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Weekly Hydroponics Update - The Struggles of Success
5/29/2007 8:18:00 PM

This week's update includes a major re-arrangement to our growing room, brought about by the success of our plants.

Our tomato plants have grown well in the aeroponic TurgoGarden. Very well, in fact.  They've grown from tiny seeds to almost 4' tall.  This got to be a problem, however...

The tomato plants had grown so tall that they were within inches of the 400W HPS (High Pressure Sodium) light bulb.  Since they were so close, they were starting to become scorched.  We realized that we needed to expand our PVC lighting frame, in order to give them room to grow.

We added a new section into the middle of the frame, you can see it below.  It starts at the "crossbar" and is approximately 20" tall.  It makes up the "top" third of the vertical sides.  It now sits directly on the floor (rather than on a table) in order to get the extra vertical room.

HydroRoomT.jpg

The newly enlarged frame actually offers quite a few advantages.  Since it's so much larger, it gives us many more attachment points for our supports and guides.  This helps quite a bit, as the tomato plants were starting to form a "canopy" that blocked light from the smaller plants, like the strawberries.  You can see our support lines on the "back" side of the TurboGarden (above).

Additionally, you might notice that the room looks a bit different.  We cleared the room our completely, and we covered the walls with a reflective paper.  The paper serves two purposes:

  • Reflects light from the lamps, in the hope of increasing yield from energy expended
  • Protecting the wall from water splashes

The paper that we bought is a highly scientific hydroponically inclined product.  It's really special, magical, expensive stuff.

No.  Not really.

It's dollar-store silver wrapping paper.  But guess what?  It's reflective.  We're not asking a lot out of it, so cheapness was a real blessing.  It should keep the walls protected, and hopefully the reflection will be an added bonus.

The aeroponic strawberries are almost ready.  Here's a picture from this morning.  There are only about 10 of them thus far, but the plants are also young, so that makes sense.  Looking good. 

HydroRoomS.jpg

We moved the MegaGarden (our wheatgrass and lettuce bed) to the other side of the room (mostly because I wanted all-sides access to the TurboGarden).  The MegaGarden gets lots of good reflection in its new corner, and things are growing well.  The wheatgrass and lettuce are both pretty happy.

HydroRoomR.jpg

Also, we've started using Organocide. Some aphids found their way into our plants, and were really being quite obnoxious.  We wanted to stay organic, and the Organocide spray seems to be killing them.  We think they arrived on the strawberry plants, as they were transplants from the outside world.

Lastly, a followup on the Milwaukee pH meter...

Although this one doesn't seem to be "defective", it's still terrible.  It requires frequent calibration, and it's more of a pain-in-the-ass to use than the simple (and much cheaper) color-change kits.  I recommend to everyone to avoid Milwaukee meters.  It's just not worth the time and effort to make it work right.  I have to give credit to their customer service, as they handled the return quickly and courteously.  It's just their products that suck.  I'll give it one final chance this week, but then it's going on eBay.

I cannot say anything about Hanna products, as I haven't tried them.  I'd be willing to give it a shot.  Make sure to leave a comment if you have any experience with either Milwaukee or Hanna.  I'd love to hear that I'm wrong, because I'd be really happy for a decent digital pH meter.

HealthyJuicer Tragedy
5/26/2007 2:21:00 PM

After about a year of strong service, my poor HealthyJuicer has broken.  It's not the juicer's fault though, I was being a dumbass and cranking it far too hard.

 Normally, the small stupidities of my life wouldn't make a good blog post, but this one is an exception.  In case any of you need to order replacement parts for your HealthyJuicer, here's an answer.  Lexen has all the parts, and they're pretty cheap.  My new crank cost me $10 (including shipping).  Although they don't have coverage on their website, they are very helpful over the phone.  If you need it, their phone number is (877) 539-3611.  Don't forget, they're on California time.

Weekly Hydroponics Update
5/22/2007 6:31:00 PM

This week's update it far more favorable than the last one... We've ironed out our pH stability problems, and the plants have largely recovered from the low pH abuse.  Damn Milwaukee meter.  They've called to let me know that they've shipped out a replacement.  I'm willing to give it a go, but you can be sure that I'll be verifying it every step of the way.

