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suncartoonWe’ve had one heck of a hot summer here in Georgia; and it’s wreaked havoc on our garden.  The heat came early, in late April.  Oh, I forgot to mention, it’s also been dry.  Our summer squash really struggled. I had to harvest the zucchini and cucumbers much earlier (and smaller) than normal to ensure good texture and flavor.

Our strawberries were good and plentiful, but came in much earlier than the last two years.

Frankly, the corn was a disaster. I made some mistakes with it that I will confess in another post, but for now, just know I couldn’t keep enough moisture on it.

I lost my battle over our tomatoes.  They started better than ever.  They were gorgeous until early May.  Once the heat got crazy, I couldn’t get them to produce. They simply don’t like to make fruit in hot weather.  We had an excellent early harvest, but now, only the hardiest cherry tomatoes are prospering.

The green beans and potatoes have been fine.  Harvests were not as big, but quality was good.

Oddly, most years I have real trouble with winter squash. This year, I only planted ONE butternut and ONE acorn squash. They produced like crazy.  I think they liked the warmer weather.  They would have done even better, but our free range rabbits developed a taste for winter squash.🙂

It’s our peppers, though, that have been most dramatically impacted by this crazy summer.  First, for reasons I’ll explain another day, we didn’t plant at many plants this year.  I planted three bell, 3 mini bell, 8 jalapeno, 4 Doux des Landes, 3 Thai, 3 yellow ghost, 1 yellow Moruga Scorpion, and 4 roasting peppers.  Oh, I almost forgot, we also have 5 habanero plants.

First, only one of my bell peppers survived the heat and a rabbit invasion. To my surprise, the one that survived turned out to be a Giant Aconcagua and not a bell at all. I was elated, because I prefer Aconcagua.

Not a single mini bell survived. I’m pretty sad, because they tend to be so very sweet.  On the other hand, we prefer Aconcagua, Roasters, and Doux des Landes anyway, so it’s all good.

Stumpy, but Potent Jalapeno

Stumpy, but Potent Jalapeno

With the single exception of the Yellow Moruga, all the pepper plants are stunted. Before you ask, they all had plenty of nutrients and compost.  It is my suspicion that the lack of rain played a role. I was forced to use the garden hose from late April, and our water is loaded with chlorine and chloramines. The only water I dechlorinate is for the aquaponics systems and they did very poorly. It was so hot, that even with extra oxygen the raft beds were too warm for the plant roots. Again, more in another post.

While the plants were small, they have been prolific, providing an abundance of pods. The pods on the sweet peppers have all been smaller than normal. The Doux des Landes, for example have mostly been only a little larger than a long red cayenne. They have also had more heat than one would expect. Instead of just a little warm aftertaste, these have had an actual kick.  A few have been full size, but only about 10%.

Ironically, the Moruga plant is gorgeous, large and green.  For whatever reason, though, the rabbits love the taste and we haven’t gotten a single fruit.   They are the only peppers we’ve lost to the bunnies.  Oh well.

The Ghost and habanero plants are smaller than normal, but the fruit is full sized.  The Jalapeno fruit is about half the size of normal summers. The big thing, though, is the heat. Oh my Gosh, are the hot peppers hot.  It’s like everything has been sized up.  My wife and in laws swear the Jalapenos are like Habaneros.  I don’t think they are quite that hot, but boy howdy, they pack a punch. Most years, I snack on them like a sweet pepper.  Not this year. No sir, not this year.

As for the Habaneros, although they are common orange ones, I’d compare them to Red Savina. And as for the Yellow Ghost, they are hot like red ones. The first one I ate, I was disappointed at first, because it didn’t hit at all for about 20 seconds. Then it suddenly turned to shock and awe. I love that. It’s deceptive.

All I can guess is that the extra heat stressed the peppers which often intensifies the heat. And this year’s heat is INTENSE. Yay!

Miniature Doux des Landes

Miniature Doux des Landes

My disappointment in the early setbacks has been replaced by delight due to the flavor.  All varieties hot and mild are bursting with it. And there are a lot of flowers and young pods still developing.

How has your garden done?  I’d love to hear about it.

Talk to you soon.

