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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.

Winterthur Security Experience
5/29/2007 7:16:00 PM

We attempted to visit Winterthur this weekend, with disappointing results.  The security fellow upset Jessawick, so I thought it necessary to write them a letter:

Dear Winterthur Staff,

We were recently introduced to your institution at the Point-To-Point event, which you hosted earlier in the month.  We enjoyed a very pleasant day, and we were impressed with the entire experience which you offered.  Based on our experience at the Point-To-Point, my wife and I decided that we wished to purchase a membership.

I am writing today in reference to our attempt at obtaining a membership at your institution.

We are active on the weekends, and we often opt to take our bicycles if our destination is within a reasonable distance of our home.  Winterthur is only a few miles from our home.  We arrived at your main gate at approximately 12:00 PM (on Sunday, May 27th).  A gentlemen appearing to be in his sixties emerged from the gatehouse.  I regret that I did not ask his name.

We assumed that he was there to greet us, or perhaps to give us directions to the main office.  This was in fact, not the case.  Before we had a chance to speak, he immediately shouted "You can't bring that in here!".  We were unsure what he meant, so we asked for clarification.  He then told us that bicycles were not permitted on the property.  We informed him that we had business with the membership office, and that we intended to simply follow the roads.  (We respect the care of the grounds, and we had no intention of misuse.)  Before we could even finish a sentence, he shouted "I don't care why you're here.  You can't bring that in here!".  Although we were not aware of what caused him to become so angry, he seemed quite unhappy with our presence.  We decided that further discussion would not be productive, and we departed.

I understand that Winterthur is concerned with the condition and care of the grounds.  I also realize that Winterthur is by no means a public throughfare.  However, I am a bit surprised at the policy (as stated).  Frequently, environmentally concious individuals  choose to walk, run, or ride a bicycle as an alternative to an automobile.  I was surprised to hear of such a restrictive policy, especially when it would preclude legitimate business.

However, the policy decision is not my primary concern, nor is it the reason that I am writing you today.  I am writing today in the hope of assisting the Winterthur community.  I want to remind you that your "front line" employees are often the public face of your institution.  They shape the perception of your organization as a whole.  In this case, I feel that an otherwise amicable situation was turned unpleasant by the demeanor of a single representative.

In our organization, we are always working to improve the experience of our customers.  Since management is often a layer removed from the individual interactions, we realize the importance of our "front line" on the perception of our company as a whole.  We always offer tools and opportunities for our staff to grow and improve.

Thank you for your time, and thank you for your concern.

Benjamin Yanis

I regret that I did not know the appropriate department for this letter.  I have sent a copy to jobs@winterthur.org as well as membershipinfo@winterthur.org.

Followup (05/30/2007):

I just received a very nice phone call from Suzanne Smith, the Director of Membership at Winterthur.  She was very understanding of my concerns, and went out of her way to make things right.  She really appreciated the letter, and she made it clear that they are a concerned organization.

The bicycle policy is accurate.  I was informed that the bicycle policy comes at the direction of their insurance underwriters.  The policy is primarily due to the narrow roads and limited visibility.  It sounds as if Winterthur would like to allow bicycles, but insurance restrictions keep the rule in place.

I've been told to expect a letter, so there's perhaps another update to come... 

Followup (06/08/2007):

As good as her word, Suzanne Smith sent the letter... It was very nice, and even included four passes.  She was very helpful.  I couldn't be happier with their response.

WinterthurApology.jpg

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.

First Harvest 2007
5/25/2007 6:51:00 PM

We've got our first harvest of the season...  It's organic too.  We have 15 strawberry plants in the back yard, and they're doing very well this year.  They are three year old plants, and are much larger than their aeroponic brothers.  I expect to be picking aero strawberries in about 10 days.

Not a bad haul, since we're still in May... 

GardenStrawberries.jpg

Speaking of strawberries, let me share my latest idea:

We have a new shed scheduled for construction in the coming weeks.  It's 10' x 20', which is pretty huge.  (That's the maximum in New Castle County without a building permit).  This big shed will naturally have big walls.  I'm thinking that we can take advantage of the sun, while getting the benefits of aeroponics.

I'm thinking of buying some AeroDuct channel (aeroponic "rain gutter") to put on the side walls of the shed.  This should get me a lot of extra room, while keeping the plants off the ground (and away from nearly all pests).  In theory, it should give the best of both worlds.  I'm even thinking of keeping the reservoir in the house, and supplying the water via buried lines (so I can easily monitor and adjust the water, from the comfort of my own hydro-room).

I realize that this won't be an "all year" solution, but I expect that it will be workable for at least April - November.  In theory, I could even warm that water, in an attempt to extend growing times.  I have no idea how the plants would react, but I think I could do it. 

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

Red Clay Referendum Defeated, and Soundly Spanked
5/21/2007 6:30:00 PM

It seems that running referrenda is all the rage in Delaware this year.  It seems all the school districts are getting in on the game.  Recently, the referendum wagon came to down in my area.  The Red Clay school district decided it wanted more money, so it called for a referendum.  For reference, it's only been about three years since the last one.

The voters trashed it pretty soundly.  The final score was 6620 (against) vs. 4822 (for).  That's a pretty wide defeat.  Especially because the district has been hard selling it to the residents.  The official results are on the Delaware Elections Page.

It makes sense that it was defeated though; Red Clay is a lousy school district.  We'll need some results before we open our collective wallet.

They love to talk about property value when they're pushing for a 'yes' vote.  I've got new for them... If the success of the school district actually affected my property value; it would already be in the crapper.

Sorry guys.  Nice try.  No dice.

However, like all school districts that don't get their way, they will undoubtedly run another one.  Delaware permits two attempts per year.  I'm sure the second round is already being planned.  Brandywine already has a date for their second round.  They failed on the first try also, but theirs was a much closer race.  They didn't get the profound thumping that Red Clay received.

Don't worry; we'll be there for round two...  And we'll still be voting 'No'. 

Orange Is Missing
5/19/2007 5:39:00 PM

Our cat, Orange has gone missing.  He's been gone for over a week now.

Although we've contacted all the neighbors, and all the shelters in the area, we have yet to find him.

OrangeCat-400-268.jpg

If you see a cat that looks like this fellow, please contact us

 

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.