Hydroponic Growing – It’s All About the Roots
There is a lot of interest in hydroponic growing systems. We had a try at this several years back. We had a 18′ x 24′ greenhouse full of different hydroponic systems trying to decide which systems we liked the best. Our greenhouse was covered in 8mm twinwall Polycoolite and had a steel frame. Unfortunately, since then we have moved, but the greenhouse did not come with us. Tom read all kinds of books on hydroponic systems and how to maintain them. I think most of them were written by PhD’s and were very technical. Even though Tom and I both have a science background we were a bit overwhelmed. Fortunately this has made it into the mainstream and a lot of people have tried simpler methods and have been kind enough to share their results with us.
• What is a hydroponic system?
A hydroponic system is basically a system where you grow your plants in a liquid nutrient solution rather than soil.
• Components of a hydroponic system
A hydroponic system basically consists of your reservoir for your liquid nutrient solution. Pots or rafts to hold your plants. Air stones to raise the oxygen level and pumps to keep the water circulating. For your growing medium we recommend coir or clay pebbles. You will need a Ph test kit and solutions to adjust the Ph. Nutrient solutions to keep your plants growing. A thermometer with humidity reading in helpful. If starting your own seeds be sure to do it in a hydroponic system compatible seed starting plug or the like. You do not want to start your seedlings in soil and then have to wash the soil off before you plant.
• Setting up your first system
Keep it simple. Start with one small system and get the hang of it before venturing out into multiple system types. You will need to learn a few things that may be new to you, but just approach this from a learning curve type journey and you will soon be an expert on hydroponic gardening.
• Types of systems
1. Lettuce Raft or DWC (Deep Water Culture) – This is used for green lettuces and leafy greens. These basically consist of a reservoir with a raft full of your plants. The nutrients are in the reservoir below the plants. You also need a bubbler and air stones to keep the water circulating. This is probably the simplest system to manage.
2. Ebb and Flow – This has a large flat basin with large pots for your plants. The pots have holes in the bottom to allow the nutrient in and out. This will be on a timer and will basically flood the tray for a certain amount of time. Then it will ebb or recede. This is repeated 2 – 4 times a day. You can use these for a variety of plants including tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, lettuce, we even grew edible flowers in this type system.
3. Dutch Bucket Systems – This is a recycling system of sorts. There are large buckets with tubing between them and the reservoir. There is a tray beneath the buckets. A pump will come on at a specific time and pump the nutrient solution to the pots. The solution then drains into the bottom tray and is returned to the reservoir to be reused. This repeats 2 – 4 times per day. This system is great for larger plants such as tomatoes and peppers.
• Benefits of growing in hydroponic systems
1. You can plant your plants closer because the root system is smaller
2. You can grow with these indoors, outdoors or in a greenhouse
3. No weeds, no tilling
4. Go will get higher yields with a shorter growing cycle
5. They use less water and less fertilizer.
Simons Simple Hydroponic Plans
You will need to spend some time each day with the system checking lights, containers, solutions, checking for bugs, etc.
• When to plant
Growing in a hydroponic system is just like growing in a garden in the fact that you must plant each crop in conditions to meet their needs. In other words, we plant carrots, lettuce, beets, radishes, broccoli, cabbage, etc in cooler weather. You need to simulate this with your hydroponic system. You will need the daytime temperature to be 60 – 70 degrees with a minimum of 40 degrees.
For warm weather crops, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc you will need a daytime temperature of 70 – 80 degrees with a maximum of 90 degrees.
• Optimal growing conditions
1. You should aim for a relative humidity of 50 – 80%
2. There should be a circulating fan running continuously. This should be a low speed fan that will keep the air moving for best plant health. You should just see the leaves moving slightly.
3. Lighting – If you are growing in a greenhouse or outdoors you will be able to take advantage of the natural sun. If you are growing indoors you may need artificial lighting unless you are in a position to take advantage of a sunny location in front of a window. The best lighting for growing anything but lettuce is the HID lights. For lettuce you can use fluorescent lights. These should be on 12 – 14 hours.