 

 

CucumberCucumbers are without doubt one of my favorite summertime treats. They are easy to grow and delicious. Its virtually impossible to over water them, and they make even the most novice gardener feel successful.

Over the years, I’ve grown several varieties including, Ashley, Marketer, Boston Pickling, Lemon and Diva; but my absolute favorite is Socrates.

Here is a link to my YouTube review of it.  Click HERE

You can get seeds from number of sources, I get mine from Johnny’s Select Seeds out of Maine.

Please use the comments section and let me know all about your favorite cukes.

 It appears that Aquaponic Gardening in the USA is continuing to gather interest throughout the country, but it’s also facing a great deal of turnover due to the expense and fairly steep learning curve of start up.  Many excited newcomers, balk after seeing the high cost of pre made kits, or even the complicated nature of DIY when compared to growing in raised beds or traditional in ground gardens.

For those who manage a successful set up, new unforeseen headaches appear with water. Who really knew dechlorination and pH balance would be so time consuming and pricey, or that maintaining a thriving colony of bacteria that continuously convert ammonia to nitrites then nitrates is not as easy as it looks in diagrams or on YouTube.

Oh, let’s not forget about the fish. Waking up to fish floating in your tank is not only expensive, it’s discouraging, especially when you’ve poured a lot of hard earned money into having (Usually) Tilapia shipped from halfway across the country, only to watch them die in the first month or six weeks. In my case, I spent several hundred dollars learning that I could not raise redclaw crayfish here. I’m a slow learner.

The failure rate of ‘commercial’ ventures is even greater. The USA landscape is littered with abandoned Aquaponics systems that were going to make a fortune by selling premium products at premium prices to an ever growing health conscious public, who’ve grown tired of poisoning themselves with traditional supermarket fare.

The truth is, that there are only a relatively few places in America where the demographic that can afford premium prices, the proper climate for successful Aquaponic Farming, and would be entrepreneurs with the fortitude and work ethic to succeed are able to intersect.

I know some awesome people in west central and central Florida who are making it happen. I cannot promote them too highly. But they also work their butts off to make it happen.  Many, if not most, Aquaponics dreamers are simply not prepared to pay that price.

A large percentage of the success stories in the more temperate climates are not really commercial ventures at all, but are non profits, dependent on grants, gifts and donations to stay afloat. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the model per se, but running a non profit is a whole different animal and requires a different set of skills than a for profit commercial farm.  Many would be Aquaponic farmers miss that difference and are destined for failure from the beginning.

Like its older sibling, hydroponics, Aquaponic farming is NOT the future of food production. It has its appeal, it has a niche where it can be successful, but it is not going to begin replacing traditional gardening and farming anytime soon.

If you have stayed with me this far, you probably think I’m some kind of hater or have sour grapes about my own lack of success with aquaponics. If that’s what you think, you would be wrong by a mile. In fact, I am within a few days of setting up my 2016 backyard aquaponics system, and I already have several hydroponic projects going.

What I want to do, is cut through a lot of the boloney and help you be successful, or at least help you set realistic expectations if you’re new to aquaponic gardening, especially if you’re on a budget.

I have no intention of discussing how to begin a commercial aquaponics farm.  I understand marketing and sales, because that’s my background, and I’m an entrepreneur to the marrow in my bones, but I have no experience in commercial aquaponics farming, and I will not pretend I do. A successful commercial aquaponics farm is a unique animal. It will require capital, patience and night and day work for a long time.  I will tell you that, as I’ve already mentioned, location is mission critical. Out here where my wife and I live, such a venture would be a disaster. If you are really keen on investigating how you might launch a commercial project, email me, or use the comments section and I’ll be happy to direct you to some people in the business who will give you good answers without the bull. This article is for people who want to begin a backyard, basement, or garage system.

First, understand that you can build several raised beds or buy a whole lot of containers for what a backyard aquaponics system is going to set you back. A small ‘off the shelf system’ that will keep a handful of fish and grow a few veggies will cost you over $1000.  If you’re going to grow in your garage or basement you’re going to have to add in costs of lighting and water temperature regulation, which can be significant. 

If you’re going DIY it can be much cheaper, but still significant. First there is the cost of Fish Tanks and grow beds. Will you use plastic barrels, IBC containers, stock tanks, or some other container? Your cost will be determined by what you choose and where you source it. I have historically used plastic barrels and stock tanks, but I also have some IBC totes for potential future use.

