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

Back to School Blues!

leadSeptember in the UK is the start of the new school year, and it was no exception for me! I signed up for a horticultural course.

I’ve been called the ‘Pessimistic Gardener’ as I often feel I’ve killed a few plants and that they will never grow. Nature usually always proves me wrong, but this year’s harvest has been a little hit and miss.

Zucchini (aka courgette) and other types of summer squash usually guarantees a glut and the inevitable discovery of the odd giant plant lurking beneath the leaves. But not this year!

Why?

The weather? – Spring & summer have been better than last year and we had loads then.

Depleted Soil Nutrients? – It’s not because we haven’t done crop rotation as they were planted in new raised beds that we only filled with new compost and topsoil at the beginning of the season.

Lack of water? – We installed automated irrigation this year (more details in a future post on this project).

I’ve been following other foodie blogs from around the UK and they’ve had bumper crops of courgettes! So I’m at a total loss.

The Answer?

Learn a little more about horticulture?

The course is a foundation course in the basics of horticulture, but has modules covering:

  • outdoor food production,
  • protected cultivation (greenhouses and polytunnels),
  • plant nutrition and health problems.

I thought if I’m really serious in growing all our vegetables then I might need all the help I can get.

Last week we looked at plant families and plant identification.

One family in particular is The “Mints” or Lamiacea. From the name you could determine that peppermint and spearmint and English mint are part of this family.

I was totally surprised to learn that Lavender (Lavandula) Sage, and Rosemary (Rosmarinus) are all part of the same family!

They are characterised by having 4 sided stems, something I had never noticed until I picked a few sprigs for these photographs! It’s now so obvious!

They also have whorled leaves, in that the leaves radiate around a single point. The leaves when rubbed or crushed are scented.

So…If they are related in the plant kingdom – what about flavour pairings in cooking?

Time to consult the Flavour Thesaurus and start some culinary experiments.thesarus

Raising The Beds

beds_leadOur ground was pretty poor in parts, a shallow covering of soil over heavy clay. Anything we planted would be fighting this so we decided on raised beds. They needed to be fairly large (they can scale to fit the space available) and I wanted them to last so it meant a trip to the local timber supplier. I found some treated 4.8m x 200mm x 45mm lengths which looked like they’d do the job. Using these 3 high, with beds 4.8m x 1.2m was the plan. I’d need some square posts for the corners and it became apparent I’d need some central support and bracing in the middle.

IMG_6335

So each bed used:

  • 7.5 x boards
  • 4.8m of 75 x 75 posts (60cm lengths in each corner and in the centre and one 1.2 to brace between the centres)
  • A lot of exterior screws
  • Weedstop in the bottom

Once finished I needed to work out roughly how much compost / topsoil to put in each bed. I wasn’t going to fill them to the very top.

Soil Calculation:
4.8m x 1.2m x 0.5m = 2.88 cubic metres.
Multiply this by 1000 gives 2880 litres of soil or compost per bed

Wow! We were going to have to buy that in bulk!
We built 3 in a polytunnel initially, _TDF4541then 2 smaller ones for herbs like sage and rosemary. Then came another 3… then came another 8… So most of our food is grown in these now. This year we’ve got:

  • Carrots
  • Kale
  • Leeks
  • Broad Beans
  • Jerusalem Artichoke (aka Sun Chokes)
  • Summer & Winter Squash including pumpkin and patty pan
  • Beetroot
  • Sweetcorn
  • Kohl Rabi
  • Horseradish
  • Rhubarb
  • Chard
  • Raddish
  • Tomatoes
  • Chamomile
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Chives
  • Oregano
  • Thyme
  • Broccoli Raab
  • French Beans
  • Cucumbers and pickling cucumbers
  • Strawberries

On the one bit of good ground we’ve mainly laid that with legumes – peas, mangetout, runner and other climbing beans, sweetcorn and sunflowers. These can be grown in beds also.

Benefits of Raised Beds

  • Higher Yield – plants can be grown closer together than in the open ground
  • Minimises Weeds
  • Companion Planting of crops and flowers to minimise pests
  • Extended Growing Season – as soil temperature will be higher than open ground
  • Scaleable & Easily Adapted to suit your needs

IMG_3832

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.