4. Protect the systems – You should never set up your system outdoors in an unprotected area. Rain will dilute your solution and flood your trays. Also, let’s not forget the electrical components of the systems. You never want to leave them exposed to the rain.
5. pH – This is a test for the acidity/ alkalinity of the solution. The best range is slightly to the acidic side at 5.5 – 6.5. You can test this with a swimming pool kit and adjust it with chemicals up or down.
6. Shade – Don’t place the units in direct sunlight. This may overheat your water and end up eventually killing your plants. If you are in a greenhouse you can use a shade cloth.
7. Solutions – Your growing solutions will have instructions on how to add the nutrients to your water. You will need to follow the directions. Also, you will occasionally need to drain the entire system and start over with fresh solution.
• Fighting disease proactively – The easiest way to prevent disease and pests is to keep it clean.
1. Wash your hands before you go in and between crops
2. Remove all dead leaves and plant debris
3. Clean up any spilled media or nutrients
4. Remove dead or dying plants
5. Use a separate set of hand tools. Don’t bring your tools in and out of your garden
6. Disinfect your tools in a 10% bleach solution
7. Keep your humidity at 50 – 60% and your temperature cool at 75 degrees
8. Have proper ventilation and air movement. This will help prevent mold and fungus.
9. Do not go in after working in your yard or on your compost pile
10. Don’t bring in other plants that are in dirt.
• Get organized. This will help you ensure the best, healthiest crops you can get. Make a daily, weekly, monthly and between crops to do list. Hang it where you can see it every day. Stick to your ritual religiously. It will not take that much time per day and it pays to keep ahead of any potential problems. Let’s face it. You are going to be checking your progress daily anyway. We are all patiently (not really) waiting for our first taste of our new crops.
We highly encourage you to try hydroponic growing. Just remember to start small and don’t get overwhelmed by the new terms and the new way of gardening. For complete plans to build mini and full size systems, check out this ebook. There is also a complete set of instructions on how to set up and maintain your hydroponic systems.
Product Review – America’s Best Polycarbonate, Best Buy Lean to Greenhouses
Today we are going to do a product review of one of the greenhouse kits that we offer. The America’s Best Polycarbonate Greenhouse and the Best Buy Lean to Greenhouse are basically the same structure, just one is freestanding and the other attaches to your home or a building. These both offer what we feel is the best “bang for your buck” in a greenhouse Made in the USA. They offer quality materials and excellent pricing.
The frames are made of 6063-T3 aluminum with a powder coated finish. This high grade aluminum gives the frame strength and durability. The standard colors are white, brown or green, but fear not, we can custom match the color of your home, your favorite sports team, just your favorite color. The stated wind and snow loading are 70 MPH winds and 23 pounds per square foot snow load. All framing is assembled using stainless steel T bolt and stainless steel lock nuts. This frame also has a 10 year warranty against damage due to faulty materials.
The greenhouse is glazed with 6mm clear twinwall polycarbonate. The polycarbonate sheets have a 10 year warranty that they will not vary more than 6% in light transmission in 10 years. This is a fancy way of saying that this material will not yellow, get brittle or break. Actually, I have personally seen this same material in use past 15 years. I have heard reports back from people in the industry who have seen this material in good usable condition up to a period of 20 years. There is also a 10 year warranty against hail damage. Some people do not like the twinwall polycarbonate because of the view through it. The twinwall is like looking down the end of a cardboard box. It will have a clear sheet on the inside, a clear sheet on the outside, and a rib that runs through the center of the 2 sheets. In a cardboard box the rib is wavy. In a polycarbonate sheet the ribs runs straight between the 2 outer sheets. This is what will distort your view. You will see color, but not form like looking through a glass window. But fear not, there is an upgrade available to both of these greenhouses. We call these options the See Through Polycarbonate Greenhouse and the See Through Lean To Polycarbonate Greenhouse. These both come with the twinwall in the roof, for protection against hail and/or falling objects. The sidewalls have a clear view polycarbonate sheet that is exactly like looking out through a window. The best of both worlds.
