Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Economical self watering container

The Seascape strawberries in the garden are producing runners and I wanted to root and develop them in the greenhouse using self watering containers. Three times I made the trip to Agway, and each time they were sold out. On each trip I requested that the manager reorder a small supply for me, but it did not happen. So much for customer service. Well, necessity being the mother of invention; I decided to make my own, and I have.

Wal-Mart carries inexpensive plastic flower pots, and I purchased a few different sizes to experiment with. A 1/2" hole was drilled in the center of the bottom of the pot for a wick to pass through to the reservoir. I cut a eight inch by one inch strip of white felt to serve as the wick. Another small piece of felt was gathered and tied to one end of the strip to serve as an anchor. Using the bottom of the pot as a template I cut a circle in nylon screen and cut a slit in the center of the circle. The wick assembly was passed through the slit cut in the screen, and this will serve to keep the small particles of coco coir and perlite from falling into the reservoir. The bottom of the wick was pulled through the hole in the pot, and pulled down so that the anchor and screen were snug against the bottom. A discarded Folger's coffee container seemed an ideal choice for the reservoir, and I simply cut an overflow hole in the side at a height that seemed appropriate.

After filling the pot and transplanting the small tomato plant I poured a mild vegetative stage nutrient mix through the pot. The liquid settles though the medium and drains into the reservoir, and I continued to add liquid until the liquid was coming out of the overflow hole. That's it, project complete. Actually, it took much much longer to write this post than it did to construct the system.

Going forward I will try raising the overflow hole and see how long I can go between refills. We use Folger's coffee, so additional containers are not going to be a problem.

Agway was charging about six dollars for a self watering container equivalent to the size of the one I have constructed. As most of the materials I used were scrap found around the house, I estimate that this container cost me less than two dollars, and took about five minutes to fashion.

It is not as pretty as the commercial unit, but I am not expecting Martha Stewart to visit my greenhouse anytime soon, and I don't really care as long as it works.

And, Agway will not be selling me any more self watering containers anytime soon.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Ebb and Flow

In my part of the world folks are beginning to call this "the year with no summer." So far we have only had one day when the temperature hit ninety, and eight days when it hit eighty or above. The worst part is that with the cooler weather we have had rain, rain, more rain, and high humidity. Many of the people I have spoken to have said they are having problems with fungus and mold in their gardens. I had a slight problem with fungus on the cucumbers, but a quick application of fungicide kept it in check.

My bush beefsteak tomatoes have run their course and I have replaced the Autopots with a large ebb and flow system. The system in the photo is a large rubber mixing tub that can be purchased at Tractor Supply or even Home Depot. The reservoir is simply a large storage tub holding 15 gallons of nutrients with a mild vegetative mix. The four inch tiles cost sixteen cents each at Home Depot and serve to keep the bottom of the net pots from standing in liquid. I estimate that it cost me about thirty dollars to build this ebb and flow system, and I hate to think of what a commercial unit this size would cost.

Going forward I will use the ebb and flow system for swiss chard, and in late August I will begin growing lettuce.
The smaller systems will be planted with beet greens and perhaps Pak Choi.

Last year I was really ticked when General Hydroponics raised their prices by twenty five percent "due to price of fuel". Now, in retrospect, I realize that they actually did me a favor. Since then I have been on a quest to reduce my nutrient costs as much as possible. Today I found a source for commercial grade hydroponic nutrients that is only ten miles from my home. It was necessary to spend about seventy five dollars to purchase the minimum amount. However, and this is a big big however, I came home with seventy five pounds of nutrients and calcium nitrate. By my estimate that will yield over three thousand gallons of nutrients at the strength that I use them. One gallon each of General Hydroponic's Flora series three part concentrate cost more than I spent today, and it yields far far far less. So thanks General Hydroponics, and you know what you can do with your nutrients. And on the same topic; when you go to a hydroponic store, or look at a catalog, there are a zillion additives being hyped. They make all kinds of claims like guano picked under a full moon by forty year old virgins on remote tropic islands, only forty dollars a pint. As Barnum once said: "there is a sucker born every minute." Hell, you would spend almost twenty dollars for a quart of pH down at the hydro store. White vinegar will work just as well, and a half gallon is a buck and change. Yeah, you may have to add it a little more frequently, but that is a big big savings.

I should package the nutrients and calcium nitrate in two pound bags and market them on EBay. At least these are brand name, and pH buffered. The nutrients I purchased on EBay are not buffered, and the pH drift is insane.

I have been trying to purchase additional self watering containers at Agway, and they have been out of stock for weeks. The manager has kind of ignored three requests that they replenish their stock, so my next project is to bypass Agway and build my own.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sweet harvest

I have been picking giant marconi peppers for several days now and I can't describe how incredibly delicious they are. Generally I am not a big fan of peppers, but I could eat a few of these every day.

Again, this is the type of produce that can not be found in the local supermarket. My wife said red peppers are expensive, and I can see why they would be. I had to leave these on the plant for at least a month after they were fully developed for the fruit to turn red. I could have picked them green and placed them in a paper bag with an apple to ripen, however I did not think the taste would be the same as fruit ripened on the plant.

Overall, the drip ring systems did a good job with the peppers, and I plan on continuing to grow peppers using the drip ring method.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hydroponic Beet Greens

Recently I found a package of beet seeds in my seed stash that was a few years old. I am not a big fan of beets, however beet greens are right up there on my list of favorite vegetables.

