Friday, April 4, 2014

Composting: Carbon and Nitrogen

Compost happens, yes. But if food scraps are thrown into a pile and left to rot, a hot smelly mess may be taking over. That’s because the process of composting is a symbiotic relationship between carbon and nitrogen. Or at our home, cardboard and food scraps.
Black Crumbly Compost

In order to end up with a pile of black, crumbly, rich scented, compost filled with fully charged micro-organisms capable of generating life-giving forces willing to build soil fertility worthy of growing nutritious veggies, one must understand the role of carbon and nitrogen. At least a little.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

United States Oil Dependency Creates Increased Demand on Health Care

Oil is the blood which runs through the veins of this economy's infrastructure, generating profit margins which enable people to drive automobiles to work, heat their homes and offices, turn on their computers, drink bottled water, light the towns and roadways, keep their grass bright green, and feed the food that feeds their families. The United States consumes more oil than any other country, almost double what China consumes, who runs in second under top world oil consumers (U.S. Energy Information Administration). Unlike blood, which the human body makes regularly on its own, oil comes from the depths of the earth, where microscopic organisms fall to the ocean floor, transforming into crude oil through heat and pressure over time. (Frumkin, Hess, and Vindigni).

Unlike blood in the human body, which has the option of being re-fueled if it cannot produce enough of its own blood, through blood transfusions donated by other human bodies, the earth has no other planets to rely on for oil transfusions. However, like the blood in the body, used to perform many functions, such as transporting oxygen and disease fighting substances to body tissue and waste to the kidneys (Franklin Institute), all underlying the one shared goal to keep the body functioning, oil also performs many functions and shares one primarily goal - to keep our economy functioning. To do this, members of society need a source of income and a source of food, and businesses to provide these sources.

Through our increased dependency on transportation and conventional farming methods, both based on the consumption of oil, many chronic diseases are being linked to these methods which depend on oil and play a major role in polluting the water, soil, earth, and the human body. As our dependency on oil increases, the economy begins to face increasing demands for health care.

In 2012, the United States consumed 6.79 billion barrels of petroleum, amounting to 22 percent of the total world petroleum consumption. Gasoline was responsible for 47 percent of this consumption while asphalt and road oil accounted for 2 percent (U.S. Energy Information Administration). This is no surprise when there are 765 cars per 1,000 people in the United States, compared to 10 cars per 1,000 people in China (Frumkin, Hess, and Vindigni). As our dependency increases on automobiles, more goods and services become available, increasing the importance of transportation as both a means to economically survive and as a profit-making service used to employ people and generate more industries.    

More industries pave the way for more jobs, increased incomes, and people owning more things, such as multiple automobiles and larger homes. In the past fifty years, average home sizes have increased by more than 50 percent, while the average number of household members decreased by 50 percent (McClellan). In order to heat more larger homes for fewer people and provide construction services along the way that make this possible, 20 percent of U.S. petroleum consumption in 2012 was used for heating oil and diesel fuel. Between gasoline, heating oil, diesel fuel, jet fuel, asphalt and road oil, a total of 77 percent was used (U.S. Energy Information Administration).

As the transportation industry increased, so did advancements in industrial agricultural methods along with their dependency on oil. Fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, irrigation, and genetically engineered seeds, all part of conventional farming, come from one source of energy – petroleum. The need for pesticides and herbicides increases through the use of monoculture production, a production system used by conventional methods to grow large amounts of a single type of crop. More oil is then used to transport these single crop harvests to processing plants which use yet more oil to process these foods, and more oil, again, to transport these processed foods to where people will have access to them (Neff, et. al.).

Processing foods and transporting it to people hundreds of miles away involves the use of more oil-dependent products. Other than chemicals, oil is also used in plastic for bottles, food and storage containers, and in the energy used to produce these products. In 2010, 1.7 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption used was for the sole production of plastic products and materials (U.S. Energy Information Administration). Even many medical supplies, ranging from intravenous solution bags, syringes, and surgical gloves, to toothbrushes, lubricants, and rubbing alcohol, are made from oil (Frumkin, Hess, and Vindigni). Aspirin, used to relieve pain by almost one-fifth of U.S. adults on a daily or bi-daily basis (Soni), is produced from a petroleum-based molecule, known as phenol (Frumkin, Hess, and Vindigni).
Due to our consumption of oil through services and industries dependent on oil, such as transportation, conventional farming, and the medical industry, the human health condition may be at risk. Within the transportation, mining, construction, and agricultural industries, diesel engine dependency potentially exposes many workers to suffer from health effects ranging from irritations and headaches, to respiratory diseases and lung cancer (United States Department of Labor). That means all miners, construction workers, heavy equipment operators, bridge and tunnel workers, oil and gas workers, truck drivers, and farm workers are at risk.

