Thursday, October 26, 2006

An Improvement Over Organic, Our Lettuce Rocks!

Many people ask my partner and I—“As long as you’ve spent all this money setting up a state of the art operation, why not go 100% organic?” It’s a fair question, to which we often reply—“We’re better than organic.”

“How so?” they ask, and you can hear the scepticism in their voice. “Because we use high-tech, soil-less growing techniques which allow us to give our lettuce plants the best possible nutrients in expertly measured solutions. Not using soil as a growing medium, eliminates possible contamination by soil-borne insects and diseases. We don’t use any pesticides in our greenhouse, and synthetic nutrients work better in a hydroponic situation.”

“What makes them work better?” ask the skeptics, still not 100% percent convinced. “Synthetics dissolve better in water, consequently they don’t clog up the pumps and pipe systems as often as organics do. The parts per million of organics is greater, and often they have to be pre-strained before they’re put into a nutrient solution.”

“Synthetics are more cost-effective than organics, and are just as pure. Our base fertilizer is two-thirds of the Advanced Nutrients 3-part, namely Micro, and Grow. They are expertly formulated for the major cycles of a plant’s life. We don’t use the Bloom part, since we don’t want our lettuce to go into the flowering stage and produce seeds.

We have a pre-mix tank, and we add the Micro (5-0-1) first and wait till it dissolves completely. The reason for this is that it is a concentrate and we don’t want its micronutrients to chemically interact with the major nutrients in Grow (2-1-6) prematurely.

As opposed to the equivalent products made by their competitors, Advanced Nutrients Micro and Grow contain only pharmaceutical grade substances. Micro contains Boron, Calcium, Cobalt, Copper, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Potassium, and Zinc in easily absorbed compound form as well as more chelates per micronutrient than any other manufacturer. Chelates help the micronutrients transfer to the plants better and faster.

Grow contains Ammonium, Magnesium, and Potassium compounds, including Phosphates, in order to give you the full spectrum of N-P-K necessary for healthy and robust growth. In addition, we add Sensi Cal Mg Mix, since lettuce requires additional Calcium and Barricade, to strengthen the internal structure of our lettuce, enabling our plants to ward off insects and pathogens, literally from the inside out.

Historically, aphids are the most bothersome pests for lettuce growers. We have introduced a beneficial insect called Colemani into our greenhouse, which lays its eggs in the bodies of the aphids. It also destroys aphid eggs, so it helps to keep any threatening aphid infestation to a minimum.

The content of our Nutrient Pond is filtered and recycled in order to make the whole operation even more cost-effective. We also add Mother Earth Blended Super Tea Grow to the mix at a certain stage, as well as B-52 for a vitamin boost. The Mother Earth product contains Alfalfa Extract, Canola Meal, Citric Acid, Crab Meal, Earthworm Castings, Fish Meal, Sea Kelp, and Shrimp Meal.

It was designed to give plants natural supplements, nutrients, and vitamins missing from chemical fertilizers. It noticeably improves the taste of our butterhead lettuce.

With regard to the vitamin supplement, we noticed that even though we were doing everything right, somehow our heads of lettuce weren’t as robust and high energy as they should have been. Coincidentally, I felt run down and lethargic so I went to the doctor and she prescribed a vitamin-B supplement.

A week after I started taking the supplement my demeanor improved, my energy level rose, and I started feeling better about myself. Then I flashed on the fact that our lettuce could use a boost of energy. I called Advanced Nutrients, and they suggested feeding our plants B-52.

The natural hormones and vitamins in this product had an immediate beneficial effect. Plant metabolism was raised, the energy level of the lettuce went up, and growth was accelerated. The phytohormones in B-52 are derived from seaweed extracts and humic acid and they help to make our lettuce not only grow faster, but also to become resistant to stress.

B-52 can be applied through the roots in the nutrient solution, but also as a foliar spray. The cytokinins in this product are derived from natural sources and they are augmented by nitrogen based “betaines.” These help cell membrane function and make the plant more adaptable to stress.

Cytokinins are instrumental in the retention of the green color in plants. For a lettuce grower this function is very important, since a bright green head of lettuce sells much faster than a drab, dark green one.

