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The Six Types of Hydroponic Systems, Part 1

With all the different hydroponic setups on the market it can be confusing to tell them apart, especially because they all seem to look so different. But in reality there are only six different types of hydroponic systems. Any of these hydroponic systems can have many different configurations, different sizes and even made from many different materials. That’s why they can all look so different. But weather they are home built systems, or commercially manufactured systems sold in hydroponic supply stores, they all come down to the six types of hydroponic systems, or a combination of 2 or more of the six types of systems in one system.

If you understand the six types of hydroponic systems, as well as what makes them work, you’ll easily be able to recognize how any hydroponic system functions. That includes any store bought or any home built system. Even if it’s a straight forward system, or a combination system, because the principals that make them work is always the same. Another benefit to knowing how each of the different hydroponic systems work, is that once you understand the different types of systems, you’ll be able to build any of them on your own from most any material you can get from many sources, and for less money than buying them from a hydroponic supply store.

Wick System
The simplest type of hydroponic system is the wick system. This type of system has no moving parts at all. It works exactly the same way that a oil lamp or tiki torch works, by wicking up the liquid as it’s being used. Although it can be constructed many different ways and out of many different materials, the basic function still remains the same. The plant is placed in the growing medium, and the growing medium is kept moist from the wick. The wick is simply made from a strip of a highly absorbent material like felt or cotton. The wick runs through the growing medium and out the bottom of the container into the nutrient reservoir. As the plants drink up the moisture in the growing medium, the wick continually sucks up moisture, keeping the growing medium moist with the nutrient solution.

Water Culture System
The water culture system is second in line as the simplest type of hydroponic system. It’s sometimes called bubbleponics also, but the real term is “Water Culture.” With a water culture system the plants roots are suspended/floating directly in the nutrient reservoir itself. Usually on Styrofoam rafts (because it floats on top of water) with holes cut in it that the plants to be placed into. Although like any other hydroponic system water culture systems can be constructed in many different ways, and with many different materials, but the key aspect is that the roots are submerged in the nutrient solution all the time. The other key, and very important aspect to a water culture system, is the use of an air pump (and air stones) in the nutrient reservoir/solution.

The air pomp provides a continuous flow of tiny air bubbles to the root systems. That way the roots can get the air/oxygen they need so they don’t suffocate being completely submerged all the time. The air supply is left on 24/7. The air pump and stones are not expensive and can be found in any pet supply, or aquarium store. You may also hear the term DWC, that stands for “Deep Water Culture” witch is the same thing as a water culture system, it’s just referring to a the depth of the nutrient solution in the reservoir (usually about one foot or so in a DWC). Although most so called DWC systems are a combination water culture/drip system, or water culture/aeroponic system.

Ebb & Flow (Flood & Drain) System
The Ebb & Flow system is not much more difficult, but does need a submersible water pump (like a fountain pump), and household light timer to run the cycles. There are so many various ways to build a Flood & Drain system it’s only limited by your imagination. But the basic principal is always the same. It has a reservoir that holds the nutrient solution. This reservoir is placed below the plants, so the siphoning action that happens when the pump is not running will automatically drain the nutrient solution when the pump shuts off. The timer is used to periodically flood the system to keep the roots moist.

The second part of the Flood & Drain system is where the plants are contained. This is often constructed in any number of ways, but always has two main parts to it. First is the fill line, this is connected to the pump and fills (Floods) the system when it’s turned on. Second is the overflow tube, the overflow tube is set at a particular height, usually about 2 inches below the top of the growing medium. This keeps the water level in the system from overflowing out the containers the plants are in, and instead it flows directly back into the reservoir to be pumped back up to the plants again. But at the same time it is the height of the overflow tube allows the water to rise high enough to saturate the root system without causing stem root. That is why it’s usually about two inches below the top of the growing medium, instead of the top of the containers.

To Be Continued..

The Six Types of Hydroponic Systems, Part 2

What’s the big deal about Hydroponics?

After all, if growing Hydroponically was so great wouldn’t everyone be doing it? Well that’s a good question, but the truth is not really. There are many alternate forums of energy, but oil and coal are still the most common forms of energy that the world rely’s on. Even with the strong need to find other sources of energy, big business still focuses on oil and coal. It’s basically the same way with agriculture. Even though hydroponics has been around since WWW2, the agricultural industry tends to just focus on what they already know, and what they are already used to, just like in most industries.

But unlike large industry (not so easy to make your own gas), it’s much easier for the home gardener to pave the way for hydroponics. Mostly because of the home hydroponic gardener, there’s a need for the hydroponic supply’s and products. This need/demand of hydroponic products drives manufactures to create these products for the public, simply because there’s money in selling them (after all that’s what drives industry). These products are slowly making their way into the commercial agricultural industry, mostly for high value crops like tomatoes and peppers etc.. Bottom line is there are many benefits and some drawbacks to growing hydroponically, but until they learn how they can benefit from growing hydroponically, they will likely remain doing things just as they have always done in the past.

Growing Hydroponically has many advantages over growing in soil, but the one big disadvantage is that it’s not as easy as just sticking a plant in the ground and watering it once in a while. Although growing hydroponically is not hard at all, it does take more of the gardeners time and attention. And simply paying attention to how the plants are doing from day to day is important. Unlike soil gardens, hydroponic plants respond to changes (both good and bad) much more rapidly. So that’s the reason why it’s important to take the time to pay attention to how they are doing.

