Strawberry ebb and flood vertical hydroponic system


This post is all about my latest way of growing strawberries within a wall mounted stacked vertical hydroponic growing system.

If you have read some of my posts from last year you will see that I tried growing strawberries using various methods and systems inside my greenhouse last year.

The main problem I had with growing them inside the greenhouse was that the plants would get too much intense heat from the sun during the main summer time, To avoid this I made a strawberry growing system which I could have outside. As I had a spare south facing wall this seemed an ideal place to place the system.

The four channels of my vertical ebb and flood strawberry system

The four channels of my vertical ebb and flood strawberry system

The system currently consists of 4 channels which are hung from brackets on the brickwork, The channels are all made from standard upvc square downpipe from the local DIY store.

Rather than making an NFT system which simply had 4 channels with water continuously flowing through each one I decided to make my life more tricky by creating an ebb and flood system, sometimes called a flood and drain system.

Basically the method these designs work on is that within the tank or channel where the plants are grown is some form of growing media, In my case clay pebbles. Every so often the channel is flooded with nutrients. This allows whichever media is in use to take on that water and nutrients. The channel is then slowly drained which allows oxygen to be taken in when the water is drained. The roots of a plant are placed within this media so that they can use this oxygen rich nutrient supply from the media continuously. The only thing that needs to happen is that the flooding takes place often enough that the plants roots never become dry because the media holds no more moisture.

Creating a flooding and draining system like this is no easy feat and as the channels are only 2 inches square and required some thinking about. The problem was that I only wanted to use one supply so pumping into all 4 at once wasn’t an option. If I did use this method most of the nutrient supply would go the easiest way which would be the bottom channel.

The design I came up with is the one shown in the diagram below.

Verticle Strawberry Ebb and Flood Growing System

Verticle Strawberry Ebb and Flood Growing System

The nutrient supply is pumped into the very top channel. This channel which is full of clay pebbles is then slowly filled.
At the opposite end of the channel I have a small section of hosepipe which runs from this channel into the next one down. The height of the hose pipe in the top channel is placed at such a height to work as an overflow so that the nutrient level within the channel will at most be full but never overflowing. This allows the flooding process to occur.
The hosepipe also has a small hole near the bottom of the channel to allow it to slowly drain, As the pumping speed is a lot faster than it can drain it only drains properly when the pumping has stopped.

Mesh pot covering channel ends.

Mesh pot covering channel ends.

Over this end of the hosepipe piece I’ve placed a small mesh pot to stop any clay pebbles from getting near to the hosepipe as they will block it and stop the system from draining properly.

I used the same design of channel repeated 4 times to create the system, This means that when the first channel is filled with the pumped nutrient solution it overflows down into the second channel, Which then fills up overflowing into the third channel which then obviously does the same into the last channel. This last channel is then drained back to the nutrient tank until its next flooding cycle.

Channels showing correx coversEach end of down pipe has been capped with a small piece of corex cut to the correct size and folded over to make a nice seal. This makes the overall system design look quite pleasant. Which as my wife says is quite unusual for me, she says my systems usually just look like they are cobbled together with all sorts of stuff.

I’ve used the system to plant strawberries in and will hopefully be leaving them until they have finished producing in a few years time all going well.
As you can see from the photos I cut 7 round holes in the top of each channel to allow me to place 7 plants in each, Each runner was pushed into the clay pebbles after running the system a few times to ensure the clay pebbles to be moist enough.

I’m planning on adding more channels next year if all goes well as the pump I am using is more than capable of pumping up higher and using the design I have there is no limit to how high I go.

This is a photo of the system with the newly planted strawberry runners, As you can see they were pretty bare when first put in.

Strawberry plants in the system after 1 week.

Strawberry plants in the system after 1 week.

This is a photo of them in the system after 3 weeks, As you can see there is lot’s of growth and I think I will be seeing strawberry flowers then plants fairly soon. I will make another post telling you how much fruit I got during the year at the end of the season.

Strawberry plants in the system after 3 weeks.


Strawberry plant netting draped over plastic pipe.I also though it would be best if I added a net to the system to try and stop birds from eating my precious strawberries, If the netting was simple draped over the plants birds could poke their beaks through and steal my strawberries so I made a frame over the system with some flexible pipe I had from my other systems and then draped the netting over this.

The photo on the right shows what this looks like.

