Steve Welsh is the manager of Incredible AquaGarden, a working indoor garden and learning centre set up in 2013 at Todmorden High School. You can read about Incredible Aquagarden here. Hydromag sat down with Steve to explore the challenge of setting up and running such a facility and leading the march towards reintroducing horticulture into the national curriculum in the UK.
What problems did you come up against in design and how did you resolve them?
Light is our main issue. We can control heat, nutrients, pH etc and we’re experimenting with artificial light for germination and growing on.
Were you able to buy all of your equipment or is some of it homemade?
We had the help and support of Auto-Pot who sold us the equipment at cost and of Hydrostore at Luddenden Foot near Halifax who assembled the equipment.
How balanced is the system in terms of energy put in and out and in financial terms, do you see yourselves making a relative profit or is it purely for educational use?
We use air source heat pumps to keep the temperature constant at 20C, but of course in hot weather the temperature rises above that and we need to open the windows. We will make a profit from the sale of micro salads and micro herbs, lettuces and cucumbers. We’re still trialing different vegetables to see how they grow. Todmorden High School, who we are in partnership with, is using some of the vegetables for their dinners.
What sort of man hours are required to maintain the system? Is it seasonal or do you plan to run all year round?
We will run it all year round. I would calculate it requires seven man hours per week for plant care, maintenance and germination.
How well have you been received in terms of public interest and what you’re growing? Is there a difference in quality compared to other produce?
We’ve been well received, especially with the height of the tomato plants and cucumbers which are reaching between eight and 10 feet in height. On quality, it’s difficult to tell just yet, but we’ve experienced an intensity of flavour that is absent from supermarket produce.
Is this a model that you can see working elsewhere and are there any plans to try to replicate it?
Definitely. The school kids get a great deal out of their visits and will be increasingly involved in the germination, growing on, care and harvesting of all the produce.
Do you think that horticulture and alternative growing methods should be part of the national curriculum?
Absolutely. The world into which school kids are growing will be a different world to that which we’ve experienced. Food and energy will become more politicised and home grown, local produce will become more important. It is therefore vital to ensure that horticulture is part of the national curriculum, not only because of the need to educate young people about local produce, but also to train up a new generation of horticulturalists.
How likely and on what sort of timescale do you see that happening?
It’s happening now at Todmorden High School, but it needs to be rolled out. It needs to happen over the coming two decades to make a difference.
This article was originally published in Issue 011 of HYDROMAG (September – October 2014).
Ultraviolet (UV) light isn’t visible to the naked eye, but despite making up only about 10% of sunlight, it has significant chemical and biological effects; sunburn is the effect most people will be familiar with. Just as sunburn can lead to cancer in humans, so Ultraviolet light can damage the DNA of seeds.
Unlike humans, plants can’t simply step into the shade to avoid UV. Instead, they produce biological versions of sunblock. It seems logical then to protect plants from Ultraviolet light – traditionally that’s exactly what indoor growers have done; greenhouse glass largely blocks out UV light.
The trouble is, the trichomes, resins, and unique plant compounds that plants produce as biological sunblock are often exactly the elements that we farm them for. Modern research has shown that supplemental Ultraviolet light is significantly beneficial to the flavour of plants grown indoors.
How does it work?
UVR8 is a plant protein responsible for detecting Ultraviolet light and initialising the plant stress response. Plants respond to this type of stress by switching their efforts from growing to protecting themselves by increasing the production of the trichomes, resins, and unique plant compounds that act as a biological sunblock.
That switch away from growth obviously isn’t something you want to happen early on in the life cycle of your plants. Using supplemental lighting allows growers to control the time and frequency of exposure to UV light, focusing on the later stages of your plants’ life cycle. You can read more about the process in our interview with Solacure’s Dennis Brown. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to look at how their UV Light, The Flower Power, works.
