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The Hydroponic Garden Project


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#1 Jason Perlow

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 04:41 PM

So, as some of you know, I moved to Florida over the summer. Rachel and I bought a home in Broward County, a beautiful 5 bedroom. Unfortunately, the one thing we didn't like about the house was that it didn't have a swimming pool, so we had to build one. This was a eight week project that was completed just after Christmas. Here's the result.

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Now, it is indeed a stunning pool and spa setup, and we love it. But this ended up eating up most of our backyard. That essentially very little grassy area was left didn't bother me, since it eliminated a ton of lawn maintenance. we were able to save some space along the side of the house for a dog run, which we thought we were going to use for garden space as well. We had it covered with mulch, thinking we could use pots with soil to grow various things.

During the construction of the pool and spa, we ended up running into an issue of not having enough pavers because the original design called for a grassy buffer area between the original patio (marble) and the new patio (brick). This ended up being changed to a flush to the house design that you see now. Unfortunately, this meant stealing a bunch of pavers from behind the spa area that was adjoining the back wall that faces the forest preserve.

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As you can see, there is a big gap where we have sand covering dirt. The original solution was to landscape this with exotic plants, but a few weeks ago I ran into a fellow at the Palm Beach Gardens Greenmarket named Chuck Frogner who has a business in Delray Beach called Mighty Fine Gardens.

What intrigued me about his business is that he consults with various restaurants and such to build hydroponic "Chef Gardens" which consist of poles that have vegetable planters that are filled with a silica-based growing medium and are topped with coconut husk fibers, and is fed with a electrically pumped drip irrigation system using clean water that is fortified with plant food.

There's a couple of benefits to this, one, you don't use anywhere near as much water for this as you would a traditional garden. Two, The plants go like gangbusters in a controlled, sterile medium (Perlite, a silica-based substance) much as you would on a space mission like they will do when they go to Mars or the Moon and build bases there someday.

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In Florida, much of the soil is contaminated with Nematodes (nasty microbial wormy things) that kill plants so growing veggies directly in the mulched area along the side of the house would have been a bad idea.

The third benefit as these are vertical gardens and totally raised off the ground, you don't hurt your back when you are working on them.

Today we completed the first half of the garden. When we are done, there will be 24 poles that will be fed by two drip irrigation pumps which will suck out water and nutrients from two garbage-can sized tanks (which will be wrapped with bamboo mats to improve the aesthetics.)

Here's what the first half looks like. Tomorrow the second side is going to be completed, along with the irrigation and the first seedlings.

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I'll be using this thread and my two blogs (offthebroiler.com and techbroiler.com) to give progress reports on the setup and the growing of the vegetables, and to answer any questions anyone might have.

Edited by Jason Perlow, 09 January 2013 - 04:54 PM.

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#2 DiggingDogFarm

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 05:30 PM

Beautiful pool!


~Martin

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#3 Syzygies

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 05:47 PM

Years ago I had a rather crazy hydroponic setup in my New York apartment, growing all manner of culinary herbs. (Be prepared to take a lot of kidding from your friends for not focusing instead on the obvious cash crop.)

As I recall, even on the 15th floor in the dead of winter, it turned into bug heaven. Nature is bigger than all of us, and if you're not on Mars you can't count on isolation to protect you.

A bigger issue is the question of what gives herbs character. Like tomatoes or wine grapes, low yields and duress are presumed to lead to better flavor. I eventually concluded that most herbs need dirt. Nevertheless, you have room to do controlled experiments; just don't don't imagine it will be easy to produce herbs of your dreams. Play with barely enough water, nutrient balances and so forth.

You certainly should try Genovese basil for pesto. What passes for basil in this country tastes like lawn clippings when used in pesto; the Italians grow or buy rather young bunches for pesto. I now dedicate half wine barrels to basil in season in California, and I can taste differences in soil, but simply avoiding the lawn clipping taste will be substantial progress.
Per la strada incontro un passero che disse "Fratello cane, perche sei cosi triste?"
Ripose il cane: "Ho fame e non ho nulla da mangiare."

#4 DiggingDogFarm

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 06:01 PM

I eventually concluded that most herbs need dirt.


For best results, yes, I agree, but any freshly grown herb has the potential to be better than what's available in many markets.


