Sunday, August 31, 2008

Day 50: Update on the Tomatoes

Today's post will be uncharacteristically short. Just wanted to update you on how the tomatoes are doing.

As you can see, the plants are much bigger, and I even had to move the notch up one because the leaves were getting a bit close to them. You can also see the happy basil sneaking in the picture.

About a week ago, the nutrient light went on, so I plopped two new tablets in. The plants are also drinking up a ton of water, so I refilled the basin at least twice.

Still no flowers, but there are tiny, itty bitty little buds that look like they may be turn into flowers. Check out this extreme close-up. Admittedly, I'm not as impressed by the buds as I am by the fact that my Canon camcorder can take extreme close-up pictures like this.

While the tomatoes are still behind the schedule the manual seemed to say they'd follow, but so far so good. The funny thing is that it's September 1, and in the past an old tomato farmer like me would start to think about tearing up his tomato garden just about now. But the way this thing is going, harvest should be happening sometime in the middle of winter!
More soon.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

How to Transplant Aerogarden Plants into Containers and Flower Pots

Well, it's been a long journey since April 12. The light went on saying to add more nutrient tablets, and since there are no more of them, it's time to say good-bye to the basil Aerogarden. Aerogrow does sell replacement nutrient tablets, but to be honest, I've run out of things to do with basil, and I'm ready to explore all the other crops I could be harvesting.

Now, the Aerogarden manual says that when it's time to retire the unit, to throw away the plants. When it came time to retire my original Aerogarden, I felt it was a waste to throw away plants that still were growing strong, so I thought I'd experiment by transplanting the plants into pots. I figured I'd do it and hopefully keep the herbs alive for another month or two so I could harvest and use them.

Well, it's more than four months later, and they're still going strong as houseplants. Here's a picture of the "alumni" from the original Aerogarden (the one that's growing the tomatoes now): purple basil, Italian basil, chives, mint, another purple basil, and another Italian basil.

So, my goal was to take the basil plants from the basil Aerogarden and convert them into houseplants. Note that you can use this technique to transplant plants into your outdoor garden too.

I should add this disclaimer. This is NOT recommended by Aerogarden, so do this at your own risk. Plants grow very differently in aeroponic/hydroponic growth than traditional soil growth, so results aren't guaranteed--in some cases, the plants just can't handle the stress of pulling nutrients from soil or light from the sun. Plus, there is cutting with very sharp objects involved, so please be careful.

Okay, that said, here's a step-by-step guide on how I do it.

  1. Take the entire Aerogarden basil and plants to a place with a lot of countertop space to work.

  2. Prepare a flower pot or plant pot (thanks P) and a lot of potting soil. I like using Miracle Gro potting mix mainly because it's fertilized already, is rich in nutrients, and is available at my corner drug store. Other great choices include the Potting Soil for Transplantsicon or the uber-cool Wonder Soilicon from Gardener's Supply Company.

    Fill the pot about 3/4 full of potting soil, and dig a deep hole right in the middle.

  3. Carefully and slowly pull out a pod from the Aerogarden unit, starting with the smallest plant. The roots at this point will be very long and possibly intertwined with others. Pull the plant out very slowly, trying your best to retain as much of the root system of the plant as possible. If one pod's roots are too intertwined, try another one.

  4. You should end up with pods with roots that are very long (in some cases very, very long) and not very wide. This is due to the Aeroponic technology--while roots in soil will spread out horizontally and vertically to take in nutrients from the soil, these roots had just one path to go, down, to try to take in as much of the nutrient-filled water as it could.

  5. Here's the tricky part. Carefully cut the plastic around the grey foam which holds the roots. Be VERY careful not to cut the roots--or your fingers! You need a set of very strong shears or wirecutters to get through the very rigid plastic. I use this very handy Leatherman pocket knife I got as a gift last year (thanks again P)

    I like to cut the large circle on top at both ends, and repeat the same for the small circle on the bottom.

    You'll need to play with the foam and the plastic a little, but if you do it right the two halves will split apart cleanly...

    ...completely remove the plastic, and you'll be left just with the foam and the roots, which you can plant in the soil.
  6. Holding the plant and the root above the flower pot, slowly put the plant into the soil, spreading the roots to cover as much surface area of the soil. Put enough of the stem under the dirt so that the plant will stand up by itself in the flower pot.

