The Rules of Growing

An Amazing Grow Room Built Inside of a Cave: Birds Botanicals

An amazing grow room built inside of a cave: Birds Botanicals

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!

Traditional Gardening:

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 Raised Bed GardenFor the DIYer or those of us that have less than ideal soil, simply buy or build a raised bed, fill it with soil, and start your seeds.

The Square Foot GardenFor 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.

A Great Example of a Grow Room: See Why Below...

A great example of a grow room

 The Grow Tent GardenThe 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.

A Vivarium is Like a Living Painting in Your Home

A Vivarium is like a living painting in your home

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-purposed  shipping container transformed 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.

A Shipping Container Makes a Great Garden...

An impressive garden built inside of a shipping container

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.

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So what do these different gardens have in common? Basic needs. All plants require that five basic needs 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.

A Rose Grower Has Chosen To Use High Pressure Sodium Light to Grow Their Roses Indoors

A rose grower has chosen to use high pressure sodium light to grow his roses indoors.

Light:

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:

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.

A Well Designed Grow Room: Grow Tents offer all of the Same Features with Less Work

A well-designed grow room: grow tents offer all of the same features with less work.

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 COgenerator 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.

Achieving the Proper Temperature Inside The Cave Garden Took 6 Months: Now it is Perfectly Controlled With Just the Heat From the Lights & a Network of Fans

Achieving the proper temperature inside the cave garden took 6 months. Now it is perfectly controlled with just the heat from the lights and a network of fans.

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:

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.

This Roof Top Herb Garden Relies on Rain Water for Irrigation

This rooftop herb garden relies on rainwater for irrigation

Fertilizer:

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.

Square Foot Raised Bed Garden

In a square foot garden, using rich organic compost helps improve the soil

Substrate:

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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The Kratky Hydroponic Method: A Simple & Effective Hydroponic Technique

When I first heard about this new method of growing from a friend, I thought he said it was called the “Cracky” method. After hearing his explanation of how it worked, I thought my friend was actually on CRACK! I was more than skeptical- I was incredulous. After some research my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to try this “revolutionary” new method of hydroponic growing. The style of growing was developed by B.A. Kratky at the University of Hawaii. His method contradicts traditional hydroponic theory on multiple levels: no active movement of water, no aeration of the reservoir, no change-out of nutrient solution. It is best for growing leafy greens, such as the lettuce shown here, and it has not been proven suitable for growing fruiting or flowering crops. All I can tell you is that although contradictory to my years of education and training, I cannot argue with the results in front of me…

Kratky Hydroponic System 1 Week After Planting

Kratky Hydroponic System 1 Week After Planting

Kratky Hydroponic System 2 Weeks After Planting

Kratky Hydroponic System 2 Weeks After Planting

Kratky Hydroponic System 3 Weeks After Planting

Kratky Hydroponic System 3 Weeks After Planting

Kratky Hydroponic System 4 Weeks After Planting

Kratky Hydroponic System 4 Weeks After Planting

Kratky Hydroponic System 5 Weeks After Planting

Kratky Hydroponic System 5 Weeks After Planting Ready to EAT!

The basic idea behind the Kratky method, as it has been dubbed, is that the plants start with their roots submerged in a mixture of water and fertilizer as seedlings. The growing container should be well sealed to minimize moisture lost to evaporation. The roots will then grow longer into the water as the water/fertilizer mixture is absorbed by the plants. As the water level goes down, the plant will make aerial roots able to absorb the necessary oxygen from the airspace between the top of the water and the top of the container. By the time the water is gone, you should have harvested your lettuce and can start again. No pH adjusting, no adding more fertilizer, no topping off the water/fertilizer mixture. I admit I am shocked, but I swear it works. Grow some in a Kratky Method Hydroponic System and see for yourself.

Hydroponic Fodder: Growing Grains to Feed Our Furry Friends

Deer Eating Barley Fodder

Deer Eating Barley Fodder

I was walking through my local pet store recently and noticed they were selling a small pot of grass for cats at what can only be described as an outrageous price. Is growing grass for pets making someone- or lots of someones- rich? This got me thinking about a hydroponic technique that is gaining traction worldwide: hydroponic fodder production of livestock feed. If hydroponically growing crops is such an efficient method of producing food for humans, then is it also viable for growing food for our pets and livestock?

Barley Fodder 1 Day After Soaking

Barley Fodder One Day After Soaking

Growing fodder is the practice of sprouting cereal grains and then feeding the sprouted grains to animals. The process is fast, only taking about 7-8 days, and has demonstrated impressive results such as a 41% increase in beef cattle weight compared to those fed traditional food stocks. Fodder can be used to feed horses, deer, cattle, pigs, poultry, alpaca, sheep and goats, as well as dogs and cats to a lesser degree. Fodder has been shown to have 23 times more vitamin A than carrots, 22 times more vitamin B than lettuce, and 14 times more vitamin C than citrus fruits according to Howard Campion, a fodder system manufacturer.

Barley Fodder 2 Day After Soaking

Barley Fodder Two Days After Soaking

Sprouting grains for human consumption dates back centuries in Asian countries. Fodder production for animals has been in practice as early as the 1860s when European dairy farmers began sprouting cereal grasses to feed dairy cows in the winter. Currently there are countless farmers worldwide supplementing their livestock feed with fresh grown fodder. Fodder has the benefit of sprouting with very little water consumption, making it dependable in times when drought would normally reduce hay and feed production. A 10 meter by 13 meter building outfitted with fodder growing systems can produce as much food for livestock as 298 acres of grassland.

