Winter Indoor Gardening Tips

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Contrary to popular belief, winter is a great time to try gardening – indoor gardening. It gives us a purpose during the gloomy months when we often feel isolated or sluggish. Indoor gardening during the winter is also a great time to experiment with new types of plants and really put your hydroponic growing skills to the test. There are some important winter indoor gardening tips to follow in order to sustain your plants throughout the long, cold months.

Plants to Grow Indoor During the Winter

The great thing about indoor gardening, especially using hydroponic and other soilless growing methods, is that you can essentially grow whatever you’d like year-round. Of course there are some exceptions, because in order to grow certain plants effectively you’ll need to proper equipment to create ideal growing conditions. This is why following these winter indoor gardening tips will set you up for successful year-round harvests.

Here are some plants to try this winter using soilless growing methods:

  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Carrots
  • Broccoli
  • Brussel Sprouts
winter-indoor-gardening-tips-growing-brussel-sprouts

Try growing brussel spouts indoors during the winter.

Things to Consider About Indoor Gardening During the Winter

Even though hydroponic plants are grown indoors, they are still susceptible to changing seasons. A controlled environment doesn’t necessarily insulate our plants from all conditions that arise with the winter climate. Here are some winter indoor gardening tips, such as the necessary conditions that will need to be created during the winter.

Lighting

The days are getting shorter which means you’ll likely need to rely more on artificial lighting to ensure your plants are receiving enough light intensity. This means higher energy costs. A great way to keep your utility costs in check is to out your lights on a timing cycle throughout the winter as daylight becomes scarce. You can also boost your light’s efficiency with ballasts and reflectors.

Insulation

Because of the need for increased grow lighting for indoor gardening in the winter, you’ll also want to reduce the amount of heat and energy loss, which also drive up utility costs. Additionally, you’ll want your plants to maintain a consistent temperature as sudden changes in temperature can send plants into shock. Don’t let temperatures dip below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Humidity

As the season changes to winter the air becomes more arid – including indoors. Home heating systems dry out indoor air even more causing your plants to react negatively to the lack of moisture. Though hydroponic plants’ roots stay moist in the nutrient solution, the air around them needs to also contain moisture in order for them to properly perform photosynthesis. By adding a humidifier to your grow room you can control the indoor climate and ensure your plants are receiving enough moisture in the air. Some plants can also be misted with water on their leaves. Be careful though no to over-do the moisture or you’ll subject your plants to mold build-up. It’s important to know how to properly ventilate the grow room to prevent this from happening.

Try using one of these automated soilless growing systems, to make winter indoor gardening easier.Feature Image: Indoor hydroponic gardening systems produce fresh herbs and vegetables year-round. Image via Scott’s Nursery.

Why Choose Fogponics (Mistponics)?

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Fogponics, also referred to as “mistponics”  is an advanced form of aeroponics which uses water in a vaporised form to transfer nutrients and oxygen to enclosed suspended plant roots.

Fogponic systems were born out of technological advancements based on aeroponic systems. The reason fogponics has not reached mainstream popularity as compared to hydroponics is because the technology has not yet achieved economic viability for either commercial or consumer use. Growers opt for hydroponic soilless growing systems because of greater awareness and availability. However, while hydroponics does save on water, fogponics can use up to 65% less water than hydroponics.

Here are some of the reasons to consider fogponic gardening systems:

  1. Easy to build
  2. Easy to maintain
  3. Silent
  4. Automated convenience
  5. Maximize space and outputs
  6. Use less water and energy

Vertical Hydroponic Systems For Hyper-Local Food

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Did you know there are multiple benefits to growing vegetables hydroponically?

The Pennsylvania start-up VEG-E Systems (Vertically Efficient Growing Environment Systems) is taking full advantage of vertical hydroponic systems and growing technology. These progressive growers are able to supply fresh food to their local markets year-round. This growing process is environmentally controlled in an indoor facility with various types of lettuce, kale, and herbs being produced.

The best part of vertical hydroponics systems is that not only do they allow for more growing at once, but the food tastes fresher, lasts longer, has greater nutritional value, is pesticide and herbicide free, and is non-GMO.