America’s Best Polycarbonate
Best Buy Lean To Greenhouse
See Thru Polycarbonate Greenhouse
See Thru Lean To Greenhouse
Another great feature is that the ventilation package is included in the pricing of this greenhouse. It includes the thermostat, exhaust fan and intake shutter(s) in the freestanding models. The lean to greenhouses do not have the intake shutters. Your combination storm door will supply added ventilation and supply the air intake for the lean to models. This “free” feature definitely adds to the value of the greenhouse. These systems cost in excess of $500 typically. Also included in the upgraded model is a circulating fan. This is an often overlooked, much needed, option. These will aid in the health of your plants by keeping the air in your greenhouse moving and reducing the humidity in the plant canopy. They help to maintain an even temperature in the winter when the greenhouse is heated, helping to avoid hot or cool spots in corners. We offer the homeowner the choice of the optional roof vents. I personally prefer to have these, as I feel you get a lot of use out of them in the spring and fall seasons. They typically stay closed in winter and open in the summer, so the added benefit there would be natural ventilation in the summer months. The reason I like them in the “between” seasons is that you run the possibility of a cold night and a hot sunny day. You would want your vents open during the day and closed at night under these circumstances. That is why I always use automatic roof vent openers with my greenhouses.
The integral base is built into the greenhouse, so no need to build an additional base for the greenhouse. We do however recommend setting the greenhouse on a foundation of 4″ x 6″ timbers set down into the ground. We tie the timbers to the ground using rebar stakes. This will help keep your greenhouse secure in higher winds. Do you prefer to build a knee wall to place your greenhouse on? This is not a problem. We also offer an optional door drop to accommodate this. We just need to know the height of your kneewall in inches and we will adjust the frame while building it so that the door will fit to the ground.
This greenhouse is shipped by Common Carrier (truck line). It will come in 3 – 4 boxes depending on accessories and size of the greenhouse. Two people should be present to unload this greenhouse. These typically take about 4 weeks from the time they are ordered until the time you receive them. Your greenhouse is built specifically for you. There is no need to accept a “boxed” greenhouse with no options.
In closing, with all of the quality features, excellent pricing and the fact that this greenhouse is Made in the USA, we give it 2 (green) thumbs up.
Container Gardening is for Everyone!
Growing Food in Plant Pots
Dreaming of fresh vegetables? Picked right outside your door? Or maybe you would prefer some fresh fruit? You may think that this is not possible where you live, but container gardening may be the answer for you. There are a surprising number of plants that will do well in planters. Maybe you live in an apartment with only a small balcony. Maybe you are renting a house and the landlord won’t let you dig a garden. Or, maybe you just want to be able to walk outside your door and pick your favorite herb while you are cooking. Then container gardening may just be what you need.
What is it?
Container gardening is simply growing plants in buckets, specialty containers, troughs, elevated planters, window boxes, strawberry pots, hydroponic systems, etc. You are really only limited by your imagination on this. Just be sure that there is a hole in the bottom of the plant pots for good drainage. If you let your plants sit in water they will die. Out of room? Grow Vertically!
What do I need?
To get started you will need a few items.
- Containers – these can be just about anything as previously discussed. But, one important factor is the size. Consider the size of the plant when it is in production. It is all but impossible to transplant a grown plant into a larger pot successfully. Are you going to try tomatoes? Make sure to have at least a 24 – 30 inch container. Maybe you are going for radishes and carrots. Make sure your pot is deep enough. Lettuce will grow nicely in a nursery flat or similar container. As I was writing this post I was thinking about a nice strawberry pot I used to have next to my kitchen door. I filled it up with cooking herbs. There is a local nursery that specializes in all sorts of herbs, with lots of variegated varieties. This makes for a beautiful container. Later in the spring I am going to go get some and plant them. I will make a post and a video about this later.
