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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Spring Raised Bed Vegetable Gardening: A Guide to Organic Soil Amendments & Organic Fertilizers

Growing in a Raised Bed is So Easy Even a Child Can Do It!

Growing in a Raised Bed is So Easy Even a Child Can Do It!

The idea of planting a garden can be daunting. There is so much information and advice as well as countless products and additives to choose from, it might feel as if you need a PhD to grow a tomato. The fact is that everyone can easily grow an edible garden. Similar to buying real estate, the most important choice a gardener makes is location; you cannot grow sun loving plants (which most vegetables and fruit are) in dense shade. Most vegetables (excluding leafy greens like lettuce and cabbage) require a minimum of six to eight hours of direct sunlight per day. Most of us can find an area that gets enough sun, but what are you to do if the area with the correct sun exposure does not have healthy rich soil? The answer is simple: build a raised bed garden.

Raised bed gardens have several advantages over traditional in-ground gardens. First, raised bed gardens are constructed above ground, lending themselves to easier planting, tending, and weeding. Raised beds are little more than large container gardens and can be placed anywhere, regardless of the quality of soil underneath. Also, raised bed gardens are ideal for square foot gardening. You can build them out of wood (do not use pressure treated wood as the chemicals in the pressure treated wood can leach into your soil, and your plants), or buy a raised bed garden kit. Another option for someone that wants a raised bed garden but doesn’t have the time or tools to build one is to use a large fabric aeration pot. Aeration pots are fabric containers that come in sizes from 1 gallon all the way to 300 gallons. The benefit of aeration pots is that they prevent the plant’s roots from becoming root bound, while encouraging a more robust root systems with greater surface area in contact with the soil for improved nutrient absorption.

Root bound plants like the one in this photo can stunt a plant's growth.

Root bound plants like the one in this photo can stunt a plant’s growth.

Viagrow™ Fabric Aeration Pots prevent plant's roots from becoming root bound.

Viagrow™ Fabric Aeration Pots prevent plant’s roots from becoming root bound.

Once you have built your raised bed or purchased an aeration pot, now comes the all important choice of what to fill it with. I prefer a high quality potting soil like Fox Farm’s Ocean Forest which is loaded with organic fertilizers and micro-organisms. However if that does not fit your budget, another less expensive option is topsoil, which is sold by the bag at every hardware store or sold by the truck load. It can be used as base for your garden soil, but topsoil is not ready to use just yet. I recommend when buying topsoil to make sure it has been screened, ensuring that large pieces of organic debris and rocks have been removed. Plan on adding organic matter and organic fertilizer to the top soil; it will guarantee a bountiful harvest of your favorite fruits and vegetables.

The best way to add organic matter to soil is by adding a rich compost. Compost is decayed organic matter, and it is one of the best things you can add to any soil. You may have the notion that a compost pile is a big, ugly, smelly pile of leaves and lawn clippings, but that is not necessarily true. Today people have options of homemade compost piles, well constructed compost bins, and stylish compost tumblers. These provide everyone the option of making their own nutritious organic soil inexpensively. You can also improve the soil structure and improve the moisture retention and/or drainage of your garden soil with the addition of products like perlite, shredded leaves, peat moss, coconut coir, and composted bark sold as “soil conditioner.”

Aside from compost there are several organic fertilizers and additives that can be added to improve your garden soil. One popular option for adding organic matter to soil is to use composted animal manures. There are several kinds to choose from including: seabird guano, bat guano, cow manure, horse manure, and chicken litter. Generally, manures from animals that eat vegetation are preferred to animals that eat meat. Animal manures vary greatly in the nutrition they will provide your garden due to the different diets of the animals that produce the manure. When possible, it is best to use composted manures and guanos in your soil; fresh manure is best placed in your composter to age and breakdown before it is used or you risk burning your plants. An added benefit of animal manures and guanos is that they provide an excellent source of beneficial micro-organisms which add to your soil’s ecology. You also have the option of adding beneficial fungi and bacteria with products like Mykos and Azos.

Other options for amending soil include the following organic fertilizers and additives:

Rock Phosphate
A natural granular source of phosphorous and calcium in addition to several trace minerals. Rock phosphate is an excellent source of phosphorous which promotes cell division, photosynthesis and respiration. Also encourages the growth of earthworms and soil bacteria that enrich and aerate the soil. Slow release so it will not leach away like chemical blossom boosters. Apply 1-3 lbs. per 100 sq. ft. for gardens.

Blood Meal
A slow release organic nitrogen source. Excellent as a top dressing when extra nitrogen is needed. Stimulates bacterial growth. Use 2-3 lbs. per 100 sq. ft or as a top dressing.

Bone Meal
Steamed, finely ground bone provides phosphorus, calcium and nitrogen. Promotes strong, vigorous bulbs, healthy root systems and good blooming. Excellent for flowers, roses, garden bulbs, shrubs and trees. Use up to 5 lbs. per 100 sq. ft.

Greensand
Contains 22 minerals and helps loosen compacted clay soils. Highly recommended for conditioning pastures, lawns, orchards, fields, and gardens. Apply 2-4 lbs. per 100 sq. ft.

