Last time we talked about the winter gardening techniques we used at FRESH Farm in our first year of commercial winter growing. Now that we’re in the thick of it here in February, we’ll get into the winter gardening techniques we are trialing this year.
For year 2, we’ve made a number of improvements in order to maximize our winter yield and really push the boundaries on winter-farming in Connecticut. For year 2, we are testing improvements like upgrading our heater to an inline jacuzzi heater, reinforcing growbed structure and adding grow lights. We also changed the material of our mini greenhouses from greenhouse plastic to cloth row cover.
I’ll cover each of these techniques in detail in just a moment, but first I have a poignant message I’d like to get across here. Please, learn from our mistakes and experience so as to save yourself some pain and anguish.
Yes, aquaponics is an amazing technology that really can grow later into the season compared to conventional gardening. But is it foolproof? Hell no! It requires a lot of planning and hard work! We winter aquapioneers really blaze a trail here for future generations of winter farmers. Since you are reading this article, I know that you are an aquapioneer just like me. I know that means you’re already experimenting just like me or maybe you’re planning your first system.
Either way, the techniques that follow are simply the ones that have worked for me so far. I can’t say they’ll work for everyone’s situation but they worked for me.
FRESH Farm Aquaponics’ Winter Gardening Plan – 2015
This year we implemented a number of new techniques and upgraded some of our old ones.
First, we traded in our multiple 300watt fish tank heaters for a super efficient inline heater, usually used in jacuzzis. An inline heater is different than a normal aquarium heater. Instead of floating freely in the fish tank, an inline heater is actually embedded in a piece of piping that fits onto standard pvc pipe fittings. This way, it feeds directly off the pump and heats the water on the way back to your fish tank! This means that all the water contacts the heater, rather than with the free floating aquarium heaters, ensuring a well distributed heat level.
Second, we updated our mini greenhouse system. We originally learned this technique from Eliot Coleman and his book Winter Gardening Techniques.
Last year we simply used ½” pvc piping to create mini greenhouses. We found them too flimsy and too short. This year we moved to a metal girder system. On its own, metal would have been a strange choice for the mini greenhouses. However, we used our mini greenhouses for two purposes this year. Our new mini greenhouses hold up our row cover for containing heat near the plants and they also hold up our new lights that we have installed to help combat the lack of natural UV light in the winter. Our mini greenhouses now have two levels of support, one for the row cover and the second for the lights. This innovation was expensive to implement but we hope the extended seasons will pay it off within the season.
We also shifted from using greenhouse plastic to row cover, for the cloth covering of our mini-greenhouses. The greenhouse plastic was incredible at trapping heat, but it also trapped all the moisture. This led to incredibly high humidity and all the pest and disease problems that come with a super humid environment. This year we used the row cover because it still traps heat while allowing a portion of the moisture to escape. So far the row cover has done us well.
For lights, we are using a combination of different types. This is an experimental phase as we lock in our favorite types of lights. We are using standard t5 shop lights from your local hardware store. These are the types of lights you might hang up in your garage. They work great for lettuce, but are not powerful enough for some plants like tomatoes.
We are also experimenting with proprietary LED technology to provide the plants with the exact light spectrum they need for optimal growth. LEDs let you deliver hyper specific light spectra so you don’t waste energy on the light that the plants don’t need. You’ll commonly see blue and red LEDS mixed together, creating a purple glow. We are using white LEDs for early and middle stage growth and red LEDs for finishing the plant off before sale. We are excited to see the results of these innovative lights!
Why All the Effort?
The hope for these experimental efforts is that we can extend the season as much as possible. Right now we are actually ending our one month off growing (January). We’ve spent this time working our butts off so that we can take off in February and March, months before the average Connecticut farm.
Our long term goals are to hone our techniques to allow for true year-round growing here in Connecticut, giving our business the competitive edge and providing food security to our families and communities.
Are you a winter farming aquapioneer? I want to hear your story! Share it on our facebook page!
Remember the three keys for success in winter are to make sure you water heater is strong enough for your water volume, use mini greenhouses to trap and keep heat where you want it and supplement with a low energy light source like LEDs for uninterrupted growth.