Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hydroponic swiss chard

I read in a book on greenhouse gardening that the UK has more hobby greenhouses than any other country, and I believe it. I belong to a gardening forum that is mostly UK based folks. They have a section devoted to greenhouse gardening, and I placed a post asking if anyone else had tried to grow swiss chard or silverbeet under glass.

The first response was basically that greenhouses were more appropriate for tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplant, and why waste the space when it would just bolt to seed.

My reply was that it shows no sign of bolting, is doing great, and, you never know unless you try! Following my response another member wrote that she had grown chard in a poly tunnel for the last two years, and it grows so quickly she harvests it monthly, and it has never bolted.

This is the best looking batch of chard I have ever grown, and it sure looks better than anything I have ever purchased. I have started another batch to replace this batch. If it bolts; worse case scenario is that I will have a fresh batch of seed to work with indoors. It just shows that it can't hurt to try, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Giant Marconi Peppers, a case of mistaken identity.

Yesterday while changing the nutrients in the drip ring systems I was struck by the big difference in appearance in the peppers. I have come to the conclusion that somewhere along the way I misidentified the seedlings, and what I have been posting as photos of the Giant Marconi peppers, was actually corno di toro peppers.

The peppers have similar characteristics, however, as the name suggests, the corno di toro pepper is shaped like a bull's horn, and is more pointed at the tip.

The photo above is actually the Giant Marconi, and it lives up to its name. I measured one of the peppers from shoulder to tip, and it is almost nine inches long. It is larger in circumference and more blunt at the tip than the corno di toro pepper.

Additionally, the plant itself is more squat and bushy, while the corno di toro pepper is taller and more narrow.

Both peppers are supposed to be excellent for frying, roasting, or salads, so I expect that once they are picked and prepared there will be little difference in taste.

I must have had a "senior moment" back on February 14h. when I planted the seeds and labeled the cubes.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Hydroponic Nutrients

In a previous post I wrote about new nutrients I had purchased because I wanted to get away from the General Hydroponics Flora series. The primary reason I wanted to switch was due to a 25% price increase last summer due to "the price of fuel." Yeah, sure. My intention was to try dry nutrients thinking: why pay to ship water?

The dry nutrients I purchased on Ebay are no bargain. The pH is not stable and, they require a lot of pH down to make an adjustment. Additionally, the nutrients do not completely dissolve, and they must be mixed with very hot water, which means you have to mix them quite sometime before you can use them. I suspect the person selling them buys a large bag from a local grower, and repacks the nutrients in zip lock bags and sells them on Ebay.

Today I decided to try the nutrients I purchased from the commercial dealer in Florida. They come in two parts, a two pound bag of each part. Each bag is poured into a gallon jug and water added to fill the jug. The jugs are agitated until the powder is completely dissolved.

That gives you a gallon each of concentrate; part one and part two. Part one is 5-10-25 and part to is 15-0-0. The guaranteed analysis includes everything a plant could need. When using the nutrients the recommended amount is .5 to .75 oz. per gallon of water.

The ebb and flow system with chard needed changing so I decided to try the nutrients in that system. It holds seven gallons of water, so I filled it and added 3.5 oz. of concentrate. After mixing I checked the TDS and it was perfect for chard at 1370. Much to my surprise the pH was right on the money at 6.0.

To make it easier to use I filled two pint bottles with concentrate, and stored the gallon jugs in the cool dark basement. The best of both worlds, dry nutrients that become liquid concentrates, just like General Hydroponics, and at about a third of the cost.

And I am becoming far less concerned about the pH sliding. If you look at the charts, different nutrients become more available at different pH levels. Iron, manganese, boron and copper are more available at 4.5 and 5, and calcium, magnesium and molybdenum are more available at 7 and above. I am convinced a slight slide in either direction is more beneficial than harmful.

Below is a link to the site where I purchased the nutrients. The person I spoke with was Tim Carpenter, and they are nice folks to deal with.

Customer Service: (352) 347-9888
Toll Free Ordering: (800) 955-6757

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Swiss chard under glass

Awhile back I wrote that at some point in the future I planned on doing an entire ebb and flow system with nothing but swiss chard, and I have.

The plants in the above photo were started on April 7, 2009, and they have been in the ebb and flow system for about three weeks. Although all of the seeds were started on the same day, there is a noticeable difference in size in these plants. The only explanation I can think of for the variation is: genes.

When I first thought of growing chard this way, I postulated that the shape of the plant, tall and slender, would be ideal for packing them closely together in the ebb and flow system. My thinking is that they would support each other, and not topple over. There are fifteen plants in this system, and so far so good. I estimate that this system is about 3 square feet in size, and it comfortably holds fifteen plants. I doubt that it would be possible to grow fifteen chard in soil in 3 square feet.