I've added support stringers to the aeroponic bed, as the tomato plants have gotten so large that they were flopping all over the place.  Luckily, I thought ahead when I built the frame/light stand; so attachment points are convenient.  I'm considering producing a measured drawing and parts list for the PVC frame; in case anyone else buys a TurboGarden.

HydroRoomQ.jpg

Don't let the angle of the picture fool you, it's a big difference from a week ago.  I really should put inch markings on the PVC frame, so you can see it more objectively.

It's business-as-usual in the MegaGarden.   The lettuce is growing happily.  We even sampled some of it this weekend.  The wheatgrass is wheaty.  Everybody's happy.

HydroRoomP.jpg

Weekly Hydroponics Update - The Horrors of pH
5/16/2007 6:32:00 PM

It's been a difficult week in the aeroponic bed.  We've had some setbacks.  For starters, let me post an addendum to my previous statements regarding Milwaukee meters.  My Milwaukee pH51 digital meter almost caused me to kill all my plants.  The damn thing was so inaccurate that it caused me to severly unbalance the pH in the aeroponic system; causing damage to many of the plants.  I've shipped it off to Milwaukee as a defective unit.  I'll have to see if the replacement is any better.  At this point, I don't trust their gear at all.

Here's what happened, and how it progressed:

Starting last week (after my last water change and adjustments), we began to see "curling" and "burning" of some of the leaves on our plants.  The older leaves on the tomatoes showed it the most.  Initially, the strawberries were unaffected.  The picture below shows a comparison between healthy tomato leaves and damaged tomato leaves (taken on the same day, same plant). 

HydroRoomM.jpg

Although our problem seems obvious in retrospect; it wasn't so clear in the beginning.  First, we suspected that we might be suffering from insect damage (as we saw a few aphids).  We killed the aphids; but nothing improved.

Second, since we just added Liquid Karma to our regimen, it was the next suspect.  I dumped about 1/2 the water in the reservoir and replaced it with fresh (in case the nutrient content was far too high, and was burning the plants).

Since I had replaced a lot of the water, I wanted to test the pH.  For no particular reason, I decided to use the chemical testing kit (the color change type) instead of the meter.  Here's where things got interesting.

Our water is approximately pH 6.9.  I tested the reservoir after refilling, and I found the pH to be about 4.0 (that's way too low).  I wish that I had tested earlier, it must have been obscenely low before it was diluted.  The meter has previously misled me, causing the water to be extremely acidic.  I immediately started raising the pH of the water to fix the problem.  I tested every hour, and added small amounts of pH increaser.  I've got the pH to about 6.5 now, which is the ideal for my plants.  I'm waiting to see how they recover.  They look like they are on the mend.

Here's a photo of the TurboGarden.  You can see the leaf damage on the tomatoes (back row).  Interestingly enough, the tomato plants are still growing.  The biggest one is almost 17" tall now.  The eggplants are oddly unaffected by the pH problem; the seem quite happy.

HydroRoomO.jpg

Although the strawberries didn't suffer the same extent of damage as the tomatoes; their leaves did receive some "burn" from the poorly adjusted pH.  However, the little strawberries are growing, and they look good.  Please note, the following photo is of an immature strawberry, not a ripe one (that's why it's not red):

HydroRoomL.jpg

This week's news wasn't so bleak over in the MegaGarden.  It uses a different reservoir, so it didn't have the same pH problem.  Things are growing wonderfully, and everything is good.  Here's a new photo of the MegaGarden (for my "green" stuff).

HydroRoomN.jpg

The wheatgrass is happy, and the lettuces are really growing.  Here's a closeup of the lettuce:

HydroRoomK.jpg

The lettuce is very healthy, and is growing well.  I'd guess and say that we're about three weeks from salad.

Hopefully, now that the pH is more regulated; we should get back on track.  I'll post updates and photos as things progress. 

Weekly Hydroponics Update
5/9/2007 7:03:00 PM

It's been about a week since the last post, so I thought it was time to issue an update regarding the state of the hydrogardens...

