Compost Drove Me to It

Several things led me to hydroculture, but perhaps none so much more than failure to compost.  How hard can it be to turn natural waste into nutrient rich compost?  Well, I thought it would be easy.  I spent a poo-load of money on a tumbling composter a couple of years ago and was careful to ensure proper ratios of browns and greens.  My first batch included browns of dry crunchy leaves and dry crunchy grass, greens of household food wastes and horse manure, and deer dung for an accelerator.  But nothing excelled about it.  I tumbled it and tumbled it, but a year and a half later I had a lumpy mess.  I could have sworn the tumbler is supposed to compost in mere weeks or months.  I had chopped most everything up to small bits.  I couldn’t figure out what went wrong and why I had giant lumps in my compost rather than rich brown plant food that smelled like soil and ran through my fingers.

I started my second batch two months ago, something simple I figured would compost quickly: dry grass and bunny poop.  Bunny poop is supposed to be an accelerator and we have lots of bunny poop.  Two months later I still have dry grass and lots of little round bunny balls.  I’ve even kept dampening it despite the near-drought conditions.

I sat pondering this one evening.  For years, I have been a failure at gardening and I was convinced it was largely to do with my inability to perfect my soil levels, which was the purpose for composting.  Then it dawned on me that there must be a better way, so I went in search of a better way.

During my search, I lamely bought one of those cheapo “grow grape tomatoes on your deck” kits and found something interesting in it.  The growing medium wasn’t soil at all.  It was coir, a substance made of coconut fiber.  It comes as a hard little brick and expands in a bowl of water.  The kids and I were mesmerized watching that brick poof up into a whole bowl of growing medium!

I began researching coir and stumbled upon hydroponics.  I’d heard of hydroponics but hadn’t really given it much thought.  Further research on the matter turned out to be frustrating.  It sounded great, but the mechanical systems required to keep the water moving were restrictive.  I thought of setting up a hydroponic garden in a closet or in a corner of the living room, but I lamented over not being able to have plants in every room without each one including expensive machinery.

I had almost given up the search when something caught my eye.  I saw mentioned “static hydroponics”.  Further research on this term turned up hydroculture and I heard angels singing!  I could do this in any container and put the pots anywhere in the house.  I wondered if it could be as simple as it sounds and the mere thought of it sent me head over heels in search of a local hydroponics shop selling Hydroton.

So, here I am with a useless expensive composter and a collection of mostly happy plants living soilless (except for Nanners who took it as a bit of a shock and the cucumbers – perhaps they weren’t big enough to transplant yet).  I’m going to keep trying and I am convinced that I am finally getting it right.  Soil doesn’t like me.  I’ll leave the soil to the weeds!

I don’t hate soil.  After all, I wouldn’t have a yard full of edible wild plants and nifty fruit trees without it.  But it can just stay outside and grow whatever it likes while I play with my happy hydroballs.

The Comeback Kid?

Nanners' New Leaf

Nanners appears to be making a comeback!  His stem has unfurled into a shiny new leaf.

I don’t know what do to with the old ones.  Should I clip the dead ones off?  On most plants I know of that the dead leaves must be clipped, they come off easily, but Nanners’ dead leaves don’t want to let go.  I’m trying to research it, but none of the information I can find on musa banana trees (Nanners is a dwarf musa) says anything about dead leaves.  I think I’ll wander on over to Dave’s Garden and see if somebody can tell me a thing or two.

Great job, Nanners!

Oh, The Horror!!

Sad Nanners

I’m sad to report that Nanners is not doing well.  It all started when one of the kiddos dropped a library book on him and knocked him silly.  I straightened him back out and made sure he was stable.  By yesterday evening, he was looking rather droopy.  I put him out on the deck today to get lots of yummy sunshine, but it doesn’t appear to have improved his spirits any.  I hope he bounces back!  I was so looking forward to his little bananas (I think I mentioned he is a producing banana tree).  Anybody have any advice that may make Nanners a happy camper?

Sad Cucumbers

I attempted to transplant the cucumber seedlings from coir to Hydroton, but they don’t seem to be taking it well.  I don’t know if they still needed their little seedling attached, but it fell off both of them when I was washing their roots.  They got some Quick Start root booster in their new homes.  Poor little buggers are all wilty and unhappy.  😦

On a happy note, all of the other plants are looking happy and healthy at this point.  The Mater1 and Mater2 are looking exceptionally vibrant.  We’ll keep an eye on the unhappy plants and see what we can do for them.

Nanners is Here!

Nanners

My latest addition, Nanners the dwarf Musa banana tree arrived in the mail from Hirt’s Gardens!  His pot is a bit big for him, but he’ll grow into it.  He should get about four feet tall and produce small edible bananas.  I wonder how long that will take!  If it’s anything like our fruit trees outside, it will be years!  We’ve lived here two years and the plum tree that was here at least two years before that just started producing this year.  It’s so hard to be patient, especially that patient!

Anyway, he seems to have made the trip and my de-soiling abuse just fine.  One leaf is a little bent from it being squashed against the inside of the box, but overall his leaves are very robust.

Sago’s Harrowing Adventure

When I purchased Sago, he was the biggest sago palm available at the store.  I was looking for plants on the cheap, so found him at Walmart of all places.  Now, I can make $20 go a long way at Walmart and I would generally balk at spending that much on one plant at a place I go pretty much to save money, but Sago stole my heart and I brought him home.  Besides, he’s a palm and palms tend to be good at cleaning up indoor air.

