Leave the Soil at The Door

leadThere are four types of hydroponics we use at Not Just Pots – we use them for growing different types of things. Currently 2 of our 3 polytunnels are used for hydroponics of one sort or another.

Hydroponics at the consumer level is still a relatively new thing in the UK – so new that it’s fairly likely when you shop for the systems and supplies people will assume you’re growing weed not veg!

So here’s a quick roundup of the systems and what we use them for:

Seedlings for all these systems are propagated in wool cubes until they’ve sprouted and developed a good root structure.

NFT

(Nutrient Film Technique)
This is the kind of hydroponic system most people think of when they think about hydroponics. NFT systems have a constant flow of nutrient solution. The nutrient solution is pumped into the growing tray and flows over the roots of the plants, and then drains back into the reservoir.


There is usually no growing medium used other than air, which saves the expense of replacing the growing medium after every crop. Normally the plant is supported in a small plastic basket with the roots dangling into the nutrient solution.
Most of our lettuce grows in this and in the summer we can harvest one a day.

Aeroponics

The aeroponic system is probably the most high-tech type of hydroponic gardening. Like the NFT system above, the growing medium is primarily air. The roots hang in the air and are misted with nutrient solution. The misting is usually done every few minutes in some systems or continuously in others like ours. Because the roots are exposed to the

air like the NFT system, the roots will dry out rapidly if the misting cycles are interrupted so keeping an eye on these is vital.
We use this for fast growing herbs like Dill, Basil, Cilantro and Parsley.

Water Culture

The water culture system is the simplest of all active hydroponic systems. There are a few different ways to do this

    • The plants slot into foam mats that float directly on the nutrient solution. An air pump supplies air to a series of air stones that bubbles in the nutrientsolution and supplies oxygen to the roots of the plants.
    • The other type is a cascade system which is pumped and the falling water oxygenates itself. Air is incredibly important for roots – so if the roots are in water it must be well oxygenated.IMG_6388 (1)

Most of the time we grow our watercress in the cascade system – it thrives and keeps us in lovely peppery leaves.

On the floating mats this year we grew rocket (arugula), pak choi and spinach. We have grown herbs and leaf lettuce quite well this way too. If you want to build your own Water Culture system, there are details in this article https://notjustpots.wordpress.com/2017/07/20/building-a-watercressinator/

Flood and Drain

The Ebb and Flow system works by temporarily flooding the grow vessel with nutrient solution and then draining the solution back into the reservoir. This action is normally done with a submerged pump that is connected to a timer.
When the timer turns the pump on, nutrient solution is pumped into the grow tray or pots. When the timer shuts the pump off the nutrient solution flows back into the IMG_4511reservoir. The Timer is set to come on several times a day, depending on the size and type of plants, temperature and humidity and the type of growing medium used.
We use large Flood and Drain pots to grow Tomatoes, Tomatillos and Peppers

As for the nutrients we use – we only use them in the NFT and Aeroponics – the rest are plain water. As we come to the end of a growing cycle, we flush the plants with plain water.
As this is a water based growing system, the plants need to be fed nutrients to grow. Each type of plant has specific nutrient requirements, that is why we use several systems, so that we can put plants with similar tastes in nutrients together so that they grow well.

As we come to the end of a growing cycle, we flush the plants with plain water.

NJP_0291

You Say Tomato, I say Tomatillo

leadI love Mexican food. Tomasina Myer’s book was a must have Christmas present in 2010. 

I’d buy these husk covered green fruits at roadside stalls in SoCal along with crates of juicing oranges and globe artichokes. _BYS0176Despite being ubiquitous and relatively cheap to buy I never mastered the art of cooking whole chokes though.

As you can imagine tomatillos were not easily available in the UK and I missed their tart flavour in a Mexican salsa verde served with grilled pork or as a nacho dip.

I found a few online delis that sold tinned ones. I could have used them in salsa, which is usually made with either pureed raw or cooked tomatillos, however I thought the canning process made them a little too soft. But they were an ideal solution for my Chili Verde.

