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A Very Simple Barrel System

A Very Simple Barrel System

I absolutely love Aquaponics gardening. Year after year, my Aquaponics system is the feature piece of my garden.  It’s a phenomenal, fun, way to mimic nature by creating a closed loop system that integrates aquaculture and hydroponics.  It’s also addictive.

What Aquaponics is not, however, the future of farming ,as many have labeled it. I am aware that this statement runs counter to many of the YouTube videos and local interest stories all over the internet, but I stand by my comments. I’m also aware that many of my Aquaponics posts seem to be negative towards a growing method I keep saying I love, but stay with me and I’ll explain.

First, Aquaponics is rather expensive to get into. Even a DIY backyard system is probably going to set you back several hundred dollars, while a kit will be at least $1200 and that’s for a small system.  Sure, a creative handyman can probably make something cheaper, but face it, most of us are just not that handy.

Secondly, they are fairly expensive to maintain, especially if you are going to try to grow indoors or all year round.  Growing in the winter, for example, is going to require heating the water, both for fish growth and for maintaining a strong colony of beneficial bacteria. Doing so comes at a price.  It you’re growing indoors, there is also the cost of lighting.

Someone will undoubtedly will suggest Solar power, and I’m all in favor of that. The thing is, a solar unit that will both operate the system and heat water is not an insignificant financial investment.

Our third limitation is the fish. They must be sourced, fed and replaced.  There are not many varieties that can be grown to market size in a single season without considerable inputs, thus reducing the profitability of the method. Tilapia, arguably the most popular fish for Aquaponics, is not cold tolerant and needs to be raised indoors or with heated water in the winter (in most parts of North America). Most cold hardy types require two or three growing seasons and must be over wintered.

Ornamentals, such as Koi,  and Bait fish, like minnows, are hardy options, but breeding them takes some practice and experience so potential profitability may be delayed.

Whatever varieties of fish we choose, they all require food inputs, and that’s another expense. Yes, it is possible, over time, to grow your own fish food, but that is another serious effort to accomplish.

None of these challenges are insurmountable nor are they meant to discourage an potential enthusiast. They certainly don’t discourage me. They do, however, demonstrate that Aquaponics is not the future of farming.

I write these articles to help newcomers have realistic expectations as they get started.  There are many thousands of healthy backyard systems operating all around the world. In some parts of the world, Aquaponics may be a part of a solution to the problems of hunger and water management. There are even a few profitable commercial operations, but the propagandists would have you believe that it’s a simple way to make a living growing fish and veggies together. Reality is a little different.

For those of you who have persevered and made your commercial Aquaponics profitable, I applaud you.  You have worked both hard and smart. As for me, I will stick to my seasonal backyard system that serves as an adjunct to the rest of my crazy integrated garden.

Aquaponics is indeed fun and can be worth the expense and effort.  It is not the future of farming, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon it. Not by a long shot. We simply need to be realistic.

vegetables-basketBeginning in Mid November, I’m going to add a YouTube series especially for New Gardeners. If you’re a first time gardener or homesteader, this will be your new home. Don’t worry, it will benefit you old timers, too.

I’m going to start with my Winter Clean up (Trust me, that will be a major undertaking) and take you through the process of getting a spring garden all started.

I know there is a lot of material out there, but there is also a great deal of misinformation, as well, so I feel compelled to do this. You deserve it.

Along the way, I’ll point you to some really trustworthy blogs and YouTube channels.

For Now, enjoy Halloween. My wife and I are still in Scotland, so I assure you, we’re having a blast.

 

Gordon Castle's Walled Garden

Gordon Castle’s Walled Garden

Brittan and I are in Scotland at the moment. We’re halfway through a 5 week stay and it’s been awesome. I lived here for 13 years, a long time ago, and it’s wonderful to be back. It really is a most beautiful country.

One of my favorite things has been to visit places I haven’t been or don’t remember, especially gardens and scenic locations.  At the top of the list so far, has been the Walled Garden at Gordon Castle, in Fochabers, Moray.

