Thursday, February 20, 2014

Indoor Gardening

Here in Montana, once October rolls around, our greenery begins to fade away. A few growers will have small stock piles of kale, arugula, spinach and other cold tolerant edibles, but for the most part, the average person must rely heavily on the grocery store rather than the local food grower. What do you do if you don't have an opportunity to build a large project demonstrating year round food growing? You build a smaller food producing system in your house, of course! The purpose of this blog entry is simply to offer you an alternative to grocery store dependency.

In-wall shelves converted to plant starter center
When Chris and I began brainstorming our venture at the Fairgrounds, we decided that first and foremost, we needed a place to start seeds and store our plants until temperatures rose and we were able to move plants outside. Fortunately, I had some unused storage space in the basement that fit the bill.

We began with a set of in-wall shelves. I knew I'd need to run wires from the top to the bottom of the unit, so I cut a narrow opening from one side to the other on each shelf. This created an opening for wires, as well as, a void for air flow and hardware for hanging lights. I then strung a length of wire from one end of the void to the other. I attached chain to the wires, which allowed me to hang light fixtures. We decided upon single bulb T5 light fixtures, as they offered the necessary light spectrum at a reasonably low electric requirement. With lights in place, the last item to install was a combination thermometer/hygrometer.  This is incredibly important as plants tend to thrive at temperatures between 70 and 75 degrees F and humidity levels between 40% and 60%. Another aspect plants appreciate is a slight dip in nightly temperature. We were able to meet this demand by simply placing our lights on a timer.
This void allows air flow, wire passage, and room for hardware
During the day, when the lights were on, the growing space achieved temperatures upwards of 80 degrees F and humidity levels remained nearly constant at 55%. During the night, when the timer turned the lights off, we noticed temperatures dropping into the mid sixties with humidity falling approximately 10%. As a result, we had amazing growth and incredibly healthy looking plants.

Grow room complete with grow tower

Once our seeds had sprouted and grown for a week or two, it was time to transplant them to larger pots.  We then realized we needed more room! Next we converted an area adjacent to the sprouting closet and affixed a halogen grow light system. We piled in as many shelves as we could find to utilize vertical space, and just for fun, we set up a grow tower! This allowed us to move mature plants into a separate growing space, while freeing up seed starting space. Before long, we had more plants than we knew what to do with - some we ate, some we sold at a winter farmer's market, and others we held on to for personal use and transplant into cold frames at the Freedom Gardens. All in all, we were growing enough edible green leaves, tomatoes, and beans to fulfill our winter salad needs, while creating a sellable surplus, which helped us subsidize the additional electric charges.

Habaneros, beans, and duck weed for my fishies

This does bring a very important topic to, pardon our pun, light! With any type of indoor growing operation, there will be electrical costs associated. We noticed our additional electric pull added approximately $40 to our monthly statement. However, we were also selling roughly $20 worth of plants each weekend, so all in all, our sales paid for the electric and added to our soil and pots fund. With a little more space, one could reasonably produce enough edible greens to supply their family and create a sellable product in addition to plant sales. While you wouldn't necessarily get rich from such a scenario, you could certainly pay for the additional energy AND save money on groceries.  Saving money is pretty close to earning money, isn't it?

Two more notes worth mentioning. My new common mantra is this - fish are to indoor growing as chickens are to outdoor growing. More on the chickens laters, but plenty of folks will suggest that you need some type of fancy store bought fertilizer to get the best plant growth and production. I beg to differ. The fish tank featured in the Graywater/Aquaponics Innovations blog entry has served as a wonderful resource for plant water. I feed the fish, the fish excrete waste, which I then suck out of the fish tank to keep it clean. This fish bi-product is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and other essential nutrients for plant growth. In fact, it is the very reason why aquaponics works! It's no wonder then that pouring this fish wastewater on plants is a great idea. Add to this the fact that we include worm castings in our potting soil mix, and we've created a soil ecosystem rich in microorganisms - a living plant medium for a living plant!

The other mentionable point regards pests. Unfortunately, we acquired two rosemary plants that apparently contained aphids! These little pests soon began to inhabit many of our plants and two options of containment arose - pesticide or alternative treatment. We chose a combination of the two. At first we utilized neem oil - an organic pesticide derived from the neem tree.  Then we brought forth the faithful lady bug. Together these two methods kept the aphids at bay; however, I did make one startling observation. As with any insect, once you have enough of them, reproduction is inevitable. We began to notice lady bug larvae on our plants - Great! The downside, however, came with the neem oil.  Neem oil coats plant leaves, which herbivore insects eat, causing eventual death. The ladybug larvae spend their time on these same leaves, eating the aphids which have ingested the neem oil.  Guess what happens next. They died too. Our take home lesson - choose one or the other and remain vigilant. I believe we could have continued to add lady bugs to the room to gain control over the aphids rather than utilizing the spray. In this manner, we could have promoted lady bug reproduction and perhaps eventually maintained a population by which to control future aphid infestations. This will be our method the next time the aphids present themselves.  As always, we'll be sharing our findings with you! Thanks for reading and happy seeding!

An evening salad brought to us by our productive basement