- Soil – It is best not to dig up dirt from your backyard to place in a container. For the beginner I would suggest going to your local nursery to see what they have available. Be sure to tell them you are going to be growing in a container. A lot of places will have a mix by the tractor bucketful, or less if needed. If they don’t recommend their mix for containers they will probably have a bag of soil that they think is good for your purposes. For those of you who are more advanced, you can mix up your own favorite mixture using peat, vericulite, compost, bark, etc.
- Fertilizer – To save time and effort later on, it is OK to use a slow release fertilizer such as Osmocote when planting. If you prefer you can water with a dilute fertilizer solution with every other watering.
- Location – Pick the sunniest location that you can. Also, you want to keep in mind if there is a lot of wind in the location. Try to protect your plants from harsh winds. Containers will dry out a lot faster than plants in the ground, especially in heavy winds. Not to mention the damage to your plants, fruits and vegetables. If you have pots that have plants on both sides, such as a strawberry pot, you may want to place the container on some sort of turning mechanism. I find that an old lazy susan works well, as long as it is heavy enough to hold the pot you are using. That way you can rotate the plants to the sun.
- Plants or seeds – You may have started your own seedlings, or you may have purchased plants that are ready to go into your planters. Some vegetables can be started from seeds. I would definitely start the fast growing plants such as lettuce and radishes directly in my container. If you are buying fruit trees, be sure that they are labeled for container growing.
What can I grow?
There are a whole lot more options today than there used to be. As with any planting, make sure you are putting your plants in at the proper time of year. Also, make sure that the variety you are getting can be grown in your zone. Don’t know your zone? That is rule 1 of gardening – know your growing zone. Check it out here if you are not sure.
- Blueberries – These are my favorite.
- Strawberries – although I prefer to grow these in the ground due to the runners.
- Fruit trees – There are many different types of fruit trees for containers.
- Carrots – I prefer the shorter varieties for containers.
- Lettuce – This is so simple to grow, and it produces within 65 days or so. I prefer the loose leaf rather than the head lettuce for this purpose.
- Potatoes – There are special containers for growing these.
- Tomatoes – There are also special containers for growing these.
- Herbs – Basil, Thyme, Sage, Lavender, Parsley, Rosemary, etc, etc
- Green Onions – Sometimes referred to as scallions.
- Garlic – I grew a bumper crop of garlic in window planters last year.
- Radishes – These are typically ready in just over a month. Don’t crowd them.
- Peppers – Be sure to have some support for these plants.
- Squash – Although due to the sprawling nature of these plants I prefer the garden. Make sure to use a larger container.
- Edible Flowers – Calendula and Nasturtiums are 2 that come to mind. Plus you get the added benefit of color from the blooms.
In closing, don’t let your location discourage you from growing your own food. Even the smallest balcony will hold a couple of plants. For those of you with no balcony, we will be discussing growing your veggies inside in a later post. Because we believe you can “grow your own food anywhere”.
Top 10 Reasons to Garden with Raised Beds
10 Raised Garden Benefits
We learned our lesson about raised bed gardening the first year we moved to South Louisiana. It is more of a necessity there, rather than an option. We were so happy. We rented a little house out in the country. We borrowed a tiller. My husband worked the ground. We leveled it, marked our rows and planted our seeds, just like we did it in Ohio. A couple of days later we had a torrential rain. My husband just stood looking out the back door watching all of his hard work being washed out. One of our new neighbors stopped by after the rain ended. He wanted to know when we were going to make our rows. We said here are the stakes and there is the string marking the rows. He was very patient with us. He said “no, your raised rows”. What? We didn’t know anything about that. Instead of just standing there laughing, he went home and got his high wheel cultivator and made the rows (aka hills) for us. We had a bumper crop that year due to his generosity. Of course, even if you live in better drained areas, there are many reasons to choose a raised garden bed over a standard garden space. I have listed just a few of the reasons below.
