Wednesday, November 30, 2011

TED Talk: Britta Riley's Window Gardening Project

You can read more about these small scale indoor hydroponic window growing systems via this link.

Britta Riley wanted to grow her own food (in her tiny apartment). So she and her friends developed a system for growing plants in discarded plastic bottles -- researching, testing and tweaking the system using social media, trying many variations at once and quickly arriving at the optimal system. From
You can also access free plans to build your own window growing system here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Homesteading in a Condo

It's kind of ironic that I became interested in the Detroit food movement after we relocated to Florida several years ago.  When I lived near Detroit (the first time), I had no idea there actaully was a Detroit food movement.

One evening in 2007 I was doing random searches on Google (which I'm prone to do) and wound up on Holly White's blog - Homesteading in a Condo.  After reading a series of gardening posts on the blog, I got inspired to try some backyard container gardening of my own. I even purchased my first pound of red wigglers and a vermicomposting system.

Three above ground beds, six Earthboxes, an upside down canvas planter, several blackberry plants, and five  homemade hydroponic units later we've even preserved our first food recently in the form of apple butter!  And now that we're back in the Detroit Area, I look forward to attending a meeting of the Detroit Zymotology Guild sometime this spring.

And that my friends demonstrates the power of the Internet. People sharing their time and talents with others they don't even know. What a concept!

How to Plant Tomatoes in an Earthbox

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Basement Gardening - Week 3

Here's an update on the progress of the collards, lettuce, kale, and spinach.

I'll post some more pictures in a few days to show the progression. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

From Mo Town to Grow Town?

We moved back to Detroit this summer after leaving in 2007 at the height the economic slow-down....Sitting in my motel room one Sunday morning, a local news program ran a story about how urban farming is taking root in Detroit. I really had no idea....

Here's an article about the movement published last year in My Mag.

Here's an excerpt:
"Grandpa yanked a carrot out of the ground, rubbed it on his overalls to get the dirt off and took a big bite...Because he was my grandfather, I thought anything he did was so, so cool, and so I’ve been eating carrots ever since." Kristine Hahn, Garden Resource Program Collaborative Board Member
I wish we had a little more space at our place to grow a bigger garden. Maybe then we could contribute to programs such as the Urban Farming Global Food Chain.

Basement Gardening Project - Day 10

Today I've noticed that a couple of my plants in the hydroponic bubbler system are struggling. One of the spinach plants is under particular distress. The leaves are a deep vibrant healthy looking green color and the roots on that plant stretch 8-10 inches into the nutrient resevoir, but the stem on the plant is rather spindly (if that is even a word) and it's beginning to turn brown. It's literally hanging on by a thread.

My guess for the reason....rather than using rock wool to germinate my seeds, I used a popular moss-type pellet product that I had on hand in the garage that was leftover from my raised bed garden last year in an attempt to save a little money. The seeds germinate well, but in the hydroton filled net pots the moss doesn't really ever dry out. The excessive wetness caused the stem to rot. It may be too late to save this round of plants, but I will try again.

I think it's time to return to the hydroponic store and purchase some rock wool.

Update later in the day...

The trip to the hydroponic store was fruitful.  I got a sheet of 24 rockwool plugs for $5.78. My attempt to save a little money by using the moss product ended up costing me at least one spinach plant (probably more eventually) and three weeks of growing time. When I did a small scale experiment with a homemade bubbler system last year, I used coarse coconut coir.  The coarseness of the coir seemed to help keep it relatively dry. It was still damp, but not sopping wet like the moss.

After talking with the hydro guy a little, we determined my problem was most likely caused by another rookie mistake I made with the timing of the light and air pump. I have everything set up on a timer that runs the T8 lights and air stones for 18 hours and then shuts them off for 6 hours.  That leaves the plants soaking in stagnant un-oxygenized water for 6 hours, which is quite possibly the partial cause of the stem rot on the spinach plant.

I've reconfigured things so the air pump powers the air stones constantly, but the timer will continue to run the lights for 18 hours on and 6 hours off.

On a side note...the hydroponics store has set up a demo in the storefront window to demonstrate the simplicity of a DIY deep water culture system using 5 gallon buckets (my original plan). They are using the same pump I have with a splitter that runs 4 separate air stones in 4 separate five-gallon buckets. They have it set for 1 plant per bucket, whereas my approach using storage tubs has 6 plants for a 10 gallon container and 8 1/2 gallons of water.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Urban Farming Guys from Kansas City

Raising Rabbits for Fiber and Fertilizer

When we started vermicomposting with red wigglers a few years ago we fed them primarily shredded newspaper and table scraps.  As my red wigglers multiplied, we soon needed more food for them than my wife and I produced. 

Red wigglers' natural food sources are various types of decomposing animal waste. I went to Craigslist and easily found a supply of horse and rabbit manure being sold cheap to be used as a soil amendment for gardeners.  I decided to purchase four 50 lb. bags of rabbit manure from a local rabbit breeder for $5 a bag. My red wigglers loved their new food supply and my garden and potted plants thrived from the worm castings.