As I think about it, I really don't mind the variation is size, because I would most likely harvest four or five plants at a time. Another benefit of growing them in the ebb and flow system is that I can replace any plants that are harvested, and not disturb the growing plants.

There is another system that mirrors this system on the other side of the door, and I have reserved that for beet greens.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Eggplant Selection

The only plant I am growing in the greenhouse that did not meet my criteria of small plant large fruit is the eggplant, or aubergine.

I have never had real success with eggplant in my soil garden, and I thought that if I was going to try one in the greenhouse that I would make it well worth the effort. I looked for a plant with VERY large fruit. My garden book advises that you should cut the growing tip when the plant is a foot tall, and only allow five fruit to develop. I thought: why worry about the size if you are going to cut it off at a foot?

My selection was Florida Highbush, and the description follows:

This is an old variety bred in Florida in the 1940's for use in commercial fields. Named for its large upright plants that keep fruit off the ground, the truly special thing about this variety, however, is its enormous eggplant. Glossy blackish-purple eggplants are oval to oblong in shape and can easily become 10 inches long. Fruit sets throughout a long season and are perfect for grilling, frying, stuffing, baking or any other eggplant use.

I waited until the plant was about a foot tall, and actually was measuring it to cut it, when I thought I would go online and see if there was any additional advise about cutting the plant. In searching Florida Highbush I found that you should not cut this plant back. I am sure glad I checked.

The plant is not like any other eggplant I have grown; a thin tapered central stalk with fruit developing at different levels of the stalk. My plant is in an autopot fighting for light with the tomatoes. It is just now beginning to gain the height advantage over the tomatoes. There is one flower that appears to be about to open, and I guess I will tickle it with the artist brush. I have no idea if eggplant need to be pollinated, but I figure I will not hurt if I do. Better be safe than sorry....

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Getting crowded

A friend who owned a greenhouse told me you should buy one twice the size of what you think you need. I am glad I did not listen to her advice, as I have all I can do to keep up with what I have.

The greenhouse is getting a little crowded though, and when the cucumbers begin climbing the trellis on the left side it will really resemble a jungle.

I have a variety of plants underway at this time: tomatoes, lettuce, chard, strawberries, peppers, cucumbers and an assortment of flowers. The chard seems to be doing very well in the greenhouse, so I may curtail most of the lettuce, and focus on chard and beet greens. I have never tried hydroponic beets, so this may be interesting.

Trying to grow lettuce along with warm weather vegetables under glass is getting to be a challenge as the season progresses. In an effort to find a variety that will tolerate the temperature I ordered a variety called Mignonette Bronze from Baker Creek Seeds. This is what they say about this plant:

60 days. Excellent for hot and tropical weather, slow to bolt, frilled leaves, bronze-green heads. A superb type for the hot parts of the country, this heirloom was introduced in 1898."

The bush beefsteak tomatoes have been flowering for weeks. There are a few golf ball sized tomatoes, but mostly flowers. I have never grown plants that have remained in bloom for such a long period of time. They have been flowering for more than three weeks and show no sign of letting up. I have been tapping the trusses several times a day to set fruit, but they just seem to continue to bloom. Oh well, it is only mid-May, and there is a long growing period ahead. Besides, all the flowers are kind of cheerful....

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Bush Champion cucumbers

Maintaining my criteria for growing small plants with large fruit I will be growing bush champion cucumbers in the greenhouse this season. This is what Burpee has to say about these cucumbers:

"You won't believe the large number of crisp, bright green slicers you'll get.
No room for vines? Bush types take one-third the space, so they're great for containers and raised beds. Bush Champion. 55 days. Huge 11" cukes make this our favorite mini. You won't believe the large number of crisp, bright green slicers you'll get from the pint-sized plants. Mosaic-resistant and productive. Proven tops for productivity, flavor and wide adaptability. Sun."

In retrospect I really wish I had started the seeds much earlier than I did. Next year I will start the seeds indoors in mid March rather than early April.

The plants in the above photo have been planted in an Autopot, however they will be top watered manually for several days.

As for being pint sized plants; it has been my experience that cucumbers grown hydroponically in the greenhouse do not remain pint sized for long. Well, time will tell...

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Self watering containers

Although I was hesitant to do so I transplanted my strawberries into the self watering containers I outlined in my post of May 5, 2009.

The move did not bother them in the least, and in fact they are doing much better in these containers. It may be that they enjoy a consistent environment. When they were in the plain pot I would heft the pot to test the weight, and if it felt light I added nutrients.