One newspaper article, titled Agricultural Pesticide Use May Be Associated with Increased Risk of Prostate Cancer, quoted Michael Alavanja, Dr. P.H., from NCI’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, who stated “farming is the most consistent occupational risk factor for prostate cancer” (National Cancer Institute). There may also be other diseases related to agricultural exposure, including asthma, neurological diseases, and poor pregnancy outcomes, such as spontaneous abortions. Agricultural workers may also experience higher rates of leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and cancers of the lip, stomach, skin, and brain, than people in urban areas (Agricultural Health Study).

Processed foods may also pose a risk for the human health condition, by contributing to diabetes (Bureau of Quality Improvement Services). Genetically engineered foods make up to 80 percent of conventional processed foods (Non-GMO Project). And all of these foods must be packaged in order to be transported. One industrial chemical, known as Bisphenol-A, or BPA, is used to make most of the 131 billion food and beverage cans used annually. BPA is a synthetic estrogen which leaches out of the plastic into the food and has been linked to infertility, breast and reproductive system cancer, obesity, diabetes, behavioral changes in children, and resistance to chemotherapy treatments (Environmental Working Group).

Consumers of genetically engineered food may be at higher risks to food allergies. Caitlin Shetterly, author of The Bad Seed: The Health Risks of Genetically Modified Corn, dealt with many uncomfortable health conditions such as headaches, exhaustion, burning rashes, nausea, and severe insomnia, for three and a half years while seeing many doctors with no results. After seeing allergist Paris Mansmann, M.D., she was told she may have developed a reaction from genetically engineered corn. Shetterly emitted corn form her diet, and four months later was back to her old self (Shetterly).

Although evidence linking genetically engineered food to food allergies is controversial, Vyvyan Howard, expert in infant toxico-pathology, said “swapping genes between organisms can produce unknown toxic effects and allergies that are most likely to affect children” (Smith). Of the total 15 million people affected by food allergies, 1 in every 3 children are affected (Food Allergy Research and Education). And children are at a higher risk of death from food allergies than adults (Smith). 

All of this factors in to create an increased demand on greater health care. Heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes are among the most common chronic diseases in the United States, responsible for 7 out of 10 American deaths each year. In 2005, almost 1 in every 2 adults had at least one chronic illness (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Diabetes contributed to 231, 404 deaths in 2007, and affects 25.8 million children and adults in the United States today. Evidence suggests people suffering from diabetes also have heart disease death rates 2 to 4 times higher, and a 2 to 4 times higher risk for stroke (American Diabetes Association). Certain forms of cancer are also more common to farmers exposed to pesticides and tests are being performed to investigate relationships between living and working on a farm and cancer risks (Agricultural Health Study).

As health risk rates increase, people’s dependency on health care also increases. As does the continuation of our dependency on oil. But oil is finite. And if oil becomes obsolete, then the infrastructure of this society crumbles just as fast as the World Trade Towers. Businesses will stop in their tracks, food will stop growing, and many families will face financial ruins.

However, there is time. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the earth still has “a global supply of crude oil, other liquid hydrocarbons, and biofuels expected to be adequate to meet the world’s demand for liquid fuels for at least the next 25 years.” Looked at from a reserves-to-production ratio, which gives the current rate of consumption to total proved reserves, and the EIA says about 50 years. Hopefully, any faults in Obamacare are worked out by then. Because who can afford to not afford health care once the blood in this economy's veins runs dry?

One man is actively more optimistic. Akinori Ito saw piles of garbage heaped on cluttered streets of Japan and thought, why can’t all that plastic be converted back into oil? Using Japanese technology, Ito melts plastic back into oil, while also cleaning up the garbage (More). 

Other than burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, we can get our energy from renewable energy sources, such as the sun, wind, water, biomass sources, and geothermal sources. However, it does have some drawbacks. Structures must be built to collect, harness, and transport the energy and environmental negative impacts may occur in order for the source of energy to be put into production (National Atlas).

