Wednesday, December 21, 2011

AutoGardens mid December 2011 - Part 4-Step garden for flowers [summary]

AG-06  Step-style AutoGarden for flowers

[refer to earlier posts for general information about AutoGarden styles and naming and other results]

This autogarden consists of three troughs that are approximately 8 feet in length, ten inches in depth and ten inches in height.  The ends of the troughs are open.  Refer to the picture below for the rest of the description.

The AWL is on the left and connects a tank on the ground to the left end of the upper trough.  The  right end of the upper trough is connected to the right end of the middle trough and the left ends of the middle and lower troughs are connected together.  The right end of the lower trough is connected to a plastic tank and that tank is connected by a siphon hose to the first tank (with the AWL on the left)

Since the step garden is located on a patio and close to electricty, the motor was powered by an adapter.  The water flow was controlled by a water controller consisting of a pair of electrical contacts that were connected through a mechanical connection to a sponge.  The sponge was in the flow of water exiting from the lowest trough and, when wet, would be heavy and this weight would break the connection between the motor and its source of power.  When the sponge had dried out sufficiently (a reflection of the general dryness of the plants), it would be lighter and allow the electrical contacts to touch and turn on the AWL again.

The automatic filling of the tanks was accomplished by a low cost electric water pump (such as those used in fountains) that was placed in the tank of a toilet.  The electric source for the pump was on a timer set to turn on for 15 minutes each day.  The outflow from the pump was connected to a small diameter plastic hose that went out the window of the bathroom and then into a garden hose where it flowed by gravity to the tank.  Important in this setup was that the small hose and the garden hose not be an air tight connection.  If there is an air tight connection, a siphon situation exists and the water will flow continuously through the pump in the tank of the toilet into the tank of the step garden.


These did very well and were in constant bloom until a hard frost in mid December.  Deadheading was needed about once a week.
early July

These did well until mid October.  No deadheading was needed
mid August

Another success and were in bloom until mid October- at which time I brought them inside and have them growing nicely in the living room wind (AG-02).  Cuttings were also taken at that time and they have rooted under the lights of AG-01 in the basement and are in pots.  No deadheading was needed when the plants were outside.  I guess the breezes blew off the old flowers from time to time.
Photo taken in mid October

Though they were a pleasant source of blue color when the were in bloom they didn't stay in bloom long enough to justify planting next year
Photo taken in early July

Lovely flowers until mid November.  I deadheaded them from time to time but no other labor was needed
Photo taken in early July

Flowered as normal but after going to seed weren't worth keeping and were discarded in mid season.  By that time the impatiens and begonias were clamoring for space so some rearrangements of the locations occurred.  

Another poor performer

Another poor performer

Miniature Roses
These did remarkably well and grew and flowered throughout the summer.  They are now in my living room window (AG-02)
photo taken in mid August

Did well as long as the garden had lots of sun.  Towards mid August the step garden only had an hour or so of full sun per day.  I moved the plants to a different location in my yard and planted them in the ground and they perked up
photo taken in early July

Poor performer

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

AutoGardens status Mid October 2011-Part 3-vines

For an introduction to the AutoGardens see the fine blog of Jennifer Hausler (Sept 7 and July 29 posts)

See below for Parts 1 and 2 of this series

AG-05  Outdoor AutoGarden for vines

Of the seven types of autogardens, this was probably the most experimental this year.  Going into the growing season,  I surmised that growing large, vine-type plants in relatively small containers would challenge the ability of the plants to get enough sustained moisture and nutrients.

As will be seen here,  the autogarden had mixed results but most of the issues were not related to the ratio of the plant size to the pot volume, they were due more to the reliability of my construction technique and the lack of attention during my summer vacation travels in late July and early August.

But first, a general description of AG-05 - the autogarden for vines.

The main layout of the garden was a 30-foot long rack made from wood and covered with plastic that was about 10 inches wide and sloped from a height of about 5 feet to about 3 feet.  At the high end, a long Archimedes water lifter (AWL) raised water from a tank on the ground to the end of the rack.  At intervals of approximately 5 feet, secondary racks were constructed consisting of horizontal wood frames with metal fencing on the upper surface.  The fencing served as support for the vines and, eventually, the squashes and melons.  The secondary racks were connected to the main rack at 90 degrees and the widths of the secondary racks was such that there was a narrow open area between each rack.

At the lower end of the long rack, the water drained into a large plastic container and that container was connected by a siphon hose to the tank at the upper end of the rack.  Additional reservoirs were connected to these two tanks by siphon hoses so that the entire volume of water stored was quite large.

A solar panel was provided to power the motor of the AWL whenever the sun was shining.

The plants were put into 2.5 gallon blue buckets and placed on the racks.  Most of the plants were obtained as seedlings from a local garden supply store.