Firstly, let me talk about the new toy:  I recently bought a Milwaukee digital pH meter.  I wouldn't recommend clicking the link however, as their "artificial intelligence assistant" isn't that intelligent, mostly just freaking creepy.

As for the tester itself, it's a model pH51 waterproof digital meter.  I bought it because I don't see colors all that well, and I wanted to regular the pH more accurately than "by eyeball".  It cost me about $60.  Honestly, I'm really not impressed.  I can get it to work, and it works pretty accurately.  However, the electrode is pretty touchy, and if it isn't happy, it gives very erratic readings.  I can't say that I'd buy another one.  It's calibrated using two solutions:  one that is exactly pH 4.01 and another that is exactly pH 7.0.  These two reference solutions allow it to accurately measure the range that I'm using.  Good points:  It's accurate to one tenth of a point.  It's repeatable.  Bad points:  The electronics are touchy.  It also needs to be stored in solution (vertically) which is bluntly a pain-in-the-ass.

Moving right along...

Now that we're got both hydro systems running under "normal operations", we've developed a bit of a system.  The MegaGarden unit has the "vegetative" light, and it used for the baby plants, lettuce, and wheatgrass.  It's progressing nicely.  Incidentally, the previous mold problem with the wheatgrass has been soundly and permanently conquered.

Here's the MegaGarden at the moment:

HydroRoomJ.jpg

We used a combination of red and black pots for the lettuce, mostly because it's what we had laying around the house.  The lettuces are of different ages, so their sizes are expectedly quite different.  The fellow in the bottom-left corner is the oldest and largest of the baby lettuce plants.  They all seem happy.  We feed the whole MegaGarden Pure Blend Pro (Grow Formula) mixed with a little Liquid Karma.  It's working very well.  Since the bed only contains vegetative plants, it's a great mix.

Here's a close-up of the largest of the lettuce (lettuces?):

HydroRoomI.jpg

For refenence, it's about 5" tall at this point.  It's nowhere near an adult, but it seems happy.

Nextly, we have the aeroponic TurboGarden.  I'll tell you what, Beau at Healthy Garden and Supply wasn't kidding. Aeroponic beds really grow fast.  Although this isn't a very quantitative statement, they really kick the crap out of standard ebb-and-flow.

Here's the current state of the aeroponic bed.  We have five tomato plants (at different ages, back row), four strawberry plants (middle row), two eggplants (front row), and three currently empty spots for future basil plants (still sprouting).  Since the strawberries are flowering, and the tomatoes are getting larger, we're switched to the Pure Blend Pro (Bloom Formula), also mixed with a little Liquid Karma.  We've only recently made the switch, but the new mix should provide strong additional nutrition for growth and production.  Also, using the new pH meter, I've set the aeroponic pH to 6.2.  I'm trying a lower pH in the hopes of boosting nutrient absorption.

HydroRoomG.jpg

For reference, the largest of the tomato plants is about 10" tall now.   Here's a decidedly unscientific comparison:

  • 04/23/2007: About 2" tall.  Two leaves.  Joins the aeroponic bed for the first time.
  • 05/01/2007: About 4" tall.  Small leaves. Seems happy.
  • 05/09/2007: About 10" tall.  Lots of leaves.  Diameter has increased to about 1/2".  Looking much stronger.  Very healthy.

The strawberries seem very happy.  All of them have flowered, and are already working on strawberries.  I've hand-pollinated the flowers as they have appeared.  The flowers wild and die within about one day of being pollinated, and a strawberry begins forming where the flower once grew.  They all seem quite strong, which is good.  I wasn't sure how they would like being transplanted, but all worked very well.  I would expect that our first strawberries are about 2-3 weeks away.

HydroRoomH.jpg

On a side note:  I've finally been questioned by the neighbors about the big-honkin' light in my guest room.  I guess it makes sense, as the thing looks like an artificial sun in the evening hours.  Nothing says sunlight like 400 watts of HPS goodness. 