We seldom have them, as my wife said they are difficult to find, and expensive. When I asked how expensive; she told me a small package costs about $5.00

Well, I thought, beet greens are nothing other than immature beets, so why not plant the seeds and see what happens.

The above photo shows my very first harvest of beet greens that were planted five weeks ago. I calculate that the cost of growing these was about $2.00 and most of that was for the rockwool cubes.

As I watched the beets progress, I knew this was going to be a winner, so I purchased several packages of beet seeds. Finding seeds locally will be impossible when the gardening season ends. If the seeds were purchased online, it would be necessary to spend about $5.00 just for shipping and handling.

I have already started a replacement crop, and will continue to grow beet greens indoors under lights after I close the greenhouse at the end of the season. They are easy to grow, delicious and nutritious.

These greens were grown in an ebb and flow system with a TDS of about 1200 and fed in 15 minute cycles six times a day.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Tomatoes, Plan B

As I wrote previously; the tomatoes in the greenhouse this year are determinate, and will produce all of their fruit at pretty much the same time, and quit.

Knowing this in advance I have already instituted Plan B, which is a series of container grown dwarf tomatoes to continue to supply fruit until frost.

The plants in the photo above are Tiny Tim tomatoes and are described by the seed folks as follows:

"Tiny Tim
45 days, dwarf A heavy yielder with clusters of fine flavored, red fruit that are about 3/4 inch in diameter.

When grown in pots, this variety only grows ten to twelve inches tall and 14 inches across. It may grow a bit bigger when planted in the garden.

Can be grown as a potted plant anytime of the year. Good for small gardens, patios, or apartment dwellers. Also well suited for hydroponics cultivation."

The plants in the photo are five weeks old and already flowering. As these are also determinate plants, I will start seeds every few weeks to keep the salad bowl supplied. At the end of the gardening season I will bring plants indoors and grow them under lights.

In addition, I have started seeds from tomatoes grown in the AeroGarden from one of their seed kits. These were also dwarf plants with a comparable size fruit, however AeroGarden did not provide the name of this cultivar.

Bush Champion is a do again

This variety of cucumber did a lot better in my greenhouse than the Salad Bush variety that I tried last year.

The plants have remained fairly compact, and produced a lot of fruit, with not an over abundance of male flowers. The cucumbers in the above photo are still a few days from picking, even though they are more than eight inches long. These cucumbers are long and slender and are called slicers. If I let these grow a few more days they will add more girth, which is the way we like them.

There are a lot of cucumbers coming now, and I guess we should consider making bread and butter pickles, as you can only eat so many cucumbers a day...

As an aside, I was a member of a gardening forum in the UK where someone asked for help with greenhouse shading. There were a number of responses like white wash the panels, use old window curtains, purchase slats from hardware store, etc. I posted a photo of my greenhouse with the 45% shade cloth on it. I wrote that I researched shade cloths and this degree of shading is recommended for vegetables, and the cloth was purchased from a greenhouse supply company, I also wrote that I placed the cloth on the greenhouse when the sun was directly overheard, and removed it just prior to the sun going down. And, on cloudy overcast days I did not use it at all to allow the maximum amount of light for the plants. The response was a lot of childish Benny Hill wannabe comments like: "it looks like Harry Potter's invisibility cloak", "for my next trick, tomatoes."

If you look to the left of the cucumbers in the above photo you will see a very nice stand of beets growing next to the cucumbers. Hmmm, a cool weather crop growing nicely next to a warm weather crop, in a greenhouse, in summer! What's up with that??

I decided that the forum members were not really interested in any other point of view , but would prefer to stumble on using window curtains and slats, so I deleted my post, and bailed out of the forum. So, let them hang their curtains and paint their greenhouses with whitewash, and on cloudy days it will be like growing in a fog. It would be a cold day in hell before I would whitewash polycarbonate panels.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Corno di Toro Reds, Italian 'bull's horn' sweet pepper

Corno di Toro Red

Italian 'bull's horn' colorful sweet peppers are 8 to 10 inches long and curved like a bull's horn. Ripen to deep red or bright yellow and are delicious fresh in salads, but more often are sauted or grilled.

I have been waiting for weeks for these peppers to ripen and turn red. By letting the peppers ripen on the plant, the plant will produce less fruit, however I really wanted to have red peppers.
It was well worth the wait, as these peppers were really delicious. Sauteed in extra virgin olive oil they were a gourmet treat fit for a king. They will definitely be a "do again" for next year.

This is the first time I have had any real success with sweet peppers, and it is because they were grown in the greenhouse that I was successful.

My tomatoes are a big disappointment, but it is too late to do anything about that now. The fruit is small, about the size of a baseball, and the skins are thick and tough. Additionally, being a beefsteak, there are few seeds and little juice.

Our summer to date has been cool and wet, and that may have caused the tomatoes to be under par. It has rained about 20 out of 27 days recently, and has been three degrees cooler than normal. So much for summer...

I have learned from this experience though, and I will not plant all of the same type of tomato again. And, I will not plant determinate plants again, as they produce all their fruit at the same time, and then quit. Indeterminate plants will produce all season, but have to be pruned. Next season I will suspend a bamboo support rod above the plants and grow cordon tomatoes.

Fortunately I have several types of tomatoes in the soil garden and they are indeterminate plants, so at least we should get some decent fruit in late August or early September.