Category Archives: R&D

Tiny Tomatoes from a Relatively Tiny Plant

When people talk about gardening, one of the quintessential plants that come to mind are tomatoes. This popular fruit (although used like a vegetable, it is botanically considered a fruit!) comes in many shapes, sizes, and types: some tomato plants are determinate, meaning they will produce fruit and ripen all at once, and others are indeterminate and will grow until killed by frost or other intervention, producing fruit throughout the growing season.

Growing intriguing new varieties of tomatoes has been a regular hobby at Boswyck Farms for the past few years. We’ve had many successes, such as the Green Zebra, which featured both a refreshing tartness and striking coloration.

One of the drawbacks to indoor hydroponic tomato production is that options are limited on how to grow them. Tomato plants take up A LOT of room:

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Tomato plants also develop very large root systems to support upward growth and need a lot more space than your leafy greens and herbs. We’ve generally grown our tomatoes in bucket systems, as seen above, to accommodate the root mass.

This winter, we’ve used our indoor off-season to explore a new variety of tomato plant: Minibel. The potential benefit of this cultivar was that, unlike other tomato varieties, this plant was marketed to only grow to be about a foot tall, meaning it could be an option for the home grower with limited (vertical) space. Plus, we reasoned, if the plant would not grow as tall and prolific as the other types, would it have a root mass that would be a suitable match for other types of hydroponic systems?

Putting this plant to the test, we set up two grow spaces:

One batch of seedlings went into an NFT system.

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The other went into our custom flood and drain system, housed in a cabinet.

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The beginning vegetative cycle for the tomatoes lasted about three months. While we were (im)patiently awaiting the first tomato for a taste test, we were able to satisfy our curiosity about the possibility of growing these tomatoes in a wider range of hydroponic systems.

About a month in, we could see that the NFT systems would probably not be ideal for these tomatoes. First, the standard spacing of the Crop King rail (8″ apart) were too close. The plants were crowded and pushing each other out of the light canopy provided for the system. Second, the root mass was filling the NFT channels and left the system vulnerable to clogging. Hypothesis failed, dwarf tomatoes were not a good fit for an NFT system.

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The four plants in the cabinet flood and drain system, however, were looking mighty fine. The plants had much more room to grow, both for roots and vegetation. Definitely a better match than the NFT systems.

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(The roots were growing in 4″x4″ pots)

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When March rolled around, we started to see our first ripening tomatoes and that meant the final test could take place.

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While the red cherry-sized fruits look delectable, the flavor didn’t hold up to our usual bombastic standards. We can safely say they taste better than what can be found in the supermarket, but it’s doubtful we’d grow them in lieu of our past favorites, even with the versatility offered by their unusual height. Tomatoes are resource-heavy plants to grow hydroponically, and it would be better to devote the space, nutrients, and time to a crop that will pack a more palate-pleasing punch.

And that’s is why we do what we do. We like to test out new crop varieties, hybrid systems, and other zany ideas so that we can help create the best matched system (and give ideal crop suggestions!) for our clients. We’ll keep you posted on the next adventure!

 

Staining PVC: A Boswyck Farms Guide

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These are the supplies that you’ll need.

At Boswyck Farms we use a lot of PVC piping, and we’re always looking to make it more aesthetically pleasing. Here’s our handy guide to PVC staining for anyone else who might need to do a bit of the same for their own systems.

Why Stain?

  1. PVC is ugly.

  2. Paint does not adhere well to PVC, and it actually increases the diameter of the pipe, making it hard to use the fittings. (The tolerances are so tight that the thickness of a coat of paint makes a difference.)

How it works.

By using a PVC solvent with dye mixed in, a thin layer of the surface of the PVC is melted, allowing the stain to penetrate. The solvent evaporates, leaving behind a nicely stained (hopefully) piece of PVC.

What You’ll Need

  • PVC Cleaner: a solvent that will melt a thin layer of the PVC, allowing the dye to penetrate the surface. Make sure to use the clear stuff, because purple PVC primer will just dye your pipes purple.
  • Petroleum-based Dye. We used this kind.
  • Disposable pipettes.
  • Nitrile gloves. Don’t use latex as the solvent will eat right through it.

Mixing

  1. Make sure that you’re in a well ventilated area. The fumes are pretty powerful.

  2. Using a pipette, place a small amount of the desired color dye into a can of PVC solvent. A little goes a long way.

  3. Replace the cap on the solvent can and shake gently.

  4. Test to see how dark the stain is.

  5. Keep adding dye until you get the desired intensity. If you go too far, you can dilute the solution with clear solvent.

Applying
We started by using the applicator that’s in the can of solvent. This lead to uneven staining with lots of drips. It was hard to control how much was being applied.

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Next we tried using a paper towel. This allowed for much more control. In the beginning it feels like the stain is going on very lightly, but it will darken the more you rub it in. It took a while to get a feel for how to do it, but after a while it went pretty easily.

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Using paper towel to apply. No drips but some streaking.

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Close up of pipes stained using paper towel to apply solvent.