Visiting Borough Market once I stumbled upon one stall selling fresh ones. A rare treat!  I couldn’t resist buying a big bag full. But regular food shopping trips from Wales to London was not on the cards.

 

An Ideal Hydroponic Crop?

After all it’s just a green tomato right?

Tomatillos (Physalis philadephica), like their cousin, the tomato, are  part of the nightshade  (Solanceae) family. Tomatoes are easy to grow, so would they be too? One problem. The local garden centres didn’t sell tomatillo plants. I’d have to grow them from seed. But where to get the seed? Where else? Online!

Last year they grew in the greenhouse. They grew prolifically. They were tall and spindly and needed support to protect the ripening fruit. This year, with their red relatives, they grow hydroponically. _BYS0001They are prolific. They grow tall. Their stalks are thicker, stronger. Support is still needed as I wait for the fruit to ripen.

At least two plants are needed for the papery lanterns to set with fruit. I’m currently growing four. – two Tomatillo Dr Wyches Yellow and two Tomatillo Verde

The extra seedlings I planted are in the traditional tunnel and they’re growing just as they did in the greenhouse last year. 

As the madness of the growing garden subsides, I will have time to develop my recipes. For now here are the building blocks for Chile Verde. Feel free to play!

Pork Shoulder
Chicken Stock
Green & Red Chilis
White Onion
Tomatillos
Parsley (cilantro wasn’t ready yet)
Dried Cumin
Dried Oregano or Freshtomatillo 4

Coop 2.0

leadTime to get a new coop for the chickens. The first one we bought came from the same people that sold us our first 4 chickens. As we’ve become more used to it, some shortcomings became apparent in its design.

We’ve also had a few red mite problems and it boils down to there being just too many places for the buggers to hide. Our version 1.0 coop is single wall shiplap and has just far too many crevasses. The birds weren’t happy. (Here’s what the Wiki has to say about these vampire mites – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dermanyssus_gallinae)

Coop 1.0 also had a couple of design issues

Failings of Coop 1.0

  • Hard to clean – difficult to reach in through the small door
  • Nest box was the same level as the perch – they would sometimes roost in the box – making it quite messy
  • Rain would get in through the ill fitting nest box hatch
  • Too small – we wanted a few more chickens

So a bit of research, a failure to find one that worked for us  – and a redesign was decided on. Let’s call it Coop 2.0

plansFirst things first – what size should it be? We wanted happy chicks!

Living where we do, we have the threat of foxes and birds of prey so total free range was not an option. We lost one of our earlier birds from a wily gosshawk that managed to get through a gap in the roof netting on our first run! What a mess! Feathers everywhere!

Welfare organisations recommend the floor space per medium sized hybrid birds to be a minimum 90 square cm (not including egg box) and the length of the perch to allow 30cm roosting space per medium size chicken. The perch needs to be solid but small enough for the birds to wrap their claws around so make sure the perch has rounded corners.

There should be 1 egg box per 4 birds with a minimum of 2 boxes.

Now for the outside run – some organisations recommend 1 square meter per bird, although 2 square meters is preferable. Basically the bigger the plot you can give them the better. The chicks need enough space so that they can flap their wings.

Materials used

  • Exterior grade plywood 2400mm x 1200mm for the interior walls, floors and ceiling
  • 75mm posts
  • Shiplap for cladding the exterior
  • Metal sheeting for the roof
  • Assorted hinges

Design features of Coop 2.0

  • Flat surfaces with as few crevasses as possible
  • Large doors for ease of access
  • Off the ground so can lean in easily to clean – also the underneath provides the birds shelter from the rain
  • Perch higher than nesting boxes
  • Fox proof the coop and enclosure
  • Bird proof – learning from our past experience & a tale from a neighbouring farmer that he’d seen birds of prey pecking through nylon netting to make a hole – we used chicken wire.
  • Wood chippings in the run to minimise mud and keep the coop clean
  • Lots of tree branches and logs for interest and outside perches

Don’t get me wrong – this didn’t mean the end of red mites – where there are chickens, there will be mites usually prevalent between April & October but I’d like to think we’ve minimised them.IMG_6209

We do a weekly disinfect which is a pain as we have to keep the chickens out of the coop. We use Total Mite Kill liquid to to wash out the entire coop and once dry dust perches and flat surfaces with Total Mite Kill powder. It’s hard to get this stuff into crevices.