Even if you’ve been to Scotland, the odds are you haven’t visited Fochabers, or any of the Moray district, for that matter.  Most tourists don’t get past Edinburgh, or Loch Lomond, unless they manage a train journey to Inverness in search of the Loch Ness Monster.

Make no mistake, you can see some awesome sights wherever you go in Scotland, especially if you love gardening. Let me mention two of them during this rambling introduction:

1.       The Royal Botanical Gardens in Glasgow. This is a Victorian garden and has some of the most interesting greenhouses I’ve ever seen. Many of the plants are very old and the aging architecture of the greenhouses will transport you back to before the turn of the 20th century. If you hit the mean streets of ‘Glesga’ don’t miss this treat.

2.       Inverewe Gardens near Ullapool on the West Coast. The drive from Inverness alone is worth the trip to Scotland. The views are breath taking. You will find yourself stopping to snap photos every mile or two. But when you get to Inverewe Gardens, you will swear you have been transported to Eden. I may write more about it later, but I promise you, you’d better take extra memory cards for your camera.

Earlier this week, though, I was introduced to one of Scotland’s best kept secrets, Gordon Castle’s Walled Garden at Fochabers, Moray. I lived within 10 miles of this glorious site for 7 years and never knew it existed. Mind you, it’s only been open to the public a few years, but still…

Fochabers is situated nearly halfway between Inverness and Aberdeen just off the main road between them. During my time here it was on the main road, but a bypass has been built since then. The area has always been one of my favorites. Baxters of Speyside, sort of the ‘Campbell’s Soup of Scotland’ is probably the primary tourist draw, but the Fochabers Woods trails and scenic overlook are also personal favorites. But when friends took Brittan and me to the Walled Garden earlier this week, my heart was stolen, along with my breath.

The castle itself is very nice, but the fact that the estate is still a working farm, made me giddy. The  round bales of hay still fresh and standing in the fields, lent an extra charm to the whole magic scene; open fields surrounded and divided by strategic strips of properly maintained hardwood forests, made for a gorgeous drive back to the Visitor’s Center and  the Walled Garden itself. 

The Visitor’s Center has the mandatory gift shop and café which are in themselves, very nice, if I say so myself, and I so say so myself.

walled-garden-2The gardens themselves stole my heart away. As you can see from the arial photos I downloaded from their website (I was too overwhelmed to remember to snap any), the garden is not overly large, maybe a couple acres, but it is spectacular. Even in mid-October, there were still flowers blooming and fall vegetables growing.

The walls were lined with trained apple and pear trees clinging to them with the garden laid out artistically in a series of beds, making up the centerpiece. At the parking lot end, a roomy chicken coop housed a happy flock of laying hens, which always makes me happy.

There were als a couple large well designed greenhouses, much more handsome than the ones we usually have in north Georgia.  In one of them, a couple dozen tomato plants were still in full production. I was extremely jealous.

In the other house, hundreds of onions (several varieties) and shallots were drying, probably to be used at the castle and in the café.

But, as you might guess, the main attraction for me, were the containers growing a wide variety of hot peppers. Some of the plants were still producing, outside, at this latitude. Scotland, because of the gulf stream is a zone 8, but here on the Moray Firth, plants must be protected from the harsh, cold winds. Gordon’s setting, combined with walls, buildings, and greenhouses provide just such protection.

I recognized Jalapenos, Habaneros, Yellow Ghost, Cayenne, and Moruga Scorpions. There were also some names and pods I didn’t know. On the whole, the pods were smaller than what we grow in Georgia, but they looked great.

I wanted to stay there all day. Heck, I wanted to apply for a job. Gordon Castle, and its walled garden, is my dream farm. I fell totally head over heels.

Scotland is full of gems like this for those who are willing to get off the beaten tourist track. But I warn you, if you are a gardener of vegetables, or flowers, your expectations will change forever. The bar has been raised. I need to start redesigning, now. After all, that’s what winter is for.

