The Encyclopedia Hydroponica

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Worm Bin Modification 18 July, 2008

Work’s been crazy and I’ve been cranking out 50-60 hour weeks while enduring a long course of reconstructive dental work and keeping up as best I can in the garden.  So you’ll have to forgive me if I’ve fallen behind in the blog a bit.  On that note I’ve got one thing to add to my blog entry about Vicodin awhile back: I figured out what the “up” of Vicodin is.  I don’t like it (I don’t like buzzy, “zingy” stuff) but a couple days ago I tried doubling up on the Vicodin (pharmacist said I could, so I’m not just making my own rules) to push back some pretty nasty pain and ended up a bit stoned.

Won’t be doing that again anytime soon.  Pain is better than the flighty, shaky, wobbly thing.

But that’s not the focus of this blog entry.  I’m here to talk about my new pets – some worms!

This is where they live.  I built their home based on the great information found at Red Worm Composting.  The guy that runs that site is a wealth of knowledge on worm wrangling and a genuinely cool guy to boot.

I won’t go into all the details of how to build a worm bin since he’s done it infinitely better than I could, but what I will do is detail some of the modifications I’ve done to his design based upon my particular needs and problems.

Here’s the thing:  my wife (unsurprisingly) is not a big fan of worms in general.  Even more shockingly she seems nonplussed at sharing living space with worms.  To be fair she’s not so opposed to the idea that I’m going to get in trouble to by keeping an indoor worm bin, but it’s tenuous enough that should she get any unauthorized squirmy visitors that both me and my worms would suddenly find ourselves in the doghouse.

One other problem I have is that I insist upon fantasizing that I will, at some point in the future, actually scrape together enough free time on a regular basis to start fishing again.  Never mind that I haven’t actually been able to get out my poles in a good three years, but I’m not going to abandon hope.  So instead of getting regular Red Worms I decided to get their larger cousins, the European Nightcrawler.  These guys are the perfect size for bait worms, hardy, and very active.  Everything you could want in fish bait with the added benefit of being darn-near ideal composting worms.  Win-win, right?

Sure, unless you’ve got a wife that is going to have a serious issue with large, hardy, and very active worms escaping from your indoor worm bin.  Of course the bigger problem here is that my wife is incredibly smart and won’t miss for a second that if I’m modifying a worm bin in order to make it so worms don’t escape from it that there is a reason for that.  Honey, if you’re reading this, I caught them all and they’re back in the bin.

So we’ve got these active worms that like to explore and, not being very bright, escape from a bin that’s the only environment they can survive in.  For their sake and for me being allowed to sleep in my own bed, the bin needs to be made escape-proof.

I started out by covering the side ventilation holes with nylon cloth from an old pair of pantyhose.  At first I tried an unnecessarily complicated system of trying to cover all the holes on one side at once.  But this shown to the right works much better.

Just tear off a small piece of duct tape, fold it over with the sticky side out, and cut a little notch out so you get a square hole when it’s opened back up.  Get a bigger square of nylon cut, and smooth it out on the sticky side over the hole.  Then line it up with the ventilation hole and stick it on.  Voila!  It’s like a window screen for worms.  Air goes in and out, but worms stay put.

Except that they don’t.  In my bin, at least, they were still escaping sometimes through the gap between the lid and the top lip of the bin.  I decided to pull out all the stops and cover all the bases with a double-pronged assault.

I went out and bought some of that stick-on foam weatherstripping and a cheap LED night-light.  Worms hate light, but I wanted something that wouldn’t make a lot of heat and could easily plug into an outlet.

As you can see here, I ran the insulation around the lid where it would just meet with the inner edge of the top lip of the bin.  The idea isn’t to create a super-tight fit because then the lid simply wouldn’t lock down at all, but rather to just make it worm-proof.  Or at least more worm-proof.

The night-light turned out to be a really easy addition.  I just pushed it against the underside of the lid where I wanted it to be to make some marks in the plastic with the prongs, and then cut some narrow holes for them.  I cut them a bit small so it would be a snug fit.

Then, with the prongs sticking out the top, I simply plugged an extension cord onto them as you see here.  It may not be fancy-looking or anything, but it’s decently clean.  Not “living-room when company visits” stylish, but I like the final product.

Here we have the finished look inside (to the left) and outside (to the right).

