Most of us live a technology-packed, fast-paced life with push notifications influencing our behavior as we walk down the street, and our pockets constantly buzzing, dinging, and ringing as we sync our ever-busier schedules from phone to tablet to desktop. It is no surprise that we have lost touch with Mother Nature. Whatever the excuse for our lack of connection with the earth, the fact remains that sometimes what we need most is our hands in the dirt as a reminder that all of our scientific innovations and accomplishments still pale in comparison to the magic of a seed sprouting and growing into the very food that sustains our bodies. Gardening is for everyone. It is a reconnection with nature, a time where we can think in peace, pound our frustrations into the soil, and all the while regain a Zen state of being. No matter your schedule or living situation there is a type of garden that will fit your life!
The Backyard Garden – Simple and easy. Find a sunny spot in your yard and dig away. Any size plot will do, just stick your shovel in the ground and start turning the soil. Add plants or seeds and you have a garden!
The Square Foot Garden – For the space challenged, the urban gardener, or the balcony bound, a container or a few 3-5 gallon pots of soil along with a little planning and some organic seeds, and you are on your way to food self-sufficiency.
Urban / Modern Gardening:
The Closet Garden – For anyone with a closet to spare. Protect the floor, reflect the light (more on that in a minute), add a grow light, soil, and some seeds, and you can be a year round farmer.
The Grow Tent Garden – The simplest and fastest way to have a garden that meets your needs, as well as the needs of your plants. A perfect fit for every space (they come in lots of sizes), with all of the forethought already built in, it will make your garden a lush cornucopia in no time.
The Vivarium – This terrarium-style garden can be designed to meet the needs of more exotic plants, but for you “Type A” control freaks out there this might be what you are looking for. These little gardens are designed to be tiny working ecosystems behind glass. Attractive and compact, it is a perfect fit for your high rise apartment overlooking the concrete jungle, adding a bit of nature back to your brick bastion. Check out Orchid Karma for an exciting look at Vivariums.
The “Out of the Box” Garden:
The Trailer Garden – Although not every gardener’s cup of tea, this type of garden is proving to be perfect for dooms day preppers and businessmen alike. It’s essentially a re-purpose of a shipping container into a cash cow or an end of the world Eden. Check out our friends at Podponics in Georgia for a more in-depth exploration of this contemporary take on farming.
The Cave Garden – I admit this one is a bit of a stretch as most of us do not have a vacant cave in our real estate portfolio, but this is really cool. What can you do when your mine shuts down, and you are left with a maze of tunnels winding inside the earth? Well if you are smart you may turn it into an underground farm. Check out Bird’s Botanicals to see how this gardener made an environment without sunlight into a horticultural oasis.
The Rooftop Garden – With a strong movement towards locally grown produce and a desire to reduce carbon footprint, many gardeners have transformed urban rooftops into productive and profitable farms.
So what do these different gardens have in common? Basic needs. All plants require five basic needs to be met: Light, Air, Water, Fertilizer, and Substrate. Let’s examine how these needs are met by growers using the the various gardening methods above.
Light provides the input of energy for the chemical process of photosynthesis that turns carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen. Outdoor gardeners simply utilize the sun as their light source; after all it is free and effective on all but the cloudiest of days. Indoor growers like the closet gardener may employ a variety of light sources to provide energy to their gardens including fluorescent, HID, LED, and plasma lights. All mentioned will work for providing the energy necessary for photosynthesis, but some might be better suited to your needs. Talk to the associate at your garden specialty or local hydroponic store to find the best light for you.
Air is a category that encompasses several factors including carbon dioxide, temperature, and humidity. All of these are critical to plant growth and are all important to account for in any type of garden.
Carbon dioxide naturally occurs in the air we breathe (and ironically by the air we exhale), but the 400+ parts per million (PPM) in the air may not be sufficient if there is not enough air exchange or air movement in the garden. Outdoor gardeners have it pretty easy in that the natural movement of air ensures they always have enough CO2.
Indoor growers who have constructed rooms and grow tent gardeners must actively work to ensure their plants receive adequate CO2. For a grower just starting out a grow tent can be a good option. The grow tent manufacturers built in all of the same universal and necessary features of a grow room, affording a novice grower a well designed grow space without the years of experience necessary to design a grow room on their own.
