Starting new plants

When I started my basement hydroponic system, I built everything at the same time, I started all the seeds at the same time, and (amazingly) all the plants got mature and ready for harvesting (eating!) at the same time.

Having 43 basil plants to eat is not a good thing for your breath. Or your health, probably – if it was, someone would be selling basil juice for $15 a glass in the hipster shop. I don’t know what is in them, but eating a basil salad is a painful way to mimic a laxative. Basil + ranch dressing en mass = poor choice.  I was taught in the South that anything with ranch on it was good.  Read more about ranch on everything here (not my blog).

So, it might be obvious, but you need to space out seed starting to ensure a constant supply of greenery to munch on.  Over the last few months, I have tried a few techniques with limited success.

For this example, I’ll pick on lettuce.

First, I figured out how much we eat. There are two of us, and we eat something lettuce-like about 3 times a week at home.  With the big-box-store buttercrunch lettuce seeds, the plants at maturity would yield two big salads and maybe a little leftover.  But, once it was big/ready-to-eat, the plant was very susceptible to any warm temps (above 71-73f) as it would bolt and taste bitter… Thus, we would find we had 3 lettuce plants ready to eat on a Friday night, just before we went out to dinner… This resulted in throwing some lettuce away; even a day or two could make it change flavors from good to meh.

Here is a buttercrunch that bolted from day 1: huge, but leggy and not compact/dense with leaves:

Leggy Lettuce I have huge man-hands (as intended), so this guy is about 16″ tall.






Grand Rapids lettuce

Here is another juggernaut of lettuce. This is the grand rapids variety.  It is a wonderful lettuce if you want to grow it in Nebraska or somewhere with an acre of land costing the same as a 3×3 area in my basement.  It grows WIDE and fluffy (you’ll want to remember the day you heard fluffy in a blog about gardening, it is today).  My NFT channels have between 5 and 7 inch spacing – and these guys were pushing 12-13″.  Each. Very crowded.

I digress – the reason the huge leafy greens are an issue is because we can’t have 7 of these plants in each NFT channel.  Optimally, we’d have a large plant like this chard next to a younger plant like the grand rapids:

Lettuce vs Chart

Lettuce vs Chard

I think the optimal setup is having adjustable spacing.  This could happen in a similar way freightfarms does their channels – that they have a slit down the middle and you can simply move the rockwool cube with the plant to the spacing desired.  I think this would add some complexity with my setup, as you’re stuck harvesting the entire channel (or adding holes in the middle to get a middle on out, etc).

For the time being, I’ve simply blocked off every other plant hole in the channels with the big kale plants. Their big honkin’ leaves will shadow anything near them.

Bibb lettuce differences

I was hovering about the garden last night and noticed a few lettuce plants look drastically different than the others.  After 3 minutes of playing “which one of these doesn’t belong with the others”, I found 3 bibb lettuce plants that did not look like the other 8-10.  They were quite tall and disorganized.

The “normal” looking bibb is on the left here, he is about half the age of the sibling to the right, but they came from the same seed packet.

Bibb lettuce variance in growth

Bibb lettuce variance in growth

I am thinking this is a result of the leggy-seedlings way-back-when. I had too little light on some of the lettuce seeds during their early days, and they stretched out looking for more light.  Many fell over and I threw them out, but some I left in and hoped for the best.

I made a salad out of this tall guy last night – and he tasted the same as his shorter, more organized neighbors.

I’m going to research this more and see what is up.  Both plants look healthy, and without knowing they were the same seed packet – you’d think they were completely different variants of lettuce.

Unchanneled Basil

Around day 42 of the first cycle of basil (aka: cheap seed basil), I pulled 7-8 plants from the hydroponic channels. I gave as many as I could away (with horrible luck, I think I got rid of 7).  I also took a few plants and put them in various configurations in a kitchen window.

They are 55 days from starting from seed, and only 35 days of real growth.

Full grown basil

Full grown basil









Here are the results:

This guy was simply cut at the base of the stem and put into tap water. I had filled the pint glass up to cover the stem base about 1/2″, and have since reduced that so that just part of the roots are submerged.

Cut basil root growth in glass

Cut basil root growth in glass

The roots are much thicker than the roots in the NFT system.  And there are no root hairs. Maybe in its old age it can’t grow hair anymore.

Cut basil root growth

Cut basil root growth

For the plant below, I cut the roots off from the rockwool cube.  This was necessary because he wouldn’t let go of the spreader mat inside the grow channel.  The roots had intertwined themselves fully in the fabricy-material.

