Posts Tagged ‘DWC hydroponics’

k0284391I should be nestled all snug in my bed as visions of sugar plums dance in my head, but I can’t sleep. Hey, it happens.  This time it’s all about seasonal allergies.  All the weed pollen floating around Georgia found its way into my lungs and I have some kind of chest infection.  As a result, last night my lungs were exploding and I didn’t sleep at all.  Mostly I just panicked.  Then today, I pretty much slept all day. Now tonight, I can breathe well enough to sleep, but I’m not sleepy. Figures. So…I have a cup of tea at hand and decided to talk to you a bit about what I learned from this year’s gardening season. That way, if you can’t sleep either, you can use this post as a sedative.

I learn something every year. Sometimes it’s a lot, sometimes a little, but always something.  If you don’t already keep some kind of a garden journal, I encourage you to start doing so. It can be elaborate, or very simple. I choose the simple route. I use a spiral notebook and a mechanical pencil. Maybe it’s my age, but for whatever reason, the information sticks better if I write it rather than enter it into the computer.

Usually in December I start planning my garden for the next spring.  And here’s a tip to save you some coin.  Many seed companies have end of season sales in December and you can pick up some pretty good deals. 

Anyway, I always write out my garden plan including all the varieties I intend to plant and when I will start the seeds. At the end of the season, I like to take note of what I learned.  That’s what I’m up to tonight as I sip my late night English Breakfast tea.

1.       This was a hard year. In part it was because it was so hot and dry.  Many of the plants really suffered. Besides the heat, my health has been up and down due to some back issues so I didn’t keep up on the weeding very well.  In all honesty, that got out of hand. All in all, it was pretty discouraging.  But I have a plan. Lesson: regardless of experience, some times you’re going to have a bad year. Live with it.

2.       This year it finally sank in that buckets are not very good as containers except for a few select items like snap peas or maybe a cucumber.  For several years I’ve used them for tomatoes, and except for the occasional cherry or grape variety, the results have been marginal, at best.  I like container gardens because of the flexibility, and I’ve always had a lot of buckets because they’re cheap. My logic was that buckets are deep and the roots can really dive deep, but in reality that’s not what most veggies, including tomatoes really want.  This year, my veggies in half barrels and self watering containers did much better than anything in buckets.  I could see the difference as soon as I pulled up the plants after they were done. The roots want to spread out more than go deep.  For example, I had a single zucchini in a 3 ft by 5 ft. 8 inch deep concrete block raised bed that out performed any three zucchini in buckets. The roots spread through the whole bed, the plant was at least 7 feet across and I maybe got 24 or 25 fruit off of it.  The ones in the buckets were a foot tall, 2 feet across and gave me 3 or 4 fruit each.  Soil, nutrients, water were all the same.  The plants in buckets couldn’t spread out.

Similarly, I have one Yellow Moruga Scorpion pepper plant all on it’s own in a container with a wide top and it is twice as large as any other pepper plant, and it has much larger fruit. 

As for tomatoes, I use a popular brand of self watering container that says grow two plants per container.  I always do that, but this year, as an experiment, I took two containers and planted just one tomato and a basil plant. The difference was extraordinary. This revelation has changed my gardening forever.  Lesson: some crops benefit from intensive planting, others want room to spread out. Buckets have limitations. Sometimes spending a little more on larger containers saves in the long run.

For the record, my snap peas and cucumbers did great in the buckets. 

3.       I learned the hard way, that Deep Water Culture hydroponics is not the best way to grow tomatoes outside in Georgia.  The plants got off to a fast start in the green house and were huge and lush.  I had 13 in total. They filled with fruit early. I have never even come close to having tomatoes start off like these DWC ones did.  I was expecting to be canning tomatoes by mid June.  Then the hot weather hit and my hydro tomatoes disappeared as if by dark magic,  despite adding extra oxygen.  The water just got too hot and the roots cooked.  It was ugly and I was extremely disappointed.  Lesson learned.  Lesson: If I’m going to grow hydroponic tomatoes in Georgia, use Dutch Buckets, or another drip system.

4.       Speaking of hydroponic tomatoes, I learned that for me, they don’t taste nearly as good as soil grown ones.  The same is not true for green leafies or cruciferous ones.  I found that if you flush the system of all nutrients and run just water for a few days, like you do with aquaponics, it helps. Lesson: Always flush Hydroponic tomatoes with fresh water for about a week before eating.

5.       Let me stick with tomatoes for one more lesson. On the whole, cherry tomatoes are hardier than slicers. This has been true for me since I started serious gardening many years ago. Whether we’re talking about water shortages, heat index, or even calcium deficiencies, cherry tomatoes have always handled adversity better than their larger, more glamorous cousins. For that reason, I recommend ALWAYS having a few in your garden.  Lesson: Make Cherry Tomatoes a garden staple.

6.       It’s always better to oversize the water pumps on your aquaponics systems. I’ve found that with the exception of very small aquarium type systems, systems don’t turn over as quickly as advertised on the packaging, so It’s valuable to go a size up. The cost increase is marginal and the results are worth it. Lesson: Saving money on the front end, sometimes costs a great deal on the back end.

