Friday, September 20, 2019

Buckets and Hydroponic Baskets for Growing Summer Veggies

The challenge of growing summer vegetables in containers:

Unless you live in a relatively cool climate in which the sun never directly hits your potted plant, growing vegetables in containers can be quite a challenge in the summer time. Successful gardeners in warm climates often require a very big container, daily watering or some form of water basin for the plants to survive the daytime heat. After years of researching my options, this year I found an incredibly easy and affordable option that is worth considering.

After seeing such things as the GroBucket, EarthBox containers and other containers with reservoirs, I wanted to try something that would work and allow me to continue to take care of my plants even when I went on vacation. At the same time, I did not want to spend the money buying equipment for, or investing time in learning how to manage a hydroponic system. I wanted to use the knowledge I already possess about growing plants in soil to grow something with a substantial water reserve. The most promising option looked like the Kratky hydroponic method, but I wasn’t quite sure.

One day, while browsing some related items, I stumbled upon a Hydrofarm GH10 Mesh Pot 10 inch Bucket Basket Lid. The price on this item swings quite a lot, so if you want to get it for the best price, it is well worth checking on it occasionally and looking for the best deals. As with all things that initially seem too good to be true, I did some investigating to determine that these would actually fit my need, then I purchased a dozen. When the baskets came, I found them to be very durable. I then went to a local retail store and picked up some 5 gallon buckets. Total cost up to this point was around $7.00 per with the basket and bucket (if I had to pay for the bucket). When I could find buckets for free, the price was closer to $3.50.

The Hydrofarm 10 inch Mesh pot basket.

Here is some of my initial thinking to putting the basket and bucket together: The bucket should hold somewhere around two gallons worth of soil, while the majority of the rest of the bucket should be filled up with water. Initially, it may help to have the water level in the bucket just above the hydroponic basket line, so that the uptake of moisture at the bottom would encourage the plant’s roots to grow towards the source of the water. The sides of the basket would need to remain dry so that the plant’s roots can breathe. The sides and bottom of the basket either need to have something to keep the soil from falling through or the soil in the basket needs to be compact enough to keep particles from falling through. As compaction can always be a concern, I chose to choose covering the inside bottom and sides of the basket.

My Summer veggie bucket plan

To set up the buckets, I began by putting the 10-inch hydroponic basket in the 5-gallon bucket. A screwdriver was placed along the bottom of the basket, with the tip poking through the sides of the basket and pushing against the inside vertical surface of the bucket. I then rotated the basket so that I scratched the inside of the bucket with the screwdriver all the way around the bucket. I then drilled two holes on either side of the bucket along the line I scratched on the inside. The holes were then drilled with larger bits to ensure that the water could come out quickly, if needed. I then filled up a bucket all the way with water while the basket was inside to see where the water line would be when the bucket was filled with water. It turned out that the water rested just above the basket. My screwdriver must have had a narrow enough profile to make the marks for the drill holes just above the bottom of the basket.

Using the screwdriver to scratch a hole in the side (Later ended up drilling lower)

Drilling the hole using the scratch point as a guide.

Increasing the hole size with a larger drill bit.

The hole here is too high. I had to go back and drill a lower hole.

Broken down wood chips to put on the sides of the basket

I then filled up the basket with material by alternately placing partially decayed woodchips on the outside with filling the inside up with coconut coir, finely sifted garden soil and some other inert ingredients. Once all this was done, I decided to put my EasyOllas along the inside for two reasons: to help establish the seedlings and to see how long I could go without maintaining the plants. I also buried each bucket inside my greenhouse beds in order to ensure that the sides of the buckets received adequate insulation from the heat of the warm greenhouse air. I had enough Ollas for all but one of my buckets.

Wood chips and leaf at bottom of basket.

Adding coir and other inert soil matter.

Building up the basket a little at a time.

Checking the fit of the buckets before putting them in the stock tank.

Everything set up except the EasyOllas

A broader picture right before planting out my seeds.