~Martin

~Martin
 
Unsupervised rebellious radical agrarian experimenter, minimalist penny-pincher, self-reliant homesteader and adventurous cook. Crotchety cantankerous terse curmudgeon, nonconformist and contrarian who questions everything!
 


#5 Lisa Shock

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 11:02 PM

Can you rig up a cover for the setup so the soil doesn't blow into your pool during the next hurricane? I've had issues with the wind in Arizona with regards to elevated planters.

#6 Jason Perlow

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Posted 10 January 2013 - 06:13 AM

Right now there is a cloth, but we will probably put down a stronger covering or more mulch.
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#7 Jason Perlow

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Posted 10 January 2013 - 06:15 AM

Also, during a hurricane, the system is designed so that the pots can be removed and put in the garage, leaving just the poles.
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offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | My Flickr photo stream

#8 HungryC

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Posted 10 January 2013 - 08:33 AM

Sorry you bought the nematode line....subtropical soil everywhere has nematodes. They're controllable through non-toxic means (tilling, using black plastic sheeting to superheat the soil and kill the 'todes). Plenty of crops are grown in FL despite the nematodes. Your setup looks nice, but be prepared for lower yields than promised. Container plantings in the subtropics subject plants' roots to much higher heat than those grown in the ground. Roots three inches below the surface can be as much as 10-15 degrees cooler than roots in a container surrounded by 95 degree air. Add the reflected heat from nearby pavers and concrete surfaces, and your containerized soil gets awfully steamy. I probably would have saved the $$ on a big complicated system and built raised beds in the available area, which would have eliminated the nematode problem and not required electricity, pumps, or tanks of nutrients. And how are you supposed to grow beans, the star of any warm weather southern garden, in those little bitty compartments?

Anyway, pay careful attention to the varieties you plant. Make sure you're growing heat-adapted varieties during the hotter months of the year. I've gardened in raised beds in subtropical LA for years and years, and even my raised beds can be too hot. In addition, the small size of the planting compartments mean you should select compact varieties. It looks like a nice setup for herbs and lettuces (though they'll bolt in a matter of days if they're too warm).

#9 Syzygies

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Posted 10 January 2013 - 08:57 AM

Container plantings in the subtropics subject plants' roots to much higher heat than those grown in the ground.

I've read about tropical volcanic cone islands that are fortunate to be able to draw deep, cold sea water from their shorelines. It sees many uses; one is simply to run the pipes underground through crops. Fresh water condenses on the cold pipes, irrigating the crops, and the crops do much better because their roots are cooled.

Perhaps some aspect of this approach can be applied here?
Per la strada incontro un passero che disse "Fratello cane, perche sei cosi triste?"
Ripose il cane: "Ho fame e non ho nulla da mangiare."

#10 Jason Perlow

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Posted 10 January 2013 - 09:01 AM

Your setup looks nice, but be prepared for lower yields than promised. Container plantings in the subtropics subject plants' roots to much higher heat than those grown in the ground. Roots three inches below the surface can be as much as 10-15 degrees cooler than roots in a container surrounded by 95 degree air. Add the reflected heat from nearby pavers and concrete surfaces, and your containerized soil gets awfully steamy.


Well, the guy who is doing the setup seems to know what he is doing, he's an expert vegetable gardener is going to guide us through the process. I'm not sure what you mean by containerized soil, there's no soil here, it's a hydroponic growing medium, Perlite covered by sterilized coconut fiber.


Anyway, pay careful attention to the varieties you plant. Make sure you're growing heat-adapted varieties during the hotter months of the year. I've gardened in raised beds in subtropical LA for years and years, and even my raised beds can be too hot. In addition, the small size of the planting compartments mean you should select compact varieties. It looks like a nice setup for herbs and lettuces (though they'll bolt in a matter of days if they're too warm).


There's a lot of stuff we intend to grow that are from tropical asian climates and also stuff tested by the University of Florida. Hot months we know we can't grow tomatoes, that's pretty much a given in Florida.