But without renewable energy stations producing energy now, such renewable sources may just be good ideas. Once oil runs low, the blood flowing through this economy's veins will stop.  When the human body’s blood stops flowing, the body becomes dizzy and faints as a protective mechanism. Once the head is at equal levels to the heart, the brain can receive blood more easily. Maybe once companies have to cut back on spending, and families and individuals will have to cut back on consuming, then the blood will flow to the brains and the way it perceives increased profit margins at the expense of the environment will begin to change.

Work Cited
Agricultural Health Study. Frequently Asked Questions. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
American Diabetes Association. Diabetes Statistics. Web. 9 Nov. 2013.
Bureau of Quality Improvement Services. Health and Safety: Diabetes Overview. Web. 12
          Nov. 2013.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
          Web. 9 Nov. 2013.
Environmental Working Group. Guide to BPA. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
Food Allergy Research and Education. About Food Allergies. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
The Franklin Institute. Blood. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
Frumkin, Howard, Jeremy Hess, and Stephen Vindigni. Energy And Public Health: The     
          Challenge of Peak Petroleum. Public Health Reports. 2009 Jan – Feb.; 124(1): 5-19. Web. 9         Nov. 2013.
McClellan, Chris. Cob Construction: Building with Earth and Straw. Mother Earth News.
          Oct/Nov. 2013: 54 - 59. Print.
More, Saurabh. Man Invents Machine to Convert Plastic Into Oil. YouTube. Web. 10 Nov.
National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. Agricultural Pesticide Use May Be
          Associated With Increased Risk of Prostate Cancer. American Journal of Epidemiology. 2003;           157: 800-814. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.
Neff, Roni A., Cindy L. Parker, Frederick L. Kirschenmann, Jennifer Tinch, and Robert S.
          Lawrence. Peak Oil, Food Systems, and Public Health. Am J Public Health. 2011 Sept.; 101    (9): 1587 – 1597. Web. 9 Nov. 2013.
Non-GMO Project. Frequently Asked Questions. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
Renewable Energy Sources in the United States. National Atlas. 14 Jan. 2013. Web. 11
            Nov. 2013.
Shetterly, Caitlin. The Bad Seed: The Health Risks of Genetically Modified Corn. Health and
          Fitness. Elle. 24 July 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
Smith, Jeffrey. GM Foods More Dangerous For Children than Adults. Genetic Roulette: The
          Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods. 7 Oct. 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
Soni, Anita PhD. Aspirin Use among the Adult U.S. Non-Institutionalized Population, With and
          Without Indicators of Heart Disease. Medical Expenditure Panel Survey: Agency for           Healthcare Research and Quality. July 2007. Web. 9 Nov. 2013.
United States Department of Labor. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Diesel
          Exhaust. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
U.S. Energy Information Administration. Frequently Asked Questions. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Leaky Aeroponic System

The greens are growing upstairs in the south-facing window. I even harvested a hand full and threw the leaves into a green smoothie.

Tray with Dome Lid and Heat Map placed underneath.
In the basement, the aeroponic system is down. And progress has been slow in comparison to the soil-grown greens upstairs.

The reason it’s down is the PVC pipe running horizontally through the tote, a.k.a. aeroponic system, cracked a leak. The good thing is it only needs some silicone. The bad thing is I lost the plants.

I believe two key factors were responsible for the slow growth of the mizuna and tatsoi recently growing in the aeroponic machine downstairs. One is low humidity. The temperature stays in the mid-60s, sometimes hitting 70, but the humidity stays right around 20 percent.

Two is the possibility of not enough nutrient solution. Lettuce grows best between 560 and 800 ppm, which is the amount of nutrient solution present in the water. If mizuna and tatsoi can be grown under the same conditions as other Asian greens, such as pak choi, which, according to this chart grows best with a higher pH and with a nutrient mix between 1050 and 1400 ppm, then I wasn’t giving them enough nutrients.

Tatsoi - before the leak.
The great thing is I have solutions.

One is to fix the leak. I believe it is prone to tiny leaks because in order to clean the aeroponic system the entire thing needs to be moved and flipped around. Some 3-hour rain-ready, clear silicone is good to have on hand. I have it now.

