Archive for August 12, 2013

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:


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:


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.