As you can see it shines pretty brightly even through the lid.  The light itself is actually much whiter than it looks in the picture and the black insulation stuck on it in the left-hand picture is just to cover the light sensor so it would turn on for the photograph.  It’s not necessary.

Verdict: Flawless functionality.  There’s zero detectable heat and not a single worm to be found climbing the walls.  No escapes, no problems.

Looking back I’d have to say that the night-light will probably solve the problem entirely on its own, but obviously requires a handy electrical outlet.  I think a combination of the other two solutions (nylon screens and foam insulation strip) would probably take care of it in situations where electricity isn’t readily available, such as outdoors.  I wouldn’t want an extension cord left out in the rain, for instance.

Most importantly, this means I can keep my worms AND sleep in the bed.


Hydroponics Upgrade 2 July, 2008

I think I mentioned earlier that my plants were starting to seriously outgrow the enclosure I had them in, but in case I neglected to say so, my plants were starting to seriously outgrow the enclosure I had them in. So I got a big cabinet thing off of Craigslist.

I’m pretty sure it started life as one of those generic pressed-wood armoir things with shelves and a center divider and so forth, and then somewhere along the line someone modified it into a large portable closet, but the important thing is that it fit my needs perfectly. Heck, it was even white already. I’d been meaning to modify the reservoir on my DWC to include a drain valve and a solution level indicator (neither of which you can do while the reservoir is full). What better way to do everything than to combine a relocation, upgrade, and reservoir change all at once?

To get started I went out and bought another Sterelite bin just like the one I used to make my DWC. Why mess with trying to modify the existing DWC when I can swap parts?

As you can see I simply drilled holes top and bottom, making sure they were just barely big enough to jam a bit of aquarium air line through (I used a 3/16 bit). Then I simply forced the airline in and taped the bottom, both to keep it tucked in neatly and to cut down slightly on the amount of light that gets in. The airline fits tight enough that it seals itself without any help from me.

The idea is that once the new reservoir is complete it gets put into the new grow cabinet, filled, stabilized, and then the lid with plants from the old reservoir gets moved in.  Then the old reservoir can be drained manually (solution scooped out with a big pitcher and fed to the backyard garden).  Then it can be cleaned out and used as an ordinary storage tote or whatever I want, since the only modification to it was an extra hole for an airline in the inside of the handle.

Next I installed a drain valve I bought from Stealth Hydroponics. This probably isn’t the cheapest way to do it, but it works and works easily. I cut the hole by hand, after tracing around the inside of the rubber washers that come with it, but I’d recommend using a drill as the instructions suggest. (It worked for me, but it’s easy to mess up with a knife.)

You can just make out the valve in the bottom of the picture to the right, which was taken mainly to show how the water level indicator works. The level of water in the tube is exactly the same as the level of water in the tank. Note that in order for this to work the tube must be free of obstruction all the way through (water goes in the bottom, air comes out the top). Simple laws of physics dictate that the water levels must match.

I kicked around a lot of ideas on how to check the water level without opening the reservoir, but this is just the simplest and least likely to break down.

Here’s a shot of the completed system. Note that since this picture was taken I’ve resolved the rat’s nest of wiring on the left by mounting the power strip to the left wall (power strips generally come with screw mounts molded into the back), added a second air pump and two more air stones in the reservoir, and some extra 100w equivalent CFLs.

Mounting a power strip is easy. Just grab a scrap piece of paper about the size of the strip, lay it on the back, and poke holes through where the holes for the screws are on the back. Then put that paper (don’t flip it over! the side that was facing you faces the wall!) against what you want to

mount the power strip to, mark the holes, drill some pilot holes for the screws, and then mount your screws. Leave them sticking out a bit and the power strip should fit onto them perfectly and then slide down snugly.

Another advantage of the drain plug is it makes testing the pH and TDS of your solution easier. You can’t see it in these pictures but there’s a 2.5″ hole cut into the lid just behind the collard plant in the bottom left position. The hole is covered by an ordinary 3″ bathtub drain plug to keep light out, and is what I use to add solution to the tank and take temperature readings. (I have a floating aquarium thermometer with some fishing line tied to it. The line sticks

out of the hole and is trapped by the rubber plug. So I can fish it out easily anytime I want to take readings, but the hole is small enough to make it annoying to try to stick a tester down in there to get a reading. (I use the top of a 2L bottle as a funnel for filling.)

