Hydro Unit
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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Green walls

It was really pretty nice having a "green wall" partially enclosing the balcony last year. In fact, it was nice enough that I decided to extend the idea to both open faces of the balcony this year.

The wall on the short side of the balcony is growing in fairly well so far, and many of the vines have reached the top of their strings. I've been cutting the growing tips once they're anchored at the top, in order to encourage them to bush out, send up new growing tips, and produce thicker foliage to fill in the gaps in the wall.

As with last year, the Stars of Yelta have been growing vigorously, and have done a good job of populating the inside corner, where I had a problem getting a lot of coverage last year. The Mount Fuji vines on the outside corner had a bit of a head-start, having had about six weeks of growth under the lights before being transplanted out to the balcony. They quickly grew up to the top bar, and have been producing quite a few blue and white pinwheel flowers for several weeks now (the variegated leaves look great, too). the Ivy-leaved Morning Glory, Cardinal Climber, and Candy Pink vines have also been climbing well, but so far, none have produced any blooms.

On the long edge of the balcony, all of the various types have been doing well; even the Cypress Vines, which got off to a very slow start, have started to take off. The Stars of Yelta, in the corner opposite the matching vine, have been spreading well, producing plenty of blooms, and setting seed pods. Most of the vines along this long edge of the railing have already reached the top and run for several feet along the top of the rail, so I've been cutting off the growing tips to get them to fill out (and to stop them from trying to climb up the spider plants).

Speaking of spider plants: mine are once again in full bloom, with little plant sprouts and small white flowers all up and down the shoots. Apparently, some people haven't seen a spider plant flower before, or weren't aware that they actually do make blooms in order to reproduce from seed in addition to their usual offshoot-based propagation. Yes, they do really make flowers, which turn into seed pods. They're white, with six little petals, and are about 3/4 inch across. I've read that there can be some surprises in producing spider plants from seed; apparently, some of the "normal" varieties that people are used to are actually sports that don't actually breed true from seed. I'm not sure, as I've never actually had any spider plants that weren't direct offshoots from the same green-with-white-stripes source plant from 35 years ago.

Finally, the convolvulus plants in the hanging baskets have been growing well, and one has even started blooming. It's a white variety with a yellow throat, which is missing the "usual" blue outer edge that I'm used to seeing on these flowers. It came from a "convolvulus mix" packet, so I guess an all-white version is part of the "mix". There's also a rogue plant growing in one of the long planters along the floor, which looks suspiciously like a convolvulus plant (the leaves look about right), though I know that I didn't put any down there. Since this is the first year that I've grown convolvulus, it can't be a dropped seed from last year's experiments. It may be a weed, or it may be convolvulus. I figure I can wait a little while, and if it makes little morning-glory-like flowers on stems, I'll know that that's what it is. If not, it'll probably just be a weed, and get treated as such.

Indoors, the tomatoes are pretty much done doing their thing, and I'm out of nutrient pellets for the reservoir, so I'll probably be moving them and their well-developed root systems out to a soil-filled bucket outside somewhere, to see if they pick up on being outdoor tomatoes. We'll see how that works out.

I've also been working on moving the webcams to a new computer. The one that's currently serving the images is an old mini-tower with a big processor, dual DVD burners, big graphics card, and all the power-hogging accessories that go with that sort of setup. I put a wattmeter on it, and found that it routinely pulls between 150 and 200 watts of power in the middle of the day, trying to keep itself cool. That's an awful lot of power to be burning on a machine that's running 24/7/365 and only using a fraction of its capabilities. I've built a new machine with power-efficient hardware and a minimum software install. Aside from drawing only 1/6th the power of the original machine (around 20 to 25 watts under full load), the new one is virtually silent; if not for the power LED and occasional flicker from the drive activity light, it's hard to tell if it's even turned on. It's a major improvement over the old machine, and it should have a positive impact on my electric bill.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Farewell Yellow Tomatoes...

...we hardly knew ye.

I'm afraid that I have some bad news today: the yellow tomato plant is no more.

The AeroGarden instructions say to trim the tomato plants' leaves fairly aggressively, and now I know why. If you don't, it seems, they will over-shade and crowd each other out in the limited space under the light hood. It's my own fault, I guess. I didn't trim them back very aggressively, figuring that big, fluffy plants that were producing tons of tomatoes were a good thing, and they looked good on the webcam. The unit's location in the corner, chosen largely because it would let me put the camera in an out of the way spot, made it hard to get in there and trim the plant on the right, which is the one that out-competed the yellow plant.

I have been picking ripe tomatoes from all of the plants lately, and the yellow one was fine just the other day. When I went to pick some more tomatoes this evening however, the yellow plant folded over limply, and then snapped off near the base when I tried to tie it back up.