Plumbing costs money. There is the pvc, fittings, valves, hoses, cutting tools to consider, in addition to the costs of a filtration system.  Unless you already have an off grid power supply, you’re going to have to find a way to operate the water and air pumps. If you plan to run year round you’ll also have water heating costs.

Now, for the fish. Most of us began with Tilapia. Most of us failed. If you live in in Florida, south Texas, Arizona, Nevada or Southern California, you might get away with it. For most of the USA, however, the only way to successfully raise Talipia, is to heat the water at least part of the year and/or to raise them inside. When water temps get below 50 degrees F, Tilapia are going to die. For example, my inlaws live in west central Florida just south of Tampa Bay.  They have wild Tilapia in the ponds and lakes around them. A couple of years back, during a particularly cold spell, tens of thousands of Tilapia died and floated to the surface of the local ponds. Now just imagine what would happen here in north Georgia, or Kentucky, or Indiana, or Montana, or Maine. I think you get the picture. Tilapia can handle a wide range of water quality conditions, but water temperatures are literally a killer.

I was successful growing Tilapia in my basement and garage when we lived in town, but it wasn’t cheap. I gave up very quickly once we moved out here in the country. The cost of heating water in my greenhouse was prohibitive.

On the other hand, I love gardening and many things grew better in aquaponics than they did for me using more traditional methods, so I started thinking outside the Tilapia.

After it became just too expensive to raise Tilapia, I tried bluegill and catfish. They grow great here. I suggest you look into what might work in your area. In many places, especially north of the Mason Dixon, Yellow Perch are a good option. They grow relatively quickly and are extremely tasty.

In our case, my wife doesn’t eat fresh water fish, so it was pointless growing them. If I want some crappie filets, I just go to the lake and catch some. Easy.  The last two summers, I’ve grown goldfish.  They are 20 cents apiece at the pet store. That price is hard to beat. If you don’t eat fish, if you are on a budget, or if you don’t intend to grow year round, goldfish may be a great option.

Other options include minnows and Koi. Minnows are cheap, easy to raise, and can be used, or sold as bait for crappie and bass fishing.  Our ducks like them, too. Koi are often in demand for backyard ponds and can easily pay for themselves.

Koi, minnows, goldfish, bluegill, catfish, and many other varieties can be overwintered if the tanks are deep enough, but my wife and I have decided that growing all year round is not worth it for us. We live in Bartow County Georgia, not Adelaide, Australia. 

My systems work this way. I set up my system(s) in April, stock it with goldfish, and grow exclusively lettuces, herbs and greens in raft (DWC) systems. By doing this and using plenty of oxygen in the water, I can keep growing lettuces almost all summer. I can also grow Okra very successfully in rafts.  By growing these things aquaponically and hydroponically, I have lots more room in my traditional garden for tomatoes, peppers, melons and etc.

Once fall comes, I will grow some kale and swiss chard. Then once things get too cold for gardening to be fun, I take the system down for the winter. The fish will be fed to the ducks and chickens. It’s that simple.

Aquaponics can be fun and rewarding. To make sure it is, think about where you live. What fish will work where you are? Do you want to eat your fish, or will they be just for aesthetic enjoyment?  Will you grow seasonally or all year round? Will you grow outside or in? What’s your budget?

In short, do your homework. It’s the equivalent of measure twice, cutting once. And by all means, think OUTSIDE the Tilapia.

Please email me with any questions or add your comments. After all, we’re in this together.

 

 

 

Time to transplant into cups, but too early for putting in garden

Time to transplant into cups, but too early for putting in garden

As winter comes to a welcome close, it’s time for me to fire up all engines and get this site moving for the season. I do hope you had a great off season and are ready for spring planting; but not too ready!

Here in our part of North Georgia (zone 7b), we’ve had a glorious end to February and an even better beginning to March. As I understand it, other parts of the country have had similar experiences. As a result, the seedlings in our greenhouse are way ahead of schedule.  They’ve had lots of sunshine and nice weather to keep them happy in their nursery.