The plant in the photo has been in the container for five days, and the reservoir is still at the level of the initial filling.

These self watering containers seem to be working really well at this point.

Prolific pepper

The giant marconi peppers are really blazing along in the drip ring systems. I don't find them difficult to grow at all. Apparently their needs are minimal, as the recommended TDS is 1260-1540, however I am running about 1860. I added a tablespoon of Epsom Salt (magnesium sulfate), which is why my TDS is sliglty higher than the suggested range, at least I think so. On the next system change I will measure the TDS before adding the magnesium sulfate.

This is really the first time I have given the drip ring systems a proper trial, and I must admit that I like them. The maintenance is minimal, as is the energy needs of these systems, as the air pumps use very little power. Additionally, the system is running in cycles, and is probably actually running perhaps six hour a day.

A few days ago I read a study by the University of Pennsylvania about the economics of growing peppers commercially. They evaluated several different varieties of peppers. In the variety that included the Giant Marconi, the study concluded that it did not have the largest peppers, but was the most prolific producer in that variety. Which I think was sweet roasting peppers.

Considering I have the entire summer ahead, I am really looking forward to seeing how prolific they really are....

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Bubbler

Today I moved all of the plants I started for the garden out of the greenhouse to harden off outdoors. I have been looking forward to doing this, as once they are in the ground, the greenhouse will be fully automated, and there will be far less daily maintenance.

With the garden plants removed I could rethink the greenhouse plan and free up an entire shelf that could accommodate two more automated systems. Hmmm, what should I place on that shelf? I decided that another ebb and flow system would fit, and I needed one other system with a small footprint.

I decided to use "The Bubbler". My wife purchased this overpriced system for me as a gift after I just taken an interest in hydroponics. The concept is that the nutrients are distributed to each cup by pumping them through the circular chamber which has a tube running to each pod.

Immediately after receiving the system I noticed that it lacked two important features. There was no drain tube, and there was no opening in the cover to add nutrients through. I added the drain tube on the right, which also serves as a level indicator, and also the small white plug on the cover.

For the life of me I can't see how you would ever use this system without a drain tube. When filled it is too heavy to lift, and removing the cover to empty it would disrupt the feed tubes and make a mess of the roots growing in the reservoir.

Being a nice guy, I decided to visit the site where my wife bought this system and perhaps drop a note on their product review section. I did, but they did not post my suggestion. Their FAQs have such things as: "Is it legal to own one of these systems.?" I guess we all know what market they are targeting. They are most likely too laid back to bother making any product improvements...

In any event, an earlier post details an inexpensive version of this system that I designed. My version uses a column that is just a section of 3/4" PVC pipe to distribute the nutrients to the cups. The tote can be purchased at any retail outlet and the pipe at a hardware store. As I recall I estimated the cost to build one of these systems at less than thirty dollars.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Serendipity strikes again

This plant is an English Daisy, Bellis Perennis, however the pot, not the plant, is the subject of this post.

Today I needed some straw for a small raised bed of strawberries so I stopped by the local Agway. I really only needed a small armload, as I only have eight or ten plants. The woman told me they only had bales, but she also told me there was a broken bale in the barn, and to help myself to what I needed from the loose pile.

Well, I could not leave without buying anything, so I asked her if they had pots, as I needed some pot saucers for plants I want to tuck into nooks and crannies in the greenhouse. When she showed me the pots she mentioned an automatic pot she uses for her plants. She said she only waters it when she plants them, and she puts them outside and forgets them.

I was very interested as I am growing several plants in coco coir and perlite, and I have to pour nutrients through them when they begin to dry. The pot in the photo is like a mini version of the AutoPot. It has an elevated arch on the bottom that has a wick running the length of the arch. And, there is a reservoir on the bottom that contains a small yellow disk that serves as an indicator of the fluid level. To start the process you simply water the plant as usual and fill the reservoir. When the plant needs more water it draws it from the reservoir by capillary action. Just like the AutoPot.

After placing the plant in the pot I poured nutrient solution through the medium until the nutrient began to drip from the opening in the reservoir. As you can see in the photo the small yellow disk is floating on the surface of the nutrients. It is a simple matter to check the reservoir periodically and refill it as necessary. The pot is supposed to go two weeks between fillings. Of course the growing conditions will have an effect on how often the reservoir needs to be refilled. This pot is a small five or six inch pot,however there are larger versions of this pot that I will purchase if this one performs as I expect.

These pots only cost me $1.99 each, and I expect that they will be well worth it. Again, time will tell......