Since many of the beneficial ingredients in B-52 come from the seaweed extract, we started feeding our plants Grandma Enggy’s Seaweed Extract, which has so many natural growth stimulants, vitamins, antibiotics, auxins, and gibberellins that it’s almost like a multi-vitamin plus supplement for our lettuce.

It’s got Vitamin C, two Vitamin A precursors, B1 and B12, as well as Vitamin E and Vitamin K. It also contains natural chelates that aid in the uptake of nutrients. Like B-52 it can be mixed in with our nutrient solution, or applied as a foliar spray.

Our hydroponic lettuce crop is the healthiest, most vigorous produce in the markets where it is sold. It is better than organic.

posted by silvio @ 10:04 AM   0 comments

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Too Much of a Good Thing!

My partner and I started panicking the other day, when during one of our regular inspections we discovered that the roots of our butterhead lettuce plants were clumping together and looking very much like mush covered in brown slime. At first we thought it was root rot, but it had no smell.

Since all our nutrients and additives come from one company, Advanced Nutrients, I immediately called their technical help line to get to the root of the problem (no pun intended). Their suggestion was that in a hydro operation, it is advisable to use Piranha, Tarantula, and Voodoo Juice at half strength, especially if they are used in conjunction with Carbo Load, Liquid or Powder.

The man explained that at full strength in a hydroponic situation the carbohydrates in Carbo Load energize and increase the size of the beneficial fungi, bacteria, and microbe colonies in the above products to such an extent, that it defeats the original purpose—to enhance root functions such as nutrient absorption and resistance to pathogens.

He suggested flushing the system with a mild solution of HyOx (which will kill off about 50% of the microorganisms), then reintroducing the Voodoo Juice only at half-strength. Piranha and Tarantula are too aggressive in certain situations. SensiZym would also help to strengthen the root systems.

He mentioned that if we’re adding Barricade into the mix, we should add it to our pre-mix tank the night before, to give it a chance to dissolve completely. Barricade is highly alkaline, so taking frequent pH readings of the nutrient solution is essential.

Many growers make the mistake of mixing all the ingredients and then taking one reading, thinking that they’ve arrived at the correct pH. Advanced Nutrients suggests that whether you mix in a bucket or a pre-mix tank, like we do, you should take pH readings every half-hour, and you’ll notice how the readings fluctuate for the first while.

Once you get the same pH reading for two or three half-hour periods, then you’ll know that your mixture has settled and it’s ready to be administered to your plants, provided the reading is the level you’re looking for. The proper pH depends on your grow medium. In water, such as our Nutrient Pond, you want your pH at 5.6. If you’re using coco coir as a medium, for instance, your reading should be 6 pH. In soil the ideal reading is 6.3 pH.

The advantage of using Advanced Nutrients pH Up or pH Down, is that you’re getting a pure concentrate that has been configured for you, rather than having to guess how many lemons to squeeze to make your mix more acidic. The competing products on the market are watered down, so they are more costly when you compare them to the concentrates.

I asked what we could do in order to accelerate the growth of our lettuce, and the tech guy discouraged us from using any bloom stimulant, since we definitely do not want our lettuce to start flowering and go to seed. Instead, he suggested using Grandma Enggy’s Seaweed Extract, which contains natural seaweed-derived growth stimulants, as well as the major vitamins needed for plant health.

In addition to B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B12, panthothenic, folinic and folic acid, Seaweed Extract also includes vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin E (tocopherol), two vitamin A precursors, and vitamin K. The vitamin E content of seaweed is particularly useful in horticulture, featuring a complete set of isomers. This molecular structure is similar to that found in wheat germ oil.

Seaweed extract can be used in the root zone, or as a foliar spray. Used in the latter fashion, it stimulates metabolic processes in the leaves of our Boston lettuce plants, making leaf-locked nutrients available to the whole plant. Its natural antibiotic properties help our lettuce plants develop resistance not only to mildew and fungi, but also spider mites, aphids, and scab infestations.

He also suggested SensiZym, which we’ve already been using. It not only accelerates growth, but is also well suited to a water-rich vegetable like lettuce. It helps the absorption of water-borne elements necessary for a healthy lettuce plant.

The living organisms in SensiZym have a long shelf-life and they complement the microbes found in Voodoo Juice. These two products work symbiotically, to help create and maintain a healthy root system, which is exactly what we need after our mishap.