Health Benefits of Hydroponics

VEG-E Systems came to be as it was shaped through a health-centric and entrepreneur-focused company, Novotorium. Because controlled gardening systems like VEG-E Systems aren’t exposed to the elements, the need for pesticides is greatly reduced. As well within a controlled environment there are many other factors that improve the overall taste and quality of the produce. This also includes the nutritional value of the vegetables grown.

Popularity of Hydroponic Systems

Vertical hydroponic systems and indoor growing operations are cropping up all over North American cities. It’s easy to understand why when you learn of the valuable results such as those from VEG-E Systems. It also has a positive impact on the local community and business development, being able to supply the food to restaurants, supermarkets, and through Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs).

Home Hydroponics For You

Scaled vertical hydroponic systems are available to consumers for their homes, within any hardiness zone, during any time of year. It’s the easy and efficient way to get all the fresh produce you want and have fun with gardening.

For more information on how to get your own customized vertical hydroponic system contact [email protected] today and get growing!

Feature Image: Basil plants grown by VEG-E Systems. Photo by Lynne Goldman, 2014.

Vertical Farming Mitigates Food Safety Concerns

With the rising popularity of urban agriculture and hydroponics, more people recognize the clear benefits of controlled-environment agriculture, which include water savings, year-round production, and reductions of pesticide use. This month I researched another benefit that consumers often take for granted: food safety.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year, “roughly 48 million people (1 in 6) get sick from food eaten in the United States,” and “among all types of foods, produce accounted for nearly half of illnesses.” There have also been cases of foodborne illnesses from improper use or manufacturing of manure, either from sewer sludge or contaminated Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). While foodborne illnesses are notoriously difficult to trace, produce grown by outdoor farms carries a higher risk of foodborne illness than a greenhouse or vertical farm.

The CDC’s list of food borne illnesses, sources, and symptoms. Image via CDC.

Milan Kluko of Green Spirit Farms, a vertical farm near Buffalo, Michigan, agrees. He says, “Food safety should be inherent in vertical farms.” Here are his reasons:

1. Growing indoors eliminates variables of wildlife, weather, and cross-contamination.

2. Traceability is much easier through indoor farming.

3. Technologies like floor cleaners, dosing systems, and water quality sensors help keep the systems clean.

Green Spirit Farms is committed to food safety and delivering the best product to its customers. Kluko is ISO 14000 certified and runs a tight ship to keep his staff from contaminating any of the produce grown in their huge, indoor vertical farming warehouses. Staff must change out of their street clothes and shoes before working on the farm. Hand washing stations and signage demanding cleanliness are spread throughout the operation. Milan says that his whole team participates; “everyone takes part in cleaning on the farm, and it’s an integral part of our staff training.” Everything in the farm operation is tracked for traceability, including substrates and the non-GMO seeds used.

Paul Hardej of FarmedHere, another vertical farm near Chicago, stated that FarmedHere spent over $100,000 on its food safety pursuits. FarmedHere also plans to make its strategy publicly available for free to make the work easier for other indoor farmers.

As the founder of Agritecture.com, my focus has always been on collaboration in the industry, so I asked Kluko what he thought about those costs and how collaboration between vertical farmers could help. He responded that the best practices are “already out there,” and “there is nothing really to share publicly.” According to Kluko, vertical farms and greenhouses should look to hospitals as guides for cleanliness and best practices.

Green Spirit Farms’ Food Safety Tips for Greenhouses or Vertical Farms

1. Prioritize sanitation – use common sense. Look closely at how your farm is maintained. Hand washing is step one.

2. Focus less on technology – look at a hospital; cleanliness there is more about operations and procedures than technology.

3. Learn from existing programs – stay up to date with public auditing standards like USDA Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

4. Analyze your inputs and outputs – know your traceability!

5. Communicate effectively – display clear graphics to illustrate clean practices to your staff

Inside Green Spirit Farms’ controlled vertical farming operation. Image via Green Spirit Farms.