But because hydroponic plants respond to changes much more rapidly than soil grown plants, this is one of the big advantages to growing hydroponically. This allows the gardener to provide the optimum growing conditions 24/7, and thus the plants grow much larger and faster than they ever could in soil. For commercial growers this increases there produce production, and ultimately their profits as well. For the home gardener this allows them to get more from their limited plant space.

Another big advantage to hydroponics is the ability to have many more plants in the same amount of space. Not just closer together but also taking advantage of vertical space. Traditional soil grown plants are grown from the ground, and spacing is determined by how much ground space there is. With hydroponics you can stack plants above others plants, taking advantage of the vertical space also. Growing in this fashion is much more highly productive for both commercial growers, as well as home gardeners. For commercial growers this means much less land they need to buy, and much more production for that land, both of witch translates into profit for the growers.

Also with hydroponics there is no need for crop rotations, or time lost between crops conditioning the soil. Once a crop is harvested, the grower can simply plant new plants directly into the hydroponic system the same day. By starting hydroponic seeds in small propagation tables, and growing them there until there large enough to transplant into the hydroponic system beforehand, that cuts down on time lost waiting for the plants to get big enough to become productive. Growing in this way allows the grower to have two, three or even four year round crops in the same space, rather than just one crop in a particular season.

For commercial growers another downside for growing hydroponically is typically the start-up cost of the hydroponic system, and/or any greenhouse they build to house year round crops. This can be a substantial start-up cost depending on system design, crop, and location. But most of this can be offset by less land needed (acreage), as well as there is no need for costly large specialized farming equipment that can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention the maintenance, fuel and general upkeep of this expensive equipment. Home gardeners are just growing for themselves, so the start-up cost can be quite inexpensive depending on the system design, and how many plants they want to grow. Usually a home grower will start with just a few plants, and as they begin to have success they will begin to expand their systems and setups.

Also hydroponically grown plants typically only use about one tenth the amount of water than soil/field grown crops. That’s because most of the water in soil grown plants is lost to evaporation, as well as the water draining down through the ground back into the water table before the plants ever get a chance to drink it. In some places like arid regions this can be a substantial operating savings, simply because water is scarce and water costs can be high. All in all, given a all the benefits for commercial crop production, as well as for the home grower, the question should be, what’s the big deal about soil grown crops?

Beneficial Insects for Hydroponics part 3

This is part 3 of  the Beneficial Insects series: see  part 1 and part 2

Spiders, are one of the most feared Beneficial Insects there is, and some with good reason. Some spiders are poisonous and can have deadly results, but most aren’t dangerous to people at all. Some might inflect a painful bite but are not able to inject any poison. There are hundreds of thousands of species of spiders, but very few of them have bites that would require medical attention. Or even fangs strong enough to puncture human skin to be able to inject any venom in the first place. Although if your unsure weather they are poisonous or not, it’s simply always a good idea not to handle them in the first place.

Spiders come in all sorts of colors, shapes and sizes. All spiders are predators, and both poisonous and non poisonous spiders will eat almost any insect they can catch. They wont eat or damage your plants, they just hang out there because that’s a great place to find all the insects that they do eat. Most spiders will make webs to catch prey, but some like wolf spiders, are hunters that just search the ground and plant foliage for their prey. Spiders are found in all types of habitats, as long as there is food, they will stick around. All you need to do is just leave them alone to do their job.

Ground beetles, There are around 2,500 species of ground beetles in North America, and more than 40,000 species worldwide. Even though there are variation in their body shape, they are usually elongated, and heavy bodied, as well as be slightly or distinctly tapered at the head and/or back end, with ridges running along their back. While generally dark in color (brown to black) most ground beetles are shiny black , although some beetles are multi-colored with a metallic look, like an attractive metallic purple or green. They can also range in size from 1/16 to 1-3/8 inches long for the adults.

They are generally fast moving insects that have long legs. Most ground beetle species lay their eggs in soil. And like all beetles, ground beetles have complete metamorphosis with egg, larval, pupal, and adult stages. The larvae feed and grow for about 1-2 years, then they pupate in small chambers made of soil (usually during the winter months), and then the adults emerge during springtime. Ground beetles will generally hide under logs, rocks, or even in soil crevices during the day, and are much more active at night. Most ground beetles don’t climb very well, and thus tend to be found on or near the ground.

Both the larvae and adults are predators. The larvae usually have large pincher-like mandibles to devour their prey. Ground beetles feed on a wide variety of insects like wireworms, grasshoppers, crickets, cut worms, armyworms, well as prey on things as large as snails and slugs. They can be attracted to light sources because they know the insects they feed on are attracted to the light. Many ground beetles can emit an offensive smelling, hot or volatile liquid which is used for defense. When threatened, they raise the end of their body aim and fire the chemical gas with popping sound and smoke like puffs. Because of this they are often referred to as stink bugs, some large beetles will even pinch fingers with their strong mandibles for defense.

Parasitic wasps,  are not the stinging social wasps like yellow jackets, hornets and paper wasps that are commonly found in/and around houses. Unlike social wasps who live in colonies that will siting to defend the colony when it’s threatened, parasitic wasps are loners and don’t live in colonies, there more like flies in that way. Although rare, parasitic wasps can sting if threatened or handled for defense, but don’t attack humans. There are many thousands of species of parasitic wasps in many different classifications, and they are extremely variable in both size (ranging in size from 1/100 to 3/4 inch long) as well as color. But most are small to medium sized, and black or brown in color. They also usually have a constriction where the abdomen and thorax meet, giving the appearance of a thin waist.