This incident has once again reminded Chuck and I that too much of a good thing is not necessarily good for you or for our hydroponically grown lettuce crop. The race is on to produce 400 heads of lettuce each day just a little bit faster, taking 34 instead of 36 days from start to finish. Wish us luck!

posted by silvio @ 3:06 PM   0 comments

Thursday, October 12, 2006

No Cows in Our Greenhouse, Our Lettuce is Pure

I just heard on the radio that the spinach contamination in California was caused by cow manure in the spinach patch. Seems like the cattle ranch is right next to where they grow the spinach. With hydroponic lettuce grown in secure greenhouses, no such problems exist.

What is more worrisome is that there were reports of lettuce crops having been contaminated by the same e-coli bacteria that got to the spinach. It happened in field-grown lettuce in California, but also in some organically grown lettuce in Ontario. This could undermine the public’s belief in the safety of all salad vegetables, so we took some steps.

We made larger signs for our retail outlets, vouching for the purity of our hydroponically-grown Boston lettuce. It seems to be working, the lettuce is selling out, and our buyers are pressuring us for the daily 400 heads, which is our ultimate goal.

We contacted local media outlets and arranged to be interviewed about the e-coli outbreaks. We reassured the viewers or the listeners that our hydroponic lettuce was as safe as the vegetables they grow themselves, probably safer, since we don’t have cats peeing in our vegetable patch.

In order to make sure that our lettuce is resistant to harmful bacteria, we use several different Advanced Nutrient products. Tarantula is a complex blend of 57 different bacterial mico-organisms. When used as a root colonizer, it has 1.4 million colony forming units or CFUs. Tarantula comes in powder form, and it contains the spores of beneficial bacteria, known as Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria or PGPR.

Voodoo Juice is a liquid suspension of five PGPRs, while Piranha is a powder concentrate of beneficial fungal spores. When used together, these products act synergistically, ensuring that many harmful fungi and bacteria don’t get a chance to invade our precious lettuce crop.

Root size is increased, making for bigger heads of lettuce, and nutrient absorption is accelerated, speeding up growth. If we could cut down the time it takes for our lettuce to mature from 36 to 34 days, we could sell an additional 800 heads of lettuce during those two days saved, once we reach our production goal.

Research has shown that beneficial bacteria are most effective when used in tandem with beneficial mycorrhical fungi. 25% more growth was observed when Piranha was used with Tarantula, than with Piranha alone. Add Voodoo Juice to the mix and the symbiotic effect is truly astounding!

There is a fourth product that complements the other three, and that is Advanced Nutrients SensiZym. It is definitely the world’s best agricultural enzyme product. When used in conjunction with Piranha, Tarantula and Voodoo Juice, it accelerates the growth of beneficial microbes, helps our lettuce crop utilize water and water-borne elements better, and promotes rapid growth and high yield.

SensiZym has a shelf life of 18 months and features live ingredients, as opposed to the competitor’s products which have been found to contain inert enzymatic units. It is backed with Advanced Nutrients unparalleled money-back guarantee!

By using Barricade, we make our lettuce plants resistant to pathogens from the inside out. The potassium silicate in this product strengthens the ability or our lettuce plants to transport nutrients in their root cells and it increases cell wall stability. This makes our lettuce resistant to stress, drought, pathogens, and insects.

Silica is a buffering substance that enables plants to successfully deal with potentially toxic levels of pollutants, salts, and minerals. It also helps heal downy mildew, powdery mildew, and botrytis or gray mold.

As an additional step against powdery mildew, which is an insidious fungi that attacks many vegetables, we spray our lettuce with Protector. The potassium bicarbonate in this product alters the pH of our lettuce leaves, making them inhospitable to the fungi. Protector is completely safe and does not contain any harmful chemicals.

In order to induce systemic resistance to all sorts of pathogens in our lettuce, we use Scorpion Juice. It stimulates the innate immune systems of our plants, enabling them to fight off any fungi, viruses, mold, mildew, or tiny parasitic insects. It is the same as “vaccinating” our lettuce plants against a whole array of intruders.

For faster growth and to combat plant stress, we administer Organic B, as well as VitaBoost Pro. The former contains the all-important B vitamins, while the latter is the best multi-vitamin formula designed specifically for plants. It also fights root zone pathogens.