I also bought two totes when I went to buy clear silicone. One tote is specifically for the top of the aeroponic system. I plan on using it as a dome lid, flipped upside down, over the plants. This way, humidity will build and be trapped right where the plants need it. And they will grow faster.

The second tote is to place underneath the aeroponic system. No one likes water on the floor.

The last thing I plan to do is to switch from growing Asian greens to a different lettuce variety. Other than the peace of mind from knowing how much nutrient solution to use, I also want larger leaves than the Asian baby greens offer.

All I need now are lettuce seeds.

Mizuna - before the leak.

Soil-growing Mizuna and Tatsoi in the upstairs south-facing window:


Soon this window, tray, dome lid, and heat mat will be needed for germinating outdoor crops. Soon. 

The Benefits of Fasting

Fasting is a great way to energize the body and mind and to tune it in for the changing seasons. With spring’s longer days and longer to-do lists around the corner, I could use a push-and-a-shove and would happily fall face first into a pile of motivation. Fasting is that push-and-a-shove and what follows is a period of increased motivation.

To read more, click here.

What is a fast? recently appeared on Mother Earth News under Natural Health.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Guerrilla Food Forest Project 2014

This idea of starting food forests without following any laws or regulations laid out by local or federal government agencies has been floating around this head for well over a year. The time to implement action is now. In an age where growing food has disappeared from in front of our eyes to be replaced by roads and corn fields, only to be seen neatly displayed under fluorescent lights in the produce section of not only grocery stores but also department stores, with a large percentage of it currently out-of-season, non-native, or certified “unaffordable”, it has become obvious what must take place. Food must be grown hidden in the nearby woods.

This year I am committing myself to growing cover crops over 1,000 square feet to begin the initial stages of starting a food forest in Pennsylvania. But before we go any further, I think it would be best to give you a brief understanding of my interpretation of a food forest.

Explanation of a Food Forest

I never did grow up using the word “forest”. In Pennsylvania, we always said “woods”, but food woods has no ring to it. Just like the woods grow in Pennsylvania on their own, from the soil to the small plants growing on the forest floor, to the small shrubs and trees growing underneath the taller trees climbing up to form the forest canopy, along with all the vines and natural water ways and animals, a food forest can also grow. But with a food forest, most the plants provide . . . well, food. And if they don’t provide food, they provide vital nutrients to the whole food forest system. Whether it’s squash growing on the ground, or small bushes producing berries, or small nectarine, plum, or apple trees, or large almond or walnut trees, a food forest can be established and, if done properly, can eventually sustain itself. That is the ultimate goal.

Now before I can go out and plant a fruit tree somewhere there are a few necessary steps to prepare the site to be able to grow that fruit tree. I will not go into the woods and cut down trees to clear a site for a food forest. Instead, I will choose a site that man has already cleared in the past for whatever reason and will assist in re-establishing that forest system, this time to produce food. The goal is to do it with the least amount of human labor possible. And the least amount of outside resources. In the beginning, I am prepared to do the work.

First, cover crops must be planted throughout the seasons to start fixing nitrogen in the top of the soil and to add organic matter to the bare ground. Once this cycle starts, some small nitrogen-fixing shrubs can be planted. They will loosen up the soil and fix nitrogen at about 3-feet down. As planting cover crops continues and small shrubs become established, fast growing nitrogen-fixing trees reaching 15 to 20-feet can be planted next. They will loosen up the soil deep in the ground and will provide mulch for the forest floor each time they are pruned back. Each plant helps establish the food forest and is an important part of the system. Cover crops continue to be planted and then squash and other vegetables can be planted to help keep weeds under control. The largest trees in the food forest will grow over 40 feet, making the forest canopy and fixing nitrogen for decades to come.

I have no idea how long this may take but am fully aware it can take the rest of this lifetime. That’s O.K. I believe in reincarnation, so maybe I’ll have next lifetime too. For as complex as a food system can get, I just want to keep this experiment small and simple. Because my knowledge of trees and shrubs is limited along with internet information on creating food forests anywhere outside of the tropics, time is at last on my side. With money being the last limiting force, 1,000 square feet seems comfortably possible.

The Food Forest Vision

Working with a 1,000 square foot area allows me to mentally draw a 50-by-20-foot rectangle. On paper I can physically draw it from an aerial view. Here’s a quick view of what I hope to grow once the food forest sustains itself.