- Raised Garden Beds typically take less space for the same amount of yield. In other words, you can grow 10 tomato plants in less space in a raised garden bed than they would take being planted in typical garden rows in the ground. Less space used equals less space to maintain.
- Raised garden beds are easier to maintain than a typical garden, due to the smaller space. They are easier to keep weeded. The pathways are easier to maintain.
- You are not walking on your soil, so you are not compacting it. Plants like to be in soil that is light and airy, rather than densely packed soil. Also, you can decorate your walkways in a variety of ways. You can use pavers, ground cover, sand, or a combination of these. You can match your outdoor space by using the same pavers that you have in other areas of your yard.
- I am not a lazy gardener, but I do like to sit on the side of the beds and pick sometimes. It sure makes my back feel better. Plus, I can take a minute and just sit there and enjoy myself.
- You don’t really need a large tiller. We do have a rear tine tiller that we work our soil with occasionally, but we also have a small tiller that is an attachment for our weed eater handle. This is small and makes pretty simple and quick work of tilling a raised bed.
- A raised bed will be easier to fence around if you have rabbits and deer in your yard. I have even seen pictures of small raised bed gardens with fencing over the top of it also. If you have a small dog or puppy, you can raise the bed sides higher to keep them out. Also, if you want to use a cold frame, or season extender over the bed, it is much easier to install and use.
- You can build one on your porch or patio. There are a lot of crops that can be grown in containers, but some of the larger crops just do better in a bed. One I can think of off the top of my head would be a zucchini plant. They sprawl out everywhere.
- Finally, for all of you scavengers out there – this is the perfect place to recycle materials. You may be able to find used lumber, blocks, bricks, etc around your property to build the beds. There is no need to spend a bunch of money on new materials.
- It is easy to install plastic garden mulch over a raised bed. We use a drip irrigation system under the mulch, and we put the irrigation system on a timer. The mulch will help cut down on evaporation. Even in the heat of the summer at 100 degrees we only water for 15 minutes every other day.
- You can garden in a raised bed inside a greenhouse as well as out in nature.
In conclusion, we have been gardening in a raised bed for about 30 years now. We have moved from South Louisiana to North Louisiana. We may be able to get by with a regular garden, but we have just become so used to the raised beds. And, you can see all of the advantages that I have listed above. Even if you decide not to use a raised garden bed, be sure to get something growing in some dirt somewhere.
I admit it. I do not do well during the short, dark, cold days of winter. I so look forward to the spring every year. That’s why seed starting day is a day I relish in. To me it is the first sign that spring is just around the corner. The dark days of winter will soon be gone. Here is the way we start our seeds.
1. Gather your necessary items
Those would include:
Seeds, soil, a shallow tray or bucket to moisten your soil. a tray to place your plants in, a propagation mat, jiffy pots, plant stakes and a permanent marker, vented humidity dome, and a lamp if you are starting indoors.
Seed Starting Kit
Seeds – should be for this year, although I store my seeds in the refrigerator in a baggie, and I have used seeds as old as 10 years and gotten germination (sprouting). Of course the germination rate may not be as high as with fresh seeds, but I don’t like to throw anything away. I just plant extra seeds when planting. You should also make sure that you are planting the proper seeds for the time of year.
Soil- I use a good grade of potting soil. The one I have been using for the past couple of years is a natural and organic seed starting mix. You will need a bucket to work the soil with some water before planting. Just make it moist, don’t saturate the soil. If you don’t do this the water will just sit on the top of the soil and not penetrate it at all once you have planted and try to water.
Tray – You should have some sort of shallow tray to place your seeds in for watering.
Propagation mat – I suppose if one thing on this list would be desirable rather than completely necessary, this would be it. I always use a propagation mat under my seeds. It will warm the soil and assist the germination rate (how many seeds sprout) and also give you healthier seedlings. I put my seed tray on this once it is planted and leave it running until I start to harden off my plants.