    The roots will need to adapt from getting their nutrients out of the water to pulling it from the soil. Think of it as your kids going to college...while they lived at home, they enjoyed home-cooked meals served to them, but now they'll be on their own and will have to fend for themselves. But you raised them well and gave them a good home to grow up in, so they'll figure it out ;)

  7. In case you accidentally chopped off some root, don't worry, just prune some leaves on the plant. Same thing if the root growth is absurdly large and won't fit into the pot--go ahead and cut off some of the root so it'll fit in the pot, and trim the leaves as well. Basil is particularly resilient--I actually accidentally cut off 75% of the root of the basil from my first Aerogarden, and months later, it's one of the huge plants you see in the picture above.

  8. Pot the plant and fill in the rest of the soil. Voila--you now have a beautiful houseplant.

  9. Give the new plants plenty of water and PLENTY of sunshine. In fact, what I like to do is to take the potted plants and to put them under the lights of my other Aerogarden units. Think of it as your college kids coming home and enjoying the comfort of their old room :) Okay, I know the analogy is breaking up rapidly now...

    Here's the whole gang, enjoying "sunshine" courtesy of the Tomato Aerogarden (which you may notice have gotten even bigger).

    The first couple days will be hit or miss. In some cases, the roots just can't take hold in the soil, and the plant will wither away, especially for more fragile types of herb plants. But in other cases, you'll be pleasantly surprised that you have a brand new house plant.

    As you can see above, I've had great success with basil, mint, parsley, chives, thyme, basil, basil, and basil, all transplanted from my original Aerogarden herb Kit.
  10. And finally, it's time to clean out the old Aerogarden. There may be roots and gunk around the unit and in the pump which you'll have to clear away, but nothing a little warm soapy water can't take care of.

  11. And there you have it. The next step will be starting a brand new garden, which I've already purchased the seed pods for.

Thanks for following the saga of the Aerogarden basil, and stay tuned for Salad Greens!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Day 132 / Day 40 - Seeing off the Basil Aerogarden in Style

You know how at the end of Fourth of July fireworks, they always shoot off all of their remaining fireworks at the end in a blaze of glory? I decided to do the same thing as the swansong of my Basil Aerogarden.

I printed out the same recipe for basil and tomato soup I had before. Or more appropriately, cream and butter soup with a touch of tomato and basil. I considered cutting back on the butter this time, but figured, eh, in celebration of the basil's 132 days of glory, I'd let the recipe ride.

First step was harvesting the basil. The recipe calls for 14 leaves. I decided to go all out and pick as much lemon basil, Thai basil, Napolitano basil, French Marseilles basil, Italian Genovese basil, Globe basil, and Red Rubin Basil as I wanted. Just for fun, I added some Italian basil which I saved from my original Aerogarden. I ended up with about 40-50 leaves of all different sizes and colors.

Same shpeal as last time: simmer the tomatoes in tomato juice, puree them in a blender with the basil, add it back to the pot with lots of cream and butter, add salt and pepper, and indulge.

It looks a lot better than the washed-out picture my Canon camcorder took. And it tasted like heaven. And I'm not going to think about the fact that the tomato soup I just made has about double the fat and calories than the Strawberry Cheesecake Ice Cream I made yesterday.

Oh, here's a cooking tip. Never, ever fill a blender to the top with hot tomato soup and tomato chunks and press the "puree" button. Ouch!

And with this, it concludes my Basil Aerogarden adventures. Tune in next time when I'll be showing you how I transplant my Aerogarden herbs into pots and convert them into self-respecting houseplants. And wait'll you see what I'll be growing next!


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Day 130 / Day 38 - Tomatoes Getting There...

So, as I know all you loyal reader and/or readers are dying to find out, here's what the tomatoes looks like today.

In honor of the Olympics going on now, I will give this guy on the right a gold...

This Red Heirloom on the left a silver...

And this Golden Harvest in the middle a bronze...

Now that all the plants are about an inch tall, it came time to the first milestone in the Aerogarden manual, which was to thin the seedlings so that there's only one plant per pod. Luckily, this wasn't a hard decision for two of the three pods--in fact, in both pods, the other seeds (I think they put at least 3-4 seeds in each) hardly came up.

In the other pod, though, it was a tougher decision. There was one large plant, but the second plant was going pretty strong. But for the greater good, I chopped the second plant and left the one. It was difficult, as I always want to hang on to all the plants, but like I said last time, it'll ensure that the one plant will get huge, will have room to grow, will get enough nutrients and water, and of course, will hopefully produce a lot of tomatoes.

