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Where my imagination runs wild!

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Last Seasons Hydroponics Update

Last season I kludged together a prototype system to completely automate my feed to waste hydroponic system. In addition to pumping the nutrient solution out of the mix tank for 3 minutes every 3 hours. It would detect when the mix tank is empty and fill it with water until it is full using float switches. While it is filling it also pumped the appropriate amounts of nutrients from three concentrated nutrient tanks. This made it a completely mindless hydroponics system.


I also tried some different growing mediums last year. The basic medium I was using for growing was a 50/50 blend of Perlite and Vermiculite and this works really well but at the end of the growing season/plant growth cycle the roots make its reuse impossible and all new material needs to be used. So in some pots I used Pea pebbles I bought at home depot and in others I used clay balls.


I planted pea plants in the pots with the clay balls and this worked well and the plants were easily removed and separated from the clay which made the clay reusable but it is so light I don’t think it will hold bigger plants that need more support.


The Pea-Pebbles barley worked but with difficulty and much reduced yields. I think this may be due to it draining so quickly letting the roots dry out more. It was also difficult to recover at the end of the season as it did not separate out from the plant material and tended to break and grind it. Thus it would need to be washed and filtered and I am not sure how to do that. Also it is very heavy.


I am now designing a more integrated control board that will more neatly pull all the functionality together for next season. I am also going to add some sensor circuits which will be needed for running a recirculation system. Even though I have not yet had much luck getting a recirculation system to work.


My recirculation efforts last year were a complete failure. I had a lot of problems with the water return. I believe the drain lines were too small and offered too much resistance so instead of draining it would stay in the drip bucket under the pots instead of returning to the mix tank under the deck. There was also a lot of buildup of algae in the drip buckets.



My interest in hydroponics goes way back into my childhood when I tried to grow a been sprout from a seed (bean) on a bed of wet cotton.  The idea of growing a plant without soil intrigued me but being young and not understanding about the nutrients a plant needs to grow I was never able to get the plant past the sprout stage. That and I have always had a black thumb when it comes to growing plants.

Jump forward a good 30 years and my interest was peaked once again when I took the behind the seeds tour at Walt Disney World.  It was time to try again but this time I would think about it and research it more for about a year.  Thankfully the available knowledge of hydroponics has increased greatly in the past 30 years and I was able to find much information on the subject.

My first attempt at a hydroponic system was built from some rough plans I found on the internet. I used a large Tote and cut holes in the lid then glued short one inch PVC Pipe couplers into the holes.  Inside the tote I used a pond pump connected to a PVC pipe that was a closed loop around the inside of the tote with garden misters glued into it. I then filled the tub half way with a nutrient solution from General Hydroponics.  I used cotton balls to hold the seeds in the tubes.  I also mounted a shop light over it and used florescent grow bulbs on a timer for day/night cycle.

This set up did not work very well.  The plants had a hard time growing in the cotton, The misters  would clog and could not be replaced, and my spray interval was not right.

For my second try I rebuilt the PVC loop and this time I drilled and tapped (threaded) holes in the pipe for replaceable spray nozzles I bought on eBay. I also bought a timer that let me tune my spray on/off cycle better. Then I used different media to hold the seeds in the tubes to determine what worked best.

I tried Cotton balls again, cotton gauze, open cell foam, and floral foam.  Of these the winner was the open cell foam followed by the cotton balls.  I think this is because the foam is easier to grow through then the cotton and wicks the right amount of water where as the cotton tends to over saturate.  The floral foam proved to be too dense and saturated for the seeds and the gauze basically would fall apart dropping the plant into the water below.  I also got a PH meter and salinity tester to make sure the nutrient solution was within acceptable tolerances.  Which it was. I would include more detailed specifics but this all happened in early spring before my house was flooded so I am just going over what I did in general.

This time it worked much better and it even survived the flood since my house only got 2 inches of water inside and my power never went out.  So there was no contamination and the light and water cycle was never interrupted while I was away from my house for the week waiting for the water to subside.  Eventually though the plants grew to such a large size that they began to touch the light and crowd each other out.  This lead to Phase 2.


Phase Two...

Once the plants started to get too crowded I needed to move them to a new Hydroponic system.  So I bought some basic stacks from EzGro Hydroponics.  Because I am in a flood zone I modified them by cutting longer conduit pipes so they are higher off the ground above the high water level. I then converted it to an automatic system by getting a 96 gallon garbage can, which had a leak I had to fix, and some hoses and PVC pipes and fixtures. I used the same pond pump and put it on a timer to run for 2 minutes every 3 hours  (except at 3am).

This setup worked well and I only needed to fill and add nutrients to the tank once a week.  Unlike the recirculating one I had built for inside my house this is a feed to waste system.   I transplanted all the plants to the stacks with no problems and even planted seeds in some areas.  Everything grew and continued to grow with my Cucumbers doing the best.  The only trouble I had was with my Broccoli.  It was invaded by worms that were eating my leaves to pieces!

I was able to fix the problem when I found an online recipe for it that consisted of dish soap and olive oil diluted with water and sprayed on the underside of the leaves.  After this everything was fine even though I was shore that crop was lost.

The plants I was growing were: Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Radishes, Broccoli, Romain Lettuce, and Dill.



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