In the center of the food forest, I want a large, approximately 20-foot tall, nut-bearing tree. I’ve been looking at different almond trees that are supposed to grow well in Zone 5. According to Penn State Extension, black walnuts, Chinese chestnuts, English walnuts, and certain types of pecan can all be grown in Pennsylvania. The reason I am interested in nut trees is because they are expensive at the store and native varieties are rare even at farmers markets.

On each side of the nut tree, I envision there being dwarf nectarine or peach trees, approximately 10-foot tall, and between these fruit trees I see a variety of berry bushes, such as blueberries and some less-known natives. Behind these fruit trees and on each side of the nut tree is where 10 to 15-foot fast-growing, nitrogen-fixing trees will be planted. There is still much time to decide the specific varieties.

I use to go to a Christian-type pre-school and I never understood why Adam was told not to eat the fruit. I must have thought about it pretty in-depth because this photographic image of a food forest pops up in my imagination and I realize each time I visualize a food forest, I’m looking at the same image I’ve drawn up in my imagination as a child when learning about Adam and Eve. It’s sort of weird. And I still don’t understand the story because if I stay in this angelic food forest vision too long I can hear God telling me it’s O.K. to eat the fruit. (Just don’t eat the serpent, God reminds me.)

In the end, this food forest would consist of one nut tree, two fruit trees, and four berry bushes. There will also be two smaller trees fixing nitrogen and providing mulch for the ground along with two larger trees making the forest canopy for decades to come. Although there are many factors to consider, such as weather, government authorities, hikers, hunters, ATV enthusiasts, rabbits, deer, bear, and coyote, I believe it can be done.

The Plan
Once the site is scouted and confirmed, I will be growing cover crops starting in spring, summer, and fall of 2014. The oats and peas will be planted this spring and buckwheat in the summer. Winter rye will be sowed in fall and will remain through next winter.
In order to successfully build soil fertility over a 50-by-20-foot area, it will require 3lbs. of oats and peas in the spring, 2lbs. of buckwheat in the summer, and 2lbs. of winter rye in the fall. I spend 5 dollars for each pound of organic seeds. The oats and peas and buckwheat seeds are already on their way. In 2014 (and ’15 and ’16), it will cost me 35 dollars for the cover crop seeds. I’m comfortable with that commitment.

I also ordered New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) seeds. These are the 3-foot, nitrogen-fixing shrubs that must be planted first in order to prepare the site to sustain larger trees. They are drought tolerant and hardy to -20 degrees F. I’ll sow the seeds at home in containers and hope they transplant well when ready. My eyes will be open at local nursery’s to see who sells these shrubs already started, just in case.

It may sound like a lot but one step at a time is all that man and nature is capable of. I mean we can add a budget and machinery but that’s not my style. Much research still needs to be done on native shrub and tree species. I did find a list of nitrogen-fixing shrubs and trees for temperate areas which should help me, but more research is needed. Primarily, I need to find a fast-growing, nitrogen-fixing tree approximately 10 to 15-foot tall that grows great in zone 5. Fortunately, I have a few years to find it.

As for the forest canopy, I do not know yet. Again, time is on my side. I hope to build this food forest on the edge of an existing wood line, one where large trees fixing nitrogen already thrive. 

The Land

As for the land, I got it. I thought I’ve had it and yesterday I went for a short hike to confirm the possibility of success. I walked a trail at the bottom of a large slope. The sun was shining and the water sounded like a small stream beneath the melting ice. My dogs did not enjoy the feeling of each paw breaking through the ice but the forty degree smell of the great outdoors was enough to keep their heads up and their noses busy sniffing whatever lied ahead. The bottom of the slope is wide and mostly flat with an existing tree line growing on an established swale. This location is south-facing and it’s a short walk off the main trail which is also not too far from a safe parking lot. Each requisite is fulfilled with some added benefits.

The land is owned by the Earth Conservancy and over 1,500 acres has been covered in compost to restore damage caused from coal mining. It’s now covered with vegetation. Near this area of land, exists a functioning compost facility made available to all county residents – for free. This is a great perk, especially if I decide to start multiple food forests within this area.