The Flower Power
The Flower Power is the world’s first true UV tube for indoor growing. The Flower Power is based on twelve years of research and thirty-five years of building UV products. It uses a special patented glass that is more transparent to UVB.
The tube is a 100% UV design with 34% UVB and 66% UVA and no VIS (visible spectrum) phosphors. Each tube has a built-in reflector, poured inside the tube. This mean no light is emitted behind the lamp; everything is reflected and sent to the plants.
While other lamps generally produce 300nm to 400nm, the Flower Power produces the entire UVA/B spectrum, all the way down to 280nm. This means it can trigger the UVR8 protein, a special signalling protein found in most plants, known to act as a chemical messenger for the host plant.
The combination of the built-in reflector, having twice the UVB spectrum, and patented glass makes the Flower Power significantly stronger than other UV lights. The benefits of using the Flower Power are threefold:
Primarily, the Flower Power is proven to increase the content of unique plant compounds that function as sunblock to protect plants. Additionally, because they are broadband UV, they kill powdery mildew (PM) and other kinds of mildew and mould. While they aren’t a substitute for good sanitation, they will stop PM from getting a foot hold in a properly maintained system. Finally, Flower Power lights kill many insects due to the high level of UVA. They are a valuable part of a well-managed system and will prevent breakout infestations and the UVA interferes with insect’s DNA, breeding and life cycle.
Flower Power bulb only needs to be run two to four hours per day during the flowering stage. They are designed to operate at over 70% of original power for at least three flowering seasons. From a safety standpoint, this allows you to schedule the lights to be on when no people are around.
The plant will grow less tall during flowering when you use high level UVB, the fruit and flower will be more compact, although the yield will be about the same. Flower power lights can also be used in an empty room for 48 hours continuously in order to somewhat sterilise it before you move plants in. Some people use them an hour a day in late veg to jump start trichome production, but this is optional.
Flower Power bulbs can be powered anywhere from 20 watts to 100 watts each, so they can be used in grow tents, in greenhouses, or anything in between. Most people will run two Flower Power tubes for every 1000w hood (or equivalent), but it varies. Because they are so strong and can be run for so few hours, the primary consideration for choosing the number of tubes is coverage, not power, as they have power to spare.
In a grow room with lights that are one to two metres away from the plants, you can always run the Flower Power that high and just run them more hours. Or power them with more watts. Or both. They have the headroom and tolerance to be adapted to any room, any kind of light (MH, HPS, LED, etc).
When growing from seed, there are a number of different growing mediums that we can use; Soil, Stonewool (Rockwool), Clay pellets & Vermiculite are all suitable growth mediums. Before we plant our seed we need to decide which medium best suits our purposes. By and large, selecting the right growing medium is a matter of personal preference. When seeding, you should select the medium that best suits your needs, with foresight into what you expect to use later on in the process – i.e. if you plan to use stone wool for transplanting later on, then you should start with stone wool.
The size of your seeds plays a part in which medium you choose to use. For example, smaller seeds are likely to fall through clay pellets due to the exposed areas left in between each pellet. We want to get the most out of our seeds by giving them the best possible opportunity to successfully germinate and properly grow into well performing plants.
Best Practice For Planting Seeds In Soil
This is very easy, all you have to do is poke a hole in the soil, drop your seed in, cover the hole and wet the growing medium down. You want to make sure than the pointed end of the seed is laid flat, which is to say sideways. You don’t want the narrow pointed end of the seed pointing down into the growing medium, because that’s where the seed is going to actually germinate from upside down and start growing into the growing medium. You want the seed to lay flat or the rounded end to be pointing down. This allows the seed to follow gravity and have the root tip come out and head down into the growing medium.
When the roots grow and the seed starts to come out of the ground, the medium is moist so the seed shell is moistened and separates itself from the seedling as it grows toward the surface of the growing medium. The seed shell will brush against the growing medium trying to remove itself. If the seed shells do not come off when they reach the surface you can take a spray bottle and moisten the shell and release the seedling to open it up with your fingers, allow the seedling leaves to open up and get into the light.