 

first indoor set up. I moved the container off the aquarium and floated herbs in water

first indoor set up. I moved the container off the aquarium and floated herbs in water

For some reason, when the growing bug bites, it doesn’t take note of the weather conditions. The itch it produces wants to be scratched and no amount of Benadryl will help. My advice is, go ahead a scratch it. Start your growing indoors. It’s easier than ever to have an indoor garden, and it doesn’t have to cost the moon.

For obvious reasons, my first choice is always to grow outdoors, but most of us don’t live in an environment that promotes all year gardening. We have that dark, cold season, lovingly called, Winter, with short, cold days, and long cold nights. Brrr….

A hoop or green house will lengthen the growing season, but won’t necessarily extend it indefinitely. So, if you absolutely must keep growing in winter, or, if you have no outside space to grow at any time, then consider moving your garden inside.

Once upon a time, the lighting alone for growing indoors would set off alarms at the power company as well as your local bank. Grow lights were outrageously priced to buy, and extremely expensive to run.

Fortunately, those days are gone. With LED and full spectrum CFL options available, cost is no longer an impediment to indoor gardening.  Space will generally be the limiting factor.

If you have a garage, basement, spare room, or even an unused closet, you’re in business. Even counter or wall space in a studio apartment can be utilized to grow some herbs, cherry tomatoes, peppers, and more.  All that’s needed is a little creative thinking.

I highly recommend starting small. I would use two or three self-watering containers, like Earthbox, and grow some herbs in one, some lettuce in one, and a small cherry tomato like, ‘Tumbler’ in the third.  I might even grow a Jalapeno with the tomato plant. I’ve done that before and It works well. 

Get a grow light for each box, or build a bank of them for the whole set up. You don’t have to break the bank.  You might even make a reflector from some aluminum foil. 

Set the lamps about 4 or 5 inches above the plants and raise them as the plants grow. Keep the light fairly close without burning the plants.  LED and CFL bulbs don’t give off a great deal of heat anyway.

EzGro Hydroponics Unit another indoor option

EzGro Hydroponics Unit another indoor option

Your plants are going to want at least 12 hours of daylight, so either remember to turn the lights on and off, or invest $10 or so in a timer. One of the cheap Christmas light ones will do nicely. You might even have one of those already.

A couple alternatives would be a small hydroponic set up or an aquaponics system.  My first indoor garden was a combination.  I had a tomato and pepper in a self-watering container filled with coconut coir rather than potting mix.  I also had a 20 gallon fish tank with some goldfish.  I floated some basil and lettuce on a piece of Styrofoam in the fish tank, and pumped water out of the fish tank with a small aquarium pump for the pepper and tomato.  It worked really well. 

If you try something like that, you’ll have to top up your fish tank regularly. Make sure you dechlorinate your water first. I kept a 5 gallon bucket of water beside the tank. I would refill it and let it stand at least 24 hours to dechlorinate naturally. There are some excellent fish safe dechlorinating products on the market.

As you become more skilled you can expand your garden. Many people have some good sized systems in their basements or garages. Others just grow a few kitchen herbs on the counter. It’s your garden. It’s your call.

If you have  questions or testimonies to share, please send them via the comments sections. Feel free to include photos of your indoor garden. We’d love to see it. Let us know what your grow, and what doesn’t work for you.

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dozen_eggsThe incredible edible egg. We love them and we fear them. Should we eat more of them, or run from them? Are they giving us heart attacks or are they full of good things to make us strong and healthy? Where’s the truth? What should we do?

I want to cut through the propaganda, and give you a high level, short answer and hopefully clear things up for you a bit. If you want to know more, there are plenty of articles, stories and research papers out there to keep you reading the rest of your life.

The spark for this post was a Facebook poster showing the inside of two boiled eggs. One had a deep golden yolk, captioned, ‘organic’. The other was light yellow, with those familiar green hues we’ve all become familiar with from traditional boiled eggs, and captioned, “gmo”.

I will leave aside the photo manipulation and let you do your own homework as to how that was done. Let’s just say, it was extremely misleading.