Parasitic wasps use their stinger to lay eggs inside other insects. The wasps larvae usually develop by feeding on a single host, the eggs are of various shapes and sizes, depending upon the species. The parasitic wasps larvae usually live and feed inside the host’s body, but some species will feed outside the host’s body. Depending on species and host there can be anywhere from 1, to as many as 1000’s of parasitic wasps larvae feeding on the same host.

Many species of parasitic wasps are host specific, developing in one, or a limited number of related host species of insects. A number of parasitic wasp species are commercially available from insectaries, and these can be purchased to reduce your pest populations. It has been said that there is a parasitic wasp species to reduce the populations of just about any insect. Because many beneficial parasitic wasps are very small, you can plant small flowers in your garden to attract the adults wasps. Adult wasps usually drink flower nectar as a food source, and if there are insects for them to lay their eggs in, your wasp populations will be able to multiply, thus keeping your pest populations under control.

Just like pests, many beneficial insects are very sensitive to pesticides. By using many of the pesticides on the market you will also be reducing your beneficial insect populations. By providing a variety of habitats and/or flowers you can attract a variety of beneficial insect to your gardens. There are many other beneficial insect you can consider too, like Big-Eyed Bugs, Ladybird Beetles, Mealybug Destroyer, Firefly’s, Millipedes, Damselfly’s, Dragonfly’s, Pirate Bugs, Predatory Mites, Rove Beetle, Giant Diving Beetle, Giant Stoneflies, Syrphid Flies and Tachnid Flies. So you may want to reconsider the next time you are thinking of squashing that bug that your unsure what it is.

Useful Links
Texas master gardener, spiders
Common Garden Spiders
Ground beetles
Ohio State University Extension, Ground beetles
University of Kentucky entomology, Ground beetles
Washington State University, Ground beetles
Parasitic wasps
Ohio State University Extension, Parasitic wasps
Top Secret agents
Texas AgriLife Extension, Parasitic wasps
Parasitic wasps Protecting greenhouse tomatoes
Other Beneficial Insect info
Beneficial Bugs
Beneficial Insects and Spiders in Your Maine Backyard
Beneficial Insects
Types of Beneficials

Beneficial Insects for hydroponics part 2

This is part 2 of the following article: Beneficial Insects for Hydroponics, part 1

Lacewings, are green and/or brown with 2 pairs of wings, and a mouth similar to the praying mantis, with large eyes relative to the size their head. They also have long, thin bodies, and look similar to dragonflies, except lacewings will fold their wings along the length of their back when there not flying. Their wings have a shiny lacy look with prominent veins. Adult Lacewings are usually about 1/2 inch to 1 inch in length. They lay pale green oblong shaped eggs on the tips of thread-like stalks attached to plants. Lacewings are attracted to the odor of aphid honeydew (a sugary liquid waste that aphids produce), they also like to lay their eggs near the aphid colonies.

There are two common families of lacewings, green lacewing (family Chrysopidae), and brown lacewings (family Hemerobiidae). They feed on feed on aphids, mites, thrips, soft scale insects, mealy bugs, whiteflies, psyllids, and many other soft bodied insects. As well as small caterpillars, leafhoppers and moth insect eggs. When Lacewing larvae hatch in just a few days they are reddish cream in color, and are a tapered in shape, like tiny 1/8 inch alligators. When the larvae mature, they form a yellow color silken cocoon to pupate and grow their wings.

Assassin Bugs, they are also called Bloodsucking Conenose, Masked Hunter, Black Corsair, Wheel Bug, Spined Assassin Bug, ambush bugs, thread-legged bugs or kissing bugs. They are closely related to plant sucking bugs, but assassin bugs are generalist predators that feed on a variety of insects.  There are more than 160 species of assassin bugs. They generally have a elongated body with grasping fore-legs and a pronounced head. Many species are brownish or blackish, but many species are brightly colored. Even though assassin bugs are beneficial insects, if they are handled carelessly they can inflict a painful bite. Sometimes it can even cause a severe reaction or inflammation in some people.

Depending on the species they can rang in size. Adults can range from about 1/2 inch, to as large as 6 inches. But most species are about 1/2 to 1 inch long. They wait for their pray to happen to pass by, then they attack them. They usually prey on small flying insects like flies, mosquitoes and other soft bodied insects, as well as insect eggs, and larvae. But they can even subdue and kill larger prey like caterpillars and beetles. They hunt for there pray in all sorts of vegetation including trees, bushes, flower beds and even weeds.

Assassin bugs are basically a slow moving insect, and even though the adults are able to fly they are generally poor flyers. The female assassin bugs lay their eggs in tight, upright,  brownish clusters on leaves, and/or in soil regularly. The immature nymphs (larva) resemble adults but are wingless, and develop into the adults through molting. Depending on species they will molt from 4 to 7 times in about two months time. Despite the negative aspects, the assassin bugs beneficial qualities outweighs their negative potential by far, so getting used to these insects will be a benefit to your gardens.

