Hydroponics eBook

In 2004, I had an idea to design and build an indoor hydroponics system that could grow a quartet of large tomate plants. I would build the system and test it and then write an eBook for sale online. 



Introducing the Tomato Tower

A couple weeks ago I got an idea to write an eBook about hydroponic growing after reading all about people automating a steady cash flow by publishing their own eBooks that they wrote and selling them on eBay.

The idea still seems too good to be true but it will take a lot of work to get the book completed and I will have to build the system. The book will feature basic information about plants and growing and different kinds of hydroponic systems and include a step-by-step tutorial for building one's own hydro system. the "Tomato Tower" (preliminary model featured to the right).

I'll post photos in here of the success I have with the construction of the model as well as my general progress with the writing of the publication. It would be so cool to have this done in a couple months and then find out if there is money to be made. I plan to sell it for $4.95 USD and hopefully there will be many people typing in 'hydroponics' on eBay and will find it. That's the general idea anyway.

Wish me luck. ; )



So far, so good

I acquired the materials to build the frame for the hydroponic system in my head a couple days ago and made time today to cut and assemble the pieces. I've made it very simple : the main structure is made up of 26 20" pieces and the rest is just details. ; )

I've been getting great feedback about my idea to develop my own hydroponic book and I'm getting more excited as the idea develops further. Looking at the frame erected in my room gives me much more motivation to get it all assembled and working so I can confirm my suspicion that indeed, this will be a fantastic winter project.

I already have a light, ballast and pump kicking around so I'll only really need to acquire the buckets and the genetics (plants) and I'm off. I'll steal the spinners from my greenhouse (those plants are pretty much done anyway) and I can probably find some spagetti tubing around somewhere. I'm anxious to see little tomato babies growing in my room.



We (almost) have liftoff

Well, I have all the gear and miscellaneous parts now. Just have to find time to put it all together.

The buckets need appropriately sized holes punched in the bottom of them for the thru-hull and a hole for a net pot cut in the lid. Also 2 small holes for the feed lines in each lid. The reservoir needs 4 holes to accept the drains and one to allow the feedhoses through.

I have to bend the light reflector to the appropriate shape and rivet some steel bar to it for the mogul socket and S-hooks to link it to the chain.

For the irrigation itself, I need to cut spagetti tubing to length, create a 8 port manifold out of thicker tubing and affix the two together. The manifold hooks right up to the pump.

Ok ... Monday or Tuesday hopefully.



It's coming together


Sorry about that. I just love it when my ideas start to take shape. I've run into only one obstacle : the dimensions I chose for the platform are just a bit too small for the buckets to all fit on. I plan to acquire a few more lengths of PVC pipe and recut segments a couple inches longer for the width and depth members.

The photos on the right visually describe the top of the buckets, the top of the reservoir and what's actually inside the reservoir. I don't anticipate that everyone that tries to build this will be using a pump like mine (1200gph MagDrive) but it should work on much smaller units too. I'll experiment a bit with 80gph and other models around there.

I haven't installed the microsprinklers yet or added any water to the system but if I have time tonight I'll get on that. I'd love to hear the cascading sound of the water running down the sides of the buckets and draining back into the reservoir ... music to my ears.



... and there was light

Everyone in my house agrees, it's really bright! I told them all about lumens and how that a 400W Metal Halide bulb is approximately 25 times brighter than a 100W incandescant (normal lightbulb). 4 times the power usage, 25 times the brightness - sounds like a good deal to me. ; )

I've rebuilt this whole thing now. It's 24"x24"x80" which is bigger by several inches on every axis. I've added an actual platform for the buckets to sit on instead of that goofy pvc latticework. The reflector is a very simple piece of 18"x18" white 20ga aluminum with a 1.25" wide piece of 1/8" steel flat bar riveted to it. The flat bar is bent with a hammer and vice, nothing fancy. The mogul socket for the bulb is fastened to the steel with some machine screws. There are also a couple lengths of stainless wire to hold the sheet aluminum in the concave shape.

So far, excluding the ballast and pump, parts costs are around $100. I don't really need anything else either. Just some seeds.

The prototype is going to run in a spare room that's full of junk downstairs in the house. I have a few more tweaks to do to the irrigation system but it should be ready to roll very soon.



Plumbing Mods and an Enclosure on the horizon

The unit is all ready for plant life now. I should have started seeds long ago but I didn't ... and now will wait longer.

I replaced the hub that I had in the reservoir with one from Home Depot in the same space as where the buckets are. This will make it easier for water changes.

I'm thinking today that my book should also include a smaller version of this system for growing just one plant in a counter-top version. The parts cost, amount of space it takes up and energy consumption would be reduced and it would produce less fruit. Maybe at a higher efficiency though.