My gripe is with the labeling. There is no such thing as a GMO egg.  And, in a sense, all eggs are ‘organic’. They are laid by living chickens and laid in a natural way, thus organic.

The organic vs. GMO argument is about the feed given to the hens.  And even then, the photo can be misleading.

In a confined, commercial chicken house, where thousands of hens are kept in tight, controlled conditions, if hens are fed grain based diets, devoid of sunlight, then even if the feed is ‘organic’ the eggs will have pale, lifeless, nutritionally lacking yolks.

Conversely, if hens are free ranging, and have access to fields of GMO corn and wheat, the yolks will be rich yellow, and still be ‘GMO’ fed.

It’s all about sunlight and chlorophyll. That color comes from access to real sunlight and omega 3 rich grasses (Remember, corn, wheat, barley, etc. are grasses when they’re at home).

Eggs from free range hens, are more nutritious, and attractive, than those from battery raise ones, because of the variety in their diet, and because of their access to sunlight and the chlorophylls in the green plants they consume.  These greens are full of omega 3s which are good for you.

The chicken house raised birds, generally produce paler, flavor reduced eggs that are higher in omega 6 fatty acids, which are the ones that block our arteries. 

And remember, chickens are omnivores rather than vegetarians. They eat all kinds of things when left to their own devices, so feeding them a restricted vegetarian diet, whether organic or GMO, is preventing them from the balanced, nutrient rich fare they really need.

So, looking for ‘cage free’, ‘vegetarian fed’, or, ‘organic’ labels on supermarket eggs, means very little. They are marketing gimmicks. Don’t fall for them. They don’t ensure anything for you, other than a higher total at the check out.  ‘Free Range’ is the label you’re looking for. And even that might be misleading.

Raise your own birds, if you can, or buy directly from a farmer or at a farmers’ market for the best results.

I know many of you are raising, or want to raise, birds, but don’t have the space to free range them. Perhaps your community has restrictions that keep you from doing so. If that’s you, don’t worry.  If you make sure you have a nice a roomy, dry shelter for protection from the elements, and a run where your chickens can get real sunlight you’ll be fine.  In addition to a good chicken feed, give them access to some table scraps, and include plenty of lettuce, kale, and other greens and they will reward you with lots of awesome, delicious, and nutritious eggs.  I promise.

Do you raise your own chickens or other birds? If so, tell us about your results? We’d love to hear them?  Got questions about how to get started? Then use the comments section to ask this awesome group of readers.  We’re here to help. After all, we’re all in this together.

 

 

Sadly, you'll never see this in my garden.

Sadly, you’ll never see this in my garden.

If you hang around me more than a few minutes, I’m going to figure out a way to bring up the subject of raising food. It might be livestock, but more likely it will be fruits and vegetables. I love growing edibles, one look and you can tell I love eating them, and I love talking about growing food.

There are lots of people who are better gardeners than I am, and maybe one or two who aren’t, but nobody likes talking gardening more than me. Ask anyone.

There are, though, some things I can grow really well, and others that I just can’t grow even if my life depended on it. Today, just for giggles, I’m going to tell you my absolute best and worst.

Let’s start with best, because it’s easy. Most of you already know what it is. My most prolific results come from hot peppers. So far, I have never gotten a bad result from hot peppers. Sweet varieties have been a little more difficult, though I’m getting the hang of them, but the hot varieties are like in my DNA.

I’ve cut back in recent years, because I get so many peppers I can’t figure out what to do with them. Around here where we live, there aren’t many people who like the hotter ones. In fact, we have friends who don’t even use black pepper. As a result, a lot of my peppers end up dried and turned into powder. I have dried cayenne peppers from 2009 in the pantry. I kid you not.

This year I only grew 5 varieties of hot peppers: jalapeno (3 plants), Habanero (4 plants), Thai (3 plants), Yellow Ghost (three plants), and Yellow Moruga (1 Plant) and I have harvested enough to last us years. I will make one more harvest at the end of this week and then simply pull the plants up.

