DIY Hydroponics: Going soil-less at home and abroad

It seems that as interest in gardening grows, especially among younger generations, interest in different techniques that home gardeners use and different plants they grow are also on the increase.  You see the old standbys like straw bales and containers emerge.  Terraria, succulents, and air plants are having their moment.  And all kinds of technology driven indoor growing systems are all over the web, mostly hydroponic, but some aeroponic and aquaponic as well (we’ll talk about the difference in a bit – if you’re just here for that, skip the first 2/3 of the article).

I had been thinking about getting one of those new techno aeroponic growing systems as a demo for my office as a discussion starter for those interested in controlled environment growing whether on the homework commercial scale.  There is a general interest and need for basic education for hydroponics and aquaponics in the area that I hope to build extension programming around, so having something at the office could provide some interest from walk-in and social media clients.   I had dusted off a first generation AeroGarden that I found in the storage shelves in the office storage catacombs and set it up in my office.  It is a far cry from the new models I saw in those online ads that are outside of my budget for “toys to show off at the office.” It doesn’t have nice LED lights or connect to my phone via Bluetooth like the fancy new models.  Given its age, it produces more noise and heat than the lettuce and herbs I’ve tried to grow in it.  Maybe I’ll be able to get one of the fancy models one day.

Then I remembered a book that an urban ag friend of mine had written on building DIY hydroponic systems from common building materials and resolved to not only build a system, but incorporate it into my programming somehow.  The book, appropriately titled “DIY Hydroponic Gardens: How to Design and Build an Inexpensive System for Growing Plants in Water” by Tyler Baras shares plans for building a variety of types of hydroponic systems using basic building materials like gutters and lumber, drip irrigation tubing and fittings, and various other bits and bobs.  Tyler had been a featured speaker for the West Virginia Urban Agriculture Conference that I started and hosted when I worked for WVU Extension, so the book was on my radar – I placed an order.  (Note: I don’t get a kickback for sharing the book – just sharing a good resource that happens to be from a friend.)

Teaching Hydroponics to an Unlikely Audience

Image may contain: 3 people, including John Porter, people sitting, outdoor and nature
Learning traditional weaving methods using banana leaves. Banana leaf weaving is a common industry in rural Rwandan villages that allows women to provide modest incomes for their families.

As luck would have it, I had an opportunity to put the book, and my DIY hydroponic skills, to the test.  Our university does quite a bit of work with and in Rwanda and in May I had the opportunity to travel to Rwanda as part of a study abroad program with my Ph.D. advisor.    Rwanda is a very small country, just under the size of Massachussets, with a very big population by comparison – 12 million vs 7 million!  Feeding that many people is a struggle, and even though Rwanda produces a lot of produce (and more lucrative export crops like coffee and tea), it still imports a lot of its fruits and vegetables.  We were studying how innovation spreads in rural areas, and just before our trip I found a news article sharing that there would be an upcoming $8M USD ($8B RWF) investment in hydroponics in the country in order to increase production on the limited amount of land available.

In June I was scheduled to teach a group of Rwandan exchange students that are part of a sponsored program at the university, and remembering the planned investment in hydroponics I planned to add DIY hydroponics to the curriculum.  This is fitting, since most small-scale operations would rely on finding what materials would be locally available.  While the operations started by the investment would likely bring in “real” hydroponic systems, if small scale producers want to use the technology or if individuals want to build skills, they’re going to have to use what is at hand.

UNL CUSP Scholars students from Rwanda build a DIY Hydroponic System
Planting leafy greens and strawberries in the hydroponic system.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was interesting teaching an audience who were interested in learning about the new technology, but have little experience or general knowledge on the subject.  Even more interesting was the fact that many of the students had not used or even seen some of the basic power tools we used in building the system.  I’m no shop teacher, but in the end the students not only learned a little bit about hydroponics and hydroponic systems, but also some skills using tools that they can apply in other applications.

Proudly showing off the team’s vertical hydroponic system.

 

 

 

 

 

Hydroponics, Aeroponics, & Aquaponics – Oh My!

