Digging Deeper into Indoor Gardening

What do plants actually require in order to grow well?

It is important for context and it is important for every human to understand what it takes to grow plants, even if the future doesn’t allow for outdoor cultivation.  At a minimum this is my effort to prevent future generations from suffering the fate of a World without plants as proposed by Mike Judge in his movie “Idiocracy” where people no longer understand why plants wouldn’t want to live on a beverage containing “electrolytes.”

Regardless of which method you choose:  soil, hydroponic, or an aquaponics system, none will be able to compensate for poor growing conditions such as improper temperature, inadequate light, or pest problems.  Indoor grown plants have the same general requirements for good growth as field-grown plants. The major difference is the method by which the plants are supported and how the inorganic elements necessary for growth and development are supplied.

Let’s start out by discussing what it takes, at a minimum, to grow plants indoors and then look at ways to improve, scale in size, and automate the mundane.

plant-needs-chart

Quick review of growing in soil

When we think of home gardening, we typically assume the plants are growing in soil.

Soil makes sense.  Plants in nature grow in soil, some maybe fortunate enough to receive a freshwater stream but most plants use their roots to seek out and locate water and nutrients.  Seasonal sunlight provides the light intensity needed for photosynthesis.  Temperature control is achieved by combining the sunlight with the wind to create a comfortable growing environment, while frequent rains bring the water needed by the plant for both nutrient uptake and respiration.  The plant can rely on signals such as the change in daylight and weather to indicate that it is time to flower.  Pollination occurs from the wind or bees and other insects that enjoy a sweet nectar as reward for their services.  Pest control is handled by the natural order when a predator insect finds, catches, and eats the pests on the plant.

As with most in life, It need not be a binary decision.  We don’t have to create a sterile environment for plants to thrive indoors.  In fact, I prefer to grow with hydroponics indoors and include a compost tea that I make from soil!

Going Soilless

 

 

Growing plants indoors without soil is a lot easier than you may think.pothos

If you or a friend have a common houseplant, such as a Pothos or Philodendron, then you can try out hydroponics without anything more than a small jar and tap water.  Using utility scissors, clip off a small 4-6 inch section of the Mother plant that has a few healthy leaves.  Wash and rinse a jar, then fill with clean tap water to about half of the jar. Rinse the clipped portion with tap water and insert it into your jar.  Ideally, you would feed the plant by supplying a small serving of nutrient solution, without it very little growth will occur. Place the jar on a dark shelf where the leaves can hang out into the light.  Within a few weeks, you should see some root growth.

Why not just grow ever plant the same way as the Philodendron?   The plant is hardy and can tolerate most indoor living conditions.  The same plant would grow much faster if we provide it with a more stable comfortable environment and aerate the water with an aquarium air pump.  Additionally, most plants are not as tolerant of the cloning process, removing a clipping and expecting it to grow roots, without an anti fungal to prevent root rot and a rooting hormone to encourage root growth.  Also, that formula is not recommended for plants that produce food.

Plants that produce food require more.

What types of plants grow well indoors?

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Leafy greens (lettuces, spinach) herbs:  parsley, cilantro, oregano, thyme, chives, mint), strawberries, tomatoes, cannabis, exotics, etc.  Squashes and the like require a great deal of space as they mature enough to produce fruit.  Onions, carrots, turnips, radishes, and especially, potatoes, require a lot of root growth space.

hydrotonContainer and growing mediums

Clay Pots, grow bags, but mostly, plastic containers and PVC Tubing

Common soilless options:  rockwool, expanded clay pellets, hydro stones, vermiculite, perlite, coco coir, peat moss, sponge

What do you need to setup a complete indoor garden

Equipment needed for lowest-cost method of growing indoors

 

 

  • Tent or confined structure
  • Fluorescent Light on an outlet timer.
  • Intake Fan / Exhaust Fan
  • Containers
  • Water / Nutrient Solution
  • Air-pump ( aquarium-style) and tubing

Recommended:

  • Temperature / Humidity Meter
  • EC Meter
  • pH Meter

We need electricity and a way to get water to the grow site.

  • Lights
  • Ventilation
  • Water quality, Oxygen, and Mineral Nutrients

Location

Consider whether you are going to be sharing your living space with the plants?  If so, then you will need an indoor growing tent.  

 

 

Important factors to consider include:

  • How much space do you have?
  • What do you want to grow and and how much of it?
  • What is the cost of equipment and how much time do you have to spend maintaining the system?