Basil left in rockwoll in glass

Basil left in rockwoll in glass

You can see the bottom leaves are dead, and the little new root growth is all brown.  The rest of the plant looks withered.  He isn’t happy.

I did two plants this way, and both ended up looking pretty sad.  They both received the same treatment and tap-water.


The plants I put up for adoption seemed to fair well.  I provided two plants that had a decent amount of roots come out nicely when removed from the hydroponic channel.  I delivered them in a solo cup with a 1/4″ of water on the roots, and the rockwool still somewhat moist from the nutrient water.

Day 42. Mature basil roots

Day 42. Mature basil roots

I had feedback on these two plants that a gradual addition of soil was received well, and they should make the hydro-to-soil transition ok. Should know more this week or next and I’ll post pictures.

Two other plants with similar rockwool and roots are happy after 10 days in just water. One was just planted into soil and the other remains in water. So this should be a good experiment as well.


Cutting the roots all the way off will kill the plant. But what is really surprising, is that cutting off the entire root ball by lopping the plant at the stem base seemed to fare as well or better as keeping a majority of the roots in tact.

This seems consistent with growers who take cuttings from strong plants (quite popular in the flower, tomato and cannabis growing community, but not so much in the leafy non-flowering area) and can have them producing fruit within 15-25 days with a simple branch from an existing plant (aka, the mother).



The basil prison is overcrowded

For the first round of growing, I wanted something that I was familiar with growing, grew rapidly, and was fairly resilient to abuse.  I threw all those needs out and simply used whatever seeds I had leftover from planting over a year ago for the outdoor garden. Basil was the big winner here.

Now, even after giving some plants away and using some for pesto and the like, I have 30+ basil plants.

Day 42. Basil growth

Day 42. Basil growth

I need to make room for more experimentation – like removing the spreader mat in the bottom of the channels, and trying different plants and variants of basil.

So, like a used-car-dealer on a Friday night commercial, everything must go!  I started by topping all the plants that had a single shoot-tip on the main shoot (stem).  This meant they were still growing upwards (vs outwards and getting bushy), and probably were going to want to go into seed-producing mode soon.  This means the plant puts all its effort into make flowers and seeds, while the leaves get bitter and tough.  I don’t want anything to goto flower or seed here.

After a 15-minute hackathon with the clippers, I had a gallon container filled.  I had de-stemmed most of the leaves, so having this much of just leaves was pretty impressive.

I continued to clip any basil getting tall, and ended up with about 3 gallons of unpacked basil.  I used about 6 cups (packed) for an awesome pesto, and put the remaining leaves into gallon zip-lock bags, sucked the air out of them, and put them in the freezer for the time being. They will stay bright green and mostly crisp this way (just make sure you get all the air out, then it helps to re-suck the air after about 10 mins in the freezer).

Day 51 basil harvest (apple for scale)

Day 51 basil harvest (apple for scale)

Here is part of the pile of basil from the day.







Even after harvesting that much, the garden is still pretty dense.

Day 51 basil in channels

Day 51 basil in channels








 lettuce harvest & Regrow experiment

A few days, I made a salad for two with a single plant of lettuce that had grown quite large.  I cut it off at the bottom of the stem.  It appears to be growing a few shoots back. But time will tell if it’ll regrow.

Day 51 lettuce plant, 3 days after cutting

Day 51 lettuce plant, 3 days after cutting


Day 31-33: Finishing channels

10 days ago, most all the seedlings in rockwool went into the two nursery channels.  Early last week, I found some of them had grown roots 2-3″ in a single day and were ready for planting into the finishing channels. I didn’t know exactly what to look for, so I moved over a few to the finishing channels that looked promising.

Then I went out of town for 5 days. Oops.

The system ran fine. I had a friend come check on it, as well as monitored it with a IP-camera that can pan around the room to see any water leaks, plant height, or people breaking in thinking I’m really not growing basil.

Day 31 basil and roots

Day 31 basil and roots

The growth over 5 days was huge.  Here is a basil plant that had 3-4 leaves and 5-10 small roots (less than an inch) when I left.  And 5 days later its, well, a root ball thingy.

The PH and EC in the reservoir didn’t move too much – so we’re still within a good healthy range.

Current Scoreboard

So after moving everything from the first planting from the nursery channels to the finishing channels, the score is:
Sweet basil: 37
Bibb lettuce: 7

Day 32: finishing channels mostly filled and lit

Day 32: finishing channels mostly filled and lit


This is from nearly 50 seeds of each plant type.  The lettuce I killed off early due to a lighting issue. What happened to the rest?


There were 2-3 basil plants that I moved a bit too early.  Their roots were not long enough to touch the bottom of the channel to get their nutrient film; so they died.