I've also decided that instead of a meshwork in two stages I would devote only the top portion to a meshwork. The would leave the entire area under the mesh for fruit. Ideally the combined canopy of the plants would project just above the mesh and would be the main solar collector for the plants. All of the fruit could hang underneath in the shade. I'll control this by trimming flowers on the upper canopy. Hopefully sufficient flowers will be produced on the leafless branches below the canopy. I've even been thinking about having a V-shaped training mesh for maximum light usage.

I think it's going to be important to enclose the unit. I'm thinking about building corrugated plastic walls for it which will be fastened with rivets and the door side will feature a poly window. These sheets are quite inexpensive. It will be important to have ventilation if I'm enclosing it, probably a small squirrel cage in the top -- 50-70 cfm should do it. A small axial fan resting in the center on the buckets would be a good idea too to keep air moving.



Grow my pretties, grow!

So I decided to start the plants for the prototype system from seed. Not any special seed, just what I could find at Home Hardware when I was there and remembered that I needed some. Don't even remember the name of the variety ... doesn't matter. This first run is mostly just to prove the concept of the system.

I still haven't strung together a manifold system for the feed lines that I'm happy with. I'm on try 3 now and looks like there is going to be at least one more. The current attempt is good on throughput (enough flow) but leaks a little bit.



Finally a manifold I trust

Well, it's been a few days since I bought all the hardware to do so, but I've assembled the manifold v.3 and it's a winner. I'm using a thick PVC pipe with holes punched in it and threaded barbs screwed in. One end has a 3/4" plug and the other a coupler to mate with the hose from the pump. The barbs are also cemented with some cyanoacrylate glue (crazy/super glue).

This seems to be a very efficient setup. I plan to experiment with pumps other than my 1200gph ... since I want people to be able to buy affordable pumps (200gph) and have it work well.

The seedlings are doing great and they'll be stoked to get their roots in the new system. One night of a trial run and then they go in. Everything is coming along as planned.

The first photo is the 4 buckets, each with their two feed lines and netpot with rockwool cube. Second photo is looking down the hole in the bucket lid (where the netpot usually sits). You can see a stream of water from the spinner stopped in motion. The third is a close-up of the manifold design that I'm going to use.



They're in!!

This evening I added the missing ingredient to the system : the plants. They had been growing under a pair of compact fluorescents in my room for the last few weeks and today was their first time under any kind of intense light.

I'm really really happy with the current design of the system and everything has just worked out awesome. I could definitely forsee someone replicating what I've done. Now is the easy part, just sit back and watch them grow. In a few weeks I'll start doing some training and I'll have to refill the nute tank whenever it gets emptied too.

Those are some happy little plants. I'm sure they're stoked to be in their new (permanent) home. Any wagers as to how old these plants will get?



Now that's growth!

It's pretty amazing what HID lighting and hydroponic irrigation can do for plants in one week. The growth is just fantastic. Those little gems have gone from tiny little seedlings with barely any root systems to beefy immature plants with the beginnings of a complex system of roots in just 9 days. I even see a difference in growth in the span of a day. Having the light snuggled close is working out great.

I have an idea to modify the lighting setup once the plants have reached a certain point. I'd like to try a cylindrical steel mesh with a 16" diameter around the light that the plants could grow on. The light would be oriented vertically and the plants could spiral up around it. This would create over 6 sq. ft. of uniformly lit growing space instead of the 4 sq. ft. via conventional lighting.




3 days ago I switched the lighting to a 12hr period of light instead of the 18hr it was on. Within a day there was over a dozen little flowers sprouting out of the stems. It's been pretty cool to watch.

Right now there are flowers opening and soon I'll be taking a small brush to them to pollinate them. Apparently, flowers cannot pollinate themselves but they can pollinate a neighbouring flower on the same plant.

Today I took some scissors to the plants as they were getting too bushy. I also had to add some supports in there. Although the upper stems are quite hefty, the bottom-most part of the stem is not increasing in girth much anymore. The result : they were leaning a bit from being so top heavy.

You can see the growth in the last 12 days has been very significant though.



First Fruit

There is a small almost spherical object growing from the end of a stem on one of the plants in my system. It looks to be a premature tomato ... in fact, I'm certain it is. This is the first of many. Currently I count about a dozen flowers and another dozen flower buds. I've had a few unfertilized flowers drop-off already but I'm going to start "sonicating" them in an effort to help pollinization.

I've been looking for some anthers but have now found out that they are internal and the pollen is inside the main cone. "Sonication" is vibrating the flowers like a bee does. Can't use a brush to pollinate them, just have to vibrate 'em.