How can we tell if the soil has the right moisture for the seeds? That’s rather difficult because a lot of people plant their soil wrong. There are holes in the bottom of your growing chambers; they’re always supposed to be open to air. You pour your water over the growing medium and you want the water to flow out of the bottom. With hydroponic growing mediums, after a few hours the water will drain enough so that you have a good combination of water, air, nutrients, and above all moisture. Soil takes longer, possibly up to two days. When we water soil, the soil particles are small and attract water creating a solid block of water through retention.
A good way to test the moisture level is to take a handful of soil and squeeze it after you’ve watered it. You don’t want excessive quantities of water dripping through your fingers. If this happens the soil is too wet. What you do want is a little water dripping from your hands; you also want the soil to retain the shape that you squeeze it into as the moisture binds it in place. Then, use a finger to lightly prod at it until it breaks apart.. If the sample is ‘powederising’ then your soil is way too dry. Conversely, if water drips from where you broke the soil then it is way too wet.
Why is water so integral to growing?
Soil-less mediums have very little mineral elements available to them so the water is constantly delivering nutrition to plants. If we have too much water with nutrients delivered with no drying process the small particles in the soil will create a water tension that will become a solid block of water that your plants cannot breathe in. The seed pod has enough nutrition in it to facilitate it for six weeks of plant growth – but we want the plant to be up and growing faster and this is why we deliver water and nutrients trying to get a proper water to air ratio within the growing medium. Hydroponic growing mediums are very well suited to do this. Air/water/nutrients combination is at its peak within a few minutes of feeding.
How does soil differ from planting in clay pebbles? There’s really no difference between the two growing mediums. Both act as anchorage for the root system of the plant. That’s why we use a growing medium; to give a seed the anchorage necessary to hold it upright, and at the same time separate the roots from each other. Plants adjust the pH of the growing medium to bring the mineral elements of the nutrients to a better relationship with the plant. Clay pellets are (as the names suggests) small, round balls of clay. They create very large openings through the growing medium, which means small seeds aren’t going to be able to anchor and they’re just going to fall to the bottom of your pot. To prevent this, a good practice is to use vermiculite to nest the seed securely in the clay pebbles.
STONE WOOL (ROCKWOOL)
Unlike most other growing mediums, it’s good practice to really soak stone wool before planting your seeds. Submerging the stone wool cube for at least ten minutes and then laying it out on the hills and valleys that are built into the rockwool tray will allow rockwool to drain to the proper water air with nutrients. When using a stone wool cube, you will find that in the top there is already a hole available for planting your seed. Once your seed is happily nestled, tear a pinch of the stone wool off and plug the hole to cover your seed.
What’s interesting about the manufacture of stone wool is the manner in which the fibers can be layered for different applications. Smaller cubes in flood and drain systems are layered vertically to allow the water to pass through the medium without disturbing its position. This allows water to be drawn to the top of the medium during flooding. Larger cubes or slabs used in drip systems are layered horizontally to spread the water evenly when it drips onto the stone wool growing medium. In both cases, the wool is designed to be successful at drawing up water and spreading it evenly throughout the medium. All growing medium are designed to anchor a seed and separate the roots from one another. When choosing a growth medium, make sure you maintain the proper pH.
Seeds are as varied as people in their characteristics. Accordingly, there aren’t universally applicable techniques which will definitely work for all seeds even though the basic process which seeds go through is the same throughout nature. As ever, trial and error are the best teachers for anyone seeking to learn what works best. Whilst it isn’t always possible, planting different types of seeds separately will make life a lot easier.
Smaller seeds can be exceptionally difficult to handle individually, and reasonably delicate to boot. In many cases your seeds might be better off lying closer to the surface of your chosen medium, rather than having been man handled into specific holes. In this case it’s best to be very wary when watering the medium before any greenery has started to show, because the seeds can easily be washed away if they have yet to anchor into place.