2 basil plants just didn’t root well.  Instead of many small roots with root-hair, they tried making one large root down to the bottom.  This left them wilted. I went ahead and removed them, as plants at this stage don’t seem so keen on quick recovery.

There are a few basil plants still in the nursery channels.  Some just didn’t grow quick, some had multiple seeds sprout within the same rockwool and I clipped the larger sprout (so that some are smaller and a bit behind the main cycle, in an effort to have a continuous supply of this stuff).



Day 33 lettuce woes

Day 33 lettuce woes

The lettuce plants are growing pretty good.  A few have an issue with some browning on their interior leaves.  Initial research says lack of iron, which the basil might be taking most of.  A few adjustments and few days should tell.



Day 33 Lettuce

Day 33 happy lettuce




Day 21: kids, to the nursery!

Day 21 lettuce in rockwool cube

One of the three amigos
(lettuce in rockwool cube)

It is probably a little late, maybe a few days, but today the plants went into the nursery channels (built here).


Day 21 lettuce roots

Lettuce roots growing thru the rockwool

You can see the little guys are growing nicely, and they’re pushing roots thru the bottom of the rockwool.
The rockwool is pretty porous (you never squeeze it, as it’ll compact down into a small ball then), and has a fair amount of air-space in the cube.  This allows the actual material to suck up water, but the roots still have alot of air pockets in there to get oxygen.  If you simply submerged the entire thing in water, the plant would actually drown (unless you had highly oxygenated water, which I don’t plan to do) .  Swim little guys, no drowning here.





Basil triplets

Basil triplets


Basil in rockwoll, in a net pot, in a nursery channel

Basil in rockwoll, in a net pot, in a nursery channel

To move these guys through the process, we break apart the rockwool cubes. They’re 1×1″ cubes with a slight taper to the bottom, which makes inserting them easy-going into our 2″ net pots.

If there are any long exposed roots, they can be fished thru the net pot openings. But, they plants are smart and will do that on their own.

It is hard to see in this picture, but the bottom 1/8″ or so of the netpot (and corresponding rockwool) is just beneath the water level.  This encourages the plant to grow roots down.  We need about 1.5″ of downward root growth before planting in the finishing channel.  This is because the finishing channel is a true nutrient film technique system, which means the channel only has a film (1-3mm) of nutrients flowing under the plant, so the plant’s roots have to reach down there to suck up the good stuff.

Nursery channels full with basil

Nursery channels full with basil

Here are two nursery channels. Note the close spacing. The plants will quickly outgrow and crowd themselves if left here too long.  Hopefully they will be ready to move out into their larger accomodations (finishing channel) within a week or two.





The plants (41 basil and 3 lettuce) are under 16hrs of light per day and nursing a light nutrient mix.  In a few days, they’ll get another hour of light and a stiffer cocktail.

Basil under lights

Basil under lights

Day 20

Today is one day short of 3 weeks since the first round of seeds hit the dirt (figuratively speaking, they hit the rockwool really).

The original lettuce is 96% a disaster. The only lettuce plants that look decent are two seeds that were late bloomers – they didn’t germinate until I realized they needed full light and water so soon after germination.

The leggy lettuces are doomed, I think. I removed 12 of them tonight, and reused the rockwool for 12 new bibb lettuce seeds.  The new plan is to germinate them, see the sprouts, and immediately go into a 1/3 or 1/2 nutrient solution and full 16hrs of light.

The three amigos are doing well. They are in the lower middle here:Day 20 seedling tray

Three Amigos go solo, Day 13

Today I realized the bibb lettuce is just not going to stand up.  It hasn’t improved much.
Day 11 lettuce

To get some more data points, I pulled 3 leggy plants and put them to rest (ate them, quite good. I’ll do an article on micro-greens soon).  I reused the rockwool for 3 new bibb lettuce seeds. They’re hiding in the dark and chilly room (well, 71f floor temp) of the basement.

The living received their first non-water feeding. They received a well-balanced meal of 750ml of nutrient-filled PH-balanced water.  Mmmmm-mmmm good!

And, of course, they’re still under lights. Just about 1″ under a 2′ T5 setup.  The oscillating fan and basement temps keep the rockwool about 73-75f during the day, creeping down to 70 in the early morning hours.  They’ve been increased to 16 hours of light, from around 12 they were getting.

Day 11

Basil at 11 days. We lost a soldier due to non-germination.
Day 11 basil in rockwool

This basil is looking pretty good!

Bibb lettuce at the same age. Very leggy.  In hindsight, the cause is now obvious.Day 11 lettuce in rockwool

Day 7

Day 7 Basil and Lettuce