As successful as my peppers have been, there is a fruit I simply can’t grow; cantaloupe. I have NEVER successfully harvested and eaten a cantaloupe that I have grown myself. A couple of years they all burned up, one year the chickens got them all, but the biggest heartache of all was the year I had several one day from a planned harvest and one of my dogs got into the garden and ate all the ripe ones. We know it was her because A. we caught her in the act, and B. she crapped seeds for days.

Do I sound bitter? You bet I am. The truth hurts. I didn’t even try to grow any this year. I will try again….eventually.

So there you have it; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. What about you? Are there things you grow well? Varieties you can’t grow for love nor money? Jump on the comments page and tell us about it. Spill.

fertilizerEverything in the food chain needs to eat. From humans all the way down to beneficial bacteria; we all eat. A few species along the way are mostly carnivores, a few are herbivores, but the majority are omnivores, including the soil and the many of the microbes that live in that soil. For the sake of time and the focus of this article, though, we’re going to stick to discussing our soil and the nutrients our fruit and veggies need to grow and thrive.

Many gardeners think of the earth as merely a growing medium, something to hold plants while they grow, but it’s so much for than that. Think of the earth as either growing or dying.  The way we treat the soil, whether in beds or containers, will either develop and grow the soil or it will kill it.

The soil is the receptacle that houses the nutrients that grow our plants. Water is the vehicle that transports the nutrients TO the plants, as they are on a liquid diet, so to speak.

Plants require several nutrients; primarily Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, (NPK).  Most commercial garden fertilizers advertise their NPK ratios right on the bag or box. As an example, you might see 5-5-5 or 4-1-1, etc. In the first case, it means 5 parts Nitrogen, 5 parts, Phosphorus, and 5 Potassium. The second example is 4 parts N, and one part each of P and K.

Each variety of fruit and veg you grow has its own requirements, so one size doesn’t always fit all. A good, healthy nutrient rich soil will go a long way to meeting most plants needs and your fertilizer will mostly supplement what’s there.  Before we go, I’m going to show you a great workaround in choosing your fertilizer.  But first I want to show you how to minimize your requirements for them.

If NPK was all plants needed, things would be pretty simple, but the truth is, plants need much more. NPK are called Macronutrients, while the lesser requirements are called micronutrients. However, there are some others I consider Macronutrients, because they make a huge difference in performance.

The first is Magnesium. Magnesium is to plants what Vitamin B complex is to humans. It boosts energy and vitality. The easiest way to get Magnesium to your garden is via Epsom salts, which by the way, are not salts at all.  While I add some to my garden beds, most of the time, I add the Epsom salts to my regular watering regime.  It is easily dissolved and is very easy for plants to take absorb it through their leaves, or to take it up via their roots.

Secondly, plants need Calcium, especially varieties that produce fruit like tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, etc. There are some great water soluble Calcium products, but it’s really easy to add garden lime, egg shells, oyster shell or something similar to the soil at the beginning of the garden season when you’re working your beds.

Third is iron. We don’t think of it enough.  There are many great natural products on the market to enrich the iron content of your soil. Remember, the general principle is, we feed the soil so the soil can feed the plants. Are we making sense so far?

Oh, something that happens more frequently that we realize is what’s called, nutrient lockout.  The short version is, there are nutrients in the soil, but the plants can’t access them. This is where beneficial bacteria (microbes) come in.  One of the best supplements you can use if you have a particularly bad patch, would be humates.  Humates, mostly humic acid help bind the carbon to the nutrients so   your plants can take advantage of those nutrients.  Humates are available in bag form and in liquid concentrate.  In bag form it’s added directly to the bed and worked into the soil. In liquid form, it’s diluted and added either directly to the soil, or used as a foiliar spray.

Many studies have shown that humates improve nutrient uptake by 30% to 50%.  That’s huge. In an future update, I will focus on the benefits and types of humates, but for now, let’s get the principles.