Kluko isn’t the only person who thinks that food safety concerns are mitigated in controlled environments. This Scranton Times article explains how food safety and the local food movement are interconnected. The traceability of products makes consumers feel safer as local farmers build their business around serving local customers.

“Thousands of consumers have been sickened by E.coli and salmonella contaminations of spinach, scallions, chilies, cantaloupes, and other fresh produce in recent years. The outbreaks have helped boost demand for local produce.” – James Haggerty, Staff Writer, Scranton Times

It’s exciting that farmers of Green Spirit and FarmedHere have joined the movement of bringing food indoors to provide healthier, local produce. Others have taken part in helping to navigate the challenges of food safety. Be sure to check out this guide for serving food grown on-site in school cafeterias by ChangeLab Solutions, a law and policy innovation group.

Despite the progress in food safety, work remains to be done. USDA Good Agricultural Practices certification is still prohibitively expensive for small-scale farmers, and many of the safest indoor farms in the country start relatively small. Reducing the cost of USDA GAP certification could be another step toward providing healthier, local produce.

Do you run a greenhouse or vertical farm? Share your strategies for mitigating food safety concerns.

Feature Image: Farm manager, Michael Suter inspects lettuce at Stone Bridge Farm’s USDA GAP certified hydroponic greenhouse. Image via Stone Bridge Farm.

Copyediting by Scott Lindquist

The Vast Potential of the MEG Open-Source Indoor Greenhouse

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It’s the 21st Century. We’re all connected. It’s absolutely the norm at this point for information to travel across the world in mere seconds. Therefore, it only makes sense that a hydroponics system should feature technology that allows people around the world to communicate freely, sharing growing ideas and information. Such is the case with the recently-developed kickstarter project Microexperimental Growing indoor greenhouse system (that’s MEG for short).

Created by a team led by lighting experts Carlo D’Alesio and Piero Santoro, the MEG indoor greenhouse utilizes Arduino-based software to gather growing information. A small board mounted inside a personal-sized greenhouse monitors the environment, gleaning information that is then fed back to a computer. Users will be able to adjust a variety of parameters including humidity, soil pH, temperature, and light-cycles.

[kickstarter id=”yradia/meg-open-source-indoor-greenhouse” mode=”normal” align=”center”]

The MEG indoor greenhouse is described as a “household-appliance-like” user experience, with the “overall power consumption of a standard flat tv”. I, for one, love this comparison; I like to think that the system has the potential to make hydroponic growing as second nature as (yet considerably less mindless than) watching television. Automation of the growing system isn’t the only technological aspect of MEG, however; the software will allow growers to create a user profile on “MEG social”, which will in turn allow them to share their current growing conditions and progress. The idea is that, with freely-exchanged growing information, growers will become indoor gardening experts. The sophisticated and well thought-out system provides options to contact others based on location or their ranking as a grower or developer, making it easy to seek out the most relevant information.

The open-source nature of the MEG indoor greenhouse isn’t limited to free exchange of growing information, however. While both the software and hardware of the MEG are seemingly well-developed, users will also be able to improve on both of these aspects. Thus, although the system isn’t explicitly designed for soilless growing, it can be easily modded to accommodate pretty much any soilless method one can think of.

By closely integrating the indoor growing experience and open information sharing, MEG is a growing system that’s progressive and has the potential to generate a wealth of new ideas that will benefit indoor and soilless growing for years to come.

Check out their kickstarter for more information and feel free to contribute! Without backers, this game-changing project may not come to fruition.

Feature Image: The MEG system is easy to maneuver and approximately the size of a small desk. Image via kickstarter.com

Utilizing Hydroponic Cloud Technology

Sustainability and technology are often intertwined. From osmotic power to the electric car, technology has made sustainability in its current incarnation possible.

Hydroponics’ Roots Are In Technology

Hydroponics itself has its roots in technology. Without technology, the field would not be as advanced as the point where it’s currently available for anyone who is willing to put the time into making hydroponics a part of their lifestyle.

A diagram of Cloud Computing. Image via Data-Hive.com.