Our snap peas are already starting to climb their trellises and our tomatoes look about three weeks ahead of normal.  It will be near 80 here today, with gentle breezes and a good mix of sun and cloud. It’s hard not to love this. I’m not even going to try. It’s awesome.

The problem is, I’m already hearing people discuss putting out their gardens.  Please don’t.  Sure, your kale and cabbage, etc. will be ok, but keep those tomatoes, peppers, squash and such inside until you have passed the final ‘frost date’ for your area. You can GOOGLE your dates or you can contact your local extension office.  Here in Bartow County, GA the last frost date is April 15.

We are blessed to have a small greenhouse where we can keep seedlings and young plants to give them a head start, which makes it easy to be patient, but I remember the days before the greenhouse when early spring weather saw us out in mid to late March setting tomatoes, peppers, cantaloupe and all the other starter plants that should have waited another month.  More than once, my wife and I have had to rush out and cover plants because we heard the weather was changing. And, more times than I care to recall, we’ve been surprised by sudden frosts that have forced us to start over. Starting over can get pretty expensive.

Cucumbers will stay safe in the greenhouse until Mid April

Cucumbers will stay safe in the greenhouse until Mid April

urge you to enjoy early warm spells. Get outside and get your hands dirty. Prepare your beds, build new ones. Get your compost bins going. Work up the soil, but don’t set out anything that can be damaged by frost.  Frankly, even though I could put out my brassicas, I tend to leave them in the greenhouse as long as possible. Because we grow mostly in containers, it’s easy to do. Alternatively, I can bring my containers inside at night and put them out during the day.

I’d love to here how you handle the temptation to set plants out early. Feel free to share your successes AND failures. Just hit the comment button and join the conversation. And…if you need me to talk you down, just ask. After all, we’re in this together.

 

Hydroponic Kale

Hydroponic Kale

People spend virtual (and sometimes, literal) fortunes trying to improve their gardens. We buy books and magazines, we attend seminars and lectures, we listen to radio shows and watch gardening television channels. Many folk even hire designers, landscapers and gardeners to do the work for them. On top of that, we search far and wide for the finest soil amendments and nutrients.

Gardening is BIG BUSINESS, and often a big expense, so I thought I’d offer for FREE, an often overlooked gardening secret that will kick your success into overdrive. It’s so simple, you’ll be inclined to think I’m overstating the case, but I’m NOT.

This secret is the same whether you’re growing in the ground, in raised beds or in containers. It’s also the absolute biggest open secret in Hydroponic and Aquaponic gardening. Oxygen!

Surprised? Feeling underwhelmed? Don’t be. Pretty much everything in nature needs oxygen in spades.  Sure, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and carbon dioxide are important nutrients, but you can put all the fertilizer in the world on you plants and if oxygen isn’t getting to the roots, the plants will not thrive.

Lots of new gardeners discover this when they spend good money on bags, or truck loads, of expensive topsoil only to find their gardens are not producing like they had hoped. The topsoil is just too darned dense for the roots to get oxygen.

If you add good soil amendments, like peat or coconut coir, tree mulch, perlite, or in some situations, small lava rocks, you will get almost instant results. I like perlite and sphagnum or coco peat added to my worm compost (not just castings) and a little straw as my favorite soil mix or amendment. This gives me lots of nutrients plus is loose enough for oxygen to get in and for the roots to spread out in search of the water and food it needs.

Similarly, in my Deep Water Culture hydroponics and aquaponics systems, I have seen results skyrocket by doing nothing more than adding extra oxygen to the grow beds and fish tanks.

I’m not a scientist, I’m a farmer. I learn by experimenting. I have watched healthy plants shrivel and die when the oxygen supply to the roots is cut off, even if adequate nutrients are available.  On the other hand, I’ve seen plants flourish with less than optimal nutrient and climate conditions, if the oxygen supply is optimal.

Kale bouquet. Think my wife will like them?

Kale bouquet. Think my wife will like them?

Let me use my hydroponic kale as an example.  Last winter, I grew Deep Water Culture (DWC) kale, swiss chard, lettuce and bok choi all winter long in my small unheated greenhouse. To keep the water temps up, I used a fish aquarium heater at night and let the sun do the work during the day. I kept the nutrients and water topped up and used plenty of oxygen. The results were off the charts.