My goal is to begin creating this food forest without attracting too much attention. No attention is best. In a few years, once some fruit trees become established, I want people to know about it. Still, I’m working around authority and it may result in consequences. That’s O.K. I would rather have a living example of a food forest to use as an educational tool when pitching these “crazy, out-there” ideas to local and federal government agencies, than being stuck with only the “crazy, out-there” ideas. Only then will they see that what I’m explaining is simple and practical.

Other than the potential threat of people, animals may pose an even greater threat. For example, I’ve read about rabbits eating New Jersey Tea shrubs. Protecting plants with wired cages may cause people to notice something “different” taking place. Deer in Pennsylvania are everywhere and they’re food supplies are constantly being depleted. That goes for all animals and I wouldn’t want to grow food thinking it’s not for them too. In time, I suppose I’ll find that line between protecting food for human consumption and allowing some food to remain for the animals.

I feel it is a higher duty to step over the lines drawn by society’s line-drawers - nature’s direct descendants of the white man. Trapped in a white body, I feel more like a Native American mixed with an Eastern spiritualist who does not and will not ever understand the ways of this western world. The great thing is I don’t need to. But I do need to live in it. And because of that, I want to see food growing throughout the woods of Pennsylvania.            

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Growing Lettuce Indoors With an Aeroponic System

Growing lettuce and other greens indoors with an aeroponic system in a south-facing window in the basement seems like a wise move. Growing anything seems like a wise move, I suppose. However, the short days during this long winter has soil-growing 30-day Asian greens at only 2-inches in height, although they were sowed over 30 days ago.

A DIY-style Aeroponic System
I hope with the use of an aeroponic system, growing 30-day Asian greens can actually take somewhere around 30 days. However, I do not plan on using indoor lights to make this happen, just the south-facing window. Anything that makes the electricity bill go up is strictly forbidden at this time. Plus I don’t want passerby’s to see an indoor light and some dude with dread locks. I’ll have the neighbors, riff-rats, and cops thinking I’m up to something. Or worse – someone will break inside and steal my Asian greens!

For right now I will explain the most simple, basic steps to growing lettuce with an aeroponic system. First, we will go over what aeroponics is and what our goal is, then we’ll talk about the initial expenses, touch on pH and nutrient solution, and last, we will hope the sun provides enough life-giving rays long enough each day to grow these Asian greens in 30-days.

About Aeroponics and What I Want to Accomplish

Aeroponics, like hydroponics, deals with growing plants without using soil. Once soil is taken out of the equation, all that is left is water and air. With aeroponics, the air becomes the growing medium rather than the soil. It is then left to me to measure the nutrient solution, or the fertilizer being mixed into the water. The lid must be secure to block out all light from hitting the roots dangling inside the aeroponic system; therefore, the humidity will stay at 100 percent while oxygen-rich nutrient solution sprays the roots all day.
The inside of the tote. A water pump pumps the water
through the PVC pipe making the misters spray water.
The aeroponic system is simple. Advanced Simplicity 202-type simple. It starts off as a tote. A PVC pipe is then added horizontally a few inches below the top of the tote. This PVC pipe will have spray-misters drilled into it and a tube coming out to the bottom of the tote to connect to the water pump. Then there is the lid to the tote. This is where the top of the plants grow above as the roots grow inside the tote. It will have holes cut out to install netted pots that will hold the hydro balls, also known as expanded clay. The hydro balls help to hold moisture, nutrients, and oxygen for the roots.

I germinate the seeds in rockwool cubes, then place the rockwool in the netted pot surrounded by hydro balls. The lid should also have a hole for the plug of the water pump to run out of and an extra and larger hole in the middle for taking water out to measure pH and nutrients. Remember, when growing indoors all water should be below the waist and everything electric above the waist - Growing Indoors with Hippies 101.
Hydro balls and a netted pot.
One major pro to growing with hydroponics is plants grow faster because nutrients are available for the plant as fast as the plant can take them. Growing in soil minimizes the amount of oxygen available to the roots in comparison to hydroponics, which maximizes oxygen. In other words, soil holds the nutrients longer and acts as a buffer zone; whereas, nutrients in hydroponics is head on. Growing indoors with 600-Watt lights at vegetative intervals of 18-hours a day and flowering intervals of 12-hours a day is some crazy productive stuff. It’s also goes way past my budget and free time. (At least until Pennsylvania becomes the next Colorado.)