Realizing what had caused the problem, I picked off all of the ripe tomatoes (including a couple that probably weren't entirely ripe yet, and a handful of over-ripe ones that had been hiding back in the too-bushy plants), and trimmed the heck out of the remaining two plants. The results don't look as good on camera, but hopefully they'll keep going for another couple of months, enjoying the extra space and nutrients. I have almost two months' worth of nutrient tablets left, and I suppose that with only 2/3 as many plants to support, they'll appreciate the additional food.

This bowl represents the end of my yellow tomatoes, but even though they're "end of the line," they still taste quite good. I'll make a salad or something and enjoy these, start trimming a bit more aggressively, and chalk it up as a lesson learned.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

I've got........a Plan!

With the recent warm weather and rain, and some plants that have spent the winter growing indoors, I guess it's about time to start working on the balcony again. Last year was my first experiment with this stuff, and it worked fairly well for a first attempt at growing things. I did a few things wrong-ish though, and I wanted to make a few changes to do it a bit better this year.

One of the things I did last year was that I overcrowded the plants a bit - the windowbox planters just had too many vines growing in not enough soil. This year, I'm replacing the windowboxes on the short side of the balcony with 12-inch buckets, which will only have two vines in each of them. The vines that I grew inside on my windowsill this winter did fine with two sharing a 7-1/2" pot, and I had to constantly trim them back, so I'm thinking that two in a 12-incher, and plenty of room to grow, will probably work out pretty well. I'll build another twine trellis for them to climb on, since that worked out pretty well last year. The old windowboxes are moving over to the long side of the balcony, where I'll have more morning glories climbing on the railing, but no twine trellis up above.

Through trades, spare seeds from last year, and new purchases at the hardware store this year, I have even more different varieties of morning glory than I had last year. I'm also trying to keep the pots somewhat organized, so figuring out what goes where took a little bit of planning and shuffling. I think I ended up with a pretty good mix while still maintaining a decent amount of foliage coverage on the end where I'm trying to grow a wall.

The plants for this year:
  • Star of Yelta
  • Candy Pink
  • Cardinal Climber
  • Giant White Moonflower
  • Ivy-Leaved Morning Glory
  • Picotee Blue
  • Picotee Red
  • Cypress Vine
  • Flying Saucers
  • Mt. Fuji Tall
  • Shimmer Light Blue
  • Yohjiro
  • Mt. Fuji Murasaki
  • Pearly Gates
  • ...and one unknown
I've also got some mixed-color convolvulus and a couple of spider plants that will be growing in hanging baskets over the long end of the balcony. I'm sure that keeping the morning glories from trying to climb up the spiders and convolvulus will probably be a challenge, but I'm sure I'll figure something out.

Based on last year's success at generating shade, I think this year will be even better, and I'll end up with my balcony being mostly enclosed by foliage, while still leaving plenty of room for a chair and table. It should be a nice spot to sit and relax.


After "planting" them in mid-January, my tomatoes are starting to ripen now, and I picked my first batch of them last night. Okay, so it isn't exactly the Happy Valley Produce Co-op, but fresh-off-the-vine tomatoes in the middle of April are pretty yummy, regardless. As you can see from the photo, I still have plenty more to come.

So far, the tomato plants have been relatively low-maintenance. They've grown very compactly, and I've had to trim out a few dead leaves that weren't getting enough light, but for the most part, maintenance consists entirely of keeping the reservoir topped up every couple of days and adding a couple of nutrient tablets every other week when the unit starts flashing its lights at me.

Googling around, there seem to be plenty of people who like to disparage the various AeroGarden units. Most of them seem to be the types who are really into the large-scale hydroponic production systems, and/or the people who sell parts and supplies to those large-scale types. the general opinion seems to be that there's no way that anyone could possibly be satisfied with a relatively tiny, countertop-sized unit that requires only a little bit of water, electricity, and minimal input from the user. As the saying goes, "it takes all types." For someone like me, living in a third-floor apartment with limited space, my little AeroGarden unit is just about right.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A new pump

Right around the two-week mark on my AeroGarden unit, I noticed a huming sound. There is usually a very quiet hum coming from the reservoir, about as loud as a fish tank aerator pump, but this was a lot louder than that. A visit to the AeroGrow website suggested two solutions:

The first was to disassemble and clean the pump, and the second was that it was possible that I had a bad pump, and that they would have to send me a replacement unit. I cleaned the pump, and the humming didn't go away. While I had it open, I took a good look at it, and figured out what was causing the noise problem - it was a design flaw rather than a part failure, so while it looked as though it would continue to make noises, it didn't seem as though it was in any immediate danger of total failure.

