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

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!