Flower flies, also known as hover flies or syrphid flies, are considered beneficial insects. There are nearly 900 species of flower flies in North America, and the adults are about 1/2 inches long. Flower flies have yellow-and-black stripes or yellow and white stripes, and they look a lot like bees and/or wasps. Because of this, they are commonly mistaken for them, but flower flies can’t sting you. The wasp and bee like appearance is a defense against predators, because true wasps and bees will sting predators, but the flies can’t, so they just avoid them because of how they look. They can be distinguished in two different ways, when looking at the head of the flower flies, they will have the large bulging eyes like regular flies do. Also the flower flies only have two wings, and bees and wasps have four wings.

Their larvae feed on aphids and other pests like scales, thrips and caterpillars. The adults feed on the nectar of flower blossoms, and they are attracted to pollen producing plants. They also pollinate plants like bees do, so they are important as pollinators to your plants as well, especially because they are more active during cold weather than bees are. Although like other flies, they have a relatively short life span that can range from about three to nine weeks. Providing flowers for adults is a good way to attract them, but ensuring there is appropriate egg-laying sites, as well as places where the larvae can live is also a good way to make sure they will stick around and breed year round. The role of the flower flies as an important beneficial insect is mostly under appreciated, but very useful never the less.

Continued: Beneficial Insects part 3

Useful Links
University of Kentucky, Lacewings
Green Lacewing
Cornell University, Lacewings
Beneficial Insects in the Low Desert, Green Lacewings

Assassin Bugs
University of California, Assassin Bugs
Ohio State University, Assassin Bugs
Assassin Bugs and Ambush Bugs
Texas master gardener, Assassin Bugs

Flower Flies
University of Kentucky, Flower Flies
NC Sate University, Hover flies
Texas master gardener, Hover flies
Flower fly

Beneficial Insects for Hydroponics, part 1

Usually when we think of insects on our plants we think of pests. Well that’s with good reason, a lot of them are. But that’s not always the case, not all insects are pests. There are a wide variety of beneficial insects. Most people know that bees pollinate their plants, but other insects help pollinate them as well. More importantly beneficial insects also help to reduce the populations of insects that are harmful to your plants, and without hurting your plants. The use of beneficial insects reduces the need for pesticides in your gardens, simply because they are the natural predators of the harmful insects (pests). That makes them a natural and organic alternative to pest control.

How effective beneficial insects are to your plants will have many factors. One of the biggest factors is how bad the infestation is. You can buy beneficial insects from a suppler, or you could just try to attract them to your garden. Either way you want them to stick around, the best way to do this is by providing the proper habitat to support the beneficial insects. They will then feed and reproduce more, that will have a greater impact on the health of your gardens. Unfortunately as the beneficial insects feed on and reduce the population of the pests, this reduces their food sources, so naturally unless alterative sources of food are provided, they will leave the area in search for food elsewhere.

Attracting  beneficial insects
Just like animals and humans, insects are looking for a place to live comfortably, breed and prosper. They also need shelter, water and food to be happy. Weather you buy your beneficial insects or simply try to attract them to your yard, you will want to provide a suitable environment to keep them their. They will want protection from disturbances. Providing perennial flower beds add hedges around your plants can provide a good source of shelter. They will also need water just like any other living thing. Small Tupperware containers with some water placed around the shelter areas will be able to provide a water source. Place some rocks and twigs inside it so the beneficial insects have a place to rest while there drinking. Also you will want to change the water a couple of times a week to keep mosquito’s from breeding.

When the beneficial insects have reduced the populations of the pests they feed on, and their main food source is diminishing, they will naturally want to move on in order to find a more plentiful source of food. By providing an alternate food source you can help encourage them to stick around. Depending on the particular insect they can find food sources with pollen, plant juices and/or nectar to supplement their diet of insects.

Types of Beneficial Insects

Ladybugs (also known as Lady Beetles), are one of the most popular and recognizable  beneficial insects around. What isn’t commonly known is that there are over 500 species of Ladybugs, and they aren’t all red, nor do all of them have the well known spots. But all species of adult ladybugs have a oval dome shape, as well as have small legs. They also have wings that fold back as part of their dome body shape.  The wings are usually a dark red, or reddish-orange, to a pale yellow. They also may or may not have black spots, or irregular shaped markings.

Both the adults and young feed on many different soft bodied insects. They mostly feed on aphids, but are also good for controlling whiteflies, leafhoppers, potato beetle, mites, mealy bugs and bollworms among others. There are a few ways to attract them to your garden. They are attracted to dill, fennel, geraniums, also weeds such as dandelions, wild carrot and yarrow will help attract ladybugs.  You can also attract ladybugs using something called “Wheast“, witch is a combination of “Whey” and “Yeast,”  this can be mixed and then sprayed in your garden to attract the ladybugs. You can either make it yourself, or buy it from a vendor.

Praying Mantis (Mantodea), the Praying Mantis is one of the most efficient insect predictors as far as beneficial insects are concerned. They feed on a wide variety of insects, and will eat just about any insect they can, even as large as moths, crickets and grasshoppers. They will even eat there own kind. They will eat almost any insect smaller than itself. They lie in wait with the front legs in an upraised position, and intently watch and stalk their prey. They can get as large as 3 to 4 inches long and use camouflage to ambush their prey. There is an estimated 1800 species of  Praying Mantis, each with their own type of camouflage, but they all have the same type of posture.

The Praying Mantis is a large alien-looking creature that most people find the intimidating to say the least, and much like spiders they are generally afraid of them simply because of the way they look. But the Praying Mantis is probably the best beneficial insect you can have in your gardens. They also will not bite humans, damage household furnishings, spread disease or damage your plants. Not sure what more you could ask for.