One of the best things about grow tents are that the manufacturers, knowing that CO2 is necessary, have designed ventilation holes for both the intake and exhaust of air. Exhausting the air with an inline fan creates negative pressure inside the tent, and allows for the passive (or active if a second fan is also used) flow of fresh CO2 rich air from outside via the intake flaps. A gardener can also choose to supercharge their indoor garden by utilizing either bottled CO2 or a CO2 generator to increase the available amount of CO2 in the room to 1500 PPM, but we’ll touch more on methods of adding CO2 to grow rooms in another blog post.
Temperature requirements vary with the plant, and although most plants can survive for a short time outside of their ideal temperature range, longer exposure to extreme temperatures will slow growth and possibly kill them. Some orchids for example, like the Phalaenopsis (2nd most grown potted plant in the world) prefer a minimum of 65°F but prolonged exposure to temperatures below 50°F will cause severe damage or even death. That is why I must tip my hat to the ingenuity of David Bird, the cave gardener. He knew the ambient temperature of the cave in the mid 50s combined with HID lights would increase the temperature by 15+ degrees providing ideal temperatures for his tropical plants. Cooling is accomplished with fans pulling colder air from unheated areas deeper inside of the cave, while simultaneously exhausting the warm grow room air.
Humidity is sometimes overlooked by gardeners, but a necessary factor to be aware of and mitigate. Plants will grow in a wide range of humidity but some are more finicky than others. Humidity being too high can result in an environment that is overly hospitable to mold and bacterial infection, while low levels of humidity can stress a plant as it tries to replace moisture constantly lost to transpiration. The vivarium gardener must keep a watchful eye on their humidity as the small volume of air in the garden allows for rapid swings in humidity with slight increases in temperature. Often both a humidifier (to raise the humidity) and an exhaust fan (to lower humidity) are built into the design of a vivarium.
Water is necessary for all life, and one that all of our gardeners must supply. Fresh water can be provided from any number of sources including streams, reservoirs, ponds, aquifers, and wells. One of the simplest and best sources of water is rainwater. Using a simple rain water collection system and a rain barrel allows our rooftop gardener or square foot gardener to provide fresh water to their garden. When it comes to water, the question isn’t just its source, but how to use it. For plants growing in either soil or soilless mix, the best advice comes from a sage old orchid grower who said, “You can never water too much, only too often.” What he meant by that is if you water a little bit every day the growing medium will stay wet and the roots will rot. Conversely if you water a 1 gallon pot with 20 gallons of water the growing medium will be fully saturated but as long as you wait until the growing medium dries out appropriately your plant will not suffer. In fact heavy watering will help prevent fertilizer build-up in your growing media.
There are 16 elements that plants must have, although some would place that number in the twenties. There are many brands and formulations of fertilizer to choose from, and none of them are “the best.” That is because different plants, growing mediums, and growing environments all necessitate different fertilizer choices. So what do our square foot and back yard gardeners do? Many make their own fertilizer using grass clippings, leaves, and organic kitchen waste, by tossing it into the compost bin. It takes just a few months for free, supercharged, rich compost for their gardens that feeds the plants an organic diet rich in minerals and nutrients, while improving the quality of their soil.
The growing medium can have a significant impact on the success of any garden by determining several factors: moisture, pH, drainage, fertilizer retention (CEC), and oxygen content in the root-zone. There are many growing mediums to choose from: soil, soilless, LECA stone, diatomite, perlite, vermiculite, coconut, redwood fiber, sawdust, recycled glass (Growstone), volcanic rock, gravel, rockwool, and even air. Each of the growing mediums listed above (and by no means is it an exhaustive list) have attributes and differences that will make them more or less effective in a particular application. However, sometimes you just do not have many options, like the two inventive youths from Swaziland who took the limited materials they has access to (sawdust and chicken manure) and used them as the media for a hydroponic science experiment, winning $50,000 and the Scientific American’s inaugural Science in Action award.
Regardless of the type of gardener you are, the style of gardening you practice, or the crops you grow, the five basic needs of plants will always need to be addressed. The better you are at meeting the fundamental needs of your plants, the greater amount of attention you can devote to the details which differentiate a good gardener from a great one. With so many gardeners and innovative methods of farming coming into practice, remember the basics of growing remain the same.
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