Worm Castings
A pure all natural plant food produced by earthworms. Helps develop foliage in plants and improves aeration of the soil. Worm castings are also a source of nitrogen. Use in gardens and flower beds at rate of ½ cup per plant every two months. In potting mixes add 1 part earthworm castings to 3 parts soil. For roses mix 4 cups into soil around each plant.

Sulfur
Sulfur is excellent for lowering the pH of soils for growing blueberries, rhododendrons, azaleas and other acid loving plants. Use according to soil test recommendations – do not over apply. Maximum use ¼ lb. per 100 sq. ft.

Micro Pelletized Gypsum
Pelletized calcium sulfate; supplies calcium and sulfur while loosening clay soils, aiding aeration and water penetration. Use when calcium and sulfur are needed, and pH of the soil is alkaline. Use 2-3 lbs. per 100 sq. ft.

Garden Lime
A natural liming material which supplies additional calcium and helps maintain a near neutral pH in your soil. Apply 3-5 lbs. per 100 sq. ft.

Once you have built your bed, added your soil, and amended it with lots of organic matter and fertilizer, it is time to plant your seeds or seedlings. Starting seeds is easy to do with a Viagrow™ Seed Starting Kit. Another option is to visit your local nursery and buy vegetable seedlings; ask them what varieties will perform best in your area. Water regularly (as needed) and top dress around the base of your plants on a monthly basis to ensure your plants have plenty of food. You will be eating your harvest in no time.

A raised bed garden can produce enough for a family of 4 in a very small area.

A raised bed garden can produce enough for a family of 4 in a very small area.

The Dirt on Dirt: Sand, Silt, Clay, and Loam

Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

One of earth’s most vital and under-appreciated resources is sitting beneath your feet right now…dirt! Dirt is actually an amazing substance if you think about it. Millions of years in the making, it gives rise to most plants and by extension most animals, and it is 100% necessary for life as we know it. Soil sustains our ecosystems, grows our food, is integral in the production of the very oxygen we breathe, and yet it gets no respect. Kicked by baseball players, methodically cleansed from our homes, clothing, and hands- we have clearly lost touch with dirt. Dirt is much more complex than you may have been led to believe. Soil is the amalgamation of rocks, minerals, and organic matter, acted upon by the forces of gravity, geologic pressure, weather, and time. So let’s take a minute to learn more about the soil living beneath our feet and give dirt its minute in the sun!

Soil is made up of many small particles. The size and relative ratio of these particles are known as your soil’s texture. There are three general categories of particle size when discussing soil: sand, silt, and clay. Sand particle sizes range from 2.0 to 0.05 mm, silt particle sizes range from 0.05 mm to 0.002 mm, and clay particle sizes are any particle smaller than 0.002 mm. The composition of most soils is usually a mixture of sand, silt, and clay. The ratio of these particles in your soil will have a profound effect on how your plants grow. Finer soils tend to have a greater ability to store soil minerals but also leach those minerals at a faster rate. An ideal garden soil has a mixture of all three particle sizes and is referred to as a loam. This soil (loam) has the best ability to absorb moisture, allow for proper drainage, and transport air; and due to its high content of organic matter, it provides a lasting source of nutrition. Conversely the most difficult soil type to work with is a compacted soil high in clay. It prohibits root growth, struggles to absorb moisture, and doesn’t allow enough air to the roots.

Soil Triangle

Soil Triangle

If you have difficulty growing plants in your native soil or are curious to see what type of soil you have at your home or farm, consider getting it tested at a professional laboratory or agricultural extension. You can also try performing this simple test at home; although not as good as a professional test, it will provide you with a general idea of your soil texture.

All it takes is a clean, empty jar with a lid, some clean water, a tablespoon of detergent and a sample of the soil you want to test. To do so:

  1. Fill the jar about 1/3 full with the soil to be tested.
  2. Fill the jar with water and detergent then cap it.
  3. Shake the jar vigorously and set aside for several hours or overnight.

How to determine your results:

  • If the water is clear and the soil has settled to the bottom; you have predominantly sand soil.
  • If the water is still a little murky with bits of matter suspended in it; you have loam soil.
  • If the water is still murky and there is a visible ring of sediment around the jar; then your soil is mostly clay.
Soil Type Jar Test

Soil Type Jar Test

If you find you are blessed with a rich, nutritious, well-draining, loamy soil, then count your blessings. However, if you are not as fortunate and find that you have sandy soil, the best amendments are ones that increase the ability of the sandy soil to retain water and increase its nutritional content. Amending sandy soil with well rotted manure or compost (including grass clippings, humus and leaf mold) will help to improve the soil the fastest. You can also add vermiculite or peat as sandy soil amendments, but these amendments will only add to the soil’s ability to hold on to water and will not add much nutrient value. If you have clay soil, then it is most important to add organic matter (including grass clippings, humus and leaf mold), but also adding sharp sand followed by either aerating or turning your soil will help improve the compactness of clays. Lastly, adding a healthy layer of wood chip mulch each year will help improve the soil as it decays. Clay soil is not one that can be fixed immediately, but with a little diligence and a few years (and lots of compost), you too will have great soil.