Soil. Water. Air?

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I remember. From when I was really little, my dad took over the left side of the house for his garden. Where he would spend hours every spring, summer, and fall growing vegetables.

It wasn’t a farm like Amy Young Miller describes in her great blog, in which she involves her entire family.  (And, from reading her blog, sometimes the whole village.) But, our minifarm had peppers, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries, grapes, watermelons, canteloupes, and apples. Not just for us, but for our neighbors, and a few of my folks’ friends.

And, my dad used pesticides. He used fertilizers. And, we had to drill a well (462 feet deep, because we lived by the ocean) because he didn’t want to pay the government for the water he used. (Oh, boy, did he use water. Every morning from 6 to 9, every evening for an hour or so.)

Of course, just like Amy indentures her kids as fellow travelers in this circuit, my dad gave me no option but to help him. (“You live here. You eat these vegetables. It’s your job to keep them healthy.”)

So, it shouldn’t surprise you that when I was not going to school (7 AM to 5 PM [with my commute] except on Friday when we were allowed to get home by 3 for the Shabat) and working on my artificial kidney ideas, that I used my chemistry set (and my knowledge) to prepare my science fair project. About what? Hydroponics- agriculture without soil, using water, chemicals, and (in my case) controlled feeding.

I got sucked into the project because of my father’s hobby farm and because of the teachings of Norm Borlaug. This biologist (who was awarded the Nobel Prize) was trying to develop methods to feed the world. Because back then (very early 60’s), it was the critical way to bring the Third World (that’s what we called the undeveloped nations back then) into the First World.

So, I used hydroponics with sensors and chemical feed pumps to grow vegetables really quickly – and without any soil. I’m not sure I hoped this project would feed the world (but it would help feed some), and it wasn’t the love of my life, but it was a fun deal. My goal was grow the foodstuffs with less water and specialized chemicals (like fertilizers and pesticides)- lowering the water use by the agricultural sector from 70% of our total water usage.  Winning a scholarship wasn’t a bad side-deal, either.

Even now, I still have a hydroponic garden. But, now I use it to grow herbs. Which I employ almost every day when I cook dinner for myself- and my ubiquitous guests.

But, now, there’s something new under the sun. Or, is that under the LED lights…..

Just like I found that many (virulent) bacteria can stay viable in the air for around three days (if the humidity is over 30%), there is a movement afoot to grow crops in air- without soil and using water just for humidification.

Dr. Ed Harwood has been one of the biggest proponents of this technology. Given the fact that our water is in critical supply (and getting more so by the moment), this may be the next leap needed for agriculture.

AeroFarm Technology

Harwood’s company, AeroFarms, is converting a defunct nightclub in Newark (NJ) to grow some 1.5 million pounds of vegetables and produce a year. That’s enough to feed some 60,000 folks. This project is an outgrowth of research he was doing at Cornell since 2002 or so.

A planter (a box, as shown above) is covered with a microfleece cloth, which can support the plants. And, then seeds are scattered about the cloth, which are sprayed with mists of high nutrient solutions. The microfleece basically operates as a membrane or stratum that affords the structure for vegetable growth. The roots grow through the membrane, anchoring the plant and affording more surface area for water and nutrient absorption.

The entire structure is illuminated with LED lights. Which means basically less required space (like is true with hydroponics), less water (obviously even less than hydroponics needs for plant growth) and zero pesticides.

Of course, there’s more to this technology. Besides the oxygen pumps, there is carbon dioxide feeding, humidity sensors, temperature gauges, and controls. Oh, and the wavelength of the light needs to be monitored and adjusted for the crops and their stage of growth. (It turns out red and blue lights are the best choices- and lower the energy needs by some 15%.)

Let’s see what happens.

Maybe this is what Ray Kinsella really meant when he said: If you build it, they will come…

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6 thoughts on “Soil. Water. Air?”

  1. Roy, I haven’t visited your blog in a while (sorry) and clicked on it this morning and was really pleased to see that you linked to my blog, and for the kind mention. You knew that I’d click on anything about gardening, right? I had no idea that you grew up with a parent insane about gardening (we have more in common than I knew!) and that it drove you to do your own gardening experiments. You were a scientist even when you were a kid! Very cool, and very cool to learn more about hydroponic gardening. I’d like to delve more into this this winter, as our winters always last about 19 months (it seems) and I’m missing my garden already . . . have you posted any simple how-to posts about your hydroponic set up for your herbs?
    Amy recently posted..We have a (rolling pin) winner!

    1. First, I apologize! I meant to give you a head’s up that I was taking your name in vain. But, my clients’ demands rendered me short of time- and short of sleep! So, I failed to warn you.

      No, I have not posted any instructions for hydroponics. My process is anything but easy. Here is one link I found…. But, I would recommend (ok, I am a chemist/chemical engineer) using a simple chemical mixture (because different plants need different nutrient levels). I also find that a small pump (ok, my water reservoir is 6 liters) works wonders to keep the roots well fed. And, you either have to monitor key components or change the water-feed mixture every two weeks or so. Because the nutrients get depleted. (I also recommend buying the lights they sell for illegal crops- because they do provide wonderful ‘sunlight’ for your indoor crops.)

  2. Roy, I’m wondering also about the nutrients in the aeroponic crops: how different are they from traditionally-grown (in fertile soil) crops, do you know? Also, what about all the electricity to power those LED lights? I’d like to learn more.
    Amy recently posted..We have a (rolling pin) winner!

    1. The nutrients seem to be exactly the same as we would expect- but this product seems to be one that is used by most hobbyists…

      Contents & Mix Rates: BEYOND All Natural Plant Amendment™
      Contents: Water soluble organic shellship extract
      Certified Analysis: Water… 98.67% Nitrogen (N)… 0.28% / Calcium (Ca)… 0.05% / Total….. 100.00%
      Compatibility: Fully Compatible – easy to mix
      Coverage: approx. 1 acre (4,000 sq. meters) or more
      Size: 16 fl . oz. (474 ml) concentrate bottle
      Mix: 1-30 ml per gallon or more
      Application rate:
      * Makes 16 gallons of solution, mix 30 ml into 1-gal water. Apply often to soil & foliage
      * Trees and lawns: 5ml per 5-gal solution, apply to soil 3 times or more per year
      * Add to aeroponic or hydroponic reservoir: 5-15 ml per 10 gal solution
      * Irrigation mix rate: Mix 1 ml per 1-gal water, apply with watering
      * Stressed or unhealthy plants: apply to directly from the bottle to soil

      My system does not use much power. (I have two 22 W lights on a timer. They run from 1 to 12 hours a day, depending upon the life-cycle phase of the plants.)

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