Useful Links
Lady Bugs
Lady Beetles
Lady Beetles Colorado state university
Lady Beetles university of Kentucky

Praying Mantis
Praying mantises Care
Praying Mantid caresheet
Beneficial Insects in the Garden, Praying Mantis
Praying Mantid, University of Kentucky

Continued: Beneficial Insects part 2

Is your nutrient solution healthy part 2

This is part 2 of the following article: Is your nutrient solution healthy, Part 1

Problems with a generally trouble free hydroponic system happens to most growers on occasion. Algae growth is the most common and easy to detect in the nutrient reservoir. But problems can also be hidden down in the root zone where their not always obvious. Fungus gnat larvae (fly larvae), nematodes (microscopic worms) and algae are all hydroponic parasites. They take advantage the nutrients, the plants roots and the favorable growing/living environment to grow and multiply. They all can cause a great deal of damage to your plants. The microscopic nematodes and fungus gnat larvae can even do considerable damage to the plants roots in a hydroponic system without a grower even knowing that it’s going on. Recognizing these types of growing medium, root and nutrient problems is important, as well as planning and maintenance to prevent these parasites from settling in, in the first place.

Fungus gnats
Fungus gnats are small dark short-lived flies, with long legs and distinctive wings, the adults are 2-5 mm long and are weak fliers. Usually seen flying around the base of the plants, and around the growing media or foliage. The females lay their eggs in the moist growing media or potting soil. Then the larvae hatch and begin to feed on the plants roots system. In sufficient numbers they can cause significant damage to the plant root systems. They cause many crop problems by weakening the root system of a large number of plants. The larva are white or transparent with a black head. Most fungus gnat larvae feed on fungi or dead plants tissue in the growing media and/or soil, though some species also feed on the living tissue and will attack young seedlings or cuttings. Fungus gnats can also spread plant disease and pathogens in the media or soil.

Shore flies look similar to fungus gnats but live in, or on algae growth and/or on very wet, decomposing organic material. This is common in growing areas where conditions are damp. Shore fly larvae don’t feed on the root systems, but they are frequently confused with fungus gnats because they look similar and like the same moist soil/media conditions, so they often occur together. The adult flies are attracted to yellow sticky traps, but identification of fungus gnats and shore flies can be difficult because many species look similar.

Prevention of fungus gnats can be difficult but some things can help like screening of doors and vents, as well as reducing moisture of the media and organic material in the area. Also allowing the surface of the hydroponic media or substrate to dry out between watering cycles can help to prevent infestations. Also good drainage of growing beds and/or ebb and flow systems will reduce moisture. Removal of all the dead leaves and organic matter that has fallen onto the surface of the  growing media will reduce the material that the fungus gnat larvae feed on.

Algae is a form of plant life and is usually green, but it can also be brown, reddish brown and/or even black in color. Algae naturally grows when exposing water with nutrients (that’s dissolved in it), with a light source. It sticks to the sides of the reservoir, inside gullies and channels. It also clings to pumps, tubes and even forms on the top of damp growing media. When in sufficient amounts algae usually has a moldy or earthy smell to it, especially when it’s decomposing in your nutrient reservoir. It can also clog emitters, return lines, drippers.

Except for it’s appearance and smell, algae also creates a problem with dissolved oxygen. As it grows dies and then decomposes it uses up the dissolved oxygen in the nutrient solution, then the plants can suffocate from a lack of enough oxygen. When the algae decomposes it also can release toxins, it also provides a food source for pathogens, fungi and bacteria, causing them to multiply out of control. Also if algae forms directly on the growing medium and on plants roots, it can suffocate the root system. That will also make the plants prone to attack by opportunist pathogens. But algae can’t grow without light. so the simple answer to preventing algae is stopping light from reaching the nutrient solution where ever possible. If not, frequent nutrient changes and cleaning may be needed.

Nematodes (also called eelworms roundworms and even needle worms) are basically microscopic worms. You can only see them with a microscope, that makes identifying them very difficult. But not all nematodes are a problem to plants, many of them are even beneficial to them and feed on other tiny insects, as well as clean up decaying organic matter in the root zone. some nematodes are even natural predators of plant pests. Nematode infestations damage the root systems of the plants. Some symptoms of nematode infestations are swellings, stunting, galls, and root knots. In general, root death and low vigor of the overall plant. Root systems damaged by nematodes are very prone to infection by fungi and bacteria by entering the nematode injured root tissues and then cause other diseases.

The most common source of nematode infestation in hydroponic systems is in situations where soil has been used to raise the seedlings or plants, then the seedlings or cuttings were introduced into the hydroponics system. Generally nematodes are soil born pathogens but in cases where the system has been contaminated with soil, nematode damage of hydroponic crops can be a common problem. Although nematode contamination can also be present in the water supply. Well water, dams, streams and lakes can all contain nematodes, anywhere that the water has been in contact with soil can contain nematodes and become a source of infection. The water can be sterilized before use to kill the nematodes.

Nematodes can also be spread from soil to hydroponic systems on equipment, on tools, by wind, and even by humans and animals. Even fungus gnats and fungus gnat larvae can also carry nematodes and spread them from infected plants to healthy plants. Nematodes can even cause more damage to hydroponic plants because they can also transmit a number of plant viruses. In hydroponics, a severe nematode infestation will mean the system needs to be stopped and cleaned out with infected plants and media removed and destroyed to prevent re-infestation. The nutrient solutions reservoir will also need to be cleaned, and the nutrient solution replaced. Then new sterile growing media, and nematode free seedlings replanted. Also Identifying how nematodes entered the system in the first place is important to prevent a re-infestation.