Wheatgrass and Aeroponic Update
5/1/2007 6:14:00 PM

The first photo is our baby lettuce.   It's grown quite a bit.  It's the tiny sprout in the bottom-left corner of the photo from 4/17/2007.  It's far from mature, but it's growing nicely.  The lettuce continues to live in the MegaGarden (ebb-and-flow) because of the lighting.  We're running a 125W Compact Fluorescent over the MegaGarden, which is ideal for vegetative-stage plants (that aren't flowering).  This works well for wheatgrass and lettuce.

HydroRoomD.jpg

I've learned a fair amount about wheatgrass since the beginning of the hydroponics experiments.  I originally was having some major problems with mold, after the switch to organic seed.  I received a lot of good advice from the owner of www.wheatgrassman.com.  He's  a real naturalist, and isn't into hydroponics; but his advice was very good.  Here's what I was doing wrong, and how I corrected it:

  • I didn't have much air movement in the room.  I added a cheap fan (clamped to one of the PVC lighting supports).  It's not big.  It's not strong.  It's just gentle air movement.  I think I spent $10 on it.
  • I was flooding the ebb-and-flow far too often.  I used to flood once per hour.  Now I run six floods per day (15 minutes each).
  • I wasn't soaking and sprouting properly.  It's very important to soak for 8-12 hours.  I had been soaking for 36-48 hours, which was drowning the seed.  Secondarily, I cannot stress enough the value of proper sprouting.  The seeds should sprout in the dark for 36 hours before moving into your hydro system.  They should be moist, but not underwater.  I keep the whole operation organized by using special "baskets".  I can sprout in the basket, then move directly to the hydro system.  It prevents me from disturbing the seed; and it's a perfect "one serving" size.  I wrote more about the baskets here.
  • I was using way too much seed.  I've cut my seed use to almost 1/3 of original.  I used to "carpet" the bottom of the container.  I was overseeding and creating mold as a side-effect.

The second photo is also of the MegaGarden...  It shows a few stages of wheatgrass maturity.  The three trays contain:

  • Sprouts (one day old)
  • Young Wheatgrass (three days old)
  • Almost Mature Wheatgrass (six days old)

HydroRoomE.jpg

Although it's only been a week, we are very pleased with the new aeroponic TurboGarden.  Thus far, the results have been pretty impressive.  It's difficult to determine the causes, as we have both a new system and a new lighting setup in play.  Thus far, we have tomatoes and strawberries in the TurboGarden.  Both are doing splendidly.

The tomato plants are visibly larger on a daily basis.  This fellow was two inches tall a week ago.  It stands at about 5 1/2" now, with stronger leaves.  It's getting to be much stronger. 

HydroRoomF.jpg

I'll admit that we didn't grow our strawberries from seed.  We bought them as adolescent plants, and transplanted them into the aeroponic system.  Cleaning dirt from roots is a delicate process; but I think we managed it with a minimum of damage.  They seem very happy in the aeroponics.  In fact, we got our first flowers this morning.  Apparently the "warm" light from the HPS bulb is working wonders.  At this point, I predict fruit in the not-too-distant future.

I'm pondering a new documentation project.  "The life of a seed".  I'm thinking about taking pictures and measurements each day of a seedling's life, just as documentation of process and results.  It's an awkward time however, as many sproutlings will soon be overrunning the beds.  Lettuce consumes much more space as an adult.  Hopefully, our five adolescents will keep growing well.

Hydroponics Abound
4/23/2007 7:45:00 PM

Good news for us... Our new hydroponic gear has arrived.  We spent most of the weekend getting it up and running; but we're pretty pleased with the results.

HydroRoomA.jpg

Some of you may remember the MegaGarden from the previous posts.  It's the red square on the right side of the picture.  The MegaGarden is a compact ebb-and-flow system.  We've been very happy with it, especially for wheatgrass.

The new addition is the TurboGarden.  It's the larger white unit, on the left side of the picture.  The TurboGarden is an aeroponic unit.  Aeroponics is a really unique method for growing.  The plants sit in net pots (which rather resemble pool skimmer parts).  Rather than being "flooded" like the ebb-and-flow, the roots of the plant are continuously sprayed with nutrient solution.  The spray is fired from small jets underneath the pots.  Although I haven't yet proven the theory, the idea is highly oxygenated nutrient gives far superior results.  We'll have to find out with a few trials.