If you are fortunate enough to have access to a greenhouse, terrarium, or sun porch then you can take advantage of our natural sunlight.  If you’ve not grown in those environments or don’t have one, then you might want to convert an entire garage, basement, or other room? However, before you do that, I highly recommend you start with a small to medium-sized grow tent, which you can then setup inside of a garage, basement, or other room creating a smaller micro-environment.  Even if you plan on scaling to a larger size, then you’ll be glad to have the tent environment so that you can use it primarily for starting seeds.

Plants grow well only within a limited temperature range. Temperatures that are too high or too low will result in abnormal development and reduced production.

  • Warm-season vegetables and most flowers grow best between 60° and 75° or 80° F. 
  • Cool-season vegetables such as lettuce and spinach should be grown between 50° and 70°F.

Think about safety when setting-up your indoor garden.

It is a very good idea to use a GFCI adapter for your AC outlet if it does not already have one. Good quality extension cords can then be attached.  I often use the top of the tent as a place for the electrical cords to meet and connect to an extension. It is important to keep electrical cords a few feet or more off of the floor / ground in the event an overflow or flooding occurs we do not want to create an opportunity for electricity and water to mix.

recommended equipment:

48” x 48” x 80” indoor grow tent

24” x 24” x 48” indoor grow tent

Setup a tent, or closet, or spare-room.

A search on Amazon will result in many options and many sizes.  Whatever size of tent you think you have space for, imagine the tent taking up a little more than that and reconsider.  Trust me, I’ve made this mistake more than once 😉

Suggestions:

Next Up:  Maintaining your Indoor Garden

More Info:

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The Making of hydroMazing

 

It was two years ago when I decided to try using an Arduino Uno microcontroller to replace my individual Lux WIN100 Heating & Cooling Programmable Outlet Thermostat.  These outlets control an appliance, such as a small heater or, in this case, a ventilation fan.  A device that is plugged into the outlet turns on and off the appliance by using temperature settings that you manually program into each device.  This technique for controlling the ventilation fans is effective, yet uses several extension cords.  The temperature outlet controllers use old-fashioned relays to switch the state of the device.  My initial attempt was to hack an extension box inserting my own relays into it and connecting them to the Arduino Uno.  It wasn’t very long before there was a mess of wires with lots of connector nuts and I was left feeling discouraged.

A home automation idea that I had bouncing around in my head for a 20150412_104406while was to use wirelessly controlled AC outlets that use a hand-held remote-control.  Hacking the remote control to send the signal for the ON or OFF button selected by a corresponding pin on the Arduino Uno shouldn’t be too difficult, right?  The nagging concern that was preventing me from testing this idea was the fear that the signal would not be reliable and the Uno might “think” it had turned on a device when it actually failed.  Eventually, I was able to convince myself that the best way to find out is to just try and see what happens.  Unfortunately, the results of this test wasn’t much better than the relay attempt.

A search on the web for nearly any sensor or electronic doo-dad with “Arduino” will result in a number of products being sold for a few bucks.  In this case, I found the 315Mhz and 433Mhz transmitter and receiver pairs that are within the frequency range of most commercial wirelessly controlled outlets.  The greatest advantage to using the Arduino family of microcontrollers for these types of projects, is that you can find open-source software to get started.  Another search on the web for an “Arduino library” and in this case, transmitter and receiver or tx/rx pair.  Now, it was getting exciting for me.  I could read the codes coming out of the remote-control, record them, and then program the Arduino to control the corresponding outlets.  Designing the software to operate on the Arduino Uno became the challenge.  The examples that come with the Arduino software and the examples included with libraries are an excellent start to a project.  In my experience, once you start combining and making modifications to the examples it doesn’t take very long before you hit a wall.  I don’t think I’m a good programmer, I think I’m a stubborn perfectionist.

In one of my favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the author, Robert Pirsig, speaks of the gumption trap.  Essentially, the gumption trap is an event or mindset that can cause a person to lose enthusiasm and become discouraged from starting or continuing a project.  Knowing when to push through the discomfort and frustration and when to take a break and walk-away from the project are personal challenges.  There have been times when if I had taken a break, I might not have come-up with an excellent solution to a conflict in my source code.  Contrary, there have been times when I have walked-away for a month and worked on a completely different type of project feeling reinvigorated.   Perhaps, if the project is important enough, we will be compelled to return to work on it.  The trap is convincing ourselves that the project isn’t worth returning to even when it could be amazing.  Maybe it really isn’t worth returning to complete and this is where many projects end.

