Why you don’t setup hydroponics on carpet…

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

Yep, stuff happens.  In this case, while checking our water levels one of the drainage lines got knocked loose and while we were out it managed to somehow come completely free and started draining water EVERYWHERE!

The mess created by a drain line that accidentally got knocked loose.

The mess created by a drain line that accidentally got knocked loose.

Fortunately we noticed as soon as we got home and our set-up is in our completely unfinished basement so nothing was damaged; it was just a major pain to clean up.

So, let this be a lesson for y’all:
1) Never put your set-up somewhere that you can’t afford to have a little (or a lot) of water make a mess.  And
2) Check on your hydroponics frequently.  Things happen and it’s easier to deal with them right away.  You may notice that your pH levels are off, a light is out, a plant has gotten too big and fallen over, or that your basement now has a small pond :-p

Round 3!

We’ve got our third round of seeds tucked into some damp paper towels on the seedling heat mat – moist and toasty!

Our newest batch of seeds: some classics and some new ones

Our newest batch of seeds: some classics and some new ones

We’ve got some that we’ve grown before (sweet basil, genovese basil, cilantro, arugula, collards), some that we haven’t (habanero, mint, sage, rosemary, thyme, savory, parsley), and one that we have tried before but despite the fact that it is supposed to be incredibly easy to grow we have yet to do so – lettuce.

Our jalapeño plants are still producing HOT peppers downstairs, but everything else has been cut down so it’s a good time to get these new seeds going.  We’re still figuring out how we plan to expand our hydroponics setup with our new lights – might try a different layout with large PVC pipe instead of bins for some of the larger plants like collards and (hopefully) lettuce.

If this is your first attempt at germinating seeds, this is an easy way to do it.  Generally they like it damp, warm, and dark, so ours are on a damp paper towel (not sopping wet) on a regular dinner plate, covered with another damp paper towel and another dinner plate upside-down on top of that (like a cover, to keep out the light).  Finally, that’s sitting on a small seedling heat mat that you should be able to find at most garden/hydroponics stores.  DO NOT use a regular heating pad like the kind you would use on your back.  Make sure you read all the directions and warnings before using your seedling heat mat.

New hydroponic grow lights, new design, new plants….2014 has started!

Christine and I were able to get some new hydroponic grow lights for our basement.  They are Hydrogrow X2 336s and give much more light than our others.  We are planning to use them with larger plants, i.e. peppers, tomatoes, etc. rather than the many herbs we will be growing fresh as well.  Cooking fresh has increased our need for fresh herbs, so we bought several packs of seeds from Stokes.

 

IMG_5387

We have to think about a redesign since our current setup cannot handle the larger lights that we got.  You can see in the picture that these are much larger and hang from the ceiling lower.  That combined with the height of my table and the need for differential pressure to drain the grow bins means that the plants would have no room to grow tall.  The ceiling in our basement is about 8 feet to the beams, so I’m thinking of designing some rails to accommodate the new plants.  Do any of you have ideas for smaller reservoir bins?  I need them to be low to the ground, but hold a lot of solution–we usually have 15-20 gallons running at a time!

IMG_2045

Sorry it’s been so long since a post, but things have been so busy.  We still have jalapeños and banana peppers growing and soon will have our normally greenery and herbs again.

Seedlings will start this weekend, so watch for a how to on that!

Upgrade – new wireless LED lights installed

No, not grow lights.  These were a set of 6 battery operated LED puck lights with a remote control.  I had spotted them at Costco, but couldn’t think of what we’d need them for at the house.  The next day Tyler had mentioned that it would be nice to have lights in our hydroponic area that we could use when the grow lights are off so that we didn’t have to rely on solely on the fuschia-colored grow lights in order to work back there.

Back to Costco I went and $30 and a couple of trips up and down the ladder later – voila!  Let there be light!  Check out the difference:

 

If you’re wondering why we wouldn’t just switch the grow lights on whenever we have to go back in there: that’s what we have been doing, but working under those fuschia lights for an extended period can take a toll on your eyes.  Once you emerge from the reflectix and back into the real world with normal lighting, everything has a bit of a green tint to it for a while.  That’s about as trippy as not pot hydroponics gets (bad joke, I know).

So now we have nice normal (and inexpensive!) lights to work under when the grow lights aren’t on and helping our garden grow.

Yum! – Arugula & Genovese Basil

Here’s the harvest from this past weekend – arugula & genovese basil:

A large bunch of arugula sitting on our kitchen counter.

Arugula. Believe it or not there is still some left on the plant downstairs.

A hand holding several leaves of genovese basil.

A small batch of our genovese basil. Look how big some of the leaves are!

We chopped them both and made a delicious salad with balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts, coarse sea salt & pepper and finally topped with some shredded parmesan cheese (from the block with a micro-planar, not a plastic container from the fridge).  It went perfectly with some maple-glazed cedar plank grilled salmon.

