Vertical Hydroponics, Part One
DIY Vertical Garden Design, Building and Management
Vertical hydroponics gardening is both fun and productive. Besides the potential to produce significantly more food, fibre or medicine in a given linear space, vertical hydroponics also saves a lot of back work while keep crops cleaner up and off of the ground.
Like all hydroponics systems, vertical hydroponic gardens and operations have the potential to save water, reduce labor, produce faster–and all often in places where traditional soil gardening would be cumbersome, for example roof top gardening and agriculture.
The biggest advantages of most vertical gardening methods over traditional linear or “flat” gardening is the fact that more plants can be grown in the same sized linear foot print.
Real Life Vertical Hydroponics Growing
In our vertical hydroponics garden model, we will compare NFT hydroponics growing using both flat and vertical methods in the exact same spot and dimensions in a greenhouse: four feet by thirteen feet, with a maximum working height of seven and a half feet. So that’s 4′ Wide X 13′ Long X 7-1/2′ Tall. This comparison is ongoing ie for longer than a year at the time of this writing.
The system we used successfully in both real life growing examples is based around AmHydro.com GroClean NFT channels.
We grow a variety of greens and herbs, with lots of emphasis on Spinach in cooler times and Genovese Basil during the warmer part of season–although we can grow just about anything anytime with success in our findings.
In the Flat NFT system, we used a proven and standard set up in the area dimensions:
- 4 ea Finisher NFT Channels, 18 plants per channel: 72 mature plants total
- 1 ea Nursery NFT Channels, 36 seedlings per channel: 36 transplants
In the Vertical NFT system, we developed a custom vertical support design that set up in the SAME linear dimensions (ie 4′ X 7′):
- 10 ea Finisher NFT Channels, 18 plants per channel: 180 mature plants total
- 3 ea Nursery NFT Channels, 36 seedlings per channel: 108 transplants
SUM TOTAL: Same Sized Space, TWO AND A HALF TIMES THE PLANTS.
BUT, does that mean equal yields and cropping potential? That’s one of the things we aim to find out and share!
The lighting systems and configuration remain unchanged in both growing styles in the same greenhouse. The PL lighting system also provides illumination for other crops and growing systems in the greenhouse, so nothing was changed within either crop ie same power use and light spread patterns. The overall lighting system, excluding the aquaponics system uses Six 430 watt HPS PL-2000 horticultural lighting systems with the extra wide reflector option. The system is installed in an area of 12′ X 20′.
NOTE: The one and only difference in lighting between the flat NFT set up versus the vertical hydroponics NFT set up is that we may add around +100 watts of LED lighting to the inside of the prototype vertical hydroponics support we constructed to allow for the best use of space while producing healthier seedlings. That’s the power draw of one ordinary incandescent household light for reference–spread out over 108 seedlings for transplants into Finisher NFT Channels .
The Growing Environment
While we have grown year round in the experimental research greenhouse, we’ll examine and compare spring through mid fall cropping. This being the most potentially productive time(s) of year for either flat versus vertical hydroponics system.
The greenhouse is located in the Canadian Pacific Northwest, Vancouver Island BC (Gardening Zone 7). The greenhouse is a steel frame gothic arch building covered with single poly and engineered to Canadian Farm Building Code standards.
Supplemental heat is provided via hydroponic electric reservoir heaters, gas fired-electric hot water. The crop lighting system also provides significant supplemental heating in the enclosed greenhouse environment.
Cooling is accomplished by solar shutter panel and greenhouse roll-up side walls. Air circulation is provided by three industrial fans.
Carbon Dioxide levels may also be supplemented during colder winter months.
Water Quality Counts
We have experienced the difference that water quality can make in both crop taste and yields. In either system, the water we use to fill the reservoir and keep it topped up is FILTERED Water via DeChorinators or RO (reverse osmosis).
Flat NFT System Set-Up
This is a proven system for commercial growers and sets up quickly and easily. A series of light steel cross supports holds up the NFT channels, both Finisher and Nursery type. A collection gutter system and nutrient delivery system are located on either end of the support, which slopes forward to the drain end. A 32 Gallon reservoir (UC Pro) with lid acts as the nutrient reservoir. A small 35 watt Magnetic Drive pump circulates the nutrient solution continuously. An electric aquarium heat keeps the solution temperature above 65 Degrees F.
The system is easy to operate and relatively fool proof following the manufacturer’s directions and recommendations. A variety of soluble and complete fertilizer bases can be used to maintain optimal crop nutrition.
Vertical Hydroponics NFT System Set-Up
There are plenty of ideas out there with regards to setting up Vertical Hydroponics gardens; some of them are even good. We wanted to set out to create and ideally accomplish a system that could be easily replicated using locally available building materials that can be found just about anywhere. We also wanted something resilient, robust and adaptable because it wasn’t likely our first attempt would result in “perfection”.
Steel galvanized fence tubing provided a good and affordable working solution that fit our criteria. Connecting steel tubing for support purposes easily and adjustability is often not any small feat, but our friends at Steel Greenhouse had the perfect solution with some innovative wire straps, no hole drilling required!
Once constructed, the system stands 7-1/2 Feet Tall and allows us to support over 10 finisher channels plus the nursery channels in the same sized area while still using all the same reservoir.
Stuff we changed versus Flat Type NFT:
- catchment trough; we needed individual “catchers” for each channel drain end now
- nutrient delivery manifold; we were able to use stock ABS manifolds from AmHydros bigger system and just added good plugs into the injection sites we didn’t need to use (we needed two manifolds per system now instead of just one)
- nutrient delivery; with more feeder tubes to supply and from a greater height we upped the size of our Mag-Drive pump–still under 50 watts.
- that’s really about it, short of the stand–nice to be able to stick with proven stock gear as much as possible.
So, How To Build the Vertical Hydroponics Support Stand System, ie parts list, cut lengths and tips.
How do the two systems compare, performance wise?
Management, does more plants mean more work?
Scaling Up or Down
What About Aquaponics?