Saturday, February 22, 2014

Garden Update and DIY-Time! Build Your Own Recirculating Hydroponic Planter! (2014 Garden Experiment)

First up, Happy National Margarita Day!!!  I trust you are all celebrating in an appropriate manner!

If you've been following me for any length of time, you *know* I like to try new things!  I've done several "Garden Experiments" over the years.  Last year's "Experiment" turned out to be a real success (unlike previous years.  Ahem, Straw-Bale Bed FAIL!).

Last year's Experiment was trying out these self-watering Grow-Box Gizmos.  There's a tiny bit of assembly required, but they do come with sheets of "mulch" (looks like spun coconut fibers or something) and pre-loaded with fertilizer (which is attached to the backside of the mulch).

I purchased three of them and placed them on the (blazing hot) patio - expecting to "pre-cook" my veggies, but I was pleasantly surprised to get some bona-fide harvests out of 'em! (Sadly, last year was a very slow Blogging year, so I didn't provide updates - my bad!).  Anyway, I harvested quite a few ears of corn, a small handful of beans (nothing noteworthy), plenty of zucchinis, and I got several Marina di Chioggia squashes.  The plants absolutely THRIVED (to my amazement).  Not at all difficult to keep watered, either.  The only downside was the plants proximity to our voracious weenie dogs!

I re-used two of them for cool-season veggies this winter.  I dumped the old soil into my raised beds and started with fresh.  I also re-used the "mulch" sheet that was included with them, but substituted my own organic fertilizers (although I'm pleased to see that Grow-Box now offers an organic fertilizer option - at least on the replacement mulch pads).

Over winter, I put an x-pen around the planters to keep the dogs from stealing my harvest!

See why I need to cage them?!

I am very pleased with these planters and highly recommend them.  I got a very nice harvest of broccoli and cauliflower but, unfortunately, the cabbage-worms got hold of my cabbages - AGAIN!

Oh, and there's a celery plant in there, too (just can't see it because the kohl crops are so happy and tall and bushy!)

Okay, so in a week or three, I'll be dumping the soil and starting over again.  This summer, I'll plant 'maters in the Grow-Boxes.  2 plants per box, so that allows for 6 'mater plants (Do you have any idea how difficult it was for me to narrow-down my choices to only 6 varieties of tomato?!).  

Anyhooo... Let's move on to the Great Garden Experiment of 2014, shall we?

I have a couple of potted citrus trees.  A Bearss Lime (with spikes that will KILL you!), and a Mandarin.  The Mandarin is doing surprisingly well, but I can't get my lime to thrive - no matter what I do!  I moved it to a ginormous pot last year, and it still looks all yellow and sickly (of course, our Super-Cold but Irritatingly-Dry winter hasn't helped any!).  You *know* I need a steady supply of limes for my 'ritas, so on-a-whim, I decided to Google "Grow Limes Hydroponically" and stumbled onto this article. 

Then I shot off an email to my Bloggie Buddy, and fellow Veggie-Plant-Hoe, Finnyknits (aka Indie-Farms).  She just finished her Horticulture degree and appears to be hooked on hydroponics (for FOOD - not that *other* crop!).  I had scribbled out a preliminary schematic and asked her for her feedback.

Click to embiggen it :-)
Note: This was a rough draft, the design has changed since then!

Her feedback was that she had no direct experience with growing citrus hydroponically - but it certainly looks do-able.

First thing I did was nix the "Timer" - a recirculating system can run 24/7...

A 250 GPH submersible pump (this is the actual pump that I ordered)
Hydroton growing medium (I have no clue - yet - how much I'll need!) (I've already got a bag of it in the greenhouse)
An 8" Net Pot - made to fit on a 5-gallon bucket
Some 1/2" drip-line tubing (although I may switch that out for more flexible vinyl tubing) - appx 3 feet is all you need
Some 1/4" drip-line tubing - a couple of feet
Compression elbow fitting for 1/2" tubing (that might disappear if I switch to vinyl tubing)
1/2" Hose-end plug with cap (but that might get swapped-out if I switch to vinyl)
Y-valve for hose-end - with shut-off valves
3/4" female to 1/2" male hose adapter (this was tough to find!) (I found a plastic one in the plumbing aisle of the hardware store)
4-way drip manifold - make sure it will screw onto a 1/2" riser (I used a different brand than this - but Orbit is good because you can cap off the outlets you don't need)
24" rubber mulch ring - to cover the base of the tree/top of the planter and keep crap out of the hydroton and nutrient solution

So I bought all this stuff (plus even more - because I hadn't yet figured out how I was gonna pull this all together!), and left it sitting on the kitchen floor so I could look at it and cogitate on it.  If I stare at it long enough, I'm bound to figure it out (especially if I trip over it, nightly, right?!).