Some larger seeds, especially older ones, benefit from an overnight soaking in warm water. On more expensive seeds you can use paper towels to create a wet bed and place another sheet so that you can peel back the top sheet and examine the seeds. Also make sure that seeds are not touching in case mould gets established on some seeds. Once the growing tips break through the seed shell, transplant. Seedlings are delicate; the direct glare of an HID bulb will more than likely be too much for them. Seedlings grow well under CFL bulbs, but if you do have to use HID be sure to position your seedlings towards the edges of the bulb’s glare. An increasingly large number of seeds are inert, or incapable of growth. Also, growing from seed is not easy, which is why nurseries tend to sell more juvenile plants than seeds. The rewards are, of course, tenfold when you actually manage it. If you are planning to start growing from seed, don’t get disheartened by your failures. Also with seeds there is less chance of bugs being introduced into gardens compared to cuttings or larger plants. Despite popular myth, people aren’t generally born with green fingers;
they’re earned through season after season of trial and error.
PLANTING SEEDS FAQ’s
HOW CAN I IMPROVE GERMINATION?
– Moisture and warmth.
– Don’t let your growing medium dry out.
– Don’t let it get soggy either.
– Be wary when watering the medium as
seeds can easily be washed away.
– Mist seedlings when needed.
– Keep room temperature between 70-80°
(If it’s cooler seeds can still germinate but it takes longer).
Pig farmers, violin makers and cannabis cultivators make for unlikely bed-fellows; Solacure binds them all together, producing ultraviolet lighting across these industries and many more besides. Their client list includes universities throughout the US and the US Department of Energy. Their lights have been used to show, in laboratory conditions, that UV light bridges the gap in quality between garden grown tomatoes and those grown indoors, out of season. Solacure’s UV light, The Flower Power arrives in the UK imminently, distributed by FDP Wholesale. We’ll be taking an in-depth look at how this works in later articles (links to follow), but for now we caught up with Dennis Brown to give some insight into Solacure and the work they do.
Solacure have been trading since 1985; what brought you to the horticulture industry?
Technically, Solacure’s sister company started in 1985. I was recruited in sometime around 1993 to assist with their technical needs. They manufactured tanning equipment, so I got to learn UV in a high volume, highly changeable market. I got to experiment with UV lights and electronics, as well as system design, very early on. We started working with growers (and other industries) about twelve years ago, and I finally started up Solacure as a standalone company a few years after that. The birth of Solacure was more of an evolution than a singular event.
So, for the uninitiated, can you give us a brief rundown of how ultraviolet light affects plants?
Most plants can sense ultraviolet, and UVB in particular. In fact, they have a special protein called UVR8 which acts as a chemical messenger to the plant. Because UV can damage DNA of all living things, the plants react to protect their offspring; their seeds. In the case of tomatoes, Purdue University used our lamps to show that they produce more flavonoids and thicker flesh. In the case of cannabis, they will product significantly more THC. This is because THC has a very high absorption index for UV. It would actually make a good sunscreen. This is how the plant protects its seeds (or rather, where it’s seed would be), by coating its flowers with extra THC. As far as the plant is concerned, the only reason THC exists is for this sunblock feature, it serves no other function. Add more UVB, you get more THC, up to a point.
What do you find is the most common misconception people have when it comes to UV light?
People often overestimate the danger. They think it will kill their plants or give them cancer. The fact is, plants can’t walk into the shade like you and I can. They HAD to evolve to be able to handle a lot more UV than you and I. As for safety to humans, we also evolved in the sun and can handle moderate amounts. In addition, the Flower Power was designed to be so strong, you only run them 2 to 4 hours a day, so it is easy to schedule them when no humans are around. If you have to be around them, proper eye wear is usually sufficient.