One can easily see that the plants are still growing at a good rate. I have to trim off some unhealthy leaves but I think it's mostly due to them not getting light and a natural phenomena.



Flower Parts

I've been experimenting with using an electric toothbrush minus the brush part to vibrate the flowers in an effort to get them to release the pollen. It's been working very well and I'm getting all my flowers fertilized now. I counted over half a dozen pea-sized fruitbodies earlier today. I vibrate the pollen out of the flower and then rub it onto the stigma. Tomato flowers have a lot of ovules to fertilize so the more pollen stuck to the end of the style - the better.



Rethinking light

A couple days ago I executed my plan to redo the way I was planning to train the plants and provide them with light. I decided one night last week that pegboard was the way to go. I haven't looked back. This is it!

All the training is done with zap straps. I don't fasten them tightly, just make a loop to support the plant basically.

Now instead of the less than satisfactory 4 sq. ft. of lit canopy the entire sides of the plants will be lit. That 's upwards of 12 sq. ft. - quite an improvement. The plants are loving it, even the lower branches are getting light. I count over a dozen fruits now.



When plants become trees

Where does one draw the line between a plant and a tree? Is it a girth thing? A height criteria maybe?

I read once about the idea of harnessing the full potential of a plant's genetics. I think I'm starting to understand just what the author was getting at. It has a lot to do with warmth you see. Warmth determines how long a growing season will last for certain species. Apparently, a tomato plant (generally thought of as an 'annual' plant) will grow infinitely given a warm area to do so.

You can see my prototype plants are loving their environment. It's been 7 weeks since I first put them into the system. Only 4 weeks since I initiated fruiting. Just now I could find 27 maturing fruitbodies and another dozen flowers.



50" Tall Plants

Yup, 50" is the tallest. They're all around that size though. I can't really grow them any longer ... there's no room!

So what now? Well, I figure I'll keep chopping the top part off and hope that the rest of the plant shows no signs of stress. I have to remove a fistful of plant matter a couple times a week as it is. Otherwise it would just get to crowded in there.

I make sure to only remove branches that are creating shadows on other parts of the plants. It's important to keep leaves near all fruit so that there is lots of local carbohydrate generation for the little tomaters.

You can see in the photos that it seems pretty likely that this system is a success. Still waiting to taste the first fruit though.



Handful o' Tomato

I've got a retrofit in mind now. Not to say that "Prototype A" didn't do well. Doesn't fulfill my vision is all. The pegboard works awesome for reflection and training but keeps the plans thrust against the light. A wire mesh would make it easier to remove the matter that's not getting the light (therefore dying). It would be cool to spiral the plants around instead of going straight up too.

I think the fruit rocks for a first try. This is actually the first time I've ever grown hydroponic tomatoes and definitely the first time I've grown tomatoes more tha 3' high. The tallest is over 5' now, touching the ceiling.



The Ripening

So I've got one red tomato and several dozen green ones. It's consistent though, the ripe one is also the first fruit that appeared at the end of December. From my experience with plants, it should take 6 weeks for the fruit to grow and appear and that's definitely what seems to be occuring here.

I'm giving this first one a couple more days to ripen fully them I'm going to have a taste test. ; )



Cloning Matters

I decided that the next time I need new plants I should just rely on taking cuttings from the plants I had already grown. So some time last week I took 20 cuttings from all 4 plants and embedded them in rockwool, incubated them over a heatpad, and kept them in a humidity dome. The results look great so far. I see tons of roots shooting out of some of the little gems already. I think the temp in there makes it really comfortable for them.



Red Maturity

A bunch of 3 nice-looking tomatoes decided they would be next to ripen. I don't blame them, who wants to be green when you can be red. Some time in the next week I plan to chop the large plants and get the second batch going (after some modifications).

Most of the clones have taken root now and today I decided to remove the dome to see how they fare in less than saturated humidity. I anticipate some to drop dead from dessication but that's cool because I have 20 and only need 4.



Bundle of Goodness

I imagine for a commercial tomato producer getting excited about every ripe bunch of fruit is kind of silly. But I'm me and this is my life and I'm fucking stoked. I ate one and gave the other two away. The one I cut into was a tomato unlike any other I've ever remember tasting/smelling/experiencing. Why can't all tomatoes be like that?

The clones are all living still. The humidity dome has been off for a while and they're all still kickin. I'm impressed. Guess I'll have to find homes for them.



Cropping out

I harvested all of the tomatoes today. Tomorrow I intend to modify the system and get the next recruits into it. The babies under fluorescent light are definitely ready for their time in the more intense light.

More than 3 dozen fruit came off the 4 plants today. Didn't weight them, don't care about harvest mass. Next grow will be much better. I'm gonna put a humidifier in the room with them to retard to rusting I had with these plants.