Here is a scribble of what I finally came up with (minus the net basket in the sketch - the basket is located up where the Hose-end plug is.  You'll see!):

Sorry for the scibbly-ness!

The main thing that I wanted was for it to be self-contained (*and* fit inside of a pretty planter-pot), and - even though Finny said I should remove the tree to change the nutrients and clean the bucket every two weeks! - I really don't want to be wrestling with a tree on a regular basis, so I wanted to have the ability to use the pump to remove most of the nutrient solution (which I will then recycle by watering other veggies) - without disassembling the beast!  I'm sure I'll still need to remove the tree periodically - and I've allowed for that with a longer length of 1/2" hose...

Okay...  Now for the assembly (which really isn't as difficult as it seems, REALLY!)

First, you'll need to prep your bucket with a notch at the top for the pump's cord.  I started out with a drill (that wasn't working very well), so I used our multi-cutter and a utility knife.  You could probably get away with just using a utility knife (but I'm pretty klutzy!).  I started by laying the cord across the top of the bucket and used a sharpie to mark the width of the wire, then I cut the notch:

The main thing is, you don't want the cord rising above the top edge because the net pot will sit flush on the rim of the bucket.

Then you'll need to drill a 1" hole in the top of the net bucket.  Make sure the hole is more toward the inside edge because you'll need clearance - inside of the bucket - for the plumbing/fittings.  Here I taped a post-it to the lip of the net pot and drew a line around the hose-end plug.

Then I secured the net pot in a vise and used a 1" spade bit to drill a hole.  Do it slowly - it'll take a couple of minutes to get through the plastic (if you drill too fast, the plastic might melt).

Okay, now we are ready for assembly!

Note: Pump should be flat on the bottom of the bucket and held in place with it's suction feet.  
I tilted it to take this picture.

The pump came with multiple hose fittings.  I used the smallest one which was just right for my 1/2" drip tubing.  I attached roughly 3" of tubing to the pump, then added the elbow fitting (compression fitting, slides right over the drip line and holds permanently).  Then I added another... (damn, now I wish I'd measured it!) I want to say appx three feet of 1/2" drip line.  I coiled it around the inside of the bucket and attempted to snake it upward ("attempted" is the key word here!) (I really think flexible vinyl may have been a better choice - but then I'd need to add hose clamps and it might not be compatible with the rest of my fittings!  Jury's still out on that!).  

I wanted the extra hose length because, as I'd mentioned, I want to have the ability to remove the tree (and net pot) from the bucket without discombobulating the pump setup.  If you don't mind discombobulation, you could probably just go straight-up from the pump.

Okay, this next part is tough to describe - and my pictures are closer to the "completion" stage, but anyway, you want to feed the 1/2" tubing up through the 1" hole you drilled in the lip of the net pot.  Then you attach the hose-end plug (also a compression fitting - so you're committed!).  Remember: Up through the hole BEFORE attaching the hose-end plug!

The black tube with the green rim (center of pic) is the hose-end plug.  Visible on top of the net pot is the Y-valve (with two shut-offs), which screwed onto the hose end plug.  The cap on the left actually came with the hose-end plug.  I removed the cap and moved it to the left side of the Y-Valve.  This is where I will attach a hose when I want to pump out the old nutrient solution.

The white fitting on the right is the 3/4" female to 1/2" male hose adapter (which I will probably cover with electrical tape because the bright-white is pretty unsightly!).

Okay...  We're almost done now! 

Next-up is the 4-way drip manifold which will screw onto the 1/2" hose-end adapter (that's the red-topped gizmo in the picture below).  Then attach 1/4" drip lines (I cut mine into 1-foot lengths, for now).  One end pushes onto the manifold plugs, and attach 2 GPH drip emitters to the other end and let them dangle into the net pot.

Close-up of 2GPH flag emitter

Next, put your bucket into a pretty pot, fill it roughly halfway with water and plug it into a GFCI outlet.  Watch it run and make sure it doesn't leak (or if there are dribbles, make sure they drip back into the bucket - otherwise you'll burn-out your pump when it runs dry).

Final (and most important) step:

Reward yourself for a job well done!
(I mean, hey, it's National Margarita Day!)

Okay, that's it so far!  I have ordered a spineless dwarf mexican lime tree and I'm waiting for it to arrive.  Once it does, I'll rinse my hydroton and plant it.  I've also ordered the rubber-mulch tree ring which - I'm hoping - will disguise some of my ugly plumbing!

I'll post more as I make more progress.  I still need to research what kind of nutrients I should use - and am hoping to lean more toward organics if I can...

Stay tuned!

Oh, and thank you for using my Amazon links!  

QT's Amazon Link

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