Automating the Hyroponic Garden

The strawberry starts have rooted and have set several leaves.
The strawberry starts have rooted and have set several leaves.

The bare-root strawberry starts have taken root and are producing leaves. They have been doing well with a light watering or misting. Now that the plants are developing, they need nourishment in the form of a nutrient solution. A small pump distributes the solution, and I have been taking a small battery and inverter out to drive the pump.

The parts for setting up a solar power station arrived, so I built an addition to the hydroponic garden. The pump for dispensing the nutrients has a small power requirement, about 40 watts, and it will only run for a few minutes each day. Even that modest draw would need a large (and expensive) solar panel to power the pump directly- instead we chose to use a small panel and have a battery to store the power from the sun throughout the daylight hours.

I selected components that could support several pumps if we decide to expand beyond the two 20-pot setups we have now. The battery is a unit typical in small lawn tractors. I chose a 15 watt solar panel that is used to trickle charge car batteries. A charge controller manages the output from the solar panel to keep the battery safely charged. Finally, a device called an inverter takes the 12 volts direct current from the battery and puts out 120 volts alternating current that the pumps require. With a steady power supply we can have timers to control the pumps, making the routine operation automatic.

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The cost of the system was about $200 dollars, which is less than what it would cost to run power out from the house. The system is also fairly easy to relocate, which will be handy if we do end up with a larger garden.

Vertical Gardening- Part II

After the base for our new vertical garden was “installed”:http://losgatosbandb.com/lg_blog/textpattern/article/vertical-gardening-part-i , we had an unexpected delay waiting for the bare-root strawberry plants. We ordered three varieties of everbearing strawberries- Ft. Laramie, Ozark Beauty, and Ogllala. We picked up a fourth variety, Albion, at the local nursery. We didn’t want to do any preparation to the pots before planting- a local large scale vertical hydroponic grower had problems with wind blowing the media out of the pots before they could get the plants set. Once the starts arrived, we gathered the materials together and started planting.

Coconut fiber block- dried and compressed
Coconut fiber block- dried and compressed
The same block about 30 seconds after 5 gallons of water was poured over it.
The same block about 30 seconds after 5 gallons of water was poured over it.

Many hydroponic systems use perlite and vermiculite as the medium to support plant roots and hold moisture. In our system, coconut fiber is used with about 25% perlite as the planting media. The coconut fiber retains moisture better than perlite or vermiculite, yet doesn’t pack down. The small part of perlite helps with aeration.

The coconut fiber comes in 10 pound compressed blocks. The blocks absorb water at a fantastic rate- pouring a couple of 5-gallon buckets of water over the block yields a large amount of a light, fluffy material the texture of coffee grounds in a couple of minutes. We mixed 1 part coarse perlite with 3 parts wetted coconut for filling the planters.

We found it easiest to slip the planter pot onto the support post before filling the pot and planting the strawberries.
We found it easiest to slip the planter pot onto the support post before filling the pot and planting the strawberries.

While the pots were being prepared the strawberry starts were soaking in water. Once the pots were in place and filled, the starts were drained and the roots trimmed to about 3″ length and inserted in the media. We planted the starts with the crowns in the corners of the pots, and the roots angled toward the center- the pots stack one over the other, and the nutrients will flow down the center. Once a pot was planted, the next in the stack was placed above it and loaded. Each stack has five planting pots, a small pot with media to distribute the liquids, and a 3 gallon pot on the bottom to catch excess liquid from the stack. We were able to plant 25 plants in each stack.

The 4 strawberry stacks are in an enclosure so we don't have to share with the deer. The misting will occur naturally for the next few days.
The 4 strawberry stacks are in an enclosure so we don’t have to share with the deer. The misting will occur naturally for the next few days.

The bare root strawberries won’t be able to use much moisture or nutrients for a while- they just need a water mist to keep the leaves from drying out, until the roots start growing. The weather will help with that since we should have light showers for a few days. This will give me time to finish a solar power system for driving the nutrient pump- parts should arrive soon!

Vertical Gardening – Part I

Christmas arrived in April! UPS delivered the much-anticipated hydroponic gardening system...some assembly is required!
Christmas arrived in April! UPS delivered the much-anticipated hydroponic gardening system…some assembly is required!

Our long-time source of strawberries stopped growing them last year, so Susan and I decided that this is one fruit that we would try to grow on our own. We planned a traditional plot with a couple hundred plants that would be a border of our regular garden. While driving one of the local back-roads, we chanced across a small plot of posts with stacks of white boxes attached- and a sign,”Strawberries coming soon!”. We did some research, and found that we had seen a hydroponic vertical gardening system. This was very attractive because it would get the berry plants off the ground and away from slugs, bugs, and mice. It also puts them up where I can reach them easier! Another advantage is that the water and nutrient supply can be automated with much better control than we can do with plants in the soil.

We decided to get two 20-pot systems from “Verti-Gro”:http://vertigro.com so that we can experiment with a variety of plants (strawberries need a different nutrient balance than other garden plants, so they need their own system). We received the kits earlier in the week, and we have strawberry plants on order, so I enlisted the assistance of Susan’s father, Roy, to start setting the systems up. We ended up with a raw, blustery day to work with- this after weeks of unseasonably warm weather.

The ground cloth is secured, and the posts are going up.
The ground cloth is secured, and the posts are going up.

The kits come with 3 foot by 15 foot ground fabric to go under the stacks of pots. We will have to fence the garden to keep the deer out, so we need a wider patch covered. We pieced together some pieces of driveway fabric and ran the narrow strips down the middle to keep the edges down. The final size of the pen will be 6 feet by 32 feet. The support posts are driven through the fabric and into the ground.

The kit supplies the ground stakes- 18 inch pieces of half-inch thinwall conduit. The stakes are driven into the ground leaving a couple of inches above ground. The instructions emphasize that the stakes need to be plumb- they just didn’t say how that was supposed to happen. In this part of the world, driving a stake without hitting a rock is as likely as winning the lottery. A 5-foot length of 3/4-inch thinwall is driven over the ground stake, and this is what supports the pots.

The ground pots are slipped over the posts, and the standoff pieces are dropped in.
The ground pots are slipped over the posts, and the standoff pieces are dropped in.

When the posts were completed, the ground pots were slipped over them. These are pots that catch the leftover liquid and nutrients that come down the stacks. In the regular garden system we will put larger plants such as cabbage or pumpkins in the ground pots. Next, a length of PVC 1-inch pipe and a plastic square go over the post to support the planting pots, and then the pots themselves. We won’t be planting the pots now so we just stacked an empty set to get a feel for how much room they needed, then ran the tubing and tees to the posts.

The posts with the distribution lines in place. The gap in the middle is where the supply barrels will sit.
The posts with the distribution lines in place. The gap in the middle is where the supply barrels will sit.

Roy and I decided that we’d had enough wind, and called it a day. We need to set a 30 to 40 gallon barrel for each system to draw from. The supply line will be connected to a submersible pump in the barrel, and a timer will turn the pump on and off. The pots will have pearlite and coconut fiber to support the roots and hold moisture. We will load the pots when we are ready to set the plants. Stay tuned!

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