 

The software I have developed has been programmed into the microcontroller and features a set of base parameters for timing, managing, transmitting, and receiving “sensor” objects and “appliance” objects.  Control of appliances is achieved through a set of algorithms I have named “TheDecider,” which makes decisions based on sensor readings and pre-programmed thresholds and prompts the microcontroller to turn on or off the wirelessly controlled outlets.  I wanted the system to be easily modified to work with other environments including aquaponics, growing mushrooms, and anything where control is achieved by reading sensors and operating appliances based on programmed rules.

 

The wirelessly controlled outlets proved to be a etekcity_outletsreliable method of controlling the fans using the Arduino to send the signals depending on the temperature sensor’s readings.  It didn’t take long for the source-code to evolve into a beast.  The Arduino family of microcontrollers is limited in how many instructions it can run and hitting the program size limit doesn’t take very long when you want to control more than a few blinking LEDs.  I have found that the size limitation has forced me to write better, more efficient code than I initially do.  Even with creative variable handling and custom libraries, eventually, there is a need for another microcontroller or to move to a larger one.  There are several ways that the microcontrollers can communicate with each other.  The least expensive wireless method I could find is the nRF24L01 wireless radio transceiver.  The module is a low-power, lightweight variety of bluetooth giving hydroMazing the ability to communicate with a monitoring unit.fpzexmwi7vqs7mr-medium

I decided to add another Arduino Uno with an Liquid Crystal Display shield so that I could display what the sensors were reading and state of appliances.

I made my own open and adaptable platform that can be custom tailored to a wide variety of gardening needs and conditions; yet, also a self-contained wireless system.  The open-architecture of the system allows for ease of integrating Internet connectivity and web services.

hydroMazing outside the box
hydroMazing outside the box

Today, the project, I named, hydroMazing uses a listening Raspberry Pi for logging and communicating via email and text messaging.  In addition to the main system, I have further developed hydroMazing to include solar-powered ‘nodes’ offering even greater flexibility to scale in size accommodating outdoor gardens and industrial greenhouses.

 

How to Grow Happy Plants

If you’ve ever wanted to grow plants such as herbs, greens, strawberries, and tomatoes at home but thought it would be way too hard and expensive, then you’ll want to read on. You’ll still need to learn some plant care basics, but here are some handy tips and tricks.

 

 

Let’s talk about what your plants will need on a continual basis to successfully grow indoors.

Dew B

Water quality can be a problem in hydroponic systems. Water with excessive alkalinity or salt content can result in a nutrient imbalance and poor plant growth. Softened water may contain harmful amounts of sodium. Water that tests high in total salts should not be used. Salt levels greater than 0.5 millions or 320 parts per million are likely to cause an imbalance of nutrients.image13

Oxygen: Plants require oxygen for respiration to carry out their functions of water and nutrient uptake. In soil adequate oxygen is usually available, but plant roots growing in water will quickly exhaust the supply of dissolved oxygen and can be damaged or killed unless additional air is provided. A common method of supplying oxygen is to bubble air through the solution.

Mineral Nutrients:  Green plants must absorb certain minerals through their roots to survive. In the garden these minerals are supplied by the soil and by the addition of fertilizers such as manure, compost, and fertilizer salts. The essential elements needed in large quantities are nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. Micronutrients – iron, manganese, boron, zinc, copper, molybdenum, and chlorine are also needed but in very small amounts.

hydroton

I’m sure you’re already familiar with growing plants in soil, so I won’t discuss the obvious need for soil in containers.  However, If you want to try hydroponics and maybe even aquaponics read-on, otherwise, skip ahead.

Support your plants by giving the roots something to grab onto and hydrate as needed.I recommend starting seeds with coco-coir (pronounced coyer) and then expand into clay pellets as the medium for containing your plants’ roots. Also known as LECA (Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate), or common brand name: “Hydroton,” clay pellets retain and release moisture at a slow, constant rate so the roots aren’t over- or under-saturated.

