Fran’s Salty Tower Garden

This page is dedicated to documenting the process of beginning, and hopefully maintaing an Aeroponic Tower Garden on the upper deck of MV Smartini. I am certain there will be setbacks, but hope, with a little patience and creativity, we can get some food growing onboard. (Arugula for Sondra being the most important!). The initial planting was done on April Fools Day. Blessing? Curse? We will soon see! To read from the begining, CLICK HERE and read entries from the bottom up. Return to this page anytime to read updates. Dated entries will be organized most recent at the top, and I will add photos along the way. Wish me luck!

4/21/2018 – The Tower comes alive!!
The process of finally cleaning the Tower, getting it fully plumbed, and electricity to it, ended up taking a few days due to a few minor set backs. Cleaning out the Tower was a snap, so was installing the pump, and seeing that – YES – the DC pump we purchased to replace the AC one works great! The timer we purchased however, did not, as mentioned in the previous entry. Butch came to the rescue, and built an Arduino to act as the timer and the on/ off for the pump. After a few days of fiddling with the programming to get it just right, it now works like a charm too! Anyone who is actually reading this, is likely curious to see how the Tower goes together, and how it works, so I created a little gallery to show the whole process, enjoy!

The reservoir cover, and the first ring of the Tower with the construction rods.
« of 14 »
Seedlings, day 14. One lost, and replanted. 5 not yet sprouted.

4/16/2018 – 2 weeks complete.
Two weeks have passed since I started my little seedlings, and 22 out of 28 have sprouted, and seem quite happy. I lost one that I thought would do really well, the snap peas. It was one of the early ones to sprout, and had a really strong stem, but the leaves never opened, and it finally turned to mush. I decided to replant that slot with a second cucumber plant, apparently that gives a better chance I will have both male and female flowers for fertilization. Of the other 5 not sprouted, one is cilantro which should sprout in a week, two are strawberries I should see in 2 weeks, and the other two I fear may not germinate. They are spinach and chard. If I don’t see them in the next 7 days, I will replant with 2 other greens.

I have been doing some more reading on the Tower Garden forums, and the general consensus is to transplant the seedlings into the Tower when you start seeing roots extend out of the growing cubes. We have LOTS of roots! So, Butch and I began getting the Tower ready yesterday morning. I disassembled the entire Tower, and cleaned every nook and crannie. It is unbelievable how dirty that thing got! When we first bought the tower, we decided we needed to change it from using AC power to DC power. That would allow it to consume a lot less energy by not needing to go through our inverter. Butch had already run the DC wiring to the flybridge where the Tower will live. All he needs to do is hook up the pump that sits in the Tower reservoir, and the timer we bought to cycle the water on and off. Simple right? Welllll, the timer I bought doesn’t allow for simple on/ off cycles. It is like the old hose timers that you can set times of day, and only allows for 16 settings. Since we need to start with 15 minutes on/ 15 minutes off, it was too many cycles for that timer to do. Crap.

It turns out, I had no reason to fret. Butch’s most recent obsession… I mean, hobby, is playing with tiny microcontrollers (Arduinos) to automate or monitor random tasks around the boat. It turns out, creating a relay to turn my pump on and off is a fairly simple task for these little goodies. Butch has spent this morning, researching how to make it work, and will build it later today. With any luck, we will have the Tower up and running by tomorrow!! The next entry will be a bunch of photos of how the Tower goes together, and what it looks like with all the little plantings!
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4/9/2018 – Week 1 complete!
We are now 8 days into this grand veggie experiment, and I have 19 of the 28 seedlings spouting, and I am SO proud! I have already begun calling them “the babies”.

In case you are curious as to what exactly I am attempting to grow, here is the list of the 19 that have already sprouted in the Tower (these will be planted from the bottom up):
– Two types of tomatoes
– Small pickling cucumbers
– Small cannonball watermelons (I know, I know, I’m definitely dreaming!)
– Green beans
– Broccoli
– Mint
– Dill
– Snap peas
– Basil
– Two types of arugula
– Three types of leaf lettuce
– Red and green cabages
– Kale
– Bok choy

Here is the list of 9 little guys who haven’t sprouted yet. Never fear, I looked each one up, and we haven’t reached the normal time-frame for germination of each of these, so there is still plenty of hope they will arise!
– Three types of hot peppers. I expect to see these in the next 5-6 days.
– Swiss chard – same story, another 7 days or so.
– Celery – no sprouts expected for another 2 weeks!
– Spinach – these should come in the next 2-3 days, I hope.
– Cilantro – ditto, 2-3 days.
– Two slots for strawberries – these little guys could take as long as 30 days to germinate! I hope it works, I don’t have anymore seeds left for those little beauties.

Stay tuned, I will try to post updates about once per week!

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Plantings 5 days in, more than half have sprouted!

4/6/2018 – Sprouts!!
Holy cow… there are sprouts!! The first three (both arugulas and the kale) were spotted on the 4th, just 3 days after starting them. Today, just 5 days in, I have sprouts for 15 of the 28 plantings. I have the seedling tray in a very sunny warm place inside. I need to keep a close eye on the sprouts to make sure they don’t dislike so much sun. If I see any wilting, I will add a shade net over the top. This will reduce the strength of the sun by about 30%.

