December 20, 2013

Bob is incontinent

This entry is not about hydroponics. This is a tale, about me and two buckets.

A couple of months ago, a friend and I sat down and started monkeying about with some Arduino bits. I built a robot, he built a robot. My robot imitated a roomba and i don't recall what his did. After awhile, he tells me that he's found some neat videos about how Arduino-based sensors can be used to automate gardening.

hrmmm.. yeah - sure. I like to garden whatever. Next thing I know, my friend has constructed an in-home hydroponics herb garden and is branching out into lettuces. Now his mother-in-law is harvesting fresh bok choi for dinner and all I can think is, "man.. I would love to be harvesting food in my own house. I could have fresh tomatoes in winter". (see what I did there? The arduinos were a red-herring). The growing season in my neck of the woods is mighty short. I like to grow tasty heirloom varieties but only get to enjoy them for about two months before the weather turns on me. So after a bit of research into hydroponic tomatoes, I commit.

I order the equipment and my buddy gifts me with two 5 gallon food grade plastic buckets that the local grocery store gave him for free. I take the buckets home with visions of two tomato plants producing bountiful harvests. I love these buckets; in a fit of whimsy, i name them Alice and Bob. I actually have terrible management issues with my gardening. The last two years have seen me lose track of the seedlings and resulted in some fun mystery growths with late identifications. And if you don't believe me, try growing 4 varieties of mid-size heirloom tomatoes and see how well you do telling them apart.

So this time, I think to myself, this time I am going to personalize the buckets and then I will remember what I actually planted and did. So I follow a basic hydro-bucket plan. I drill holes in the lids for the net basket that the plant will rest in, a tiny opening for an air tube that will oxygenate the water, and then at the base of the bucket, I make the last hole. This hole will be where i connect a clear tube that will function as a water level and drainage tube. I like the design because once the plants get big and I have to stake them up, its not like I'll be able to easily lift the lid off the bucket to manage the water/nutrient solution.

I follow the design plan, i go to home despot to pick up the tubing and fittings... and this is where things start going sideways. Of course, these commodity fittings aren't the exact ones as specified in the plan. They are the same diameters, so I'll be ok? No. No - ok is exactly what I am not.

Turns out the design i am following makes certain assumptions about the outer diameters and the actual molding of the parts. So I improvise, now that I've already drilled the holes, I'm committed. I'm not about to waste Alice and Bob - in any sense! So I get new fittings, I work the work. I put together Alice, and then I test. I pour in three gallons of water and leave her in the bathtub.

No leaks! Alice is great! The mods are good and I start on Bob. I swear I do the same thing, but obviously not. Obviously there was some minuscule irregularity in the way that I drilled the holes, because Bob is not water tight. Bob leaks. I stare. Bob leaks. I fiddle with the parts; I recheck the bits.

It doesn't matter. Fine - I cave and order some aquarium-grade sealant. I wait.

Gardening involves a lot of waiting. Its not about winning the battle, its about the war. Gardening takes years. Which is one of the reasons that the hydroponic approach interested me. Because the time scale is accelerated. but some things don't change. So I wait. and eventually the sealant gets here.

I seal. I wait for it to dry. and then i put more water in. Alice, again, is great. I set her up in my office. (tomorrow, i am actually going to put a Marmande tomato plant in. This is excitement).

Bob, on the other hand. Still with the grief. But on closer examination, i realize that the leak is originating from the tubing connection, not the actual bucket. huzzah! I reconnect the tubing. Pour water in again! Only to realize that a leopard doesn't change its spots! In the act of correcting the tubing, I had loosened the sealant, so the bucket is back to leaking. Bob, I think to myself, Bob is a problem.

So I poured out the water, again! I removed the sealant. Tomorrow i will reapply. and see what happens. Gardening is not for the weak spirited.