Jiffy Pots – These are available at just about any garden center. These are made from compressed peat. They are biodegradable, so you plant the entire pot. I remove the bottom of the pot when planting. I usually just throw it in the hole since it is biodegradable. The great part about these is that you are not disturbing your roots when planting.
Plant Stakes and a Permanent Marker – There is nothing more frustrating than planting a seed, watching it grow, picking your vegetables and saying “What variety of tomato is this? I would really like to plant it again.” Be sure to mark your plants and be sure to use a permanent marker.
Vented Humidity Dome – This also assists in the germination of the seeds. It will help to keep the humidity higher. This can be removed once all of the seeds have germinated.
Lamp or Lighting – We use fluorescent lighting with wide spectrum lamps. They don’t produce any heat, so they can be close to your seedlings without damaging them. As a rule of thumb these should be placed 2 – 6″ above your plants. You can start out as low as an inch. Monitor your plants to make sure they are not getting burned. If you find they are too warm, move your lamps up slightly. This is where a stand with an adjustable height is really nice. Also, as your plants grow, you are going to want to be able to raise your lights to meet the height of the plants.
2. Make sure that all of your items are clean and ready to use. If you are reusing soil, it should be sterilized before use. For the homeowner, most will start with new soil. You will probably be reusing some of the items such as your tray and your bucket. Just make sure that everything is good and clean. This will help to cut down on disease. You may even want to use a really dilute bleach solution to rinse the items before use.
3. Moisten your soil – You should take the amount of soil you think you will need and place it in a clean bucket or container of some type. Mix in water in small amounts until you come up with a crumbly consistency. Place your moistened soil in your jiffy pots up to the rim of the pot.
4. Plant your seeds – I like to place 2 to 3 seeds in each pot. Some recommend only placing one seed per pot. I think that the cost of the seeds is so low that I would rather not take a chance on that being the one seed that will not germinate.
5. Mark your seeds – Do this as you are going, pot by pot. We have not bought any markers for years. We have an old mini blind that we use. We just take the slats apart, clean them good and cut them into marker sizes. There is nothing wrong with recycling here.
6. Place your heat mat in your tray and place your jiffy pots on the heat mat. I use a simple basic heat mat without a thermostat. There are heat mats available with a thermostat if you want to be able to set your heat to a specific temperature. Plug in your mat.
7. Place the humidity dome over the tray. Keep an eye on this. You don’t want to get too damp of conditions. A dome with an adjustable vent is preferred. This will be removed once the seedlings have germinated.
8. Turn on your lights – Now is the time to turn on your lights. I have mine on a timer. I set them to come on at 5 AM and go off at 8PM. Be sure to monitor the height of the lamps as your seedlings grow.
Finally, for the best seedlings you should follow these rules.
1. Plant at the proper time. Plant about 6 – 8 weeks before your last frost date. If you are not sure of this you make be able to get a vegetable guide from your local extension office. If you are not sure where your local extension office is just search for extension office, my town.
2. Don’t over or under water your plants. If you are not sure of this, watch your plants. If they start to shrivel, they probably need more water. The soil just be damp to the touch only. I like to water from the bottom. I find that it is gentler on these young plants. I just fill up the bottom of my tray and watch to see that the water is taken up at a reasonable rate. If I see that the water is sitting in the bottom of the tray I will dump it out.
3. Watch your lights. Make sure that you are moving them up with your plants.
4. Harden your seedlings off. Your plants have been inside and not exposed to wind or the harsh sunlight. You will want to take the tray outside for about 7 – 10 days before you plant them. Place them in a well protected, semi shady location at first for a brief period of time. I start with about an hour. Then, gradually move them to a less protected spot for a longer period of time. This will help strengthen them and get them used to being in a wind. Make sure to keep them watered well at this point. Once you are done with the hardening off, you are ready to plant.