The entire garden was in full sun for most of the day.


This autogarden was a moderate success.  It certainly confirmed that the standard size pot was adequate for growing the vines and that having the entire plant off the ground was not harmful.  No animal damage was noted at any time even though ground hogs and rabbits were often seen within the garden plot perimeter.

Until the water system failed completely, the watering system seemed adequate.  Some of the squash plants showed evidence of wilting during the hottest part of the day -especially when it was windy.  The plants recovered fully during the cooler parts of the day and evening and were fine when the days weren't too  hot.

Watering failure.

While I was on vacation, the bracket that held the motor for the AWL failed and caused the coil part of the pump to start rubbing on the edge of the rack.  Though the motor continued to turn whenever the sun was shining, the rubbing action eventually wore a hole in the side of the coil and the water was no longer raised into the high end of the rack.  When I returned from my vacation in early August I harvested what I could and abandoned the autogarden.  The results and photographs below reflect the successes until the system failure.

These grew quite nicely and were on their way to about 6 small melons.  At the time of the failure I harvested the ripest of the fruit and tasted it.  The fruit was soft and very sweet.

I collected a dozen or so before the failure.  The cucumbers were full size and very tasty

None of these reached maturity but seemed to be heading for a healthy crop
Zucchini squash
Since I don't especially like the large baseball bat size fruit, I collected these while they were under ten inches in length.  These plants didn't have a vining habit so all the squashes were found in the pots

Honeydew melon
Like the cantaloupes these melons did not reach maturity before the watering failure

I grew two pots of strawberries for harvest next year.  The plants grew nicely and had a dozen or so runners that descended from the rack down to the ground in the garden plot.  I shall over-winter the plants in their pots in the side yard of my house.

Recommendations for next year

Add a water controller so that the pump only runs when needed - this should avoid wearing out the motor and the bracket that holds the motor.

Have someone check on the garden while on vacation

Possibly grow a second crop of leafy vegetables under the racks that hold the vines.  There seems to be plenty of light getting through before the vines have extended across the rack and then the vines should provide shade to the plants when the sun is its hottest.  A second AWL would be needed to water this second system.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

AutoGardens status Mid August/mid September 2011- Part 2

For an introduction, see Jennifer's Hausler's fine blog  for a description of the autogardens and the Archimedes Water Lifter  (July 29th and September 7th blogs)
See Part 1 [below] first to become familiar with the seven styles of autogardens that I have developed so far
And now for an  update on some of the gardens....

AG 04 - Nyack Community gardens

General appraisal
The two varieties (Beefsteak and Roma) have done well and will be grown again next year.  The overall heights of both types had made it awkward to leave them at the plot because they were starting to shade the neighbor's plants.  Accordingly, most of the plants were moved to AG 07 after its construction was completed. As of this date(September 10th) I have harvested over 350 tomatoes

Growth density
An attempt was made to increase productivity by putting many plants into the same pot.  The theory was that water would no longer be limiting and that as long as there were enough nutrients and sunlight, the plants would thrive.  The results bore out this assumption in most cases.  There were issues with rotting on the end of the fruit (see figures 1 and 2).  Whether the rot is due to a lack of ventilation is not clear because other tomato plants at the community gardens also had these problems. 
Figure 1.  High density growth of tomatoes

Figure 2.  Rot on tomatoes

Staking of the plants
Tomatoes can grow to a great height.  In addition to the shading problem indicated above, the height can create two additional problems with a container-based approach: 1) a tendency to topple over in the wind and 2) a need to suspend the vines.

For the first issue, every attempt was made to keep the pots moist.  There were some hot, windy days though in late July when the plants were tall and laden with fruit and the plants toppled over.  Though larger and heavier pots would solve this problem the added weight on the racks would lead to additional complications.  After some experimentation a simple method for connecting the plants together through a horizontal pole at about 4 feet above the top of the pots was found to be sufficient.  This approach was successful in AG 07. The plants didn't topple over - even in Tropical Storm Irene.

For the second issue,  three vertical stakes were placed in each pot and pushed down to the bottom.  The stakes were about 4 feet in length and had their ends trimmed to be pointed to ease insertion.  As the plants grew in height, horizontal cross bars were added and the plants were constrained within the volume defined by the stakes and cross bars.  Several different approaches were taken in attaching the cross bars (direct attachment with metal screws, rubber bands, bands made from inner tube, and approximately 8 inch lengths of plastic coated wire.  UV radiation caused the rubber bands and inner tube loops to fail.  The screws were too much work and the wire ties, although more awkward to tie, did the best job of holding the cross bars to the stakes.  See figure 3.