Solution? Simple – you just get a little tray (I use the bottom of a 2L bottle, I told you I use them for everything) and just fill it partway from the drain valve. I can take my readings from that and then dump it back in through the fill hole. Keep in mind, if you use a similar system, that your readings can be thrown off if your collection tray isn’t clean (and even then it’s still not quite as reliable as testing directly in the reservoir.)

In the picture to the left you can see how I hung the light. It’s hanging from a chain attached to a hook attached to some twine, which is tied to some kind of cedar hanger-thing that came with the closet. The chain/hook combination gives me height adjustment during growing.

Here you can see the clip fan that blows air around in there.

I relocated the cord for the light so that it goes up over the bar and then across it before dropping down along the wall. Less chance for tangling = better. The lights I added after this picture are tied by the power cord to the bar so that they hang even on each end of the big light, and all three lights are plugged into the timer with a splitter. (Since they’re CFLs they don’t pull enough watts to exceed the timer’s safety rating. Fire bad.)

It’s mildly ironic that I accomplish all this near the end of this crop’s life. These plants could go on producing for quite some time, but they’re just not filling the gaps in our diet they way we want. For example, the basil absolutely explodes. I can hardly trim it back fast enough, so I’ve got new plants started in soil where they will (hopefully) grow slower and smaller. We just don’t need that much basil. One of the spinach plants is going into flower, but hasn’t become bitter just yet. Also, the collard just isn’t a big winner in our culinary opinion. Don’t get me wrong, I like collard greens. Just not every few days.

By the way, if you want to eat collard, I finally nailed down a good recipe. First, boil it for 5-6 minutes. You’ve gotta really cook them hard to make them taste good. Then, I like to pan fry them with some bacon or ham or something (chopped up into small bites so it mixes up with the greens nicely). Use some oil or (my favorite) butter to lubricate the frying and season to taste. I can’t explain why, but collard and ham are a perfect match.

But anyway, the point is that we’re not going to be growing these specific plants much longer because we want to optimize our crop to our individual needs. So I’ve started new seeds germinating and when they get big enough they’ll usurp the current plants in the DWC who’ll submit to one final, complete harvest. We’re going to have the Grand Rapids lettuce again since it was such a prolific producer and the spinach (because you can never have too much spinach) but we’re adding in Romaine lettuce as well. Two of each plant with mirrored front and back rows.

The extra room in the closet? Well I’ll probably end up needing more lights but the plan in progress is to add some tomatoes and bell peppers. The one problem with this closet is that it builds heat if the doors are closed (I keep one propped open a few inches right now) so I’m working on getting a small exhaust fan for waste heat first. More lights is more heat, so if I can’t get rid of what I’ve got so far adding more lights will just cook the plants before I’m hungry.


Cloning is Genetic, Apparently 1 July, 2008

Filed under: Blog — E.H. @ 8:45 pm
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So I have this cherry tomato plant at my house that’s growing out of the spot that we deposit the ashes when we barbecue.  It wasn’t planted there, it’s completely volunteer, and it’s arguably one of the most aggressively-growing things in the garden.  I did the logical thing.  I cloned it.

Any gardener can tell you that certain plants clone easier than others.  It’s genetic.  However, any gardener can also tell you that rooting is rarely an exact science.

The weird thing is I can’t seem to fail at it, and not for a lack of trying.  I’ve even tried doing it wrong.  I put a clear glass of tap water in a windowsill and stick cuttings in the water.  I get roots that fill the glass.  I put a LEAF – one leaf – from the Mystery plant in a glass of tap water thinking that since there’s no growth tip it’s sure to fail and thereby prove my mortality.

Nope.  It’s growing roots.

I took 4 cuttings from the tomato plant to try and get one or two good ones.  I get four.  I plant one in the dirt in the middle of the day, full searing sunlight.  It wilts and mopes for a couple days and recovers.  So I planted the remaining three as satellites of their mom, middle of the day, in the shade, and they’re doing great.  I even planted the leaf from the Mystery Plant with them.

Maybe I’m evil, but I hope it dies.

If it doesn’t die I’m going to have to find some more strenuous test to prove my thumb is a normal shade of green and not some kind of superhuman ultra-green.