The other misconception is that all UV is the same. UVA and UVB are unique colours, colours that you and I can’t see, but many birds and insects can. Just as pink and burgundy aren’t the same colour (even if they are both a kind of “red”), 288nm isn’t the same as 312nm, even if they are both technically UVB. The effect on a plant is very different for each slice of the UV spectrum. People tend to lump “UV” as if it was a single thing. A lot of cheap LED lighting companies are famous for advertising they have UV, just to find out they produce a little 380nm, which isn’t useful for growers. These companies have actually made the confusion worse, as they push products that they themselves do not understand.
There are other supplemental UV lights available on the market, what sets Solacure lights apart from the rest?
We’ve started making cannabis lights a decade before anyone else entered the market, so we have a bit of a head start, but there are some distinct differences. All our lamps have a reflector built INSIDE the lamp. No light goes behind them, they only shine down towards the plants, so they don’t need an external reflector system. No one else does this.
Also, all of our lamps use only UV phosphors. Virtually every other light I’ve seen is a mix of UVA, UVB and up to 65% visible light spectrum. We put no visible light phosphors in our bulbs, so you get nothing but UVA and UVB. This means they won’t interfere with the colour temperature of your general lighting, and you can run them for few hours and at lower wattage. One customer did some R&D for us and found a “famous brand” actually had 20% of the efficiency that our lamps had, when comparing watts and UV output.
Probably the biggest difference is our glass. We license a very special glass for the Flower Power. While all other UV lamps produce only 300nm-400nm, the Flower Power goes all the way down to 280nm. Since the UVR8 protein is triggered mainly at 288nm, this means we are sending the plant the strongest signal and can do it using less UV by virtue of it being at the right frequency. As far as I know, we have the only lamp that absolutely triggers the UVR8 protein.
Here in the UK, we’re more familiar with the T5 Fluorescents; why does Solacure use T12 lamps and bulbs?
I get asked this a lot. We’ve built prototype T5 and T8 tubes, they just don’t compare. UV isn’t made in the middle of the lamp, it is made on the surface, where the phosphors are coated. A T12 has a much bigger surface area, so you get more UV. Also, our Flower Power is designed to run at 20 watts, or up to 100w, and the larger area dissipates heat better. Additionally, since we use a built-in reflector, the larger diameter bulb creates a better spread of light. As a bonus, they last about 33% longer because of this. We actually do produce some T8 bulbs for growers and other industries, btw, so we aren’t against them, we just know their limitations.
Can you tell us a little about how and when The Solacure lamps are best used?
The Flower Power has three primary uses when it comes to growing. One, it boosts THC 15%-30% or more. This depends on strain, etc. but the average gain is around 25%. I don’t blame anyone for being sceptical, but the evidence is overwhelming and has been building for years. Two, because the Flower Power is a broadband UV bulb (ie: it covers everything from 280nm to 380nm instead of just having a couple of peaks) it is great for killing powdery mildew. We have some customers that use it for this purpose only. It isn’t a replacement for good sanitation, but it will prevent PM from getting started. Third, it suppresses insects very well, particularly soft-shelled insects. The UVA damages their DNA and kills them. We recommend using them starting at day one of flowering, but some will use them an hour or two a day about half way through the veg cycle.
There are very few topics that descend into an argument as quickly as a discussion about light; how are you working to help dispel myths and received wisdom in favour of empirical evidence?
This is tough, and there is a lot of research yet to do. I’m a sceptic by nature, but the fact that cannabis is illegal in so many places, in the US, the UK, the EU, this makes it hard to do proper and public testing. I don’t grow cannabis, never have, so I depend on others. We have given away hundreds of lamps over the years in exchange for other doing experiments for us. In a way, it’s good that I don’t grow, so my own opinions and biases don’t get in the way. What we have compiled isn’t perfectly empirical, but it is better than anecdotal because the results have been tested and verified by many growers who don’t know each other. We have years of testing using many different lamps and prototypes, plus we also have some good basic research available that relates to all plants, not just cannabis. But yes, it is hard to dispel the myths, and talking to people one on one is a very slow way to spread real facts.