I just have to wait now for all the lovely strawberries to come.

As an update to my post, The picture below is what the system looks like now in the middle of July 2015, As you can see it’s growing very nicely and I’m harvesting lot’s of strawberries every day at the moment. Just before I took the photo I’d harvested all the fruits that is why it just looks green at the moment.

Strawberry_2015


 

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My automatic seed propagator


Full picture of my automatic propagator inside the garage.

Full picture of my automatic propagator inside the garage.

I always seem to have a few problems propagating my plants from seed so I thought I would design something especially for the way I grow things. One of the things I always have a problem with when propagating plants is forgetting to water the seedlings when they have grown so I wanted to design something which was capable of watering my plants automatically.

The photos here show what I designed for my needs, the basic setup is a grow bag tray which rests on two containers. One of the containers is used to house a very week nutrient solution. It’s very weak so that it doesn’t give to much nutrient to seeds which have enough nutrients within them already to start to propagate, Yet has enough nutrients to provide the requirements for young seedlings or plants so that I don’t have remove them from the system very early.

The nutrient solution is heated with an aquarium heater and then pumped continuously into the end of the grow bag tray, It then flows down the grow bag tray which is slightly sloped and then returns back to the nutrient tank through a small outlet. The seed trays or rockwool cubes I use in the system are all raised slightly off the base of the tray so that the nutrient solution flows underneath the trays normally, this means the trays don’t get waterlogged yet have the heat rising through the trays from the nutrient to warm them.

My automatic propagator return valve allowing nutrient to flood the seedlings.

My automatic propagator return valve allowing nutrient to flood the seedlings.

The clever thing about the nutrient outlet is that it has a small motorised valve attached to it, This valve is automatically closed every day or so for about 5 minutes.
This stops the nutrient solution returning to the tank allowing the nutrient solution to pool in the grow bag tray, This rising nutrient solution is used to water any plants or seedling growing in the system from underneath. You can see from the photo’s how the trays sit in nutrient tray, watering the seedlings from underneath stops any damage from occurring to the tiny leaves.

The opening and closing the motorised valve is done by a small device I purchased called a PoKeys57E, This is from a company called PoLabs and allows me to connect lot’s of different things to the device which can then be interrogated by my home PC. I wanted to know what the temperature was in the propagator and also when the nutrient level is going low in the nutrient tank.

My propagator display driven from the Pokeys57E device I have.

My propagator display driven from the Pokeys57E device I have.

A picture showing the Pokeys Device I have in use.

A picture showing the Pokeys Device I have in use.

It was a simple matter of connecting these to this device and then running a network cable to my PC to allow me to monitor what was happening. The PoKeys device also allows you to connect a display fairly easily which I have done so I can see a local reading of the current temperature. I now have two of these devices at home, one for my propagator and one in the greenhouse to monitor nutrient tank levels and flow rates.

Since I started growing and propagating within the system at the start of the year, I’ve successfully grown lot’s and lot’s of lettuces, Herbs, Peppers, Tomatoes, Cucumbers and every other seed I’ve wanted to propagate.

I also use the system to get my watercress growing ready to be transplanted into my solar powered watercress growing system, a side effect of having the nutrient solution flowing all the time is that it is ideal for growing seedlings which like flowing water like watercress.

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To grow herbs and lettuces I’ve used trays full of a mix of perlite and vermiculite which have the seeds sprinkled on the top and then a tiny coating of more vermiculite on the top, for other plants which I’m going to transfer into my greenhouse or outside hydroponic systems I used 1.5 inch rockwool cubes which are then transplanted into 3 inch rockwool cubes when the roots emerge.

As the propagator is contained within my garage the system there is no light available to the plants, to allow the seeds and plants to successfully grow I added a EnviroGro¬†LightWave T5 grow light which features 4 fluorescent tubes and is quite low cost. It’s an ideal size to use over the tray and covers pretty much all the plants completely. Being fairly cool in use allows me to lower the light to be very close to the seeds.

The T5 Light does generate a slight amount of heat so I use this in a beneficial way by having the light on during the night rather than the day. The extra temperature during this cold period helps keep the plants warm when it’s most required.

As the garage has no windows it seems to have a very stable ambient temperature which allows the propagator to function well regardless of the outside temperature, So it should work just as good during the summer as it does in winter. And automatic water means if I forget about it for a day or two I know the seedlings are quite happy.

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