What I learned:

First of all, the reservoir buckets with the Ollas was overkill. To make things worse I was also hand-watering. By the time the plants acquired their second set of true leaves, the dark green color in many of the plants was beginning to fade. They became more and more light colored until their growth began to suffer. Because the fertility of the soil was very low, once I put amendments on the soil, the plant roots were unable to use it effectively because of a lack of supportive microbiology. Plant health did not improve until I took the Ollas out of the baskets and replaced the ollas with high quality, biologically active compost.

I was also tired of watering summer veggies in the barrel, so I tried it here too.

Second – examine the roots often. I was not able to even begin understanding what was going on with the whole system until I was able to look at the roots. In this kind of system light roots are good. Brown roots are not as good. Generally clear water is good. Smelly, brown water is not. Any hanging roots that have side roots are roots that require air. Putting too much water into the bucket and covering the roots that require air (too much watering) will kill the plant much faster than having the plant use up the water in the bucket (too little watering). With residual moisture in the soil around the roots, the plant will likely survive a day or so without water but, if waterlogged, the roots may deteriorate to the point that the plant will no longer recover. This means that you can only refill the bucket up to the point where the air-dependent roots stop. If these branching roots go all the way down to the bottom of the bucket, then you can still refill the bucket a couple inches. I had a really good time learning from my mistakes, including the mistake of trying to add a water-soluble solution to the water basin part-way through the season (something I would highly advise against).

One of my failures. Don't do this.

...and there's the water with the fertilizer. Not recommended for this application.

Even though watering a little on the soil surface definitely helps to maintain overall plant health in this system, the reservoir definitely does its job if the gardener needs to leave home for a while. I left my buckets in partial shade for several weeks and the plants did just fine without surface watering. Of all the advantages of this system was what I was able to do. Because of these buckets I grew out a lot more in my greenhouse in the summer without having to worry about watering on a daily basis. This, along with the spiders that keep the pollinators out of the greenhouse, enabled me to trail more cucumber varieties than ever.

What plants will look like once they really get going.

A closer look with terrible lighting.

Generally speaking, for all I learned I definitely would have done this all over again.

And the roots are looking okay, but need to be rinsed off a little.

In future posts, I hope to share how each of these trial varieties did for me.

A tomato plant before going into the wine barrel.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Increasing soil fertility by combining compost with water-soluble nitrogen

As a gardener, I often want to take the greatest advantage of the growing space and the amount of time I have full sun during the summer. In order to do this, I work to ensure that my soil is both healthy and fertile. Though there are many definitions of fertility, my definition is that the soil is imbued with the capacity to provide plant roots with the nutrients the plant needs at each stage of development in order to grow to its optimum potential.

My compost pile(s) earlier in the summer  with my green compost bucket nearby

A closeup of my compost pile later in the season

Sifted biologically active compost

Over the years, as I have worked with soil and my gardens, I have observed something about soil and fertility that my garden was kind enough to share with me.While in the past I have taken the approach to add compost at the beginning of the growing season and adding water-soluble fertilizer later, throughout the season, this practice only worked well near the beginning of the growing season, but as the season progresses I have found that the plants have not been able to handle the fertilizer. At first, I decided that this means that I need to add less nitrogen at a time, but I continued to have either foliage die-off or high periods of growth followed by signs of plant stress.

Planting my garden on July 20th

In my last planting, done on July 20th, I added both a layer of biologically active compost and organic water-soluble fertilizer. The results were both immediate and sustained. The amount of water-soluble fertilizer that I added was more than I usually add throughout the season. Since that time, I have not added additional amendments to my garden soil. As a result the plants have continued growing at a high rate and all the foliage has looked wonderful.

So – why has this happened? One possible factor is that with the garden doing so well, I am not walking on the boards in my garden as much and not compressing the soil. Another possibility is that the soil in my garden was at an optimal temperature when the plants were put in. Though these may be factors, another more likely reason for the improvement in fertile soil is that the biologically-active compost is acting as a biological sponge. When the water-soluble fertilizer is added to the mix, the compost began to digest the fertilizer, chemically holding it for a time, and slowly released this nitrogen-rich material to the plant as the roots came into contact with it.

My garden on August 28th, 39 days later with no additional amendments.

I highly encourage any gardener to try combining their own biologically active compost with organic water-soluble fertilizer when planting their summer garden. Hopefully you will have similar results.

Below is my little video, so you can see more of the results.