Recommended Equipment:

A nutrient solution system: I recommend starting with General Hydroponics Flora Series Performance Pack, consisting of the main three liquid parts, several enhancements, and the pH test kit. (Handy tip: If you ask General Hydroponics or other nutrient solution vendors for samples of their products, you can usually get free or discounted trial sizes.) The pH of water is an important measurement whether you are gardening indoors or outdoors, in soil or soil-less, because it affects whether a plant can properly take in nutrients.  A word of caution about miracle growing fertilizers, do not add any fertilizers other than those you know to be hydro-friendly, as it can cause a nutrient build-up harming your plants.

The nutrient solution water level of the hydroponic container system must be monitored.

As the nutrient solution level decreases it needs to be replenished with fresh water, otherwise the nutrient solution becomes more concentrated and some plants won’t respond well.  Add fresh water to bring the concentration back to the level it was when started, often referred to as “topping-off.”

The pH of water is an important measurement whether you are gardening indoors or outdoors, soil or soil-less, because it affects whether a plant can properly take in nutrients. The electrical conductivity (EC) of water estimates the total amount of solids dissolved in water -TDS, (Total Dissolved Solids). TDS is often measured in ppm (parts per million). In hydroponics, this measurement is used to determine the approximate concentration of nutrient solution to water.

There is no need to adjust your pH or EC until it is necessary.

This is a big one!  There is a lot of misinformation out there about keeping the pH and EC regulated.  If I were paranoid, I’d say it was a conspiracy from hydroponics manufacturers and retailers who want to sell more consumable product.  Don’t get me wrong, proper pH and EC is important, even critical, to the success of a plant.

I recommend a handheld pH tester such as the Oakton EcoTestr pH 2 Waterproof pH Tester, which is excellent for the home gardener and has been proven time and again to be accurate.

The electrical conductivity (EC) of water estimates the total amount of solids dissolved in water, or TDS (Total Dissolved Solids). TDS is often measured in ppm (parts per million). In hydroponics, this measurement is used to determine the approximate concentration of nutrient solution to water. There are many hand-held EC devices available as well and if you are checking the pH, it’s a great time to check the E.C.

When do I need to adjust the pH?

Only under the following conditions:

pH is at or below 5.0 or above 6.5

AFTER at least 30 minutes from the time of topping-off or changing the nutrient solution.

How to adjust?  I highly recommend using pH Up and pH Down from General Hydroponics sparingly and only when necessary.

When to flush and how to do it  Flushing means to literally flush empty the nutrient solution from the hydroponics system and replace it with fresh “good” tap-water.  Then return the nutrient solution back to what it should be for the phase of growth.

Plan ahead!!  

Have your empty buckets or tubing, whatever method you choose to drain the contents of the nutrient solution tank.  I have found it extremely helpful to have a wet/dry vacuum handy in case things get messy and for me, they often do 😉

The following lists items you will typically need in an indoor gardening environment:

Electricity for Ventilation and Lights

Recommended Equipment:

Electricity is needed to operate fans, pumps, and lights.  It is a very good idea to use a GFCI adapter for your AC outlet if it does not already have one.  Good quality extension cords can then be attached.image10

Ventilation

Recommended Equipment:

image02

 

 

Where can you get fresh-air and where is it acceptable for the exhaust to blow?  When purchasing a ventilation fan or blower for the setup you will want to get some ventilation duct tubing as well.  I highly recommend some air filter material over your intake to prevent unnecessary contamination ( pet dander )

Lights

All vegetable plants and many flowers require large amounts of sunlight. Hydroponically grown vegetables like those grown in a garden, need at least 8 to 10 hours of direct sunlight each day to produce wells Artificial lighting is a poor substitute for sunshine, as most indoor lights do not provide enough intensity to produce a crop. Incandescent lamps supplemented with sunshine or special plant-growth lamps can be used to grow transplants but are not adequate to grow the crop to maturity. High intensity lamps such as high-pressure sodium lamps can provide more than 1,000 foot-candles of light. The serious hobbyist can use these lamps successfully in areas where sunlight is inadequate. The fixtures and lamps, however, are very expensive and thus not feasible for a commercial operation.

Recommended Equipment:image03

HIGHER WATTAGE = BETTER PLANT GROWTH

HIGHER WATTAGE = MORE HEAT = NEED MORE VENTILATION

The relationship between the output of grow lights typically focuses only on wattage.  The more wattage in your cottage, the more power consumption and more photons available for the plants to absorb proving better plant growth.  The caveat being that the more power consumption, the more heat is produced and the more ventilation that will be necessary in order to maintain a comfortable growing environment.

*I personally prefer to connect my lights to a traditional mechanical timer.