In another system, designed the same, but using only half the oxygen, results were seriously reduced, and the plants were more susceptible to aphids.

Finally, this fall, I have been growing kale outside in a DWC hydro system with phenomenal results (see the pics in this article). I have not adjusted pH or nutrient levels.  Frequently, my top ups have been provided by rain. Sometimes, I top up with the garden hose, using city water. I have not treated the chlorine or chloramines.  All I have done is keep the oxygen levels up with lots of air stones.  I have not done a complete nutrient replacement and have topped up with nutrients only about every 3rd or fourth top up.  I got similar results last spring with cabbage, broccoli and kohlrabi.

Your plants need proper light and nutrients to be optimal, but before you spend a bunch of money trying more fancy foods and supplements, try making more oxygen available and see what happens.

Now it’s your turn. What’s been your experience with oxygen and your garden? For that matter, what’s been the one thing you’ve done or change you’ve made that has made the biggest impact on your results? I’d love to hear your experiences. After all, we’re in this together.

 

Northwich - allotment gardens and recreation area beside Birdcage Walk. Seen from the footbridge over the railway on Northwich footpath 12. SJ 6528 7385 at 295 deg.

During the gardening ‘off season’, my plan is to write a series of encouragement and ‘how to’ articles with the beginner and wannabe gardener/homesteader in mind.  There is a lot of good information available for getting started down the road of increased self-sufficiency, but there’s even more misinformation and ignorance being tossed around out there. My goal is to simplify the process of gardening and homesteading to make it accessible for more people. It is my belief that nearly EVERYONE can grow some or all of their own food, regardless of your age, or where you live.

Sure, some situations require more thought and planning than others, but whether you live on a large acreage, in a suburban HOA controlled neighborhood or in a big city high rise, the only thing holding you back is you.  If you’ll join me, and stay the course, I’ll have you ready to grow by next spring. I guarantee it.

I hear regularly from people who say things like, “Someday, when we have some land, we’re going to do what you do,” or, “We’d love to live a more self-sufficient lifestyle, if we only had the land to do that.”

If you are thinking those, or similar thoughts, I have some GREAT news for you: you can get started right where you are.

Stop laughing, I’m serious.  Do some research and learn about the Dervaes family in California, who live on 1/10th of an acre and not only provide their own food, but operate a full time thriving farm from their suburban plot.

I know plenty of stories of families living self-sufficiently, or virtually so, from a quarter of an acre.

We’re all rather familiar with the “Victory Gardens” that sustained many millions of people during WWII.

And let’s not forget about the allotment gardens (community gardens) that dot the British landscape each spring through fall, where families can rent small spaces to grow their own food. The British Parliament has passed laws that require local governments to provide spaces for allotments, if there is a demand. Here in the USA, some towns and many Churches could make space available for community growing.

My point is, it doesn’t take acres and acres to become self-sufficient; it takes creativity, out of the box thinking and elbow grease. If you want to start growing your own fruits and vegetables, and maybe your own meat, fish and/or eggs, you don’t have to wait until ‘someday’. In point of fact, I looked, and someday isn’t on any calendar, somewhere isn’t on any map, someone isn’t in any phone book. There is today, here, and there is me (you).

Brittan and I began our edible suburb when we lived on ½ acre in a typical suburban neighborhood, under the watchful eyes of a Home Owners’ Association. In that location we grew tons of fruit and vegetables, made our own compost, raised rabbits for meat and manure, raised fish and even managed to sneak in a few goats and chickens from time to time.

I share that last paragraph to help you understand that I KNOW from experience what can be done. I’ve grown fish and vegetables in my garage, herbs on our back deck, kept rabbits in the basement, and once we even hid 150 baby chicks in our garage for 10 weeks.

During the next several weeks, I’m going to show you a step by step plan to make sure you can succeed in your own edible suburb, but it will be up to you to implement what you learn.

I hope you’ll join the adventure. Please add your thoughts and questions to the comments section, or email any questions to us.  Also, please email or comment and let me know some of the subjects you’d like to discuss. I’d love to hear from you. Let’s do this!