Armed with this assortment of preventative measures, we are certain that our hydroponic lettuce crop is safe from diseases and pests. Our automatic controls make sure that the lighting levels, heating or cooling, humidity, CO2 levels, pH, Electrical Conductivity (EC—often measured by a CF—Conductivity Factor—meter), and the temperature of our Nutrient Pond are just right.

posted by silvio @ 10:52 PM   1 comments

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Seedling to Salad in Five Weeks

Each and every day we sow 500 Boston lettuce seeds in rockwool slabs which are then placed on plastic trays in the grow room. Covered with transparent, plastic lids to keep in the humidity, these trays are also covered with a shade screen for the first 24 hours, to cut down light levels during germination.

About a week later, a selection process takes place, where the weakest seedlings are rejected and those that are uniform in size are all kept. After 12 days, the seedlings are transplanted into the greenhouse.

Our plant nutrient company of choice, Advanced Nutrients, makes perfect products for seedling transplantation. In order to avoid the threat of damping off, their first taste of nutrient solution contains Scorpion Juice, which inoculates the seedlings with Systemic Acquired Resistance (SAR). This acts on the immune system of plants the same way that vaccination does on human immune systems.

Especially useful for farmers who grow from seedlings or cuttings, it fights off and prevents not only damping off, but also powdery mildew, molds, fungi, viruses, and tiny, parasitic insects. It keeps our butterhead lettuce free of disease, unsightly blotches, and other symptoms of destructive pathogens.

During transplantation, we also use Jump Start and No Shock, in order to minimize the impact of being moved on the tiny lettuce plants. Advanced Nutrients ran tests and found that Jump Start, used in greenhouses, increased transplant survival rates significantly, while speeding up growth.

No Shock contains Golden Fulvic acid, root stimulators, key nutrients, and immune boosters. It encourages fast root growth and helps seedlings cope with moisture depletion, injury, and microbes that can harm young plants.

The rockwool slabs are separated into individual seedling cells, which are then placed over holes cut in one inch thick polystyrene boards. These are then floated on top of the nutrient solution at the seedling end of our Nutrient Pond. Our goal is to float 400 new healthy seedlings each day.

Initially, the plants are bunched together, 75 plants per square yard, for ten days. Then they are spaced further from each other, 25 plants per square yard. The first polystyrene boards have 55 rectangular spaced holes, one and a quarter inch in diameter. The second stage boards have 18 rectangular holes, one and a half inch in diameter, to allow for the larger root size and better spacing.

Appropriate amounts of Piranha and Tarantula are added to the nutrient solution at this point. These magic products colonize the root systems of our lettuce plants with beneficial fungi and bacteria, respectively. Not only does this help better nutrient absorption, but it also makes for faster growth and healthier lettuce plants.

Last week I mentioned that we use Piranha as a foliar spray to further inoculate our lettuce plants against many pathogens. My partner and I figure that by using a number of different inoculants, we are sure to prevent the entire gamut of bad microbes that plague greenhouses the world over.

Every day our almost fully automated system takes multiple measurements, such as light intensity, temperature and humidity, CO2 saturation, CF or Conductivity Factor of the dissolved salts and nutrients, and of course, the pH, or acid-alkaline balance of our overall nutrient solution.

If this last balance goes off quilter, the system quickly injects the appropriate amount of pH Up and pH Down, which are scientifically the best products to correct any imbalance in this area. Certain vegetables are especially sensitive to acid-alkaline conditions, and lettuce is no exception.

After seeding, our butterhead lettuce crop takes 36 days to reach the final harvest size of 5.3 ounces or 150g. We used to produce 350 heads of lettuce per day, now we’re boosting production up to 400 heads a day. To do any more than that we would have to increase the size of our Nutrient Pond, which is not economically feasible at this point in time.

Adding Iguana Juice Grow and Bloom to the nutrient mix is having a noticeable, beneficial effect. Our heads of lettuce are more robust and crisp. We ensure that they are free of powdery mildew and other harmful organisms by adding the products mentioned above, but also Protector and Barricade. The first one knocks out powdery mildew, while Barricade establishes further immunity from the inside out.

As a final touch, Sweet Leaf ensures the fine, butterhead taste that our customers have learned to expect. We started boosting production about ten days ago, so we should reap our first increased harvest in about three weeks time.

posted by silvio @ 11:41 PM   0 comments