If you notice a large difference in color across the picture, you're very right.  Nothing is wrong with the camera.  The D80 is just fine.  We're running two very different lights over the two units, with very different appearances.  We run a 125W Compact Fluorescent over the MegaGarden.  It's particularly well suited for vegetative growth.  We're using a new Hortilux 400W HPS (High Pressure Sodium) bulb over the TurboGarden.  The HPS bulb has a very yellow light, as it's meant to support fruiting and flowering plants.  We hope to grow the wheatgrass and sproutlings in the MegaGarden, and grow the mature plants in the TurboGarden.

It took a long time, but I'm really pleased with the PVC frame that we built for the TurboGarden. I didn't want to put any holes in the ceiling, as this is a new endeavor.  The PVC light stand worked so well on the MegaGarden, that we decided to build a bigger and better one for the new unit.  It's all done with 1" PVC, no glue necessary.  We wanted it to be stable, be able to support the light, and be able to support plants as they grow.  If you notice the frame at the top... We'll be dropping plant supports from those as the plants grow.

HydroRoomB.jpg

This closer shot of the TurboGarden shows that it's still mostly empty.  We moved our baby tomato plants into the new aero.  They're the small green fellows.  I'll admit that we bought some strawberry plants from Home Depot (the dark green leafy ones).  I wanted to see some fruit in the near future, and it looked like an idea setup.  We removed them from their soil and washed their roots.  They seem happy in the substrate.  In theory, the warmer light of the HPS bulb should cause them to flower and fruit.  Only time will tell.  The 15 strawberry plants in the back yard are already flowering.  We ought to get a large crop from the outside bed alone.

HydroRoomC.jpg

This picture is a much closer view of the strawberry plants (foreground) and the baby tomato plants (background).  I hope the tomato plants are old enough for the aero.  We should know soon.  They seem happy at the moment.

We're still working through the aeroponic thing.  I'm still experimenting with the best methods for water change and fill.  The TurboGarden holds much more water than the MegaGarden, so it's going to be quite the learning experience. 

Wheatgrass Experiment Update
4/17/2007 6:33:00 PM

The wheatgrass experiments continue...

We're using the baskets we made to facilitate staggered growing, so that we will always have a fresh batch.  They aren't ready yet, but here's what the MegaGarden looks like at the moment:

HydroFarmWheatGrassF.jpg

The sprouting fellows in the front corner aren't wheatgrass at all, they're baby tomatoes, lettuce, and eggplants.  Once they're ready, we'll be moving them to a new home in an aeroponic system.  We've ordered it, but it's not here yet.

We've ordered a TurboGarden made by American Agritech.  We decided to give our (new) local shop a try.  It's the Newark branch of Healthy Gardens.  In addition to the new aeroponic unit, we've got some new lighting on the way (that's more suitable for fruiting plants, such as tomatoes).  Our existing lighting is great for vegetative things like wheatgrass, but not suitable for fruiting and production.  I'll post updates once the gear arrives, and we have more details.

Hydroponics Followup: Baskets, Tomatoes, & Mold Prevention
4/12/2007 6:19:00 PM

As I've continued to experiment with the hydroponics setup for my wheatgrass; I continue to learn interesting and useful things.

The first crop of wheatgrass has been fully harvested.  Some of it is still in the fridge, awaiting the juicer.  I've done my first full tear-down cleaning of the MegaGarden.  Here's a picture of the MegaGarden at the moment:

HydroFarmWheatgrassE.jpg

I've decided that I don't need the full capacity of the MegaGarden for growing wheatgrass anymore.  I ended up producing more than I could use, and I ended up wasting some of it due to poor planning.  Here's the new idea:  We've made small baskets by using plastic canvas  (that we bought at AC Moore).  Plastic canvas is commonly used by people doing yarn projects, but we had other ideas.