Earlier I mentioned that there are differences between hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics.  In some ways, they use similar basic setups.  All are based on soil-less growing using an inert media to support plants, supplying nutrients and water directly to the plant roots, and providing light to the plants using either natural sunlight or supplemental lighting.  Differences come from the source of plant nutrients and from how they are delivered to the plant.  I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about the basics of each of the techniques so you can understand the differences just in case you want to buy or build your own system.  If there’s interest, I hope to focus on hydroponics and controlled environment agriculture over my next few blog posts – tell me what you’re interested in learning.

Most people are familiar with the concept of hydroponics.  This technique relies on roots being submerged in a nutrient-rich solution where the nutrient content is engineered from a variety of mineral sources.  There are a variety of different systems (that will hopefully be the subject of an upcoming blog) where the root zone interacts directly with the solution.  In some cases, roots are submerged in a large volume of solution while in others a film or shallow stream of water flows through the root zone.  Systems where roots are submerged in the solution may simply be a large reservoir where the plants float on top where systems relying on flow may involve a pump.  Movement of water adds another plant need -oxygen, which is required for respiration by the roots.  In systems where there is no flow, air is often pumped in to provide oxygen.

Most flowing systems are recirculating, where the solution returns to a reservoir and is pumped back into a reservoir to be reused.  While it may seem counterintuitive, these recirculating water based growing systems have been touted as production methods that conserve water.  That’s why some of the leading hydroponic production and research comes from areas of the world where water is scarce. Less common are flow through systems where water and nutrients are not recaptured but discarded after initial use.

Aeroponic systems have much of the same basic setup but instead of the roots interfacing directly with water solution it is applied as a pressurized mist.  These systems generally use a much smaller volume of water, but there are some drawbacks.  Failure of the system, such as an electric outage or clogging of the nozzles that pressurize the mist (which is a common occurrence) can quickly result in plant failure since roots can dry out quickly.  Several systems that are sold commercially that market themselves as aeroponic, such as the AeroGarden or Tower Gardens, are more similar to a flowing hydroponic system than a pressurized mist aeroponic system.

The plant growing structures of aquaponics are similar to those of hydroponics, with the addition of larger reservoirs to accommodate the addition of aquatic livestock such as fish (or sometimes crustaceans).  The waste produced by the stock provide the nutrients needed by the plants rather than an engineered nutrient solution.  These systems require having the technical knowledge to meet the needs of the aquatic stock and balancing those with the needs of the plants.  The addition of the aquatic stock also introduces a microbiome of bacteria and fungi, many of which are required for animal health but can also introduce pathogens that can negatively affect human health.

Are you interested in learning more about these systems?  What do you want learn about in hydroponic or other systems? Let me know in the comments and I’ll try to base some future articles on what our readers are interested in.

Late summer pruning: what happens, what won’t, and why

In the fall a gardener’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of pruning (with apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson).  In particular, people worry that pruning too late in the summer or early fall will stimulate plants to send out new growth, which is then damaged by freezing temperatures. Let’s dissect what actually happens when woody plants are pruned during this time.

Sumac leaves in full autumn glory.

First, we need to separate temperate trees and shrubs from tropical and subtropical species. For the most part, the latter don’t become winter dormant: pruning them at any time means you will have regrowth as long as there are sufficient resources. If planted in more temperate zones, they will continue to grow until they are killed by freeze damage. Instead, we’ll look at temperate species and how they are adapted to surviving winter conditions.

Tropical woody plants like this jade are not winter dormant species. Don’t leave them outside even if you think they are protected (lesson learned).

I wrote a couple of posts last year on cold hardiness (here and here), so I won’t repeat those discussions on how plants survive freezing. Instead, we’ll focus on the process of HOW plants enter winter dormancy and become cold hardy. It’s a two-step process that depends on two different environmental factors: one that never changes from year to year, and one that certainly can.