I've decided to kick it up another level and instead of purchasing rabbit manure, we're going to purchase a couple of rabbits to keep so we always have a source of red wiggler food and garden soil amendment. And while we're at it, it would be nice to harvest wool from them.  How's that for sustainable?

There are several rabbit breeds that produce wool including English Angora, French Angora, Satin Angora, Giant Angora, and Jersey Wooly. We are in the early stages of researching the possibilities, advantages, and disadvantages of each particular breed. Size, temperment, and wool production are all considerations. With the weather we experience here in the upper Midwest, the rabbits would need to be keep indoors for most of the year, so that will be a primary consideration. We're inexperienced rabbit keepers, so we want to understand the how's and why's before we make a final decision, but I am leaning toward the French Angora after my initial research. 

Who knows... maybe my wife will learn to crochet and make me a nice warm angora stocking cap as a Christmas present next year? :-) I'm sure my mother would also like a homemade angora scarf at some point. It's urban farming for Christmas gifts. What a concept!

If there is anyone reading this that can help me along the journey, I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Small Aquaponic System - Big Benefits

This short but informative video posted by Joan from Joan Goes Green demonstrates the possibility to build a small aquaponics system that yields a large variety of vegetables and fish. She's using media grow beds, deep water culture methods, and 40 tilapia to create these wonderful results. Here is a post that provides a diagram of her system.

She also raises rabbits and uses their wool to make clothing.

Build an Aquaponic System

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Basement Gardening Project - Day 8

It's been a week since I planted the kale, lettuce, spinach, and collard seedlings into the do-it-yourself deep water culture system in my basement. Here's an updated picture:

Deep Water Culture bubbler system with hydroton
The spinach is starting to show noticeable growth and everything seems to be over the initial shock of the transplanting. Since this picture was taken, I've lowered the lights to within a few inches of the net pots.  This should help the growing considerably. I also took the first weekly ph and nitrite level readings today.

With ph at nearly 8.0 and the nitrite level at just barely above 0 ppm in each of the 10 gallon containers, I added an additional 10 tsp of nutrient solution (in addition to the 6 tsp of nutrient solution I added last week during system start-up). The instruction label on the back of the Botanicare product we are using recommends 2 tsp per gallon for hydroponics systems. I should have added more nutrient at system start-up, but I've learned that in aquaponics and hydroponics it's better to make small adjustments versus big ones.

It's been my experience that tap water from municipal water systems registers above 7.0, so I'll need to take a trip to the hydroponic gardening shop tomorrow to purchase some ph Down to adjust the ph.

Six Pints of Apple Butter

Apple butter from apples grown on our backyard tree

We have an apple tree in our backyard. It was loaded with fruit that was reading for picking during the first weekend of October. We had so many apples that it was necessary to figure out a way to preserve them to eat at a later time. I like apples, but there is no way for my wife and I eat two bushels of apples in a week or two, so Linda decided to make apple butter.

After a couple Google searches, she settled on this recipe from

The hardest part of making apple butter is peeling the apples, but the by-product of the time consuming work was well worth it.  We've eaten a couple of pints already, but with 6 pints remaining there is plenty of apple butter to get us through the winter!

The intimidating part was canning the apple butter (at least for me).  My grandmother and mother always made it look easy when we were kids, but this was the first time we tried to preserve any without their supervision. It turned out to be fairly simple....1) pack the apple butter into hot jars, 2) process in a hot bath on the stove top for 10 minutes.  After removing the jars from the hot water it only took a few minutes for the lids to "pop" signifying a tight seal.  We purchased the 1-pint Ball glass jars at the local Mejier store (like Wal-Mart if you don't live near a Mejier). 
Tip:  We put the apples in the crock pot just  before bedtime and woke up the next morning to the smell of hot apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. What a nice way to wake up!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Economical Aquaponics (i.e. Cheap)

If you are looking for an inexpensive DIY aquaponics system, you've found it.  I am not affiliated with in any form, but I have been following the videos on You Tube for about a year now.  He has some nice ideas and just so happens to be a fellow Missourian.

My mom has a 55 gallon fish tank that will work perfectly for my next basement gardening project. When we lived in Florida, my outside aquaponics system consisted of two 100 gallon grow beds and a 210 gallon fish tank. With temps near zero degrees in Michigan winters, I'll need to move everything indoors. I think the version will be nearly perfect for my basement gardening efforts. Fifty-five gallons is probably too small for edible size fish, but for someone wanting to learn aquaponics on a small scale or for someone who likes to tinker with projects in the wintertime (like me), it should work well.

Build an Aquaponic System

Basement Gardening Project - Day 7

After installing the lights and adding the first 3 sacraficial seedlings, I decided to add some aluminum foil to help reflect the light and some heat toward the net pots. The light bulbs are approximately 12 inches above the net pots.