Fodder production is a simple process as long as you provide the correct environmental conditions as well as a sanitary growing environment. The ambient air temperature needs to be maintained between 63-75 degrees Fahrenheit; the ideal humidity range is from 40 -80%; the water temperature must be kept between 53 -75 degrees Fahrenheit; and the pH of the water should be between 6.2 and 6.4. The general procedure for growing fodder is to take a high quality cereal grain (alfalfa, barley, millet, oat, red wheat, ryegrass, or sorghum) and soak them in a solution of water and a sterilizing agent like the food grade hydrogen peroxide ViaOxy for 24-48 hours. The soaked grains are then laid evenly in flat bottomed growing troughs or channels that allow for complete drainage and irrigated for roughly 2 minutes every four hours. Within 7 days the fodder is mature and ready to be fed to your animals.
The growth rate is pretty amazing, as seen in these pictures.

Barley Fodder 4 Days After Soaking

Barley Fodder Four Days After Soaking

And the Winner is…

Heavy 16 & APTUS  vs GH Duo

Which Fertilizers Will Work Better? Check Back Soon and You Decide…

In one of our recent blogs, Atlantis Hydroponics let the world decide which fertilizer experiment we would conduct, blogging the results in real time as they occur. The winner of the experiment poll from the blog Which Hydroponic Fertilizer is Best? Experiments with a Purpose! is:

Heavy 16 and Aptus versus General Hydroponics Flora Duo, garnering 41.82% of the vote!  We will be setting up a side by side trial garden to compare how these fertilizers and additives perform. We are very excited to test Heavy 16 and Aptus as they are two brands that we currently do not stock; as a policy, Atlantis Hydroponics only carries fertilizers and additives that measure up to our high standards of quality after in-house testing by our hydroponic research and development team. Check the Atlantis Hydroponics Blog frequently for pictures and updates of the experiment.

Secrets of a Hardy Winter Edible Garden

A Raised Bed Winter Garden at the Atlanta Botanical Garden

A Raised Bed Winter Garden at the Atlanta Botanical Garden

A farmer’s work is never done, and just because there is a chill in the air does not necessarily mean your farming fun has come to an end. There are several planting options for a late autumn, winter, or early spring garden. Most of the plants recommended below germinate when the soil temperature is between 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit, so if your soil temperature is below that, consider starting your seeds indoors in a germination chamber.

The following cold hardy vegetables make for a great-looking (and great-tasting) garden, like the Edible Garden pictured at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. From the cabbage family (Brassicaceae or Cruciferae) you can try: cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, or cauliflower. Root vegetables, a staple of the winter garden, allow for such choices as: beets, carrots, turnips, rutabaga, and parsnips. No winter garden would be complete without colorful, eye-catching leafy greens like: kale, spinach, Swiss chard, and collard greens.

The only real secret to having a successful winter garden is knowing what to plant and when to plant it, so bundle up and get growing!

An assortment of cabbage, broccoli, and kale at the ABG

An assortment of cabbage, broccoli, and kale at the Atlanta Botanical Garden

Broccoli and Parsley at the Atlanta Botanical Garden's Winter Garden

Broccoli and parsley in the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Edible Garden

Colorful Cabbage at the ABG

Colorful cabbage at the Atlanta Botanical Garden

Which Hydroponic Fertilizer is Best? Experiments with a Purpose!

plant science experiments favorite hydroponic experiment

Choose your favorite hydroponic experiment. Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Have you ever wondered to yourself which hydroponic fertilizer works best? Do I really need to use all 14 products from “that” nutrient company? Will adding this product make my plants grow like Jack’s beanstalk? Well now is your chance to find out. I am always running experiments here at Atlantis Hydroponics. I trial new fertilizers, test the latest “must have” additives, and perform simple side by side experiments to determine what works, and what does not. Now is your chance to choose the next experiment I conduct. You choose what you want tested, & I will blog the experiment and the results. So here it goes; the possible experiments are:

Hydroponics and Gardening: They’re Older than Epcot!

Hanging Gardens of Babylon depiction

The “Roses are not yet in full bloom here – in fact they are scarce – and from all of the nurseries and all the garland-weavers we could just barely get together the thousand that we sent you…even picking the ones that ought not to have picked till tomorrow. We had all the narcissi you wanted, so instead of the two thousand you asked for we sent four thousand.” (Stewart, pg 6)*

The quote above was not a request for flowers for the recent Olympics, nor for a recent inauguration or state funeral, it was written on papyrus before the birth of Christ. It is a stunning reminder that although we are continuing the age-old tradition of gardening we should respect the developments and advancements that were made before us. We should strive to improve our skills as gardeners and gain a better understanding of our plants, our growing systems, and of the history that has come before us!

Gardening is not new by any means, and yet hydroponics is often considered cutting edge science. The truth of the matter is that hydroponics dates back hundreds- possibly thousands- of years BC. Hydroponics was not a technique relegated to a single culture either. There were the hanging gardens of Babylon, the floating garden of the Aztecs, and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics alluding to hydroponics. **

Let’s remember that the amazing display of hydroponic gardening at Epcot, and NASA’s work with hydroponics for the upcoming manned mission to Mars, owe their progress in some part to these ancient cultures.

*Stewart, Amy, Flower Confidential, Workman Publishing, 2007.

**Resh, Howard, Hydroponic Food Production . Woodbridge Press, 1997.

Two 14-Year-Olds Win $50,000 for Hydroponic Design to Feed Their Country

A plan to feed their Countrymen has earned two teens from Swaziland $50,000.  Sakhiwe Shongwe and Bonkhe Mahlalela, both 14, have won the Scientific American Science in Action Award for a project that utilizes discarded containers, sawdust and chicken manure combined into a low tech but functional hydroponic system aimed at lowering their country’s reliance on imported food and combating starvation.    Read more about how hydroponics can feed the world.