The DIY Smart Garden System

I’m going to take you on a tour of Do It Yourself Smart Gardening

My name is Cory, I’m a Technical Craftsman specializing in creative problem solving within electronics and software engineering.  Professionally, I’ve worked as an electronics engineer, a plastics fabricator, software engineer, an industrial laser technician, and, of course, a coffee barista.  I’ve spent the last several years working on a Smart Garden System project I named, hydroMazing.  I’m sharing my work with you because I would like to empower everyone who is interested in a “Smart” approach to gardening.

What we’ve covered so far:cropped-hydromazing_smart_garden_system

 

Are you interested in following me on this journey?

Now that we have an understanding of what it takes to provide an optimum indoor growing environment we can start analyzing the cost-benefit of further optimizing and automating the system.  Please share with friends and follow to receive a notification when I publish the next section.

Section 1:  Let’s start by using an Arduino Nano on an Expansion Board to monitor the indoor gardening environment.  We will measure light intensity, ambient temperature, relative humidity, nutrient/water temperature.

Section 2:  Continue working with the Arduino Nano on an Expansion Board to control appliances in the indoor gardening environment.  We can continue working directly wired or we can start working with wireless communications.  Wired or Wireless?

Section 3:  Add an Arduino Uno using an LCD with Buttons Shield to provide a display and alerts.

Section 4:  Add the Raspberry Pi for remote access, notifications, data collection, and analytics.

Section 5:  More sensors:  moisture probe, pH, E.C., carbon dioxide level, flow-rate, liquid, float (liquid level switch).Peristaltic Pump

Advanced:  Using Dosing/Peristaltic Pumps for Nutrient Solution Management.

Using a Raspberry Pi and USB Camera  Use Raspberry Pi to monitor or collect snapshots of the garden using a USB webcam.

Coming Soon:  hydroMazing Smart Garden System Kit

Kit includes wired and ready sensors and components for making the Controller Module (Arduino Nano) and Web Services Module (Raspberry Pi)?

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Managing Nutrient Solution Systems

A nutrient solution system typically consists of a two or three part liquid solution containing the essential diet for a plan added to clean tap water.  The manufacturer of the nutrient solution will include or reference a feeding schedule recommended for various common types of plants. Unfortunately, most minerals are mined and processed by the manufacturers, however, many offer an organic option while some specialize in only organic.

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nutrient starter kit

I recommend starting with General Hydroponics Flora Series Performance Pack, consisting of the main three liquid parts, several enhancements, and the pH test kit.  There is also an organic line of products. (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.) 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.

Making Your Own Nutrient Solutions

There are several challenges involved in making your own nutrient solution.  Sourcing the raw minerals needed, breaking-down properly so that the plants are able to absorb the nutrients, and filtering out unwanted materials that will clog the flow of nutrient solution through the system while maintaining a proper pH and hoping that you didn’t inadvertently introduce an undesirable pest into a closed-system.

Experiment with microfungals:  Make your own hydroponic compost tea

Nutrient Solution Management

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The most common vessel for transporting and storing water is the 5-gallon plastic bucket, also commonly available in 3-gallon as well.  The most common method for managing liquid is to use ½” diameter vinyl tubing and fittings.

If we do not monitor the nutrient solution concentration and the pH then the plants will reach a point where they will show signs of stress.

What is EC?

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.

As the nutrient solution level decreases it needs to be replenished with freshwater, 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.”

What is pH?

The pH of water is an important measurement whether you are gardening indoors or outdoors, soil or soilless, because it affects whether a plant can properly take in nutrients.

Check the pH and EC periodically and compare it to what is expected for that plant at this stage of growth.  There is no need to adjust your pH or EC until it is necessary. 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.  There are many hand-held EC devices available as well and if you are checking the E.C., it’s a great time to check the pH.  Therefore, 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.

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.  I recommend using a solution made specifically for this purpose, pH Up and pH Down from General Hydroponics sparingly and only when necessary.

Flushing

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. When in doubt, flush the system and refresh the nutrients. Otherwise, it’s recommended to flush your recirculating system every 7 – 14 days. When I grow, I try to keep the nutrient solution working as long as possible, however, salts build-up over time and it is good to flush with fresh water from time to time.

Using float switches:

  1. Top float switch used to indicate vessel is full of liquid.
  2. Middle float switch provides warning or triggers a pump to refill.
  3. Bottom float switch turns off pumps and notifies attendant that vessel is out of liquid.

Flow-rate:  A hall-effect flow sensor’s data can be used to determine the flow rate of the liquid being pumped.

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Indoor Gardening: What can go wrong?

What can go wrong?

Once you know the problems that can arise and how to avoid or deal with them, you’ll grow a garden you can be proud of.

Plant Selection

Different plants have different needs.  Research the plant care.  Many houseplants are native to tropical areas and are best for growing in the home because temperatures are similar.  Plants from colder climates, such as azaleas, chrysanthemums, roses, etc., that require cooler temperatures can be difficult to grow indoors.  Local nurseries are the best resource for providing proper varieties of plants for your climate; and proper plant care for the type of plants you are growing.

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Plants need enough light to grow, which can be problematic if you’re living in an apartment building or rental unit that doesn’t get enough sunlight. Houseplants grow fine under most indoor lights.

If you are wanting to produce a harvest of something consumable, such as growing vegetables, herbs and more exotic houseplants, you will probably need more than a basic florescent light.

If you’re interested in more information on grow lights, I found this article to be thorough, Understanding the Different Types of Grow Lights Available by Chris Bond.

 

 

Environmental Problems

Certain plants in your indoor garden require some level of moisture to stay alive.  Some appliances in your home can dry out the air though, such as heaters.  The common method for avoiding this problem is to spray the plant leaves with water at least once a day.  A humidifier may be a worthwhile investment as well, to keep the air from drying out.

Overuse of Fertilizers

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nutrient starter kit

Too much fertilizer is bad to use on your plants.  Do your research on the plants that you are growing.  Check the manufacturer’s recommendations and seek out independent reviews on the product.  Err on the side of caution, start out by using less than the recommendations, depending on the plant, this can be by as much as half.  One sure sign that you’re using too much is dark green to browning in the leaves. If you’re not sure what to get, ask the nursery where you purchased the plant for advice, or call your local state’s cooperative extension office.

 

 

Improper Watering

You can give your plants too much water, and you can dry out your plants roots by giving them too little water. Your indoor garden needs the right amount of water to do well.  Often the signs of over-watering are the plant leaves start decaying.  Make sure the containers and pots have drainage.  Buy containers that already have proper drainage; otherwise, drill holes at the bottom of the containers yourself.  Hydroponics systems need an air-pump to aerate the water, and/or a water pump for circulating the water and keeping it oxygenated.

Pests, Bacteria and Infectionsbug

Indoor gardens are susceptible to disease and infections, no matter how well you look after them. When researching your plants, identify what problems other people have had growing those plants.  What worked for them and what didn’t.  Ask for help at your local hydroponics store; try to use fungicides and organic solutions to keep your plants healthy.

As with most things in life, prevention is the key.  Keep the environment clean by pruning plants, removing dead and dying matter, and disinfecting as needed.  Temperature, relative-humidity, and air circulation are factors for maintaining an optimum growing environment, which will greatly reduce the risk of pests and infections.

Maintaining your Indoor Garden

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