Figure 3.  Horizontal crossbars and rubber inner tube loops
One advantage of growing plants in containers is that the levels of nutrients can be controlled better than when the plants are in the ground.  Since nearly all the water the plants receives comes from below a slow-release form of fertilizer placed directly on or in the soil was considered.  I had previous experience with Osmocote Classic smart release granules in my ground-based gardens so I tried it with the autogardens.  I liked that the label said that it was difficult to over-fertilize because I knew that I was going to be doing a lot of learning along the way.

It turns out that using the Osmocote gave me a wide range of fertilizing options.  I added the granules to the soil of the seedlings in the AG 01. Added some more when I was growing them in the greenhouse as seedlings with AG 03 and added granules a few more times during the season when the plants were in the full size pots in AG -04 and AG 05 and AG 06.  They worked great and the plants always seemed to have a healthy green color.

Lettuce (from seeds started in AG-01)
I started Black seeded simpson seeds in the basement autogarden (AG-01) tand eventually moved them to the Nyack Community garden autogarden (AG-04) without a stint in the greenhouse.  The plants did as well or better than my previous years of lettuce in the ground.  My favorite aspect was that the leaves aren't splashed with dirty water from the ground so you can eat the leaves right out in the garden without rinsing.

Swiss Chard (from seeds started in AG-01)
I grew the Rhubarb type.  This also did extremely well - even at a high density.  With moderate picking through the season I have managed to keep the plants.  Now with cooler weather I expect a fine fall crop from the same plants that were started many months ago in my basement with AG-01.

Peppers (Red, Yellow, and Green) (from plants purchased at a garden center)
These did very well too. I have had a continuous harvest for several months now (September 10th).  Some of the plants have reached a size where they have needed to be staked and I used the same approach as described above for the tomatoes.

Peas (from seeds started in AG-01)
These plants produced tasty pods but I won't grow them again in the AutoGarden because the yield wasn't great enough to justify giving up the space to them.

Onions (from onions sets)
Another fine AutoGarden success.  I didn't think that my watering system would allow root-type crops to be successful because I anticipated that the constant moisture would create a rotting situation.  I was wrong.  The onions are doing very well.

Celery (from plants purchased at a garden center)
These plants have done extremely well too.  Again I planted them at high density.  This was probably a mistake in this case because it was difficult to harvest one plant without damaging the plants next to it.

Plants are doing well but I haven't harvested anything.  The plants went into flowers while I was on vacation so I am back to eating only the leaves.
Beans (from seeds started in AG-01)
The plants have done well.   These plants tell an interesting story about the effectiveness of the AutoGardens in preventing the occasional munching of ground-based animals.  The plants had been growing quite nicely on the AutoGardens all season but when the hurricane was approaching, I put them on the ground for fear that they would blow off and be damaged.  It turned out that the neighborhood varmits used this chance to eat them almost entirely - pods, leaves and stems.  Another crop (and some of the plants that I didn't put on the ground) are doing well.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

AutoGardens status in Mid August 2011-part 1

Previous blog about Dr Bell's autogardens by Jennifer Hausler

With the cooler weather finally returning to the NYC area and the author's return from a vacation in North Carolina, it seems like the summer is coming to a close. 

In a garden this means three things.. 1) Harvesting 2) Starting cool-weather crops 3) Recording the results of the current year in preparation for next year.

Most of what will follow in the next few posts are contributions to item 3 but first, a listing and photos of the seven autogardens that are in operation at this time or were used earlier in the growing season.  This will help you to become oriented to the basic styles of AutoGardens.

AG 01 - Indoor autogarden in basement to start seeds

AG 01 Basement autogarden under lights. Top of Archimedes water lifter (AWL) is visible at rear

AG 02 - Indoor autogarden in living room window to grow house plants

AG 02 -  Living room autogarden. AWL out of sight on left
AG 03 - Greenhouse benchtop autogarden to grow seedlings prior to late spring planting [no photos permitted at Pfizer greenhouse]

AG 04 - Nyack Community garden plot autogarden

AG 04 at Nyack Community Garden plot - May 10th.  AWL at rear and powered by batteries

AG 04  June 13th. AWL at right and now powered by solar panel
AG 05 - Pfizer employee community plots (outdoors) autogarden

AG 05  May 25.  AWL and vine racks not installed

AG 05 July 8.  AWL out of sight at rear.  Vine racks installed
AG 06 - Home patio 3-tiered autogarden for flowers

AG 06 - May 27  3-tiered Step Garden on patio.  Partial sun location.

AG 06- August 22nd  AWL is visible at the left and watering controller is on the right. 

AG 07 - Home side yard autogarden for vegetables

AG-07 June. Side yard garden for vegetables. Foil on pots is to protect the plastic from UV damage.
AG-07 July 28th.  Viewed looking down. AWL is on left. Tall vertical posts are for Morning glories.