The baskets are made from two pieces of material.  Firstly, we cut a square.  Secondly, we cut a long strip (long enough to wrap all the way around).  We wrap the long one around the square, and sew it with fishing line as we go.  It takes a little time to make them, but they should give us more flexiblity in the future.  We tried it, and yes, they are dishwasher safe.

The baskets will allow us to grow enough grass for one ounce of juice.  Also, since they keep the seed separated, we will be able to stagger the growth cycle in the garden.  Although the picture above doesn't really show it, the seeds were started two days apart.  Hopefully, we can get the grass into a natural cycle that matches our juicing demand.

The odd-looking basket in the top-left doesn't contain wheatgrass; it's filled with Rockwool cubes.  We're starting other plant varieties in the garden.  The Rockwool is the staring point for our tomatoes.  I'm sure they will take a long time to mature, but that's ok.  We've got the extra room, and I'd like to see what happens.  From what I've been told by HydroFarm; I should switch to a 200W Compact Flourescent bulb when the tomato plants begin to flower.  That makes sense.  More light should drive greater growth.

Also, I recently learned something the hard way.  I ended up having to tear down the whole MegaGarden for a cleaning after a mold outbreak.  Mold started to appear on the roots of my mature wheatgrass, then on the seeds.  In retrospect, I was being dumb, and the mold was a normal reaction.  Here's the moral of the story:  Don't run your pump (for flooding the tray) when the lights aren't running.  Ideally, the tray should be dry when you shut down the lights for the night.  I was running my flood cycles at 15 minutes / hour, 24 hours a day.  That meant that the floods were still happening in the dark hours of the night.  Secondarily, I forgot to turn on the lights for a day; so that only made things worse.  No problems now; live and learn.

I should probably set up a timer for the lights, but I've been switching them manually up to this point. 

It's funny how things work out:  I started this because I couldn't find a lot of information about hydroponic wheatgrass.  Now I'm ranked on Google for that very topic.  I admit that I'm not near the top (yet); but I'm sure it will improve over time.

Wheatgrass Nutritional Redux
4/6/2007 6:41:00 PM

As you may have noticed, I've been doing a lot of writing about wheatgrass lately.  Although the results have been very favorable, I've decided to take a step back and ponder the results for a moment.

I've noticed that the vast majority of wheatgrass information on the internet is biased; usually from a sales perspective.  I've seen websites claiming that wheatgrass contains every vitamin you'll ever need.  It looks to me like people might just be overselling it a bit.

Lots of things are overrated.  Let's get to the facts.

I've managed to locate a few quantified items about wheatgrass.  Here are a few websites that have lab results posted:

After reading through all the different reports; I've drawn a few conclusions:

  1. Although wheatgrass does contain a number of beneficial compounds, it's by no means a multi-vitamin.  It contains a good quantity of Vitamin A and Vitamin K.  If you're drinking 1-2 ounces of it; you'll get a good daily load (~2000 IU A, ~55mcg K).
  2. The content of Vitamin C has been highly overrated.  Although wheatgrass juice does contain some Vitamin C, the quantities are pretty small. They're not going to add enough to your diet to get you to a good level. (I don't think the normal recommendations for Vitamin C are enough anyway, I like 2500+ mg per day).
  3. Wheatgrass does not contain the secrets of world peace.
  4. The statement "15 pounds of wheat grass is equivalent to 350 pounds of the choicest vegetables." is crap.  Although Ann Wigmore made a lot of solid points about healthy living, she was more of a true believer than a researcher.  Click here to read part of her book, The Wheatgrass Book.
  5. Chlorophyll is really the strongest ingredient in the juice.  Although it's not a supplement in the traditional sense (as the human body doesn't uptake Chlorophyll very well), it does offer powerful effects as an anti-mutagen.  It's good stuff to have rolling around in the digestive system.
So, what's the deal with wheatgrass then?  It's not a magic bullet; but that shouldn't be a big surprise.  It's a good thing to make part of diet, and we could all use some anti-mutagenics.  I'm still undecided on the anti-oxidant properties; I haven't found enough solid research to make a final determination.  I plan to continue growing and juicing it, but remember, it's part of the solution, not the entire solution unto itself.