Is your nutrient solution healthy

There are many things that can cause problems in your nutrient solutions, other than just the elements themselves. Algae grows in many different colors, furry growth on the growing media and in the nutrient solution,  strings of jelly and slime, bad odors, fungus and insect larvae are all problems that can affect the nutrient solution and media in hydroponic systems. The growing media provides the prefect environment for bacteria and fungi, it contains everything they need to thrive, nutrients, moisture, and usually even some organic material. As well as the right temperatures for their growth. Bacteria, fungi and algae are all carried in water supplies, by the wind, as well as on the growing medium itself. They can also be transplanted into the hydroponic system on the roots of the plants themselves.

Although it’s just about impossible to keep 100% of these problems out of a hydroponic system, most nutrient solution problems can be easily avoided. Large commercial hydroponic operations usually employ either ozone, UV or chemicals to provide constant disinfection to their nutrient solutions. These are quit impractical for the home hydroponic gardener. A newly planted hydroponic system is very much like a soil garden in that the different microbes will begin to compete with each other, just as they do in the soil. Different species of microbes, bacteria and fungi will begin to dominate, in healthy soil it’s usually the beneficial microbes, bacteria and fungi that dominate most. This keeps the undesirable ones at bay.

Identifying Nutrient Solution Problems
Cloudy nutrients are a clear indicator that something is wrong, as well as what looks like a fur  floating on in and on top. These are most likely to be caused by fungi in the nutrient solution. Nutrients can also become cloudy because of bacteria, but bacteria usually causes a slime and/or jelly like mass in the system, it may also have a bad smell. Bad odors tend to be strong, hard to get rid of and are usually a result of bacteria multiplying out of control in the nutrient solution.  When bacteria and/or fungi are present in the system they tend to use the oxygen in the nutrient solution that the plants need, this winds up smothering the root systems of the plants. This kills the roots, and when the roots start to die they produce more dead organic material in the system, that perpetuates even more growth of bacteria and fungi as it decomposes.

Microbial growth in the nutrient solution itself is a result of having organic materials somewhere in the system, in order for it to feed on. There are both good (beneficial), and bad (harmful) microbes, most of these are harmful to plants. The beneficial microbes don’t hurt the plants but feed on the harmful microbes. That keeps the harmful ones from growing out of control. The microbes which produce the bad smells, slime and other undesirable problems are not the ones you want to be growing, their growth results in stagnant, oxygen starved nutrient solution, and thus root death. Once the roots begin to die undesirable microbes (known as pathogens) begin to set in, this makes disease control very difficult. They can also clog drippers, emitters, as well as other parts of the system. Cleaning and disinfecting the whole system without damaging the plants will be extremely difficult and time consuming.

The organic mater that these microbes feed on can come from rotting root systems, vegetation from a old previous crops that was not removed, and the growing medium cleaned and sanitized. It can also come from leaves, twigs, flowers, and even stems form the current crop that made it’s way down into the growing medium. Even from leaves, twigs, flowers, stems, dust and dirt from near by plants that made there way into the system, carried by the wind. This organic mater gives the fungi and bacteria a food source, thus results in it’s rapid population growth.

Prevention of Nutrient Solution Problems
Start with a clean, sterilized system and equipment, introduce only healthy seedlings/plants into your hydroponic system, remove any sick plants as soon as you notice them. Use a good quality water source that’s filtered to get rid of pathogens. Change the nutrient solution from time to time to help prevent buildup of unwanted microbes, and flush the system in between changes to help with flushing them from the system and growing medium. Oxygenating the nutrient solution is easy and inhibits non beneficial microbes, while providing much needed dissolved oxygen to the nutrient solution. The easiest way to Oxygenate the nutrient solution is by adding an aquarium air pump, and air stones.

Adding beneficial microbes to the nutrient solution can help sway the balance of beneficial/harmful microbes. Researchers have found that having a layer of inert, porous, clay material in the bottom of the nutrient reservoir will help provide a place for the beneficial microbes, bacteria, fungi to breed, colonies and multiply, particularly when you are not using much growing medium in the hydroponic system for them to colonies in.

This article continues: Is your nutrient solution healthy, part 2

Hydroponic Peppers

One of the advantages to growing your own produce is being able to have a fresh supply of produce that would normally be too expensive when you buy them in the grocery stores. Bell peppers are one of those crops that you can use in many different recipes, but who wants to buy them at 1 to 3 dollars each. Even Hatch peppers (Anaheim chilies) can be used in many dishes and sauces, especially if you like Mexican food. There’s nothing like saving money, and creating great dishes from your own fresh produce. There are many different varieties of peppers and chilies. well actually chilies and peppers are the same thing, referred to as peppers when on the plant, and chilies when in food.

There are sweet peppers (like bell peppers) all the way to extremely hot peppers (like habanero peppers).  The heat difference is in the amount of Capsicum (Capsicum annuum) in the oil inside the peppers. Most people think the heat is in the seeds, it’s actually the oils that cover the seeds, so there partially right. But if you have ever rubbed your eyes after dicing up a pepper, you’ll know the pain was not because you rubbed a seed in your eye. Anyway Generally speaking the smaller the pepper, the more Capsicum (and heat) it’s likely to have. When deciding on a pepper plant to grow you should pick a pepper you are familiar with, and will be useful in your dishes.