As the mild weather continues, you know what we’ll be doing this weekend!

We kept the old coop for occasional use – as a quarantine / nursery coop for introducing new chickens

One essential piece of equipment for us is an automatic door opener / closer  – otherwise  you’d best set alarms for dusk and dawn!

Chickens pretty much look after themselves – and the eggs taste great.IMG_5280

 

The Colours of My Garden

kodakThis week has kept us both busy at The Other Jobs (TOJ) and I’ve spent a good deal of time printing.

September has arrived and the kitchen garden is starting to look a little dishevelled. There are a few stragglers left to harvest and we continue to pick tomatoes, herbs and lettuce from the hydroponic tunnel.

The TOJ in question is running my small fine art printing company. It’s interesting work that requires accurate colour reproduction and to do this you need the help from some tools of the trade, like a spectrophotometer / colorimeter  – a device, that simply put, measures colour values and assigns it a numerical value depending upon the colour space you are using. I work with the colour space Red  Green  Blue

So for example white would have the following values:
R 255
G 255
B 255
And black would be
R 0
G 0
B 0

I mainly use the spectrophotometer to calibrate my camera, monitors & printers so that they speak the same colour language to make sure I get consistent colour reproduction from image capture of the original painting to the final print. However my current device also allows me to read spot colours and produce customised colour palettes.

Whilst on a tea break I read an article by Joshua Johnson at DesignShack.net about the colour pallets of 10 famous paintings, including Van Gough’s Starry Starry Night – I just love that painting!

I was inspired! What fun and a colour geek thing to do  – use our fruit and veg  to make my own colour palette.

So here’s the start of my garden colour range.

colour pallet

* Mucho Miel is an Italian Salad Tomato

Check out the article if you’re interested, he talks about Dali, De Vincci and Norman Rockwell among others

https://designshack.net/articles/inspiration/10-free-color-palettes-from-10-famous-paintings/

It’s All About Da Herbs!

leadareo_herbFresh herbs  – What’s not to like? Apart from the sticker shock when you pick up one of those miserly bags from the supermarket. But it doesn’t have to be that way as they are so easy to grow from seed, even in small spaces. I read somewhere that 90% of all the_TDF4594 nutrient goodness is lost within 10 minutes of picking. Whether that’s true or not it’s so nice to grab a handful of the stuff to add flavour to the meals we cook.

Some of our herbs we grow in raised beds – Chives, Sage, Rosemary, Oregano, Thyme & Chamomile. Mint grows in pots as you don’t want to let it loose in open ground!

We grow our herbs in an enclosed aero-hydroponic system. The plants sit in small net pots filled with clay pebbles with their roots growing in the air. A water pump then pumps nutrient rich water through a sprinkler system that sprays the roots. surplus water drains back into the tank and recirculated. Periodically the water and nutrients are topped up, to make sure the growing conditions are optimum. Having said that they seem to grow pretty strongly even if neglected a little once they are established.

At the end of a growing season we empty the nutrient rich water into either our raised beds, garden or use to feed the fruit trees. So nothing is wasted.

Our hydro-aerponic tanks hold 40 small pots, so it is quite large but with everything hydroponic is is very scaleable. There are plenty of DIY hacks on the internet and even small scale windowsill options available.

With a system like this most commercial growers heat the water and provide additional artificial lighting to increase production yields. We don’t do this in the polytunnel , but it doesn’t seem to be a problem at the moment even with the off and on sunlight we’ve been having throughout July.

So what do we grow?

