This article is a guest post by a new Foody 12 user.
I started growing hydroponically with almost no notion of what that meant. My wife and I recently bought a tomato plant at Lowes, planted it in soil and placed it on our apartment porch. I considered myself to be seasoned gardener after this feat. I figured with my new expertise I could expand my garden and produce a decent yield of crops. For those of you who live in an apartment, you know this extra space does not exist...
Naturally the only way to expand is to go vertical. It is this notion of growing vertically that brought me to the Foody Vertical Garden.
To do a proper test-run and more closely monitor the progress (as well as not burden my new bride with another project in our small apartment), I decided to assemble the tower at my office. I eagerly opened the Foody and spread out my spoils. Wow. That was my first reaction to the amount of parts that I had laid out in front of me. What looked so elegant and clean online, now looked like an enlarged version of a model airplane I remember assembling with my brother and dad in elementary school. Falling victim to the stereotype of an overeager, do-it-my-selfer, I began grabbing pieces willy-nilly trying to assemble the tower blindly.
This strategy quickly proved futile. I decided to give the directions a look-over and was glad I did. While at times the directions were a little wordy, I was happy to have the in depth detailed descriptions and images throughout the entire process. The array of parts and pieces began to come together into a recognizable tower. The assembly process was not without hiccups. Take it from a now seasoned expert and avoid these mistakes:
- Place the ball bearings in a cup or secure location when placing in the drive train. Hide-and-seek with an extremely small, metallic ball is a very one-sided affair.
- Ensure that the rubber seals at the bottom of each of the pods are secured and will not leak BEFORE filling the pods with water :)
- DO NOT turn on the pump to test the water pressure if the tubing is not in a pod. The pump works...very well…
Growing from Seed
Once the tower was erected it was time to decide what to grow. Wanting to get the full experience, I decided to use Rapid Rooter Starter Plugs to start growing my plants from seeds. It was a hilariously easy process involving placing one seed in each starter plug and keeping the plugs wet and warm. After having just spent $5 on one tomato plant starter from Lowes, I will forever start from seed knowing how easy it is now.
After only a few days the seeds were ready to be transplanted into the Foody Tower. Here is a time lapse video of the seeds that we used sprouting in the Rapid Rooter Starter Plugs. From left to right you will see: Swiss Chard, Microgreens, Kale, Dill and Arugula.
A few notes at this point:
- Make sure the roots are long enough that they will reach the water in the pods before you transplant them
- After you place the plugs in the net pot, place hydroton pellets around the plugs; these pellets will prevent light from hitting the water causing algae growth
- Make sure to follow the directions and place the wicking cords in the net pots that go in the base; the water level does not get high enough in the base to initially reach the roots
PH, Salt, Nutrient & Water Levels
Once planted, it was time to monitor the pH , salt and water levels. It can quickly get overwhelming, so here is my quick synopsis of what I learned about each of these:
pH: pH level is affected by the nutrients you add, so add the nutrients first. Instructions on the bottle are vague on how much to add. My suggestion would be to add a capful or two of the “Up” or “Down”, wait 5 minutes and test again. I tried to be far too scientific counting out the number of drops I was adding. In the end I got frustrated and ending up dumping a bit too much in (but don’t forget you can always adjust back up or down with the other solution!)
Salt levels: In my experience regulating the salt levels (ie. liquid nutrients) had a greater effect on plant growth than regulating the pH, so if you are lazy, choose to keep the salt levels correct. With that said, when just starting with hydroponics don’t overthink nutrients. Specialized formulas can get complicated very quickly. Use a 2 step nutrient formula; one for when the plant is growing and one for when the plant is blooming.
Water level: When the plants are just starting to grow, they don’t use much water. Once they get cranking and especially blooming, they need water more often. While hydroponics use far less water than growing in soil, I became complacent and didn’t realize the Foody was low on water until the pump was sucking only air (a good way to fry the pump motor!)
One more thing to consider is how much sunlight the tower is going to receive. The three ingredients for plant growth are water, nutrients and sunlight. Since I had set up the Foody tower in my office, it was going to receive 0 hours of sunlight. While this is on the extreme end, it is important to note that when plants are just starting to grow they need 14-18 hours of sunlight per day. The easy solution to this problem is with a grow light on a timer.
This is another subject that can get overwhelming very quickly. For a beginner like me, I wanted the most effective light for the least amount of money possible. While I learned that the sky's the limit if you have the money to spend, the T5 fluorescent bulbs on a simple stand were more than adequate for me. After doing a little research I could go into their amazing lumen per watt ratio, low heat output or 30,000+ hour lifespan, but after seeing how quickly my plants grew, I am convinced I made the right decision.
Harvest day came so quickly I am not sure I was ready for the growing to be over. I had watched the growth process so closely every day I did not appreciate the overall growth until I began harvesting.
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I made some observations throughout the harvest process:
- Note to self, don’t plant so much dill... Who in their right mind needs that much dill!
- If you choose to grow different plants at one time, all will not be able to thrive. Apparently the amount of light that we used was optimal for Kale and Dill, but not Swiss Chard and Arugula.
- ”Micro-greens” will become “macro-greens” if allowed to continue growing. They also will not be very tasty when that large.
To truly be successful with growing hydroponically with the Foody Vertical Garden a certain level of dedication and time is needed. From the setup of the tower, to the understanding of regulating pH and salt-levels, you must be willing to put in some time. What I quickly found, though, was that the majority of the time was spent upfront. After everything is set up, the ongoing maintenance is minimal.
Here are some things I realized you avoid by growing hydroponically:
- Weeding! With no soil for errant weeds to make a foothold, you no longer have to worry about unwanted invaders.
- Daily watering. Without losing water to evaporation or soil absorption, water is directly delivered to the roots.
- Critters and bad weather. By having the ability to bring your Foody indoors you don’t have to lose precious crop to bugs, hungry animals or that errant hailstorm.
While the process was not without its hiccups, I can honestly say that I plan to continue growing hydroponically.