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Inspector’s Day Off:Garden Tower Build, Part 2

After reading part one of this newsletter and watching the video, I hope that you’re well on your way to building your tower.  I left off with the forming of the net cup holes in the 4 inch pipe. In part two, I’ll show you how to prepare the bucket, lids, pump, filter cap and top cap. Then I’ll show you how to put it all together. I’ll finish with a quick lesson on starting your seedlings, making your nutrient water and planting your crop. Here's the video for part 2.

Why Two Bucket Lids 

If you read the materials list in the description of first video, you’ll see two bucket lids.  One is, naturally, for the top, the second will act as a stabilizer for the tower pipe.  The stabilizer must be reduced in size to fit the interior width of the bucket just above the height of your pump.  Since the bucket is slightly narrower at the bottom, the stabilizer will keep the pipe from moving once installed along with the top lid. 

Remember to notch the pipe at the bottom, for water flow. Make another elongated notch about 8 inches from the bottom of the pipe for the water tube. After making a notch at the top of the bucket for the wire, place the pump at the bottom. Lower the pipe with the lids and stabilizer installed until the pump output passes through one of the holes on the stabilizer.

Let’s Put Some Holes In It

Cut drainage slots to allow water to flow freely inside the pipe. This helps with stabilization and keeps an accurate water level. Cut a 2 inch slot about 7 inches from the pipe.  This will allow the vinyl tube to pass through. Cut a slot, at the top of the bucket, to allow for the power cord.  Limit the depth of the slot to about an inch and a half from the top of the bucket to ensure it stays above the water level.  Next, drill holes in the stabilizer.  Remember, the stabilizer is the lid with the edge removed.

This allows it to drop into the bucket and stabilize the pipe.  I drilled a 4 inch hole in the center of the stabilizer.  After which, I drilled 4 ¾ inch holes equal distance from each other (4 quadrants). The holes are half of the way between the center hole and the perimeter of the stabilizer. These ¾ inch holes have two purposes, they ease the water flow above and below the stabilizer and, at least, one hole is used for the pump’s output.  The last and final hole is drilled into the grate. Make sure it is large enough to allow the tubing to pass through.

Final Assembly

It’s time to put it all together.  Let’s start by placing the grate on top.  Use a soft blow hammer if needed.  Then slide the bucket lid onto the pipe, from the bottom on the pipe. Repeat the process for the stabilizer.  Next, prepare the pump by screwing the ½ inch diameter fixture to the top of the pump housing. Don’t forget to use plumber’s tape to seal the threads. Temporarily remove the grate from the pipe then push the tubing through the 4 inch pipe.  Hint: It’s easier to start from the top of the pipe. 

As the tubing reaches the end of the pipe, push it through the 2 inch slot located near the bottom of the pipe. Be sure to leave excess tubing at the bottom to connect the pump. Back at the top, cut the excess length of the tubing, push it through the grate then reattach the grate.

Drill a hole through the top of the tubing then use a nylon screw to keep the tubing from falling back through the grate (I didn’t have a nylon screw handy so I used a shortened zip tie instead). Add the top to cover the grate. Use silicon sealant or a thin rubber gasket to prevent leaks.  Connect the tubing to the pump by pushing it firmly onto the barbed pump output. Put the bucket lid into place, fill with water and plug into a GFCI protected outlet for your first test run.


Net Cups and Rockwool

Now that your tower is ready, you’ll need 22 two inch net cups to fill the holes. These can be found online. The price for 50 two inch net cups is around $10 dollars.  At that amount, you’ll have enough net cups for another garden tower.  They can be reused, if you are careful when cleaning them.

We use rockwool cubes to hold the seedlings inside the net cup.  Rockwool costs about $10 for 100 cubes.  We (when I say we, I mean my wife) actually start growing the seedlings in the rockwool cubes using seedling starter trays.  Starter trays are typically less than $10 dollars for about 30 tray packs and there are usually 6 seed cells per tray.  Buying 180 seed cells for less than $10 is a good deal…especially if you reuse them. 

I know what you’re thinking. These costs are adding up. Think about it this way.  The amount you save in home-grown vs. store-bought produce will pay for the startup costs in a just few trips to the grocery store.  Keep in mind that the ideas I’m sharing with you are a guide. I’m sure you can improve on them to reduce the startup costs even more.  Add to that the potential savings of fewer trips to the doctor and less insurance co-pays. If your body remains healthier because you are eating healthier food, you don’t need to visit the doctor as often. What’s not to like about better tasting, healthier produce and potentially fewer visits to your doctor?

Prepare The Nutrient Water

There are a number of great dry and liquid nutrients to use in your garden tower. The basic rule of thumb is to use the right type of nutrient (NPK). You want a nutrient with medium amounts of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) and a high amount of potassium (K). The nitrogen helps develop green leaves, the phosphorus helps to build the plant’s root system and the potassium helps the plant resist disease.

Liquid nutrients are easier to use because there’s typically no premixing but we use dry nutrients because they are less expensive to buy.  You’re not paying for weight of the water, just the nutrient.  Dissolve the dry nutrients in water and they’re ready to use.  We specifically use MasterBlend®  Tomato and Vegetable Formula.  Its NPK numbers are 4-18-38.  To boost the nitrogen level, we add calcium nitrate 15-0-0. Then we add magnesium sulfate (epsom salt) to assist the plant’s production of food through photosynthesis.    

This is our nutrient mix per 5 gallons of water:

  • Masterblend: 2 teaspoons

  • Calcium Nitrate: 2 teaspoons

  • Magnesium Sulfate: 1 teaspoon  

Transfer and Startup 

I recommend germinating and growing your seedlings a few weeks before your tower build is complete. That way, they’ll almost be ready when your tower is complete.  When the seedlings’ roots are mature enough (about 1 to 2 inches in length), they can be transferred from the starter trays to the net cups, then the net cups into the tower.  You can run the tower pump continuously, but we found that unnecessary.  Instead, we use a timer to run the pump for one hour, every 3 hours.  Our net cups are watered eight times, for one hour, within a 24 hour period. This keeps the plants moist and the shortened run times also extend the life of our pump. 

Check the water level every 3 to 4 days to ensure it remains well above the level of the pump.  We can run for about 2 to 3 weeks before needing to add nutrient water but that can vary depending on your specific crop, temperature and location.

I’d be happy to know your level of success in growing food in your own tower garden.  I’m always looking for ways to improve the process so let me know if you find one.  Enjoy growing healthier, less expensive food.

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