The first step to dormancy is initiated right after the summer solstice. Plants are exquisitely adapted to changes in the light-to-dark ratio, and days begin shortening after the summer solstice. The changes that occur are largely biochemical, but you can also see some changes in plants themselves. Many trees and shrubs slow their growth during this time so that fewer young leaves and shoots are produced. Instead, resources are put into the existing foliage, or flowers for summer bloomers. Excess resources are routed to woody parts of the plant for storage.

Light and dark ratios vary with latitude, but the seasonal changes are always the same time of year.

From a practical standpoint, this means that when you prune trees and shrubs where growth has stopped, you will NOT get regrowth. The vegetative buds below the pruning cut are dormant. The tricky thing is that the exact time when the switch is thrown varies by species and is affected by environmental conditions. Careful observation will allow you to estimate when the plants will no longer produce new growth.

Some temperate species naturally put on a spurt of late summer growth. The leaves on these new Japanese maple shoots generally die from cold damage, but the branches themselves survive.

The second step begins when night temperatures cool to near freezing, which is not a predictable date. Because many of the biochemical and physiological processes have already begun or are finished, the response to cold night temperatures is rapid and visible. Leaf colors change as the plant begins breaking down leaf materials for mobilization and storage elsewhere in preparation for winter dormancy.

This katsura has started the process of autumn leaf senescence.

This process, honed over millions of years, is unfortunately not infallible especially under abnormal environmental conditions. Two examples spring to mind:

  • High intensity street lights. If the normal light-to-dark ratio change is interrupted by significant levels of night light, the first step of dormancy is hijacked. You can see what happens in these previous blog posts here and here.
That street light in the middle has kept the nearby leaves green while those farther away are senescing.
  • Unseasonably cold weather. With climate change, we are seeing wild shifts in all sorts of weather patterns, including the date of the first hard freeze. Hard, early freezes are not the same as a light evening frost. You can see what happens here:
A hard freeze in early November fried the leaves on this hydrangea.

Given normal conditions, however, temperate trees and shrubs are well on their way to full winter dormancy by late summer and early fall. Pruning them is not going to induce new growth.

Professional Credentials and Gardening Expertise: Arborists

Arborists, Professional Credentials, and Designating Bodies

ISA Certified Arborist logo
ISA Certified Arborist logo, courtesy of ISA.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines arboriculture as “the cultivation of trees and shrubs especially for ornamental purposes” (2019a) and arborists as the specialists that care for those trees (2019b). In the US there are two primary certifications for arborists. Arborists can become a Registered Consulting Arborist (RCA) through the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA) (ASCA, 2019a) and/or become an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Certified Arborist (ISA, 2019a). The ISA also offers a range of associated certifications, including ISA Certified Arborist Utility Specialist, Arborist Municipal Specialist, Tree Worker Climber Specialist, Tree Worker Aerial Lift Specialist, Board Certified Master Arborist, and ISA Tree Risk Assessment Qualification. For the sake brevity, the focus of this post will be on the flagship programs from each organization, ASCA’s Registered Consulting Arborist and the ISA Certified Arborist credentials.

 

Relevance for Gardeners

Many gardeners who have trees are likely familiar with arborists, or at least with a local “tree guy”. While trees are beautiful, they can also suffer from disease, nutrient deficiencies, and other plant health issues. In addition, trees often require maintenance and pruning to ensure safety, avoid damage to houses or other property from falling branches, or to allow more light through the tree canopy to reach the ground and garden. Maintenance and pruning of trees requires experience and expertise to ensure that trees aren’t damaged in the process, and that pruning is done safely. When their services are needed, hiring an arborist with professional credentials can be an excellent way to ensure that trees are properly cared for and that nobody is hurt in the process.

In my personal experience, certified arborists in my community charge more per hour. However, the extra cost in exchange for ensuring the 60 year old pin oak that is the same age as my house lives on for another 60 years is worth it.

Other Considerations in Choosing an Arborist

Whether an arborist is certified or not, it is a good idea to check that the arborist is insured. That is because if they or one of their crew is injured on your property, you as the property owner may be liable for any injuries that occur while tending to the trees on your property.