As to the size of the containers, you're not seeing these things up close. They're pretty big, and also you'll notice at the bottom of each pole is a pretty large root veg container.
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#11 HungryC

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Posted 10 January 2013 - 09:30 AM

RE: size is relative. The tiered aspect and relatively small size means no pole beans/peas (though I guess you could squeeze in compact bush beans), no spreading vines like canteloupe or watermelon, nothing big & super leggy like tomatillos, no corn (even bantam), no artichokes, no big bushy zucchini varieties....I buy gorgeous hydroponic lettuce from a nearby hydro setup. The butter lettuces are beautiful and pristine. I like that I get them with roots attached, so I can put them in the fridge in a little water and the lettuces stay fresh for days & days.

#12 Jason Perlow

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Posted 10 January 2013 - 09:45 AM

Well, in all honesty we weren't going for melons. We won't be doing corn, that's not in the diet.

Zucchini I know we can do. But then again I was up to my ass in Zucchini in New Jersey, I was pretty sick of the stuff. We'll probably try a few other squash varieties.
Jason Perlow
Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters
offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | My Flickr photo stream

#13 Jason Perlow

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Posted 10 January 2013 - 09:49 AM

Actually there do appear to be some 8" melon varieties that we can grow. And of course strawberries.
Jason Perlow
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offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | My Flickr photo stream

#14 Jason Perlow

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Posted 16 January 2013 - 10:37 AM

Updates:

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Both sides are now installed. Pump system on the right side of the pool is running and plants are being fed. The left side will be used for tomatoes and peppers and eggplants and a few other things. Behind the spa we are planning to put in a trellis with large planters underneath so we can have peas and other vine-y kinds of vegetables crawl up behind.

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Tomato plants

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Various types of hot peppers. These will be transplanted into the planters shortly.
Jason Perlow
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#15 radtek

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Posted 16 January 2013 - 12:27 PM

I use a 50/50 perlite and coco-coir mix and get excellent results just by hand-watering nutrients daily. With the right nutrients your plants will go like gangbusters. The drawback to soil-less hydroponics with an automated dripper system is that if it fails and you don't catch this in time your plants can die very quickly within a day or two. Especially in the summer. So it isn't hands-free. Inspect your garden daily even if you think you don't have the time!

I question just layering an inch or two of coco on top of the perlite. Either will work fine by themselves with the right nutrients, ppm and pH but they should be mixed together for maximum benefit. I suspect it is cosmetic.

#16 Jason Perlow

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Posted 31 March 2013 - 10:59 AM

Updates on the hydroponics garden. Things are growing well, but we are now at the point where we are towards the end of the current leaf lettuce lifecycle (after many trimmings, the leaves have gone bitter) and have started planting new ones.

 

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After tweaking the system for flow issues over the last few weeks, everything is nice and healthy, and we've been getting very good growth on the lettuces and herbs. We've had salads just about every day, with lettuces coming all from our garden.

 

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A close-up of one of the towers.

 

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We've added some base planters and a trellis behind the spa. We've planted snow peas, snap peas, zucchini and cucumbers in here, with the intention of them all climbing up the trellis and adding some nice vegetative backdrop to the spa area.

 

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Tomato/Pepper area is going completely gangbusters, after some tweaks to the system. We had a bit of die-off earlier due to some pump and circulation isuses but the plants have recovered well.


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#17 heidih

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Posted 31 March 2013 - 11:04 AM

Wow - looking good and quite inspirational. Have you tried treating the older bitter lettuce leaves like you would older greens in terms of cooking versus eating raw?



#18 Jason Perlow

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Posted 31 March 2013 - 11:16 AM

It's really, REALLY bitter. Would stir frying them or using some other technique make them taste any better?


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#19 heidih

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Posted 31 March 2013 - 11:22 AM

Well I adore bitter (am a bitter melon fan) - but I would give it a shot with a little smoked meat/sausage and garlic, finished with vinegar like collards -  might be worth a try. 



#20 HungryC

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Posted 31 March 2013 - 07:45 PM

I'm interested in your lettuces...as the temps warm up, how long before they bolt (get bitter and want to flower)? I can grow them in early spring, but as soon as evening temps stay over 70 degrees, they'll grow three minuscule leaves and then flower. So replanting is futile.....does hydroponic give you a longer window?

#21 CaliPoutine

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Posted 07 April 2013 - 08:52 AM

Great Pool.  I grew up in Plantation and we spent many a day in our pool.  Enjoy.

 

How much did your hydroponic system cost?



#22 Jason Perlow

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Posted 07 April 2013 - 08:52 PM

Cost, about $3000.
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