The major advantage to aeroponics versus hydroponics is the roots have the highest potential to absorb nutrients through the air. In hydroponics, the water runs through the roots at timed intervals, always draining back into a main water chamber. In aeroponics, the main water chamber is the only chamber and it’s a daily, steady combination of oxygen, water, nutrients, and roots.
A view with the lid lifted up.
The major con to hydroponics is if something goes wrong the plants are much less forgiving than if their roots were in soil. And in order for everything to run smooth the gardener needs to be on top of stuff. Water pH, temperature, and nutrient solutions need to be checked, water needs to be changed every week or two, spray misters cannot clog and do not forget, the garden is growing faster than soil; therefore, the gardener must be fast too. Aeroponics is even less forgiving than hydroponics. And more touchy.

With all that said, it’s simple. Especially when you start off with lettuce varieties and avoid fancy indoor light systems. (I admit, I admire.) And that is my goal. I just want to grow greens indoors with my aeroponic system. Simply.

Initial Expenses 

To follow the flow of simplicity, let’s assume the aeroponic system is ready to go. It’s even filled up with water a few inches above the water pump and it’s plugged in with soaked rockwool cubes germinating seeds. In order for plants to grow, the water pH must be balanced and nutrients must be added to the water. Other than the system, some minor purchases needed would be for the hydro balls, water pH up/down solution, and nutrient solution. Then there are the major initial expenses. One is a pH meter to measure the pH in the water and two is a TDS meter to measure the nutrients in the water. Fortunately, they are affordable.
pH meter and TDS meter
I went for the most affordable of each and when I called the pH meter cheap the dude from the hydro-store looked at me crazy. “It’s a great pH meter. It’s not that sophisticated because you’re only growing greens.” Sounded great to me because I don’t want anything unless I absolutely need it. The pH meter I chose is a Hanna Champ HI98106 and the TDS meter is made by HM Digital, the TDS-3. Both were under 50 bucks and both have worked great, even now after sitting in the shed for 2 years.

Every now and then the meters will need to be calibrated to be sure all measurements are accurate. The pH meter requires more attention to that than the TDS meter does.  It’s a mind-numbingly easy process and the calibration solution is cheap. Technically, you are supposed to pour a little calibration solution in a jar, use it once, and dispose of it. The dude at the hydro-store let me in on a little secret; he said, “Use it once, put a lid on it, and use it a second time. They say not to do it but you can get away with it accurately.” My man.

Most soil gardeners will be familiar with pH. TDS, or total dissolved solids, may be foreign - it is used to measure nutrients in the water. Those same nutrients may also be measured under different scales that look like this: EC, DS, or CF. I say chickpea, you say chana and the can on the store shelf says garbanzo. But I just want a bean! (I also just lied, it’s much more complex. Too complex for this brain. Remember, simple.)  Here’s an explanation from Gardening Indoors with Soil and Hydroponics by George F. Van Patten:
pH up, pH down, and FloraGro
Pure distilled water has no resistance and conducts no electrical current. When impurities are added to pure distilled water in the form of fertilizer salts, it conducts electricity. Nutrient (salt) concentrations are measured by their ability to conduct electricity through a solution. (Don’t worry, it gets easier.) Simple electronic meters measure this value and interpret it as total dissolved solids (TDS). The TDS meter gives me a reading in parts per million (PPM). I then just need to know what number in ppm I want to aim for to grow lettuce.

pH and Nutrient Solution

Let’s keep talking about nutrient solution. In order to grow lettuce with an aeroponic system all I purchased for nutrient solution is General Hydroponics Flora Gro. What I like about the dude at the hydro-store is he only sells me exactly what he thinks I need. Flora Gro is part of General Hydroponics basic Flora Series which consists of Flora Gro, Flora Bloom, and Flora Micro. I do not need Flora Bloom because I’m not growing tomatoes or chickpeas or any other vegetable that fruits.
The Flora Micro are micro-nutrients that plants need. This is what he said about the Flora Micro knowing I was short on cash: “You can probably get away without using Flora Micro since you’re only growing greens.” I observed his wording carefully noting I may want to purchase it on my return trip when I buy more hydro balls. We’ll see. I admired his wording for not upselling me like a dude on the brink of starvation. (Technically, he has a building full of food.) With this figured out, all I need to know next is how much Flora Gro to add.
TDS meter measures 330 ppm.
Different plants require different amounts of nutrients in the same way different plants prefer different soil pH levels. Charts for how many PPM’s each plant may need to grow best are all over the internet but we’re only growing lettuce. For lettuce I need my TDS meter to measure around 800 ppm. According to this chart, lettuce grows best between 560 and 840 ppm. Something like Endive grows best at 1400 to 1680 ppm. Therefore, I would not want to grow endive with my Asian greens in the same aeroponic system.