We were able to play around with blending multiple colors both by starting one at each end, and also by applying a thin coat of a darker color on top of a lighter one. The dark green pipe is an example of the latter technique.
After that, the sky’s the limit. We used the paper towel in a blotting technique to achieve a sponged look. We also tried using tape to mask successive coats, achieving a spiraled effect.

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Happy PVC staining!

Categories: R&D

Adventures in 3D Printing

3D printing has long been on the Boswyck Farms radar as a tool for advancing hydroponics. This year, the dream was fulfilled. Early in February, our very own pre-assembled Printrbot PLUS arrived and it has been chugging along ever since.

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While technology for additive manufacturing (creating by adding material rather than removing it) has been around since the 80’s, ‘affordable’ 3D printers were not really available for commercial or home use until very recently. With increased interest in DIY projects and the advent of the Maker Movement, pressure has been on to get 3D printers into more hands, to help explore the realm of possibilities that this tech could offer.

For us, 3D printing was a way to start prototyping hydroponic parts that were not only improvements upon what was available on the market, but parts we needed -hydroponic or otherwise- that simply did not exist (yet):

NFT Rail Clips 

NFT Rail Clip Progression

You can see an evolution in the design of the clips, starting at the bottom left.
(It’s still a work in progress.)

Power Strip Mounting Brackets

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 Joints for PVC Polyhedrons

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Truth be told though, the first print to come off the bed was a wooly sheep  from Thingiverse a that looked very much like our own mascot, Boswyck.

The Strange Sheep Menagerie

This first sheep will be a business card holder.

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You may notice that some of the sheep above have not yet reached their final form. For all of the success we have had with our Printrbot, it would be unfair to gloss over the trial and error process of finding the best settings for a complete print. 3D prints can take hours to finish, depending on the complexity and size of the design, and it can be frustrating to find out that a print failed after waiting so long for it to finish. Patience is of upmost importance.

One common problem is failing to get a print to stick to the heated print bed at the start of a print. We’ve found that hairspray and/or painter’s tape can help with adhesion. Luckily, you can tell within a layer or two of printing if this is going to be a problem and cancel the print before it goes much farther.

More frustrating is having a print dislodge midway to being finished, but not see it happen until after the printing is done. Maybe the workstation moved or perhaps the print was tall enough to sway with the motion of the extruder as it moved around the print area. What ever the cause may be, you may come back to a print that is more spaghetti than actual object.

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Intricate prints are more susceptible to this problem, as there is less support for the design the higher it prints. The recommended printing software (we are using Repetier Host with Slic3r) will print auxiliary structure to support upcoming layers that can be removed once completed, but it consists of thin fibers of plastic that can get loose or catch on the extruder as it moves around. Again, it is a matter of trial and error, a work in progress.

This completed polyhedron is the same design as the previous photo. (Support structure success!)

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While perfect printing every time is still a goal to strive for, we’ve got some bigger plans for experimenting with new materials and parts. We want to get creative with multicolor prints and start testing out nylon. (The prints above are all ABS and PLA plastics.) A new aluminum extruder head is also in the works, which should improve the quality (smoothness and precision) of our prints.

We’ll be sharing more of our 3D works as we go!

 

 

Homemade remedies for horticultural problems.

And now for a report from our frugal and enterprising Alex Middleton.

You can usually find Alex hard at work on our various systems, making sure that everything’s going as smoothly as it can. Growing hydroponically isn’t that different from traditional soil farming in that our plants are still susceptible to certain unfortunate diseases and pest problems. But Alex is there to the rescue!

Most recently he’s been working to solve a downy mildew problem on our cucumber plants. The winning solution? A spray of 9 parts water to 1 part milk. Cheap, easy, and awesome.

For more information about how Alex came to this formula, check some research here and here. Milk: it does a plant good.

This is all part of our plan to get everything ready for Bushwick Open Studios, one of our biggest events of the year.  We’ll be showcasing our work on the roof of the Bushwick Starr, and we’re thrilled to celebrate our creative neighborhood. Given the arts background of most of our farmers, it’s only right to be in such fine artistic company! We hope to see you this weekend.

The Latest Innovation from Boswyck Farms

Check out one of the latest innovations from Boswyck Farms! We have recently developed a way to use aeroponics without the pesky, clog-prone nozzles.2012-02-06_13-37-33

Our Vertical Rain System includes a box-like structure mounted on the wall with holes drilled into the front for plants. Then, a piece of  piping with small holes drilled in it is suspended directly above vertically stacked net pots. A water pump sends the nutrient solution up to the pipe, and then it rains down through the holes and onto the net pots. Roots eventually grow out into the open air and the rain provides a healthy balance of nutrient solution and oxygen. This awesome system was designed and built by Aleksandra Galczaka, a City College mechanical engineering student.

 

Work is currently under-way on a nozzle-less high pressure aeroponic system that will provide roots the ideal ratio of nutrient solution to oxygen at the ideal droplet size. This, we believe, will speed plant metabolism to optimal rates!

Stay tuned for more updates, or better yet, come visit us at the farm!