  • Basil Genovese
  • Cilantro (aka coriander)
  • Italian Flat Leaf Parsley
  • Dill

We tried growing Russian Tarragon from seed, as French Tarragon is propagated only by cuttings, but frankly we found it had none of the aniseed tones of its European counterpart.

So What to do with loads of herbs?

Here are just a few suggestions…

Nando’s style Macho Peas – Whole peas covered with mashed peas, mint, flat leaf parsley and red chili. Try swapping out the herbs for dill or basil. glass_herbOur favourite was basil and chili combo._BYS0025

Always looking for ways to spice up my veggies, I found a recipe for Bakla (broad bean salad) in “Middle Eastern Cookery” by Arto Der Haroutunian. Usually made with the whole young pods and eaten whole, I adapted the recipe for a quick mid week meal as I didn’t have time to follow the recipe to the letter but made use of the main ingredients, broad beans, mint and the aeroponic herbs  Dill and Parsleybroadbean

Cook the beans in water with a little allspice
Once cooked, drain and sprinkle the fresh herbs over the beans and chopped scallions
Toss in lemon juice and olive oil and serve.

Salad Dressing to accompany seafood and shellfish
Flat leaf parsley
Squeeze of lemon
Hemp or Olive Oil
Spot of Balsamic Vinegar
Whizz that up in a blender or food processor to toss with crisp green lettuce and french bean salad.

Building a Watercressinator!

watercress

We love watercress –  the peppery bite goes really nicely in warm winter salads and is particularly good at cutting through fatty meats.

The plant is very high in calcium, iron and vitamin C. It can grow wild in the UK but it’s really too risky to forage because of the possibility it’ll be contaminated with liver fluke.

So let’s grow some then. It’s a good candidate for a first hydroponic crop as it’s so easy to grow.

Watercress loves flowing water so I thought I’d build a cascade of pools for itIMG_6388. A hydroponic watercress setup like this could also easily be built on a smaller scale and is ideal for a patio – you don’t have to go quite as mad as this! On the other hand, this would scale quite well for a larger setup.

 plan

Ok so here are the materials we used:

  • 1 x 90L reservoir tank – a black tank will minimise algal growth though you can still expect some
  • 3 x tote boxes – we bought food grade plastic for these
  • 6 x plastic “mushroom” trays or similar
  • 3 x Speedfit tank connectors, 22mm
  • 3 x 22mm Speedfit elbows
  • 6 x 22mm Speedfit inserts
  • 1 or 2m of 22mm Speedfit pipe
  • 1 x Hailea HX-2500 650lph Adjustable Pump with Air Pipe
  • 1 or 2m silicone tube for water
  • Assorted wood offcuts to support everything

This is what I did

  • Drilled a hole suitable for the tank connector – you can see I had to take a part of the lip away to get this as high as I wanted.
  • Then it was JG Speedfit pipe to the rescue once again to join on the elbows.
  • On the lowest one, I made the pipe down a little longer. This goes back into the reservoir but should still allow the water to splash in.IMG_6341
  • This will provide plenty of oxygenation of the water so I didn’t really need the pump to have an air pipe on it and could have bought a simpler one.

We bring the watercress seed on in grow cubes and in a propagator in winter. These then slot quite well into holes snipped out of the bottom of the mushroom trays. The cubes should be about half way into the water. As it turned out we don’t really need 4 holes cut in each one as watercress grows really quickly!IMG_7922

Once it starts going you have to keep harvesting it to stop it flowering – give it a good “haircut” every so often and it’ll grow back really quickly!

 

We do put some nutrients in the water but have also run it with clean water and it seems to do ok. Water ph should be 6.5 to 6.8 The EC should be 0.4 to 1.8 (EC or Electrical Conductivity is a measure of the dissolved salts or nutrients in the water – I’ll go into this more in a later blog focusing more on hydroponics). Not enough nutrients or too hot a temperature and the watercress will bolt and start flowering so good to keep an eye on this.

