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Posts Tagged ‘aquaponics garden’

EarthBox Self Watering Containers

I don’t know why I have to learn everything the hard way.  I have a PhD from the University of Hard Knocks.  Mostly it’s my own fault.  I read a lot. I study the gardening and farming methods of the ultra successful, and then I go out and make a mess of everything.

Eventually, I get things right and can pass on what I’ve learned to others, but bow howdy, does my learning curve have some steep drops.

For the last two years, we’ve played with the idea of a CSA (community supported agriculture).  We’ve even had a couple of people sign up.  Each year, I have made some terrible planting and timing mistakes that have prevented me from implementing a fully operational CSA.

Finally, though, I have a plan that will work.  In fact, by incorporating my Aquaponics systems and a couple of greenhouses, we could offer a few 10 to 12 month shares.

My biggest mistake has been a failure to utilize a wise system of succession planting. I’ve finally figured that out.  I just had to start thinking like a customer.  I’d much rather have 4 tomatoes a week, with one or two big weeks to can some tomatoes than have 25 lbs one week and no more the rest of the year.  The same with beets and lettuce.  Everyone likes a head of lettuce from time to time, but who wants 11 heads of the stuff one week then have to wait a year to get more.  It was a real d’oh moment.

It’s probably too late for me to salvage the situation this season, but going forward we should be good to go.  I’m sure things won’t work out perfectly, but I think I’m on to something.

Speaking of going forward, we are in the process of creating a new business plan and direction for East of Eden Farms and Our Edible Suburb.  We believe that a more narrow focus will allow a better experience for our customers and us, and will set a better example for what is truly possible in maximum production from small spaces.

Finally, at long last I have begun writing the book version of Our Edible Suburb.  I’m still undecided about whether or not I will go a traditional paperback route or if I’ll stick with electronic versions.  Your thoughts would be appreciated.  If you were to buy a book about growing mountains of food and becoming self sufficient in small spaces, would you prefer an electronic version that could go with you anywhere and have live links to other helpful information, or would you  like a hard copy that you can reference from the comfort of your recliner?  Let me know.

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As usual, the Tilapia in my floating raft, deep water culture, Aquaponics system, devoured their dinner with enthusiasm.  I’ve been using a floating/sinking commercial feed that they truly adore.  Now that they are getting to a reasonable size, some are a little bigger than an iphone, I’m starting some duckweed tanks to begin their transition to a more homegrown diet. Last night, I got my first clue that it will work just fine.

It started innocently enough; I was planting some new seeds for both the Aquaponics system and my summer/fall traditional soil garden.  The seedling trays had a couple dozen Buttercrunch lettuce seedlings that had stretched and weren’t useful for the garden.  I pulled them out of their coco coir homes and set them aside to throw away.  Each had 4 leaves, with the longest leaf about three inches.

After I planted some more Buttercrunch, Romaine, tomatillo and pepper seeds, I was on my way to throw out the seedlings or put them in a compost pile. At the last minute I tossed them into a fish tank that houses about 30 Tilapia.

The minute I threw them in I had regrets.  I feared that there was so much plant material that it would sink to the bottom, start to rot and create an ammonia problem for me.  My fears increased when I didn’t see instant activity from the little fishies.

For reasons I can’t recall, I resisted the temptation to grab the net and remove the lettuce plants.  Instead, I took Lucy the Mastiff out for a potty trip.  When I returned to check on the tank, about 20 minutes later, the only indication I had ever been there, was some coconut coir floating on the surface.

With some concern, I peered into the tank to see if the lettuce and found its way to the bottom already, but no, there was not a trace of the plants to be seen.  The always ravenous Tilapia had found their first salad bar much to their liking.  That is great news.  I’m thinking that over time they will be growing much of their own food.  How cool is that?

My only regret is that I didn’t have the foresight to capture any of it in pictures.  Maybe next time.