The Future of Hydroponic Technology

So what’s the next technological breakthrough for the hydroponics sector?  There may not be one singular breakthrough that rises above the others in terms of importance, as each of them has their own importance.  Given that, the online world has seen the developments of cloud technology, and this technology is gaining steam in the hydroponics sector.

Hydroponic Cloud Technology

Cloud technology, in general, does not just provide sustainable benefits for merely hydroponics. Sustainability in general can benefit from the use of cloud technology. There are many environmental benefits that may make an impact if the use of the cloud is utilized. Its utilization can help reduce carbon emissions, waste, and energy consumption.

So far, hydroponic cloud technology is less about environmental impact, but rather using the technology to help provide hydroponic gardeners with systems that offer convenience, accuracy, and in-depth information that even seasoned growers may overlook. Many of these devices place a particular emphasis on giving gardeners the tools to make sure their gardens are healthy and running perfectly. With the use of the hydroponic cloud technology, growers are far more likely to run a more successful and healthier hydroponic farm.

As the benefits of hydroponic cloud technology gain reverence, there will be more and more products available to help growers. Here are some examples of products that are leading the way in hydroponic cloud technology.

Diagram of Bitponics Device. Image via Bitponics.

Bitponics

Initially developed by two engineers and funded via Kickstarter, this cloud-based monitor helps growers control every part of a hydroponic garden. The system provides monitoring of all of the necessities that go into cultivating a healthy hydroponic garden. This device aims to help gardeners with the growing process, making it far easier and better for the garden’s wellbeing, while improving efficiency. The system is also designed to be user friendly, which means that beginners can use it without having to worry about a steep learning curve.  As a result, this device can help expand the number of hydroponic farmers, including those who were previously intimidated to start an effective hydroponic farm.

In addition, the networking aspect of the Bitponics device has benefits as well. Any grower on vacation will be able to take care of the garden without having to be physically present ensuring no errors will ruin their garden. The system also lets growers share their own plan among a community.  Through this system, gardeners can gain wisdom and learn from others who share a mutual interest.

SmartBee Controller’s system components. Image via SmartBee Controllers.

Smartbee Controllers

Much like the Bitponic system, the SmartBee Controller aims to provide hydroponic gardeners with crucial information and helpful applications to run a better hydroponic garden.  The SmartBee Controller utilizes an intricate system of sensors, wireless software, and a control unit. The software and hardware collide with one another, offering hydroponic gardeners a myriad of tools to maximize their garden’s health and growth.

The sensors monitor water and CO2 levels, as well as the garden’s temperature, humidity, and light. The system software that SmartBee utilizes provides gardeners with a ton of features, such as lighting control, temperature control, grow tools, and more. Thanks to the software, a farmer has a wealth of helpful tools on their hand.

The OsmoBot System. Image via OsmoBot.com

OsmoBot

Currently in its beta testing and to be released in 2015, the OsmoBot seems to be another stellar product that will be benefit hydroponic gardeners. Potentially providing valuable benefits to many forms of “ponics”, the system hopes to provide farmers with the ability to run their gardens using important data information, helpful apps, wireless options, monitoring, and other features.
 Like many other devices, the OsmoBot monitors the growing methods, in order to make sure the garden health is being maximized. Through utilization of the device, the system offers a host of benefits that aim to make a user’s hydroponic farm thrive.

How to Use Clay Pebbles in Hydroponic Gardening

Clay pebbles are an excellent growing medium typically used in flood and drain or ebb and flow hydroponic growing systems. There are a variety of resources online that can show you how to build your own system or you can purchase a ready to use system at a hydroponic store. In this article, we will guide you through the process of using clay pebbles as a growing medium in a flood and drain hydroponic system.

A flood and drain hydroponic system consists of two levels: a planting container and a reservoir. Water is pumped from the reservoir to the planting container and then drained back into the reservoir to be recirculated. Typically, the system is controlled by connecting the pump to a timer so that water can be pumped through the system at set intervals throughout the day.

How To Use Clay Pebbles

Once your system is ready, using the clay pebbles is quite simple:

1. Rinse expanded clay pebbles to remove excess dirt and debris.

2. Fill plant container with clay pebbles.

3. Sprinkle seeds over clay pebbles directly or transplant seedlings into system. You can often find that new transplants are started in rockwool.