A plate with maple-glazed cedar plank salmon with arugula & genovese basil salad, grown with our hydroponics

So tasty! Grilled salmon and salad made from our own arugula and basil from our hydroponic garden. It doesn’t get any fresher than that.

It is SO nice to get everything fresh from our basement.  The flavors and aromas are amazing and it’s so much better than crossing our fingers and going to the store and just hoping there’s something available.

We’re almost done harvesting our 2nd arugula plant from this 2nd round of seeds, so I think we’ll be planting more soon to take it’s place.  And our habaneros are full of flowers and baby peppers and at least 3 fully-grown but not quite ripe peppers.  Can’t wait until those come in!

My LED grow light stopped working! Now what?

A couple weeks ago, I noticed that the LED grow light under a couple of my plants was particularly weak.  After checking it out, I saw two of the light pucks were burnt out.  How could this be?  The lights only have a few thousand hours on them and have a design life of 25,000 hours.  Since I bought my lights second hand, I didn’t have a warranty option so I decided to open the lights up and see what I could learn.

The unit in question was a Hydrogrow 84X2 Pro, which took me removing 8 small screws to open up.  Inside there were 3 power supplies, a fan, four light pucks, and wiring.

I compiled my list of necessary tools:

  • Screwdrivers and Drill if you want to pull it apart faster
  • Jumper wires
  • Multimeter
  • A power source – I used an Arduino, but you’ll need a 5V source
  • Electric tape or soldering iron

After opening the light, I found this was the setup:

IMG_0896

You’ll notice that each set of two light pucks has it’s own 5V power supply.  The first step was figuring out if the power supply was working and the lights were dead, or if the power supply failed.  As you can see, each of the sets is wired in series, so if one fails, both lights go out.  I removed a puck (lower left in the picture) that I knew worked and changed it out with the puck in the upper left (either would do the trick).  When I clipped in the working puck and switched the light on, the broken side lit up which indicated a working power supply and the dead puck was the one I removed.  Another test would have been to plug the dead puck into the spot where I removed the working one and try that.

Once I isolated the dead puck, I decided I had two options.  First, I could buy a new puck and have it shipped from China.  This taking a long time and costing more money (21 LEDs lights @ 2 per light = $42) was not my first choice.  Second, I could find the culprit LEDs and short them.  I decided to give that a try–after all, I had nothing to lose!  The blank chip with the LEDs looks like this:

IMG_0900

I ran 5V power from my Arduino Mega to two jumper cables and tested each light at it’s base.  I made a map of what lights worked and which didn’t respond as I thought (see below):

troubleshooting LEDs

After I was done, I found that the center (green LED) was out.  I decided to attach a jumper wire to both sides of the LED, helping pass current around the broken LED and complete the series circuit.

To my surprise, it worked!  I reverse engineered the LED and screwed everything back.  Checking again, I have four working pucks again and the only downside is that one is missing the one burnt out LED–no big deal at all!

Just wanted to share my experience as I won’t be the last one with this problem.  Hope I saved you some time and money.

 

Yum! – Fresh Thai Basil

Made delicious Thai curry (our own makeshift recipe) with some of this amazing Thai basil from our hydroponic garden.  It’s something we can’t buy here and we’ve still got plenty growing downstairs – that’s less than half of one of the plants!

A large pile of Thai basil from our hydroponic garden next to a bowl of white rice

Thai basil from our hydroponics set up in our basement.

Getting Started – Things to Consider

Alright, so you’re thinking you’re ready to try this.  Here are a few things I suggest you keep in mind:

1. First things first, don’t overcomplicate things.  When we started planning our set-up, we created CAD drawings to design and build a standalone structure out of PVC pipe to support all the lights and bins so that it could be completely custom and we could break it down and easily ship it whenever we moved.  The problems with all that?  It would have been a couple hundred bucks for the PVC pipe we’d need for the structure.  We’d have to custom order certain joints to build it.  Once it was built it would have been impossible to alter without buying and cutting more pipe.  It was pretty ridiculous.  Fortunately, we had a moment of clarity and realized we could make everything much easier if we just put the garden on a large, fold-up table from Costco and mounted the LED lights from the rafters in our unfinished basement.  So don’t make it complicated.

2. Consider how much you want to grow and what you want to grow.  It’s important to think about how much space your hydroponic garden will require so that you can plan where to put it.  Will you have just a couple basil, cilantro, or pepper plants or do you plan to grow substantially larger collard greens, zucchini, or red swiss chard which will require much more space.  This brings me to my next point…

Christine's hand in front of 3 collard greens plants from our hydroponic garden.  They are huge in comparison.

Look how much space these 3 collard greens take up!