When deciding to grow peppers (like any other plant) it’s important to take into consideration the size of the full grown plant, as well as the size of the root system. Peppers can be grown in a variety of types of hydroponics systems, though for larger plants, as well as when growing a lot of them, a drip system will probably be the most efficient.

Growing Hydroponic Peppers
Even within a species like bell peppers there are many varieties, commercial field pepper crops are usually determinate, the plant only grows to a certain size producing fruit along the way, then they stop growing, and eventually die. Indeterminate varieties require constant pruning to manage their growth in order to optimize yield for a given space, a balance between vegetative (leaves and stems) and fruit growth should be established and maintained. Indeterminate varieties don’t stop growing, they grow much the same way as tomato plants do. These types are usually grown in greenhouses and trained to grow upwards on a supporting trellis. The crop grows taller, this maximizes space and increases productivity for the crop.

Whatever type of pepper plants that you grow it’s important to consider the spacing, in order to maximize yield, but not so close that they are crowded. Pruning also improves air circulation around the plant which helps to reduce disease. Indeterminate varieties will need to be continually pruned (about every two weeks), because they continually grow new stems and leaves. Greenhouses usually keep them to 2 main stems growing upward from each plant. Indeterminate varieties can grow to a height of up to 4 meters (13 feet), and as mentioned will need to be supported. They are usually trained to grow on trellises made of twine. The twine is hung from the overhead support wires, and is used to support each stem. But be sure that the twine is not tied too tight to the stem, or the stem can be damaged when it expands as it continues to grow.

Flowering and Fruit Set
Though there are many varieties of pepper plants, they are generally a warm weather plant. Flowering and fruit set, as well as fruit size, are all related to temperature and fluctuations in the day/night time temperature. The optimum temperature for flowering and fruit set in sweet bell peppers is about 65-70 F°, while the optimum 24-hour temperature (24-hour average temperature) for yield is about 70-75 F°, and is more important to good fruit development. Unlike tomatoes, pollination of the pepper flowers occurs successfully without any outside pollination assistance from bees (in the correct temperature range), although additional pollination assistance from bees or other pollinating insects, as well as hand pollination has shown to improve flower set, and eventual yield and quality of the pepper fruit.

Deformed fruit is usually caused by inadequate pollination, this inadequate pollination can also be a result of temperature, but it can be caused by the light intensity being too strong also. The fruit themselves should be shaded adequately, either by the leaves or shade cloth for best results. However, the plants generally do not have trouble continuing to set flowers in less than ideal conditions. The root zone temperature is important also, if the root zone becomes to warm (above 72-75 degrees F°) the plants will tend to abort setting fruit, and the flowers will just drop off.

Even if the fruit is not perfect in shape and size, it still taste good and is just fine in your dishes. People are just used to seeing perfectly shaped fruits and vegetables at the market, but don’t relies that not all will grow perfect in nature. The rest get sold to companies that use them in other prepared foods. Do you know what the shape of that pepper was that’s in your pre-made salsa, or before they made the hot sauce with them?

Useful Links
Production of Greenhouse-Grown Peppers in Florida
Growing Bell Peppers in Soilless Culture under Open Shade Structures
Small Farms & Alternative Enterprises, pepper

Organic Compost Tea for your hydroponic system

Ever thought about using and/or making your own compost tea? Compost tea’s have been around and used for century’s, they are used for both a fertilizer’s and to help prevent plant diseases. They are also used for both hydroponically grown plants as well as soil grown plants. Because the nutrients and beneficial bacteria are dissolved in the water solution, plants in a hydroponic system will be able to use them easily. Along with the organic nutrients from the compost, compost tea also contains beneficial bacteria and fungi, the beneficial bacteria and fungi reduce the amount of harmful pathogens, bacteria and fungi. This aids in the overall health of the plants, and their ability to defend agents diseases.

Compost tea is basically just what it sounds like, it’s a liquid solution “tea” that’s brewed from compost. Although it’s brewed using cool water rather than hot water, that way it doesn’t kill the beneficial bacteria and fungi that’s in compost, and so beneficial to your plants. They are also quite organic because they are made using naturally decomposing organic material. The Compost tea can then be either added to the nutrient solution, or sprayed on the leaves as a foliar spray, and/or even both at the same time. A good compost tea can help improve the fruit color as well as taste.

Making your own Compost Tea
Making your own compost tea is much simpler and easer than you might think. But to produce a highly beneficial compost tea, you first need to start with a high quality compost. Your compost tea will only be as good as the ingredients you start with. You can make your own compost from your own yard cuttings and vegetable waist from the kitchen, also even added newspaper or cardboard. Or you can just go down to the local nursery and buy some good compost. Some of the best compost is worm castings (poop), simply made from newspapers and earthworms. But many things make good compost, it’s simply the decomposition of organic matter that produces all of the nutrients and beneficial bacteria and fungi.

Certain beneficial acids help facilitate this decomposition in order to break down the organic mater into the raw nutrients that the plants can then absorb. The main keys to making compost is aeration, moisture and regular turning over of the material, that aids in aeration, thus decomposition. If you have any earthworms you may want to through them in with the material, they really like to eat paper materials, but will devour most organic materials quickly. Just be sure that you separate the earthworms from the final compost before making your compost tea.