There are many types of soil amendments available to build soil; straw, wood chips, perlite, leaves, all come to mind right away. If you’re going to use wood chips or straw, I encourage adding them the autumn before you plan to plant to give them time to better decay. Perlite and leaves can be added when you begin to work up your beds. I’ll explain about the wood chips in a future update.

Obviously, good rotted horse, cow, or chicken manure is awesome.  But make sure it is well rotted.  The best ways to do that are to make a compost pile and let nature take its course, or to add some compost worms to the edges of the pile after it’s been standing a few weeks.  A third way, and maybe the best, is to let chickens have access to your compost pile.

Better than any of those other manures is rabbit manure. Rabbit manure is not ‘hot’ like what comes from more traditional livestock. In simple terms, the nitrogen and ammonia in most manures is so rich and dense that it can burn the roots of plants. Rabbit manure is ‘cold’, as if it’s already been composted.   Goat manure is great, too, but they aren’t usually confined like rabbits, so it’s harder to get it raked up and used. Goat manure from a stall or paddock is usually full of straw or wood chips, and needs a great deal of composting.

If you have a pet rabbit, you’re already in luck. If you don’t maybe it’s time to consider it. J.  A pair of bunnies will provide hours of enjoyment, loads of baby cuteness, tons of fertilizer, and for true omnivores, many pounds of the healthiest meat on the planet. I know that here in the USA, we think of rabbits as either pests or pets, but with the possible exception of goat meat, rabbit is the most consumed meat in the world.  Ask any heart specialist about the value of rabbit meat.  (Note: we’re not going to debate eating rabbits. This is an omnivore site and I’m an omnivore. If you don’t want to eat rabbit, no worries, don’t. Just enjoy them as pets and as little fluffy manure factories.)

The great thing about rabbit manure is that you can apply it directly to the garden without composting.  Talk about convenience.  In the early days, I would just empty the trays below the cages into a wheelbarrow and take it straight to the garden beds.  These days, I prefer to put it in my worm compost bins.  The worms compost the rabbit poo fairly quickly and the compost is even better than the straight rabbit manure.

So, worm composted rabbit manure is my number one choice for the garden. Straight rabbit manure is my second choice, and worm castings are number 3.

In a future episode, I’ll give you a secret recipe for the perfect compost mix, but this is the fertilizer issue, so I’m going to share two very similar fertilizers that in my experience are the best options for new and intermediate gardeners.

The first is Sea Grow 16-16-16.

This is a water soluble, seaweed based formula that is perfectly balanced and contains micronutrients.  The only thing you need to add is calcium and magnesium. It is ideal for raised beds and containers.  If you have a good soil mix to begin with, you can dilute the Sea Grow to a 50% strength with some calcium/Magnesium and you’ll have great results.  I mostly use a hose end sprayer, but in the greenhouse, when I’m feeding, I will mix the sea grow in a watering can.

My second recommendation is very similar to Sea Grow and is called MaxSea 16-16-16. Instructions are the same.

I also use both products in small Deep Water Culture Hydroponics systems for growing lettuce and greens. IMO, the Sea Grow gets better results in hydroponics systems, but there is no difference between them when I use them in soil.

There are other formulas in both products that are designed for different growth stages.  Frankly, in soil and container gardens, I haven’t seen the benefits of the ‘bloom’ formulas. If you’re going to grow blooming and fruiting plants hydroponically, then adding the bloom formula to the mix once buds appear, can improve results.  But we’ll save that for another day.

If you don’t want to deal with mixing water soluble formulas, then consider the Jobe’s line of products or the line from Espoma.  Both are available from most garden centers and big box stores.  In the long run, I believe the Sea Grow and Max Sea are more versatile and less expensive, but I’ve gotten great results with Jobe’s and Espoma.

There is an enormous array of fertilizer options on the market. Please do some homework before you just go buy something that promises miracles; especially if you want to use products that are good for the soil.

That’s it for this week. If you try, or have tried, my recommended fertilizers, let me know how it goes.  I’d also love to hear your recommendations.

As mentioned earlier, when we get closer to Spring, I’ll give you my recipe for a dynamite soil mix.  Talk to you soon.