3. Figure out where you will set up your hydroponics.  You can get creative here, but keep in mind that hydroponic gardens mean you’ll be using water (kind of obvious, but bear with me).  We have spilled.  We’ve had irrigation lines leak.  We’ve accidentally turned on the water pump while testing the set-up and had water go everywhere.  In other words, make sure you put this somewhere where you aren’t going to be royally hosed should you get into your own water-related mess (in other words, don’t put it in your living room, on carpet, next to Grandma’s china cabinet, etc).  An unfinished basement, laundry room, or even garage are good options.  That said…

4. Keep in mind the temperature of the space where you plan to create your garden.  Some plants need warmer/colder temperatures.  Your grow lights can help heat up your plants, but no amount of lighting will make it warm enough in your unheated garage for basil to grow in the middle of a Canadian winter.  Just like there’s little you could do to cool down your hot garage enough in the middle of a Texas summer to make your cilantro happy.

5. You also want to make sure a water source and drain are near your garden so that whenever you have to add water to your system or dispose of water, you don’t have to lug a big bucket of water through your house.

6. It can be a bit expensive to buy everything when you’re getting started (buying the lights in particular), but know that once it is all set-up your costs drop dramatically.  All you’re left with are nutrients for your system, the energy to run your set-up, and seeds.  A bottle of nutrients lasts a long time, the energy your set-up requires is minimal, and there are so many seeds in each pack that you won’t have to buy more for a while.

7. You don’t have to buy a pre-fab kit to start your garden.  If we’d done that, a kit the size of our set-up could cost over $4,000!  In the next few posts I’ll be detailing how we built our hydroponic system almost entirely out of items you can find at your local hardware and pet store.

It can be time consuming to set up your own hydroponic garden, but it is definitely worth it.

Having fun setting up our hydroponic garden.  I’ll walk you through how we made ours in the next couple of posts.

When it comes to our garden, we knew we had quite a few plants we wanted to grow and we happened to have a perfectly-sized niche in our unfinished basement that was large enough for a large, fold-up table that could accommodate multiple plants and still have room for us to walk all the way around the table and have easy access to every part of our set-up.  There’s not a bit of carpet downstairs (thankfully) so any water spills are easily cleaned up with just a towel.  Our basement is cool in the summer and in the winter we have some electric baseboard heaters that keep the temperature cool, not freezing.  We have also mounted Reflectix (a thin reflective insulation) around our entire garden space which not only reflects all of the light from our LED grow lights, but also keeps our growing area a bit warmer than the rest of the basement.  Finally, we have a large utility sink in the corner of our basement giving us easy access to a water source and drain.

Why Hydroponics?

After, “Are you growing pot??” the next most common question we get is, “Why?”

Why grow your own stuff?
Why hydroponics?
What’s wrong with going to the store?

Well, we live in St. John’s, Newfoundland.  For the geographically challenged, that’s here:

In the warmer months, there are quite a few farms and shops where we can get some pretty amazing local produce.  But in the winter months, everything has to be shipped in and by the time it gets here, a lot of it is in a pretty sorry state.  And that’s assuming a shipment has arrived because with some of the rougher weather in the winter, shipments can be delayed.  There was one week this year where I could not find chicken breasts in a single grocery store – they were all out!  Now I can’t grow chicken breasts in a garden, but you get the idea.  There are also some things that we can’t buy at any grocer here in town, such as Thai basil.  There just isn’t enough demand, but we love cooking and Thai basil has such a unique flavor that it’s hard to find a substitute.

So with all that in mind (and a huge unfinished basement at our disposal) we set about trying to figure out how we could grow our own veggies and herbs so we could have fresh produce no matter what the weather was like outside.  The first thing we noticed is that it is pretty much impossible to google “hydroponics” without being inundated with a plethora of sites about growing pot.  I’m convinced we’re now on some ATF watch list because of all the links we’ve clicked on trying to figure out the best way to set up a grow-op in our basement.  But we did stumble across a couple useful sites and videos and combined what we learned with a bit of creativity to build our own custom hydroponic garden.

our hydroponic garden growing in our basement, full of vegetables and herbs

Our set-up as it looks today, in our 2nd growing cycle

Now that we have been growing our own herbs and veggies, I don’t think we’ll stop anytime soon.  Even whenever we leave St. John’s and go back to the States, it’s nice knowing I can have all sorts of yummy edibles at my fingertips and when I can grow basil with leaves 2-3 times the size of what I can get at the store, why give that up?  We’re currently in the middle/end of our second growing cycle (depends on the plant – we just finished off one arugula last night, but the zucchini and yellow squash are just starting to produce veggies) and we’re planning to expand our operation so we can better accommodate larger plants.  It has been quite a learning process and hopefully you can learn from both our successes and mishaps.

 

Thinking of starting your own hydroponic garden?  Click here to check out some things to consider before getting started.

Hydroponics Is Amazing

Finally decided to start documenting all of our hydroponics adventures with a webpage and Youtube videos.  Christine and I get so many questions about what we are growing, how we are doing it, how to set up the growing area, etc.  Now we have a place to refer you in case you really want to try this on your own.  We take our hydroponics very seriously and have grown some amazing plants so far.  We are operating with Hydrogrow X2 Pro LEDs and a drip irrigation system.  Results have been amazing and it is quite the science project.  More to come very soon!  Thanks for reading.