Once you have your quality compost, making the tea is quite easy. You just make a large tea bag that holds the compost, and submerge it in room temperature water (don’t use hot water) and let soak like when making tea. Water containing high levels of salts,  heavy metals,  nitrates, pesticides, chlorine or  pathogens should not be used. These will affect the survival and reproduction of beneficial organisms from the compost, and can also adversely affect your plants. So you will want to use good quality water.

You should let the compost tea bag soak anywhere from 1 to 3 days before using, the longer the compost remains suspended in the water, the greater the amount of soluble materials that will be extracted from the compost. You can use anything from a five gallon bucket, to a clean 32 gallon trash can, to a 55 gallon barrels to brew your compost tea in. The larger the container the larger the tea bag should be. Burlap works great to make the tea bag with, but most any fabric will do good, as long as it has not been colored or bleached. You want good water flow through the fabric, the bag just helps separate the water from the compost when it’s time to use it. You can also forget the tea bag if you use something like a pool skimmer, or cheesecloth to strain it before you use it, though the mesh size is important it will need to be small enough to strain the compost particulate from the water.

Although this will produce compost tea, one of the key factors to making a good quality compost tea is aerating the solution. It’s highly recommended to aerate this solution using an air pump, the more bubbles the better, but air stones may clog frequently. So a simple coiled tube with holes in it at the bottom of the container will work fine. Commercial producers that make compost tea for sale find that if the brew remains aerate the beneficial microorganisms will continue to thrive and multiply. The resulting compost tea is much more valuable because it has better disease protection for the plants, as well as more nutrients.

Useful Links
Making Compost Tea
How to Make Organic Mechanic Compost Tea

Hydroponics for sustainable living

These days With the worlds population getting larger, and more and more city’s growing in size, this leaves  less and less land to grow food with. As the farms that grow this produce become smaller and farther away from these city’s, this poses a big problem in getting enough fresh produce to these places in order to feed the people who live there. Not to mention the increasingly diminishing quality and nutrition of the produce being grown. As farmers are needing to turn to more chemical pesticides, hormones and genetically altered plants, in order to make every acre count. Also because the farms are so far away from the stores where they are sold, farmers are needing to pick the produce before it’s actually ripe, then use various means of artificial ripening on its way to the store. This just leads to bland, less nutritious produce.

In recent years there has been a lot of focus on being environmentally friendly and green. Previously regarded as unusable space, the landscape of the rooftops are being reclaimed for productive and sustainable purposes. Their is a huge trend in turning to urban rooftop gardens for sustainable living, could this be the future of urban farming? Well I cant tell the future, but these hydroponic rooftop gardens are sprouting up on many rooftops around the country, especially in large urban city’s. Both commercial and home gardeners alike are looking to be able make the most of the resources they have. Along with rooftops, home gardeners are even using any usable patio, balcony and deck space they can find for their gardens. Even backyards, basements and garages.

Benefits of rooftop Gardens
Besides taking advantage of all the unused space on the rooftops, there are some particular advantages. For one it helps cool the rooftop itself down, this uses less electricity to cool the building during summer months. The plants and greenhouse (if using one) block the direct sunlight that ultimately heats up the roof. Also if you can use solar power that’s so abundantly collected from rooftops in order to run the timers pumps and environmental control systems (if using them), you can create an even more efficient garden.

On the rooftop the plants can take full advantage of all the free direct sunlight. This reduces the cost of a hydroponic farming operation significantly. With a hydroponic farming operation (even a home garden) the largest cost is always the lighting, both in the cost of the lights and all the electricity needed to run the lights. The cost of the lights alone generally cost more than it does to build the hydroponic systems. On the rooftop the plants will get full benefit from all the free direct sunlight, at the same time the plants help shade the roof from the sunlight.

Also with a water collection system in place for collecting rainwater, you can take advantage of free rainwater, that would just otherwise just make it’s way down to the sewer system. This reduces the amount of water that the city water works need to process (that just costs taxpayers money). Not to mention the water company needs to charge money for water use, but by taking advantage of the free rainwater you can reduce your water bill while growing a sustainable urban garden to feed your family, that also reducing your food bill.

Long story short
With all the benefits of being able to utilize previously unused natural resources, along with the need for replacing the diminishing farmland surrounding large city’s, its no wonder that rooftop gardens are on the rise. Hydroponic Rooftop gardens also minimizes weight while maximizing plant space and vegetable productivity. One rooftop does not have a lot of acreage, but by using the method of hydroponics you can still utilize this space in an much more efficient way than any soil grown crops. There is vertically no downtime to using hydroponic systems between crops, no need to recondition soil, or rotate crops because of depleted minerals and/or soil born pests and/or diseases.

Once one crop is done, it only takes a matter of hours to pull the plants clean the system, refresh the nutrient solution and insert new plants that were already started by seeds many weeks earlier. In one day you go from the old crop, to a completely new crop by the end of the day. Even if you don’t have a suitable roof to be able to place your garden, when growing with the method of hydroponics, just about any space will do because you don’t need ground/soil to place the plants. A balcony is a great place to put a garden. Also you can design the system to custom fit your space, even if all you have to work with is just wall space. Like hanging a picture, you can hang a hydroponic garden.

Useful Links
8 greenhouses made using sustainable materials
Tapping the Potential of Urban Rooftops