Having eliminated the first option, I called the number on the company's website, told them about my problem, and they said they would send me a free replacement pump, no problem. The operator even gave me instructions on watering the plants in case the pump died completely before the replacement got here. Apparently, some number of AeroGarden units were affected by a bad batch of pumps, and they were replacing them as people called in about them.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Springtime under the lights

There may be snow on the ground outside, but it's springtime indoors under the lights!

The grapefruit trees have suddenly decided that it's time to make more leaves again, and both of them are putting out new clusters of greenery from the ends of their branches. They're really starting to get close to the lights now, so I guess it's time to raise the racks again, and give them a little bit more room. these started out as breakfast one morning a couple of years ago, and have grown to a height of about three feet. My balcony doesn't provide the most ideal environment for them, so they've been living indoors under the lights for the last year or so. From time to time, they spontaneously decide that it's "springtime", and produce new clusters of leaves to add to their "canopy".

My Picotee Blue morning glory vine continues to produce blooms - many of them "double" flowers - and it's probably about time to see about putting it into a new, more permanent container. This one was grown from a seed selected from the "unknown, but probably blue" seeds that I gathered form my balcony morning glories in the fall of last year, and they've been making lots of doubled blooms with distinctly pink-colored throats. It has also produced a handful of normal blooms, which I have hand-pollinated, in hopes of getting more seeds from this blue and pink picotee vine, but nothing has taken so far.

I've also got a few new seedlings that have been sprouting under the lights. This is a pair of convolvulus seeds that I planted a couple of weeks ago, to see how well these relatives of the morning glory vines would do indoors under the lights. As you can see, they've been growing fairly well. From the description, they should be "dwarf morning glory" plants, which produce flowers like the vines, but on short little bushy plants. These sprouts are vary compact so far, so that may well be exactly what I end up getting.

Finally, I have a pair of giant moonflower (Ipomoea alba) sprouts. The first of these got a little bit burned by peroxide while I was germinating it. Both of its cotyledons were damaged in the seed, and once they opened up, about two thirds of one was bleached out, and one third of the other. I didn't have high hopes for its survival, so I started a second seed without peroxide. Not only did the second seed germinate and sprout normally, but the original one bounced back, and is growing normally now. Once it had a "normal" leaf open and soaking up the artificial sunlight, it started making a vine and more leaves just fine. It's grown a couple of inches just in the last few days, so it's well on its way to becoming the 15-foot vine that the package said it would produce. The second sprout is just a pair of cotyledons so far, but they've turned a nice, healthy dark green with some purple in the veins, and a growing tip has appeared in the crook between them, so it isn't very far behind the first one.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Well, I guess something must be working - today, I have tomato sprouts in all three positions.

This makes it a little less than a week from the initial "planting" to the sprouts reaching the top of the cardboard discs, so they're pretty much right on track, as compared to tomato seeds that I've grown before.

They're still inside their little plastic domes, so they won't show up too well on the camera for a while, but they're still very small, and wouldn't look like much more than just specks, anyway.

It's good to see them making progress, and hopefully, they'll outgrow their domes before long, and there will actually be something to look at, rather than just spots of condensation on plastic.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Let's see if this works...

Hello there, and welcome to the blog I made to go with my garden cams.

In may of 2007, I planted some morning glory vines in planters on the side of my apartment's balcony. The goal was partly to provide a screening wall between myself and the noisy neighbors, dog-walking area, and air conditioning units down below, and partly to shade the large sliding glass door from the afternoon sun and keep things a little bit cooler in the summertime. For the most part, it worked on both counts. The morning glory vines grew enthusiastically, with plenty of large green leaves to provide some privacy, and once they got tall enough, they did throw a shadow on the window, keeping things shady and relatively cool. It's winter now, and the vines have died off, and been taken down. They made lots of flowers during the summer, which became hundreds of seeds, so I've got plenty to use for this year's screening wall. For the time being, there isn't a lot to see on the balcony camera, other than maybe being able to tell if it's raining or snowing in back of my apartment.

A recent addition to the gardencam setup is the Hydrocam. This is pointing at a small AeroGarden hydroponic unit set up with some cherry tomato seed pods. With any luck, it will be looking at some small sprouts soon, which will hopefully grow into little tomato plants and produce red and yellow cherry tomatoes. At the moment, images captured after the timer turns off the lights (at around 11:00 PM) have a bright glare from the reflection of the low-light illumination off of the light hood, but I'm working on a solution for that. If nothing else, the hood is designed to be raised as the plants grow, so it will eventually be moved into a position where the glare won't be a problem anymore.

Initially, I made periodic entries and notes about what was going on with the vines on the camera's page. the addition of the second camera made it difficult to keep notes on two cameras at once, so I'm experimenting with using this blog for keeping track of things as they develop.

We'll see how it works out.