Yogurt farming

I would like to share a but about my little experiments on growing things, the word farming may be a bit too brave just yet. 2 or 3 years back I had a dream about aquaponics – growing system that utilizes both fish tank and hydroponic growing system. Fish eat and provide fertilizer into water, this is then pumped to the plants which then purify the water by taking the nutrients and as a result they grow. Great idea. However in climate of central europe or now Finland it is not as easy… And to make things better my work took a lot of time and on top of it the moving. Last summer went by quickly as there were so many changes at work and in my personal life. And this spring the wish came back, maybe it is some inner need to connect with nature on level different from being an observer. I started few seeds to see if i can sprout few plants, fortunately this is not a skill to forget but all the credit is due to the nature. And I started to look around if there is something to be done better for my plants. And I came back full circle to my idea of aquaponics, yet it seems to be more reasonable to think of hydroponics due to climate and space constraints, after all appartment where I live is not biggest and Finnish summer is … well, Finnish summer.

Few ideas need to be kept as goals. Most of conventional farming uses huge amounts of water, is bound to soil and weather. Lot of it is offset by use od fertilizers. I wish to limit water used in my growing attempts, be wise about space used. Those are the common concers that are listed all around and actually make sense. But this is not my main area to talk about… Let’s look into the stuff that I was trying to build.

Test build 1

This was kind of the initial idea – repurposing of the empty yogurt boxes. They have some reasonable volume, sturdy shape and afterall they are not so difficult to obtain and 1 or maybe 2 plants could fit in. And obtaining reasonable containers for growing is rather hard here, unless you need to burn some cash. Let’s put together the idea for first build:
You get an empty yogurt box (usually you buy full one and eat it…). Wash it well and take construction knife and cut a hole in the lid that would fit the little mesh pot. Inside of it is a bit of foam that holds the plant in place and serves also water retention purpose for the plant. And if there is too much, gravity will help. Small aquarium pump is in a bucket that collects the extra water (it simply exits through hole in the bottom). I got a little hose, few drippers and L joints. Important part of this is simple mechanical timer that allows for creation of regime. Inside the bucket i have put a bit of perlite to help the flowers. Let’s look a few fotos of this ghetto setup first and then I can write few sentences about the operation.

Alright. This gives you an idea about the first build. Few things that I discovered:

  • Perlite in the boxes is handy to provide extra water to plans, but is very light and if water doesn’t flush quickly, it may start overflowing.
  • Binding the watering pipes became a question as the pipes have certain lenght and they remember their shlightly bent shape… Few holes and one of those plastic ties that every USB cable comes with = solution.
  • Moving plants, checking how they are developing or anything was a bit of hassle.
  • It took me some time to get at least the 2 boxes, but more would mean more yogurt to eat… I tried using milkcartons in similar way, but once you cut them in half, you need to secure the plant directly in perlite. And when water doesn’t drain well, the plant changes location and/or angle.

Despite looking ugly this was a good first attempt that I had running for few days and the excitement about this build was immense. Some discussions with friends (erhm… a bit of discussion and lot of questions if they have spare empty yogurt boxes). Online are people using big buckets or barrels and they can be bought here as well, but paying couple euros for each one seemed too much. After posting on Facebook in some groups if people have spare boxes (and getting some weird answers as well as few kind offers) it was obvious that more sustainable solution is needed. And then idea was born – Finland is rather mindful about the waste and when going for lunch, some places offer for free the empty 5 liter buckets in which they had previously mayonaise, ketchup or other things. They are washed and often come with a lid. This called for a test!

Test build 2

On first possible chance I have collected 11 buckets and lids for them, carried them home with pride, especially when people were curiously looking on the metro. But the days between build 1 and 2 were spent thinking about how to make the draining system work well and yet cheap, even wrote few upset sentences about it. With the idea of buckets I needed something really simple and cheap. Just a pipe connected to the bucket. If something could hold the pipe in place, that would be amazing. Maybe glue? Hot glue! So with the buckets in my arms, I ran in store, got a hot glue gun and headed home. My joy allowed for such energy for creation after arriving home, that I sat down and started to work on it. Took the lid and experimented how many pots can actually fit there. Then how to water them? The parts are not cheap, hose cost something as well so big sheet of paper to copy the shapes and brainstorming. 7 seemed alright and after some time the first lid with 7 pots was ready, despite none of the holes being round or good looking. Let’s gaze at the „magic“.

A bit jenky, but acceptable. Next step – draining. Again knife and now smaller hole for the hose, hot glue to keep it in place and also to prevent leaks. First few tries failed misserably. Right after water was in bucket, they started to drip. After making the hole bigger and also getting more accustomed to the glue gun it stopped leaking. First bucket was ready. Then second to accomodate more plants. It was getting already late and just to get the two buckets ready took some time and then the piping to water them. That took some time and patience as the hose does not enjoy being turned and even less so when the turns are in small space. Heat gun to the rescue – glued few tie points onto the lid to fight this.After testing for no leaks, then next step was to continue with the piping. Around 2 in the morning I was done (some of the time was Skype talk with my family about life as that is the ideal thing for tuesday evening). Hands were shaking when I was plugging in the pump. And it worked! Oh my! But to be safe I put the power cable in a separate bucket – should there be some leak or such…I had to note that the peppers were started from seeds few weeks ago and then i moved them to buckets to go for the hydroponics, so they had some roots. But few were really tiny and in bad shape, despite of this I put them all in. After a day or two it looked that they are done and should be tossed. When I came close, there were tiny sprouts on the branch as if the plant didn’t want to give up. Let me show you how it recovered in few days. And also how one of the bigger peppers started to make very pretty roots!There are few things to note here as well:

  • Plants need a day or two to adjust to the new location and regime.
  • Hot summer days can bring algae so good location is needed
  • And also if possible to hide away water tank (where pump is) and hide the pipes to prevent unnecessary heating of the water
  • My worries about noise did not materialize, system is very quiet
  • Water consumption is very low. Despite having issue with algae that resulted in taking apart the system and cleaning and getting new water, the plants dont really need too much water. The 5L bucket can be in use for week and hopefully longer – calm vacation or careless workdays
  • Currently the system is very simple, almost stupid simple, but also there is not really much that can break

I have done one more build and in process of making number 4, but that is for next post!

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