I set out to clean his roots of icky soil and get him into some happy Hydroton, but a well established palm like Sago is not easy to clean up!  His root ball is rather large and his poor roots were so tangled!  I had already spent about 30 minutes brushing clumps of soil out and trying desperately to untangle his roots when something terrible happened.

I was stung by a wasp, which I happen to be allergic to.  Normally I would take some Benadryl and keep my Epipen handy and not worry about it, but on this day, neither had been replenished.  I took some Advil PM (which is basically Benadryl accompanied by Advil) and headed out to the urgent care clinic just in case, leaving poor Sago hanging on the deck railing, roots exposed.

My mind was wracked with worry.  Would Sago and I make it?  Time ticked by driving to the clinic where they decided I needed a shot of steroids and observation.  Observation?  Sago could be dying!  His dear roots could be dry and withering by now!  I agonized those twenty minutes (and daggumit that shot stays with you; felt like somebody was pinching my rear and wouldn’t let go!).  On top of that, the doctor insisted I pick up an Epipen before heading home.

I made it home alive and well, but I was soooo tired!  I’m a night person, but as dusk settled in I found myself unusually sleepy.  But I could not give in!  Sago needed me!  I rushed out to find him looking well, just as if I hadn’t been gone at all and I set quickly to ridding his roots of icky soil.  Darkness set in and I had to move the operation to our Buzzy Bee Bunny Barn where I had some light and a hose.  Sago showed no signs of weakness.  Way to go, Sago!

Nearly three hours after I first pulled dear Sago from his soil laiden pot, I placed his clean, mostly untangled roots in his new stoneware crock full of Hydroton and a Quick Start root booster solution.  That wasn’t the end of my dear palm’s harrowing adventure, though.  Of course, when I brought him back in the house, his nemesis, Kyla the German Shepherd, had to check out his new pot and hydroballs, scattering many of them across the carpet with her clumsy snout!  Sago made it through unscathed and I found them this morning lounging together.  Don’t let your guard down, Sago!  That snout, that tail!  That excitable clumsy dog may be the death of you yet!

The Adventure Begins

I’m one of these nutty people who likes to research before starting anything and I have been researching hydroponics and its variations for weeks. I can’t wait any longer! I found hydroculture and I think it’s a great place for me to start.
I’m so excited! I already bought a ton of Hydroton (5 ltr bags are HUGE and I bought 2!!) and I’ve been collecting slow cooker crockery from Goodwill and mason jars found on my property to put my plants in. I’ve even got some blue Balls!! Hey, blue Ball Perfect Mason jars, gutterbrain!

A humble start

Check out this humble beginning. My first tomato seedlings in blue Balls (I’m calling them Mater1 and Mater2) and a lot of seedlings started in coir (coconut fiber) and placed under Ziploc ‘greenhouses’ that will be transplanted to Hydroton later.  The seedlings include strawberries, veggies, and the kiddos’ marigolds.

Also, meet Vrissy, my bromeliad, or, more specifically, my vriesea christiane. She was transplanted to her hydroculture jar a couple of days ago and is looking great.

My hydrocultured vriesea christiane

Keep an eye out for my palms and my banana tree!

What is hydroculture?

We’ve been taught that plants need soil, water, and sunshine to grow, but this isn’t entirely accurate.  They definitely need sun and water, but do they really need soil?  What purpose does soil fulfill?  Soil serves two purposes: it supports plants and acts as a delivery system for nutrients.  The problem with soil is that it doesn’t perform these tasks all that efficiently and can cause problems, particularly for houseplants.

In soil, over-watering and under-watering are both problems.  In addition, soil can harbor mold and bacteria, which contaminate your environment.  The issue of delivering oxygen to the roots is also an issue.  Did you know that plant roots need oxygen?  Soil is not the best at getting oxygen to breathing roots.  Soil is also quite messy if the dog or kids spill it on the carpet!

Is there a better way?  I think so and I invite you to share my journey into the under-practiced method of hydroculture.  Instead of growing plants in soil, we find a way to deliver water and nutrients more directly to the plant.  After some research, I’ve chosen to use LECA (Light Expanded Clay Aggregate).  These are what I like to call hydroballs and are little clay balls that deliver liquid and nutrients to roots via capillary action.  These little balls support the plant and its roots while providing oxygen filled gaps around the roots.

This method gives roots needed oxygen, support, water, and nutrients.  It also uses less water.  How?  You don’t have to provide water for the plant and the soil if you aren’t using soil.  Because hydroculture is a more efficient delivery system, you use less water to feed your happy plants.

Is hydroculture the same as hydroponics?  Not exactly.  In some circles, hydroculture is considered a type of hydroponics, but in technical terms they bear a significant difference.  Both use water, nutrients, and the same supportive substrates (LECA, coir, etc), but hydroponics requires roots to be fully submerged.  In order to provide oxygen to the roots, the water must be aerated.  This is accomplished by keeping the water moving, which restricts the grower to an electrical source and machine systems.

Hydroculture, on the other hand, provides oxygen to the roots by raising them (or at least part of them) above the water level.  Roots can reach down into the liquid and nutrients and liquid are delivered by capillary action through the substrate.  This is a very simple system and is not restrictive.  Hydrocultured plants can be placed anywhere a traditional pot can be placed and require no electricity.  Simply replenish the water as needed and add nutrients as needed.

I, by the way, do not have a green thumb!  Soil has been the bane of my existence.  Can my plants manage to survive in their hydro-environment?

Stick with me and we’ll see!

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