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4/1/2018 – Seed Selection
The Tower Garden, with the extension kit, gives me 28 places to grow individual plants. The tower can grow just about anything that is not a root vegetable. Because it is a vertical tower, you need to place smaller things at the top, and the larger bushy items at the bottom. The goal is to allow all plants to get even sunlight, and even watering. The good thing is, you can move them around as they grow to make it all work. I purchased most of my seeds from Johnny’s Seeds, and tried to find all heat-tolerant varieties, since we will have almost constant summer conditions. Since I truly have no idea how this will all work out, my first attempt at plantings is a bit of a “Hail Mary” – a mix of greens (2 kinds of arugula, Sondra!), hot peppers, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, and what the hell… even baby watermelons! This is a soil-less system, so the plantings are made in “rock wool” that holds onto moisure and gives your little seedlings something to start roots into. I made a spreadsheet to keep track of what is what, and to help me know when to replant seedlings if we have success. Time will tell!

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How it all began…
I have a curious habit when it comes to new “things” to try. I generally get super excited about said “thing”, study up and research the best equipment and methods, buy it all in anticipation of starting, then get freaked out that I will fail. The “thing” then sits, collecting dust while I worry daily about starting.

The best example of this was as soon as I was done with dental hygiene school. Suddenly, I had a real income, and no homework or studying to do. What on earth was I going to do with all this new free time? Well, I was going to learn how to play the bass, and be in a rock band, of course! So, I headed to the music store, bought a base and an amp, and then… it sat in a corner of my house untouched for the next 6 months. In this case, my opportunity to finally start, despite my 6 months of worry, came when my then-husband’s bass player moved on, and “Average Joe” was suddenly bass-less. He made me pick up the dusty thing, and with my sweaty hands, he taught me all of the songs for Average Joe, and in about a month, I was onstage rocking out! I had a ball doing this for the next 5 years.

There are numerous examples of this, but the most recent is my Tower Garden. While planning our big island adventure, we realized one of the things that is so hard to get in the more remote islands, is fresh greens and other veggies. Since a big part of our goal is to be as self-sufficient as we can, having an onboard garden makes perfect sense, even if it may be a tad crazy. Commence the research! I found a million websites dedicated to hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics. Build-your-own contraptions, use fish for nutrients, yadda yadda yadda, it was weeks of diving head-first into interweb rabbit holes. Finally, due to space limitations, and our need to keep things as simple as possible, I decided on the aeroponic Tower Garden. It makes the nutrient part of the puzzle a total no-brainer, and easy to carry on-board,  which is what we need. Once I bought it all, I quickly put it together, and on the upper deck, it has stood, collecting more dust than I thought possible, as a great conversation starter, totally void of any plants for a year and a half.

In my defense, there are a million reasons why it has stood unused, all the same reasons that it took us so long to get the adventure started. But, along with all of those totally valid set-backs, I have also worried almost daily about starting it. What will I plant? What if it doesn’t work? What if they grow, then I kill them all? Am I dreaming?

Anyone who knows me, understands that as soon as there is a naysayer about a goal of mine, then I want to set forth, and succeed even more. Enter the Tower Garden “Guru” on the help forum. He has declared that it will not work on a boat. Period. And, he gave a list of reasons why he believes that. HA! “Watch me!” is what I have been defiantly yelling in my head for the past year, as I found ways to address his problem list. Of course, this adds to my worry of starting. What if he is right? Screw that – let the plantings begin!

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4 thoughts on “Fran’s Salty Tower Garden”

  1. Hi Frane!

    I think it’s amazing that you’re starting your Salty Tower and I encourage you to hang in there and prove that nay-sayer wrong! As a longtime wannabe vegetable gardener, I have had my successful years and others…not so much. One of my great consolations is a neighbor who keeps a detailed gardening diary, has an email following of regular purchasers of her beautiful organic produce and measures her output in pounds – lots of pounds – sometimes has huge, epic, failures. It seems that Mother Nature can be a bit fickle, even for the very experienced. The only downside I can think of in your situation is saltwater spray which has to be in the air all the time, right? People use concentrated amounts of that stuff to kill weeds. It seems to me that if you keep your leaves washed and protect your plants from wilting and burning in the sun you can overcome that and the endless summer (oh the horror…NOT!!) that you experience onboard Smartini. Here’s what you won’t have 1) armadillos 2) deer 3) snails 4) Monarch Butterfly larvae that ate every leaf from a huge parsley (of course I was happy to host them but really guys, my parsley???) 5) every other fungus, insect and small burrowing mammal that has wreaked havoc in my garden from one year to the next. You will find plants that thrive and plants that tank. All gardeners do. When something croaks…replant with something that you know does well. You will learn. So excited for you on this amazing journey!!

    1. Liz!! Thanks for the words of encouragement, I am sure there will be a pretty steep learning curve as to what can work in the harsh environment here! The salt air is definitely a concern. Luckily, we have the tower on the upper deck, so at least direct spray should be avoided. When we get our watermaker going (this week, with any luck), then I will have the ability to rinse the plants daily with fresh water, if I need to. I am just tickled watching everything sprout. I am sure I will feel bad when I lose my first few, but fully expect it! Big hugs to you and CB, how are things on the ranch?

  2. I think it’s great, I grow a 20′ x 20′ veggie garden every year for the past 30 years, most;y tomatoes, cukes and peppers. Keep a diary so you know what works and doesn’t and what grows and doesn’t. When you can post a picture of your garden, I”m curious to see what it looks like!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement Bob! This is a first for me, I have never even attempted a dirt garden, so there will be a LOT to learn! I already started a spreadsheet to keep track of what works, with lots of notes. I hope this blog will help document the successes and failures too. I could send you a photo of the tower, but it looks so sad with nothing growing in it, so I thought I would wait and post one after I have transplanted a few. It honestly didn’t occur to me that the seedlings would be so staggered. I am really glad I thought to get plugs – essentially to close off the unused ports so no sun can get inside the tower. Once I have it all put together, I will document it all. So far so good, and fingeres crossed! How are you all doing?

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