4. Fill the reservoir with a nutrient enriched solution following the product’s specifications. Empty your reservoir and refill with new nutrient solution approximately every two weeks. You may have to refill your reservoir more frequently depending on your plant’s nutrient consumption.

5. Set your timer to flood your plant container a couple times per day. If your system is using a combination of clay pebbles and another type of growing medium you may have to adjust the frequency of flooding as some materials hold water more readily than clay.

Lastly, make sure your water drains before reaching the upper surface of your clay pebbles as this can encourage algae growth and can cause issues with plant growth.

Alternative Uses For Clay Pebbles

Clay pebbles can also be used outdoors if you have raised garden beds. The raised beds can be lined with plastic or pond liner and set up as a flood and drain system. The advantage of the flood and drain system in combination with clay pebbles is that the plant roots are kept moist and well aerated after each draining cycle. To learn more about rockwool, you can read a previous post on the Benefits of Clay Pebbles as a Growing Medium.Feature Image: Expanded clay pebbles used as a grow medium. Image via Almost Heaven Hydroponics.

Hydro News: USDA Calls for Hydroponics Task Force

Hydroponic Farmers Maintain a Large Commercial Greenhouse

In March 2015, The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) published a Federal Register Notice calling for nominees for a new task force on aquaponics and hydroponics. This new task force will report to the National Organic Standards Board, describing current organic production methods and assess whether they align with the Organic Foods Production Act and USDA organic regulations. The task force will be comprised of a group of individuals that have relevant experience and knowledge, enabling the agency to provide valuable contributions to the process.

Hydroponics and Organic Regulations

Currently, organic hydroponic production is allowed in commercial agriculture as long as producers can demonstrate compliance with USDA organic regulations. However, in 2010, the National Organics Standards Board filed a report to the USDA titled Production Standards for Terrestrial Plants in Containers and Enclosures (Greenhouses), which recommended disallowing organic hydroponic production on the basis that it’s not soil-based.

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Commercial food production could greatly benefit from USDA hydroponics support.

A divide was created between supporters of this report and emerging technologies in hydroponic and aquaponic production. For this exact reason, AMS has decided to create the Organic Aquaponics and Hydroponics Task Force. The task force will examine hydroponic production methods and assess whether they comply with USDA regulations and The Service is seeking the opinions of industry experts before acting on the Organic Standards Board’s recommendation. The nomination window will close on May 8th. The USDA expects the task force to present its completed report to the Organic Standards Board in Spring 2016.

The Federal Register Notice requires that candidates have at least three years of demonstrable work experience in hydroponic, aquaponic, or aeroponic production in a variety of roles related to the industry (i.e. researcher, producer, conservationist, etc.). If you are interested in entering, refer to the official Federal Register Notice for full submission details.

Urban Renovation: Hydroponic Retrofits in Unused Buildings

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If there’s one thing the conversation of sustainability can teach us is that we must find opportunities to do things better than we did before – economically, socially, and environmentally. Cities are encouraged to see that urban renovations are underway whereby old, unused, or abandoned buildings and empty lots are being repurposed with a better economic function than their original existence.

Hydroponic Retrofits as a Real Estate Solution

One such new found life is urban agriculture – specifically through hydroponic technology. The hydroponic retrofits not only provide new found business opportunities for a local economy, but are a valuable way to bring together the community, promote the important topic of health, and grow and produce local food all while reusing an industrial building that might have otherwise been restricted solely to a life of dust-collection.

 Hydroponic Retrofits as an Energy Solution

The new trend of hydroponic retrofits is popular for many reasons. For one thing, the practice of urban agriculture completely transforms an industrial space which may previously have been less than environmentally sustainable. In addition to the obvious food production benefits of commercial hydroponic retrofits, the buildings end up undergoing energy retrofits as well which greatly reduce the water and power consumption and increase operational cost savings.