Adding the aluminum foil increased the light reflection tremendously and the temperatures in the growing zone increased a very noticeable 5 degrees or so.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Basement Gardening Project - Day 6

This afternoon I added nutrient to my first water resevoir in preparation for planting the first kale seedlings tomorrow morning.  I hope the nutrient will penetrate the hydroton a little overnight and help my seedlings survive the crucial first 24 hours after transplanting.

I am using Botanicare's Pure Blend Pro Grow Vegetative Formula 3-2-4 for my basement hydro gardening project.

So far the hardest part of the project has been getting my seedlings to "harden off".  I've previously tried to germinate seeds indoors a couple of times with poor results.  This third time has been no different. 

I've ended up with long seedling plants that are tall, but lacking in girth.  I can only guess that when seedlings are sprouted outdoors the wind and weather helps toughen up the plants a little. Indoors I haven't been able to get the same results. I've always assumed it was the lighting conditions, but in this attempt the seeds were germinated on my kitchen table and lighting is definitely not an issue.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Basement Hydroponics Project - Day 5

I have fully assembled my basement hydroponics deep water culture system.  Tomorrow I plan to add some collard and kale seedlings that have been growing in my dining room for a couple of weeks.

As I'm looking at this photo of my set-up I am realizing that I could have gotten away with shorter lengths of air line. The lights are going to be lowered to within a few inches of the net pots, but harvesting, accessing the inside of the container to check nutrient levels, or maintenance on the air bubblers would have required disconnecting the air lines to raise the lights. I was careful to cut each air line the exact same length so each tub receives the same air level. In this case, I think it's a typical "six of one and half a dozen of another" scenario.

Here's a closer view of the net pots, air lines and storage tubs.  I struggled with the decision not to reconfigure the air lines. To avoid the hassle of turning everything around so the air lines would be in the rear of the table and out of the way, which also requires me to move the air pump mount, I decided to wait a couple of weeks to make the changes in conjunction with doing the first water/nutrient change.

Each eight gallons of water in the 10 gallon plastic storage tub has 1 large air stone located in the center of the tub.  Hopefully this will help ensure the aeration is consistent throughout the majority of the root zone.

I need to do some additional work on the way this air pump is mounted. The pump has rubber feet to reduce vibration, but since it's mounted under the floor near my upstairs living room area the vibration causes a little more noise that I predicted.  I think that will be easily remedied with a minor modification to the mounting method by installing two more hooks so that all four rubber feet are out of contact with the wooden floor joice.

One pump provides air for all four tubs.  Here's a close-up of the "bubbling".

This is my first time using hydroton as a growing medium. I wasn't sure it would wick water very well and was prepared to hand water my seedlings for a week or so, but this picture was taken a couple of hours after adding water to the tubs and the hydroton actually wicks very well.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Basement Hydroponics Project - Day 4

Based on air pump I chose for my basement hydroponics project, I might be accused by some of straying away from "frugal" and "budget minded", but since I am building a 4 tub hydroponic bubbler system rather than a 1 or 2 tub system, the inexpensive aquarium pumps available at the discount stores and pet centers won't be quite enough aeration to do the job.

I purchased this pump for $52.99 at the local hydroponics store. It is an 18 watt commercial ECOPlus pump with a single outlet. It includes a splitter that provides a method for using the pump to aerate four different tubs.

The instructions explain that the pump needs to be mounted at least 15 inches above the water line (something I didn't realize when I purchased it). If not mounted above the water line there is a chance water could be sucked back into the pump causing damage.

It's difficult to see in the picture, but the pump has rubber feet to reduce vibration. The feet have holes in them, which come in handy for mounting the pump. I used two hooks to mount the pump above my growing beds.

I also splurged on air stones and opted for some larger ones. I purchased 4 of these large ECOPlus air stones for $5 each.

Cheaper air stones are available, but these commercial versions should last longer and provide much more aeration than those designed for smaller household aquariums.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Basement Hydroponics Project - Day 3

I installed the lighting system for the deep water culture hydroponics system a few days ago. 

I may add a third light in the future, but for now I think two will do the trick.  After adding the transplants to my deep water culture bins I will lower these lights to approximately 12 inches above the plants to maximize their effectiveness. I've seen pictures of other systems where the lights were even closer than that. 

I have the lights rigged up with a surge protector so I can turn everything on and off with one switch.  I plan to add a timer so that the lighting control is completely automated.

Basement Hydroponics Project - Day 2

The basement hydroponics project is progressing.  My seeds arrived on Wednesday and I planted them this weekend.  Collards, kale, lettuce, and spinach should do well in the system.  They can be harvested multiple times, which leverages the benefits of having a personal hydroponic bubbler system.

Hopefully the seeds will begin to sprout by the weekend.  I figure three more weeks and I'll add them to the hydroponics system.  The seed packets all reflect a 55 - 60 day maturity time frame. I think that time frame will be accelerated in the deep water culture hydroponics system with proper monitoring of nutrients and ph.