The plants are definitely not growing as fast as the manual seems to think they're supposed to grow. It's day 38, which even with my poor math skills comes to about 5 weeks. According to the manual, the plants are supposed to be huge enough to have at least 5 branches to prune, and even should have flowers. But my little plants are still in the toddler stage.

No matter, I'll just let it ride and see what happens. Stay tuned.

In basil news, the other day I noticed the Add Water light was flashing and I realized that the resevoir was just about empty, but the plants still looked great. It's amazing how resilient these basil plants are.

In four days, the Add Nutrient Light will go off, and since I have no nutrients to add, I'll be retiring the Basil Aerogarden. While the Aerogarden manual tells you to throw out plants, stay tuned for the next blog, where I'll give a step-by-step of how to transplant Aerogarden plants into traditional dirt plant pots (donated by loyal reader P, to whom I am eternally grateful).

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Day 120 / Day 28 - are the tomatoes doing?

One of the devoted readers of this blog reminded me that I've forgotten to keep you up to date on the progress of the tomato plants.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here are three thousand words:

They were slow to start, but they're really starting to take off. The little itty bitty seedling from July 24 was actually overtaken very quickly by its late blooming brethren

The next step will be to follow page 8 of the instruction manual and thin the seedlings once they're about an inch tall. This is the part I always hated when I grew an outdoor garden (I always wanted to hang on selfishly to all the plants), but just like with an outdoor garden, thinning the plants and leaving a single plant with enough room to grow will produce many more tomatoes.

Right now, there are three seedlings in the first pod, two in the second, and three in the third. So for the next few days it'll be a competition to see which seedling will be America's Next Top Tomato.

In basil news, the "Add Nutrient" went on last week, so I used the last two nutrient tablets. Thus marks the beginning of the end of the basil Aerogarden. Here's a five thousand word essay on what I did to commemorate this event:

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Day 114 / Day 22 - Oh there ain't no bugs on me, there ain't no bugs on me...oh wait, my bad.

Now, as you've been reading the basil garden has been pretty much self-sufficient for some time now. A few days ago, I checked on it. I looked a little more closely, and I noticed there were tiny dots on the leaves. As an old "outdoor gardener", I pretty much knew what they were right away. The dreaded aphid.

For those of you who don't know about aphids, they are little critters the size of a pin that attach themselves to leaves and then suck and suck and suck the liquid so much they turn green themselves. That's right, aphids really suck.

I'd been expecting this day for a long time. The funny thing is, I'd taken precautions. I kept the Aerogarden far, far away from any of my houseplants, far, far away from any open windows, and even on the other side of the room as the other Aerogarden.

So, I can only imagine the amazing journey these little aphids made against all odds to get to my basil garden. I can imagine the adventrous band making the arduous journey a la Lawrence of Arabia through the Nefud Desert, crawling day and night in 90 degree heat over dry hardwood floors and glass coffee tables and electronics equipment to arrive at their destination--the oasis of green that was my International Basil garden.

Well, I pondered this fantastic accomplishment for a good ten seconds, and then I promptly took them to the sink and gave the basil leaves a nice long shower under the spray. The nice thing about aphids is that they're not very good at hanging on to leaves, so a nice little shower will send them all down the drain for good.

While I knew this already from my previous experience tending houseplants, I was actually quite impressed that the Aerogarden manual is so complete that it gives just the right advice for this situation. Admittedly, the first thing that crossed my mind was to invite a bunch of ladybugs in, who love munching on aphids (this is what I used to do when I had an outdoor garden), but of course, after that I'd have to invite a bunch of birds to munch on the ladybugs, and so on until I end up with an apartment full of goats.

During the basil bath, I ended up damaging a couple of the basil stalks, because the basil was really overgrown at this point. So I decided to do a massive harvest. I harvested four cups of clean leaves and washed them really, really well.

My once glorious Basil Aerogarden, of course, looked like this...somewhat like what my brother and I used to look like when our dad gave us haircuts as kids.

I decided to use a new recipe for pesto from Bon Appetit magazine, the main reason being it was the only recipe that called for four cups of basil. Among other things, the recipe calls for the pesto to be made in a blender.

I was skeptical at first, and ended up with this...

Then I was really skeptical. While it tasted good enough, it didn't look a thing like what pesto is supposed to look like, and the taste didn't compare to how great the original basil pesto recipe I used was. The word "pesto" in Italian means "pounded", not "liquified". Good thing for me to remember for the future.

Anyway, I think this was probably one of the last hurrahs for the basil Aerogarden. I figure a margherita pizza, maybe another tomato soup, and then I'll be retiring the basil and replacing it with something else.