Every so often you’ll have to start over again as things get clogged up and overgrown. Recently we’ve just started using some of the existing plants to do this rather than start from seed again. On the junctions of the stalks you’ll notice the watercress will start roots. If you just pop these into the water the plant will regrow quite quickly.

We usually run this hydroponic system in rotation, cleaning out one of the totes at a time and re-seeding it before doing the next one a couple of weeks later. You shouldn’t run out of watercress!   

Oh and if you’re got too much and have some chickens – they love it!!

For more information on the health benefits of watercress or more information in general try www.thewatercresscompany.com/health-benefits

Suppliers for the various bits that went into this include:
GroWell Hydroponics www.growell.co.uk
Booker Wholesale www.booker.co.uk
Screwfix www.screwfix.com
Amazon UK www.amazon.co.uk
Nisbets Catering Supplies www.nisbets.co.uk
CN seeds cnseeds.co.uk
Just to clarify, we’re not directly endorsing any of these companies and we get nothing from them for mentioning them. They’ve just proven themselves to us to be efficient and reliable suppliers – 5 stars to all of them, We’ll continue to try and give you a head start by doing this throughout this blog as half the difficulty is trying to find out where to get the things you need to make something yourself

Update:

We’re running the pump off solar now which feels good. Our solar panels charge up a leisure battery in about 4 hours (on a good day!) and this runs the pump via a small inverter for about 3 days. When the battery get’s down to 40% capacity I swap it for another one.

Future plans:

Get an Arduino to monitor the battery capacity and tell us when to change the battery – this will save us checking the batteries every morning when we’ve got better things to do.  Make the tech work for us!

Can We Do This?

tunnel1So here we are, got a couple of polytunnels, one with raised beds, one with 3 or 4 hydroponic systems in, a couple of greenhouses, some land outside and some raised beds outside.

We’re going to try and do this and see what works. One thing – our weather can be simply grotty. It rains often so we scrabble to grow things sometimes. We are going to have to rely on technology a lot and don’t really have time to do everything. Also we love to cook and I’m a photographer so I’m apt to spend 4 hours in the studio getting the perfect shot of a basil leaf.

 

What we want to find out is can we do this? Can we provide a fair amount of our food, with not too much effort, relying on the rest from locally sourced suppliers. We’ve made a start with our chickens – they’re paying for themselves at the moment…We’ve got free eggs!

Why do this?

It’s difficult to know exactly when, but we’ve had an increasing distrust of the commercialisation of food production for some time. You see films, Food, Inc.,  read books, Farmageddon, all talking about the demise of the modern day food industry. The mis-sell of sugar and the addition of high fructose corn starch in our food chain.

The media then oscillates between one opinion and another – things are good for you then bad. We couldn’t help thinking that what we ate when we evolved in a non commercial state is probably what our bodies are designed to process best.

We dug deeper and wondered about how some of the most basic life sustaining ingredients are making us ill all of a sudden. An important moment for us was finding out that the industrialisation of bread production by the Chorlywood process removed the stages of fermentation that process gluten into something we can handle. Bread’s really important – we started making our own and felt better almost straight away.

Seeing supermarkets reduce the shelf space for ingredients in favour of processed meals is accelerating and quite shocking…

So this is where WE are now.

We think it’s time to look at personal food production. It’s been done before. Wales has a great history of organic and grassroots food production and we feel the time to evolve is here again.

We’ll apply all the technology we can to try and produce and cook decent food for chiliourselves and others. We’ll source or swap everything else locally and from people who believe in similar ideals to ourselves.

We’re talking about feeding ourselves good honest food.

This is not about clean eating or diets. It’s about enjoying food.

Time to take responsibility for what we eat. Knowing what goes into our meals and its provenance.

Going back to basics, learning to cook well with the simplest of ingredients.

Seasonality in the modern world.

I hope you join a couple of tech hippies on their 21st Century food production adventure.

 

Why Not Just Pots?

If you follow our journey you will see that we throw convention to the wind at times. Pots are not necessary for cooking or planting there are other options.