Also, as with hiring any professional for home repairs or improvements, it’s important to check their references or get recommendations from colleagues and friends. You should also check whether your local government has any regulations on tree management within city limits. If so, be sure that who you hire has experience with following those regulations, and has all of the business registrations and approval from the local government.

It is also important what your needs are. If you need a large specimen tree pruned and the potential for tree injury or death would be devastating, then hiring someone with documented expertise is important. If you’re instead just trying to get the half-dead tree in the back yard chopped down and there’s no risk of falling a tree onto a power line or structure, then documented expertise might be less important (though insurance might be, see above).

In addition, if you are getting a large tree taken down, consider the value of the wood in your tree. Large hardwood trees may have significant value. Some tree guys will offer to take it down for free in exchange for the wood. While this may sound like a good deal, I know people who were shorted thousands of dollars from such transactions when considering the value of the wood and the per hour cost of an arborist.

Arborist takes down a pine tree in residential area. Photograph by TS Eriksson.

Type of Credential: Professional Certificate

Both the RCA and ISA Certified Arborist credentials are considered professional certificates. This means that these are optional credentials. Arborists are not required by law to be certified. This means that an arborist can operate without certification. Arborists that are certified have had their credentials reviewed, and meet or abide by the criteria described below.

Education and Professional Experience Requirements

Registered Consulting Arborists must be a current ASCA member, and be a graduate of the ASCA’s Consulting Academy (ASCA, 2019b). No additional education or work experience is required.

ISA Certified Arborist must have three or more years of experience in arboriculture and/or a degree in the field of arboriculture, horticulture, landscape architecture, or forestry from an accredited institution of higher education (ISA, 2019b).

Qualifying Exams

Registered Consulting Arborists must pass an open-book exam as part of the ASCA’s Consulting Academy, which also includes other assignments before, during, and after the academy (ASCA, 2019c).

ISA Certified Arborists must pass a qualifying exam (ISA, 2018).

Code of Ethics

The ISA Certified Arborist program has a code of ethics that all certified arborists must abide by (ISA, 2019c). The RCA program does not have a code of ethics.

Continuing Education

Registered Consulting Arborists must complete 420 continuing education units (CEUs) to be eligible for the RCA credential (ASCA, 2019b). Their website does not specify if additional CEUs are required in order to maintain the RCA credential.

ISA Certified Arborists are required to complete 30 CEUs in a three-year period in order to maintain their certification (ISA, 2019d).

References

ASCA. 2019a. The RCA. American Society of Consulting Arborists. https://www.asca-consultants.org/page/RCA (accessed 25 September 2019).

ASCA. 2019b. Eligibility/Fees. American Society of Consulting Arborists. https://www.asca-consultants.org/page/EligibilityFeesRCAs (accessed 25 September 2019).

ASCA. 2019c. ASCA’s Consulting Academy. American Society of Consulting Arborists. https://www.asca-consultants.org/page/ConsultingAcademy (accessed 25 September 2019).

ISA. 2018. ISA Certified Arborist Application Guide. https://www.isa-arbor.com/Portals/0/Assets/PDF/Certification-Applications/cert-Application-Certified-Arborist.pdf.

ISA. 2019a. Types of Credentials. International Society of Arboriculture. https://www.isa-arbor.com/Credentials/Which-Credential-is-Right-for-You (accessed 25 September 2019).

ISA. 2019b. ISA Certified Arborist. International Society of Arboriculture. https://www.isa-arbor.com/Credentials/Types-of-Credentials/ISA-Certified-Arborist (accessed 25 September 2019).

ISA. 2019c. Code of Ethics. International Society of Arboriculture. https://www.isa-arbor.com/Credentials/ISA-Ethics-and-Integrity/Code-of-Ethics (accessed 25 September 2019).

ISA. 2019d. Maintaining Credentials. International Society of Arboriculture. https://www.isa-arbor.com/Credentials/Maintaining-Credentials (accessed 25 September 2019).

Merriam-Webster. 2019a. Definition of Arboriculture. Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/arboriculture (accessed 25 September 2019).

Merriam-Webster. 2019b. Definition of Arborist. Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/arborist (accessed 25 September 2019).