7.       I’m going to offer one more aquaponics lesson. This year I tried some water fountain/pond filter combinations as an experiment.  Essentially, they are great as a pre-filter or sprayer for oxygenation for the fish tank, but I had no luck using them as stand alone filters.  I tried a 1250 gph combo in a 300 gal system (150 gal fish tank, 2 x 50 gal raft beds, plus sump, and couldn’t keep up with even 30 common goldfish. It was a pretty water feature, but didn’t work as a filter.  Adding a small trickle filter between the Fish tank and first raft would have helped. Alternatively, swapping the sprayer for a media filter would have worked, too.  Fish waste simply requires more filtration than those little boxes can handle. Lesson: While it’s possible to have too little filtration, it’s virtually impossible to have too much. Make sure you have enough space for strong beneficial bacteria colonies.

8.       Mulching matters.  This year, despite having a couple tons of tree mulch available, I didn’t use it.  And I paid the price. Weeds were terrible, and with the dry summer, my watering needs were off the chain. 

In July, I was losing my roses. They were baking.  So I fed them, watered them thoroughly and mulched them well with some pine straw I had in the greenhouse. The benefits were almost instantaneous.  I had no more problems and twice the blooms of last year.  Similarly, I have 3 blackcurrant bushes that positively hate Georgia summers. I mulched two of them and they have tolerated and endured this season despite being on the face of the sun.  The one I didn’t mulch, died.  I fed it and watered it regularly, but it failed.  Lesson indelibly marked on my brain; Mulching is a part of garden essentials. It is not optional.

And there you have it; eight lessons that will make my future gardening endeavors more successful. They will work for you, too. I encourage you to incorporate them into your plans, immediately.

I’d love to hear what you learned this year. Just use the comments section and let’s talk.  Next week will be the first annual ‘Fertilizer issue’.  I will review 3 different commercial products I use(d) and make some recommendations.  Until then, have a great weekend. And remember, if you’re not growing, you’re dying.

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Hydroponic Kale

Hydroponic Kale

People spend virtual (and sometimes, literal) fortunes trying to improve their gardens. We buy books and magazines, we attend seminars and lectures, we listen to radio shows and watch gardening television channels. Many folk even hire designers, landscapers and gardeners to do the work for them. On top of that, we search far and wide for the finest soil amendments and nutrients.

Gardening is BIG BUSINESS, and often a big expense, so I thought I’d offer for FREE, an often overlooked gardening secret that will kick your success into overdrive. It’s so simple, you’ll be inclined to think I’m overstating the case, but I’m NOT.

This secret is the same whether you’re growing in the ground, in raised beds or in containers. It’s also the absolute biggest open secret in Hydroponic and Aquaponic gardening. Oxygen!

Surprised? Feeling underwhelmed? Don’t be. Pretty much everything in nature needs oxygen in spades.  Sure, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and carbon dioxide are important nutrients, but you can put all the fertilizer in the world on you plants and if oxygen isn’t getting to the roots, the plants will not thrive.

Lots of new gardeners discover this when they spend good money on bags, or truck loads, of expensive topsoil only to find their gardens are not producing like they had hoped. The topsoil is just too darned dense for the roots to get oxygen.

If you add good soil amendments, like peat or coconut coir, tree mulch, perlite, or in some situations, small lava rocks, you will get almost instant results. I like perlite and sphagnum or coco peat added to my worm compost (not just castings) and a little straw as my favorite soil mix or amendment. This gives me lots of nutrients plus is loose enough for oxygen to get in and for the roots to spread out in search of the water and food it needs.

Similarly, in my Deep Water Culture hydroponics and aquaponics systems, I have seen results skyrocket by doing nothing more than adding extra oxygen to the grow beds and fish tanks.

I’m not a scientist, I’m a farmer. I learn by experimenting. I have watched healthy plants shrivel and die when the oxygen supply to the roots is cut off, even if adequate nutrients are available.  On the other hand, I’ve seen plants flourish with less than optimal nutrient and climate conditions, if the oxygen supply is optimal.

Kale bouquet. Think my wife will like them?

Kale bouquet. Think my wife will like them?

Let me use my hydroponic kale as an example.  Last winter, I grew Deep Water Culture (DWC) kale, swiss chard, lettuce and bok choi all winter long in my small unheated greenhouse. To keep the water temps up, I used a fish aquarium heater at night and let the sun do the work during the day. I kept the nutrients and water topped up and used plenty of oxygen. The results were off the charts.

In another system, designed the same, but using only half the oxygen, results were seriously reduced, and the plants were more susceptible to aphids.

Finally, this fall, I have been growing kale outside in a DWC hydro system with phenomenal results (see the pics in this article). I have not adjusted pH or nutrient levels.  Frequently, my top ups have been provided by rain. Sometimes, I top up with the garden hose, using city water. I have not treated the chlorine or chloramines.  All I have done is keep the oxygen levels up with lots of air stones.  I have not done a complete nutrient replacement and have topped up with nutrients only about every 3rd or fourth top up.  I got similar results last spring with cabbage, broccoli and kohlrabi.

Your plants need proper light and nutrients to be optimal, but before you spend a bunch of money trying more fancy foods and supplements, try making more oxygen available and see what happens.

Now it’s your turn. What’s been your experience with oxygen and your garden? For that matter, what’s been the one thing you’ve done or change you’ve made that has made the biggest impact on your results? I’d love to hear your experiences. After all, we’re in this together.


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Full Disclosure: I was trying to figure out how to keep my YouTube videos from being letterbox. The good news: it worked. Stay tuned for more hydroponics information.




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