 

One of our first attempts at container gardening

One of our first attempts at container gardening

Walking through the garden the other day, examining my raised beds and my containers I realized for like the one millionth time, how much I prefer containers to either the raised beds or to a traditional tilled garden spot.

I use a variety of containers: buckets, flower pots, Earthboxes, and Rubber Maid Stock Tanks, plastic barrels and IBC totes. Some of my older buckets and pots are pretty traditional, but my newer ones and all the other containers are set up as either wicking containers, DWC hydroponics or Aquaponics systems.

I use different methods for the simple reason that if something isn’t working, another style probably is. For example, my raised bed zucchini did not do well this year, but in wicking buckets it thrived like never before. On the other hand, my pole beans did so well in a raised bed I didn’t bother with any other ways. My hydroponics kale has outperformed that grown in either raised beds or buckets. Gardening is full of surprises, so variety really is the spice of life.

Please don’t get defensive if you’re a raised bed or tilled bed gardener. I don’t disapprove of them, I’ve just gotten better results (mostly) from other methods. Your experience may be totally different.

There are three primary reasons I like containers: Mobility, simplicity, and Spontaneity.  Let’s dive about two inches into that and let me explain.

  1. Mobility – We live in NW Georgia right on the edge of Zone 7 a/b. and we have a medium sized greenhouse (40’ x 24’). Our great weather allows us multiple growing seasons already, but by combining the benefits of containers and the unheated greenhouse I can get a very big head start in the spring and extend the season in the fall dramatically.
Earthbox wicking containers

Earthbox wicking containers

I plant many of my varieties in January, and by mid-April they are already quite large when I move them outside. I’m usually harvesting snap peas, cabbage, Jalapeno peppers, kale, bok choi and lettuce long before most of my neighbors. By growing Parthenocarpic zucchini and cucumbers, my wife and I were enjoying them in March.

Similarly, when night temps begin to drop, I can move containers from the garden back to the greenhouse and continue to enjoy fresh peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, etc. until very nearly Christmas. Greens will keep growing all winter.

Even before we had our greenhouse, I would take my hot pepper buckets and set them up against the south side of the house to keep them producing even after the garden was getting regular frost.

I could never do that with my raised beds. For example, I have some very healthy roasting pepper plants in a raised bed that I’m going to have to make a cover for because I can’t get the bed into the greenhouse.

Even the hydroponics and aquaponics systems can be emptied and moved relatively easily. Because I use compact systems that don’t have a great deal of complex plumbing, it’s mostly a matter of emptying the beds and tanks, then reassembling them inside or outside as need requires.

  1. Simplicity – Containers are uncomplicated. There is very little preparation or space required. It’s a matter of filling with your favorite planting mix, inserting your chosen seed(s) or seedling(s) and you’re gardening. There are no special tools or groundwork required. The most important decision is the size of the container. You wouldn’t want to put an indeterminate tomato in a window box, but that container might be just fine for cilantro.

Weeding is a snap, as is mulching. Watering is generally required more frequently that with raised beds or tilled gardens, but wicking containers can mitigate the work load, as can automated watering systems.

  1. Spontaneity – If I get impulsive (which happens to me a lot) and want to try a new variety or increase number of plants after my garden is already planted, containers allow me to simply grab a new bucket and try it. Similarly, if a plant is not thriving, I can pull it up and begin again without the risk of damaging the plants around it. When plants are getting ready to flower, I can decide at the last minute to isolate one or two for seed saving by moving the container a little and using row covers for protection. This is especially useful for peppers and tomatoes.

Container gardening is an outstanding option for beginners and gardeners with small spaces. And it doesn’t have to be expensive. You can repurpose buckets and flower pots you already have around, or you can buy very inexpensive ones from your local Big Box Store or online.  Let’s face it; you can buy a lot of containers for the cost of buying and maintaining a rototiller.

We haven’t had a tilled garden since 2001, when we lived in Iowa. With our busy schedule and my ADD that option just wouldn’t fly. We have a few raised beds, most of which are being converted to growing berries.  We have many dozens of containers. If you consider aquaponic and hydroponic systems as containers (which I do) then our garden is 90% containers. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Are you a container gardener? Why or why not? I’d love to hear your experiences. Please share. I value your opinions. Besides, we’re all in this together.

 

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