pH is pH and it is fairly simple yet the numbers a soil gardener may be familiar with are different. In a hydroponic system, vegetables do best with a pH range between 5.5 and 6.5, and it is even better to aim between 5.8 and 6.0. According to the book by Van Patten, the pH of the nutrient solution controls the availability of ions that plants need to assimilate. According to me, it’s much easier to stick the pH meter in water and adjust it with pH down or pH up to aim between 5.8 and 6.0.
pH meter measures 6.1
Because the water needs changed every week to two (more often when plants are more developed) it is required and safe to run straight water through the system to flush it out between nutrient changes. If you don’t change the water you may quickly starve or over-fertilize the plants. If that happens, you may lose them all – the major con.  

Simplified Once More

I always start off with fresh water and germinating seeds. I dip a little glass bowl into the water, add some pH down and some nutrient solution by the teaspoons, depending, and pour the bowl back into the aeroponic machine. Then I forget about it for the day. The next day I take out more water, measure it with my pH meter, then with my TDS meter and add more depending on the measurements. It’s O.K. to gradually build up to 800 ppm because the plants are still seedlings and growing. The pH I want to keep at 6.0 or a little below.

As for organic, I don’t know. According to General Hydroponics, only unrefined minerals can be certified organic and unrefined minerals do not dissolve well enough for hydroponic systems. Products such as their Flora Series comes from high-quality refined minerals which means they cannot be certified organic. But I’m not after certifications.
Mizuna seedling.
For right now, I just want to see if I can formulate growing lettuce with the aeroponic system into my weekly routine year round in the south-facing window in the basement. Ultimately, I feel a deep connection with the soil and sun versus liquid nutrients and indoor lights, but I do enjoy each trip to the local hydroponic store where the owner is growing a ton of veggies all over the place. And selling weekly shares. Perhaps one day we can take a trip. Until then, stay tuned to check out my progress.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Home Composting In Bins Due To Snow

Composting is a habit. And no, it’s not pretty. But it is a good habit.
With all this snow I have no access to the compost pile. So I’ve been stock-piling it in plastic bins like a hoarder. First, I filled up two 5-gallon buckets. Then I filled up a 50-gallon tote with food and cardboard scraps. Now I’m filling up another big tote and have frozen freezer bags here and there that need organized.

Luckily, the outside world is like one giant freezer and right now hoarding it is O.K. Tomorrow the temperatures climb to 40 degrees and I’ll be caught up on life by then. (One part true; one part lie.) Hopefully the rain and rising temperatures will make the snow melt so I have access to the compost pile. Soon enough we’ll be building a new compost site out in the yard. Now that I’m hooked, we need a bigger area with multiple sections.

Looking at what’s in the home compost bin is like looking at doo-doo in the toilet, I can tell how healthy I am by what’s in the compost container in the fridge. This past week, for instance, produced all coffee grounds, no food scraps, due to the 1-plus foot of snow we got. I learned to plow, stayed up for 36-hours straight, slept for 6, went back to plowing and moving snow for 10 more hours, then had to go out a few hours each day as one or two more inches accumulated. (Oh no! I’m becoming my Dad. Except he plowed 50-hours straight and got frost-bite in his toe.)

However, composting is one of my better habits. I once had more bad habits. Attempting to stop bad habits without replacing them with better ones proved impossible. Forming good habits naturally fades out the bad ones. Unfortunately, I’m still hooked on coffee and I don’t see composting fading out my coffee habit since the coffee grounds are too valuable for making home compost. (I can live with a coffee habit. But becoming my Dad …)

Composting, doo-doo, hoarding, and frost-bite are certainly not pretty. Nor is me becoming my Dad. (I guess in the world of plants, a clone of a tomato will grow to be a tomato plant. I hope it’s different with us humans. I’m not down for genetically engineering plants or humans to make that happen, however.) But hoarding compost will make the plants in the garden and the food on our plates mad beautiful this summer.

That I can live with.