas by Auburn University. TomatoFest organic seeds produce indeterminate, regular-leaf, vigorous plants with good yields of 8 oz. to 1 lb., red, globe-shaped tomatoes that are very meaty with good, old-fashioned tomato flavors. Tomatoes are meaty. This is an outstanding tomato for sandwiches, salads and canning. Great for growing in Southeastern U.S. and tropical regions. Disease Resistant. A good choice to grow as a fresh market tomato.

Bloody Butcher 4 oz

A sensational and very popular, early producing tomato variety. A good choice for a tomato as you wait for later varieties to harvest. Our organic tomato seeds produce indeterminate, vigorous, potato-leaf plants that yield copious amounts of 2", 4 oz, fruits that are deep-red color, inside and out. Five to nine fruits per cluster with a rich heirloom tomato flavor. Plant produces well until frost. A good tomato variety for cooler growing regions since fruits ripen quickly. A good canning tomato.

Black Cherry 2 oz

The only truly black cherry tomato. Our TomatoFest organic tomato seeds produce large, sprawling, indeterminate, regular-leaf, vigorous tomato plants that yield abundant crops in huge clusters of 1", round, deep purple, mahogany-brown cherry tomatoes. Fruits are irresistibly delicious with sweet, rich, complex, full tomato flavors that burst in your mouth, characteristic of the best flavorful black tomatoes. Beautiful to mix with other colored cherry tomatoes. Unique tomato variety. Disease resistant. Once you try want MORE.

Grouped by size:
  • 1) Amy's Sugar Gem and Black Cherry in the 2 oz range

  • 2) Dona and Bloody Butcher in the 4-6 oz range

  • 3) Abe Lincoln and Atkinson 8 - 16 oz

Monday, December 8, 2008

That was Easy!

caption: Mixing Nutrient Concentrate with 8-5-16 Way back at Summer 2

My TotalGro nutrient came to the house by Big Brown today. That was pretty quick given that I only ordered it a couple of days ago (well maybe a few more than that since the invoice says December 3rd so it's been five days). A plain cardboard box containing 50# of 8-5-16 Hydroponic Special Steiner Item #2034 was delivered.

So what's that? Well it's two bags of granular compounds, one is blue and the other is white. Since the whole comes to 50# and they are used in equal measure, that works out to about 25# per bag. So what did it cost. It was shipped from Winnsboro, Louisiana by UPS to where I live in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

The nutrient cost $58.76 + $24.21 shipping for a total of $82.97. Wow, that's a lot of money, right? Not really. The problem is that it is the minimum order, but when I use the nutrient I tend to use only about 5#'s of each per year and that's for large system with 42 plant sites (nominally). When you spread the cost over five years it is only $16.60 per year. If you check out the cost of liquid nutrients you'll find that that is dirt cheap.

What do I do with it? It's a simple two step process:
1) Step 1 is to make a concentrate of each of the two different solutions. I mix about 15 oz of blue in a gallon of water to make the blue solution, and 15 oz of the white to make a gallon of white solution. These are both concentrated. You don't use them on plants at this concentration.
2) Step 2 add equal amounts of blue and white concentrates to your nutrient tank water until you get the conductivity you want to run at. A standard conductivity of about 22 CF is produced by mixing about 1 oz of each concentrate per gallon of working solution.

You check the solution strength regularly topping off the tank with fresh water and adding concentrate to bring the tank back to the right conductivity. I have never seriously messed with pH. If you have a pH problem you may have to do that. It's not too much more complicated, but you need additional solutions and instrumentation so I would try to get by without it if possible.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Tomato Varieties

One of the questions people are always asking is "Are there special varieties of tomatoes to grow hydroponically?" and the answer tends to be what I call the universal answer which is: "It depends."

There are tomato cultivars that industrial hydroponics growers tend to favor. Apollo, Belmondo, Caruso, Dombito, Larma, Perfecto, Trend, and Trust are all cultivars developed specifically for hydroponics. Click here for a bit more. One problem with cultivars adopted by commercial growers is that they tend to be selected primarily for yield and not for taste.

The fact is that you can grow any kind of tomato you want in hydroponics. I've grown at least twenty varieties over the years. I prefer indeterminates just because they yield better in my experience but I have not grown enough determinates to make that a hard fast rule. It is simply amazing how many different kinds of tomato plants you can buy seeds for. One problem I have is that I swear they keep changing the names. Lots of the varieties are hybrids.

Let me mention just a few. The first cherry tomatoes I ever grew were Sungolds. I've also grown Mexican Midgets which are nice little round cherry tomatoes. I've also grown larger tomatoes especially the Big Boys, Better Boys, Beefsteak that my wife thinks are the only real tomatoes because when you slice one the slice covers the bun. But my all time favorite tomato is the hybrid French Dona. It's not a large tomato but it is beautiful, round and luscious red, and very very tasty. But don't just take my word for it. Check out Dave's Garden

Whatever you decide to grow, it's fun to grow a variety of things and experiment a little every year.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Seeds and Nutrient

What should appear in my mail box today but not one but two seed catalogs. Totally Tomatoes and the Vermont Bean Seed Company. Seeing seed catalogs is motivational. Both of these catalogs are great. Since I'm mostly a tomato guy with a nod in the direction of cucumbers and peppers, the Totally Tomatoes catalog is usually the one I turn to first. The Vermont Bean catalog has a lot of other fascinating stuff though, so you might want to check it out.

I ran out of nutrient the last time I fielded a full system which was the Summer of 2007, we went on vacation instead and I injured my shoulder. The injury and resulting surgery pretty much kept me out of commission in 2008 so I did some image processing research on the shroud of Turin instead and gave a couple of papers at the Columbus Shroud Conference.

Now I'm getting geared up for Summer 2009 the year of the passive systems. The contemplation of a new system reminded me that I needed to order nutrient so I called TotalGro (SDT Industries) in Winnsboro, LA (1-800-433-3055) and ordered a 50 pound sack of their 8-5-16 Hydroponics Special/Steiner Formula. I've grown just about everything with that stuff. It's a two part powdered nutrient. I mix it up as a two part concentrate and then add it to my nutrient tank as required to maintain whatever nutrient concentration I'm using for the plants in question. The 50 pound sack is the minimum order and that generally will hold me from five to 8 years depending on how large my systems are. But even with shipping and handling it is less expensive than many hydroponics nutrients sold in liquid form in relatively small quanities.