An example of such an improvement would include the alteration of lighting in the horticulture rooms which are always at the cutting edge of innovation when it comes to energy efficiency as plants require unique spectrum lighting. Hydroponic retrofit buildings are also more likely to include solar panels and rainwater harvesting systems. Additionally, the building’s ventilation abilities would naturally improve due to the horticultural requirements of proper plant growth.

 Hydroponic Retrofits as a Climate Change Solution

Another little appreciated benefit of hydroponic retrofit buildings include the capacity for combating CO2 levels. Hydroponic food production is now seen as an appropriate and sustainable technology which can add greenery to a likely barren area which lowers carbon emissions through plants’ natural filtration capabilities. 

One city in particular that is being recognized for this innovative solution is Chicago which has been plagued by what’s called the Urban Heat Island Effect which traps greenhouse gas emissions at street level between the skyrises during summer months. Of course this is causing tremendous health concerns in the city and therefore appropriate measures are being taken to remedy the problem.

In conjunction with the vision of the City of Chicago to reduce urban air pollution, a local social enterprise has committed to turning abandoned Chi-town warehouses into hydroponic growing factories. The Plant is the first of its kind and has forged itself an ideal combination of economic opportunity, social empowerment, and environmental stewardship. It’s a hydroponic retrofit building that produces and sells food all while battling Chicago’s CO2 problem.

The Future of Hydroponic Retrofits

Overall hydroponic retrofit buildings host numerous opportunities to improve the community in which they reside. It is through ongoing trial, innovation, and belief in the cause that will one day lead this economic opportunity to become a unquestionable solution to many urban problems.

Feature Image: PonicPods is a hydroponically retrofit shipping container used for urban farming. Image via SingularityHub.com

Top Smartphone Apps for Hydroponic Gardening

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Hydroponic gardening can be an activity that requires a fair amount of skill. For growers who are devoted to their hobby, you may understand how hydroponic gardening is actually more of a science than just a pastime. To produce the best results you need to constantly monitor you’re the growing conditions of your indoor environment. This includes factors such as lighting, nutrient solution, and pH levels as well as peripheral conditions like room temperature, ventilation and humidity. And that’s not to mention all the potential diseases, pests, and other types of symptoms you want to watch for. It makes managing and growing a successful garden quite tricky, especially if you’ve got more than one system operating at any given time.

Luckily we live in a connected world where access to information is always an option to help us solve our challenges – even when it comes to hydroponic gardening.

Top Smartphone Apps for Hydroponic Gardening

There are a variety of apps designed to help monitor, maintain, and protect hydroponic gardens while relieving many of the common headaches that occur for growers. Here are some apps for hydroponic gardening that are getting a lot of buzz:

Apps for Selecting Plants

Pocket Garden: A research tool for selecting the best plants for your garden. Includes tips on germinating seeds and harvesting of certain crops.

When to Plant: A database of thousands of plant types including their ideal planting dates and care requirements.

MQ Green Thumb: An app for consulting your gardening project from start to finish. This app helps you select the best location for your plants based on sun exposure as well as it contains a database of plant information which can be saved to a clipboard.

Garden Compass smartphone app is a plant and disease identifier. Image via GardenCompass.com

Apps for Monitoring Growth

Perfect Hydroponics: A documentation tool to record your garden’s progress. Use the notes to compare your results to future gardens to improve the health of your plants.

GroLog by Grodan: A multi-garden assistant that helps you record the progress of each garden by selecting what kind of data you’d like to track (i.e. nutrients, lighting, room conditions). This app also has a scheduling and reminders feature that will alert you as to your garden’s needs.

HID Gardener: A documentation app that allows you to record your indoor garden’s productivity based on your specified data sets. Notes can also be recorded throughout the growth cycles.

Apps for Treating Plants

Plant Doctor: A plant health improvement app that helps you identify plant stress treatment options based on the symptoms. Solutions such as lighting, watering, and nutrient levels will be presented.

Garden Compass: An identifier app that allows you to submit photos of your plant to a group of experts. These garden advisors will identify for you the pest or disease type as well as their treatment recommendations.

 What are your favorite smartphone apps for hydroponic gardening? Send us your input.