Plus, this is cannabis we are talking about, which itself has been the subject of myths and rumours since Reefer Madness came out in the 1930s. Right now, there is a gold rush of companies flooding the market with products of various quality, making all kinds of claims, and it is hard to hold back that flood of misinformation. Caveat Emptor.
LEDs are the hot topic of late; how do they measure up to your lamps and can you see that changing in the future?
When it comes to general lighting, I don’t have an opinion, that is outside my field of expertise. When it comes to UVA, they do a pretty good job from 365nm to 400nm. When it comes to UVB, they are not ready for prime time. 280nm is such a very small wavelength, and it has 100x the energy of 312nm (as an example), that LEDs just aren’t there. The efficiencies are less than 1% at this stage. Keep in mind, there isn’t much of a market for it, so there isn’t a lot of research going into it. There is a lot of research going into general grow lights because that overlaps with general lighting. Eventually, they will get the efficiencies up to par.
The other problem is spectrum. LEDs are very spiky in their output, very narrow in the bands they produce. While this is a great advantage for some applications, it isn’t for UV supplementation of plants. You can see the spectrum of our Flower Power on the website, it is amazingly smooth. That isn’t an accident and it took a LOT of engineering time to get right. The only way you can accomplish this with LEDs is to use a lot of LEDs at different frequencies, which adds to the complexity of engineering. The industry will get there, just not in the next 2-3 years.
As an aside, I’m currently doing consulting for the sister company who is building a 633nm red light therapy system for people. They use fluorescent bulbs, but I’m developing an LED system for the unit, so we are already working with LEDs. This means when Solacure does go LED, we will be able to create tubes that can be used in our existing fluorescent fixtures, with compensating ballasts inside the LED tube. There’s no need to throw out those old fixtures, they won’t be obsolete.
With more than thirty years of experience in the industry, we have to ask; what gets you up in the morning? How do stay engaged with the industry after so long?
Well, I started in tanning, then moved into UV curing and cannabis and a lot more. Just today, I sold some Universal UV lamps to a pig farmer, who uses them to darken the black patches on show pigs. (Laugh if you want, but I’ve sold at least 1000 bulbs for this purpose). I sold a set of SG-1-40 lamps to a violin maker, who uses them to age the wood and dry the linseed oil finish. We have customers who make pool cues, fishing lures, surf boards, white tennis shoes, test how materials will stand up to the sun and more.
Cannabis is a large portion of our business but it isn’t the majority of what we do. Honestly, I think this helps us be better at making cannabis lamps, because we don’t have a one track business model. We get to learn stuff in unrelated markets and apply that knowledge to cannabis. It also means we aren’t dependent on a single market for our revenue, so we can take more risks. Between us and the sister company, we’ve shipped out at least 3 million lamps, something few companies can claim. This gives us economies of scale and real world experience that you can’t get if you only serve one market. By the same token, virtually all of our products are ultraviolet related, so really have a lot of experience in UV.
Finally, I actually like what I do. I like the variety, the challenges and the customers. I got to work with Patricia at Texas A&M for lamps to test how sorghum reacted to UVB. I still work with the University of Florida, who uses our Flower Power bulbs to break down insecticide residue and render it inert. There are lots of novel uses and these actually helped me understand cannabis horticulture a bit better. At least once or twice a month, someone calls that wants to use one of our bulbs for something I’ve never even thought of before. There are always new challenges, and often, these will give me new insights into how UV affects cannabis.
Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to people, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to take reasonable risks. This is true whether we are talking about growing, or just living your life. Be sceptical, but don’t let that scepticism stop you from trying new things or taking some chances. There is no one “right” way to do things, so experiment. And please, be generous with what you learn, and share it with others.