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Suddenly, everyone’s an expert on Aquaponic Gardening.  My Twitter account was loaded this morning with ‘expert’ tweets about how to properly grow fish and vegetables together.  Most of them were pointing to e-books, so were likely affiliates promoting a new info product.

I have nothing against info products. I dabble in them myself. It’s also quite normal to see a rising phenomenon like Aquaponic Gardening result in a proliferation of products aimed at the burgeoning market.  That’s free enterprise at it’ finest. The challenge for consumers is to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.  How will beginners know the good from the bad?

First, do some research on the author or creator of the material.  At least Google the author and see what information about him/her is out there. What experience does she/he have?  Can you see their operation?  Is the material consistent with other information on the market? What are others saying about the material?

If you are in doubt, email, FB or contact me on Twitter and ask.  I am making it a personal mission to become familiar with all the material out there on the subject of Aquaponic Gardening.  I firmly believe that Aquaponics is the future of backyard gardening.  I believe it will eclipse things like Square Foot Gardening, self watering container gardening  and hydroponic gardening in both popularity and production.

Aquaponic Gardening has many benefits including its adaptability to large and small spaces and even has real indoor possibilities.  Recent improvements in LED and CFL lighting have brought indoor gardening to a wider audience.

There are still some lingering drawbacks to Aquaponic Gardening, though, that require some attention.  The first is that the dependence on electricity keeps Aquaponics from being truly sustainable.  Solar technology has not developed to an everyman level, so for the near future at least, access to mains power will be required to run pumps, aerators, filters and in many cases, heaters.

The second drawback is affordability.  Right now, it’s fairly expensive to get started in Aquaponics.  Retail ‘out of the box’ systems are cost prohibitive for millions of people who might otherwise get involved.  Even homemade systems made from scrapped materials have built in costs for fittings, pumps, filters and the like.  While goldfish are inexpensive, edible fish like Tilapia can be quite pricey for the beginner. It is still much cheaper for most people to dig up a spot in the back yard, or build a raised bed, than it is to set up an Aquaponics system.  Until the start up cost gap is narrowed, we will find it difficult to move from pioneers and early adopters to the masses.  Making Aquaponics affordable to the general population is one of my goals.

Sometime this summer I’m going to add a resource page to the blog that will be a repository for links to websites, books, systems and people who can help us all be better Aquaponics gardeners and help keep us from being ripped off by charlatans.

 

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Basic Unit Courtesy Affnan Aquaponics

Aquaponic Gardening is the hottest thing since Justin Bieber.  And for my money at least, is a whole lot cooler.  Aquaponics is a symbiotic gardening method that uses a recirculating system to grow both fish and plants.  The short version goes like this, as the fish breathe and poo, they create solid waste and put ammonia into the water both from their excrement and from gill activity.  Ammonia is  bad for the fish.  The water is pumped out either directly into a grow bed, or through a bio filter of some kind where bacteria converts the ammonia first to Nitrites then to Nitrates.  The plants use the nitrates (and other micro nutrients) as food.  The water is thus purified and pumped or drained back into the fish tank as fresh water for the fish.

This is simple and mimics nature.  It does, though, have a few minor problems that require inputs and therefore impact sustainability.

The pH in the water needs to be monitored and occasionally adjusted.  This is easily done by adding some calcium in the form of crushed sea shells or even egg shells.  The plants require iron which must be added.  A tablespoon of chelated iron every few months does the trick.  I have also heard that suspending some old angle iron, rebar or even nails in the water and rubbing them periodically as they rust, will add iron.  I have not tried that one.

The recirculating allegedly requires only a fraction of the water normally associated with gardening, which is great for the environment and the budget.  It is also this recirculation that creates the sustainability restrictions, and in an emergency situation, could be a fatal flaw.  It requires electricity.

First, electricity is required to run the pump or pumps in the system.  Secondly, depending on the variety of fish, electricity is needed to keep the water temperature at a suitable level.  For example, the most popular fish in American Aquaponics Systems is Tilapia.  Tilapia will quickly die if the water temperature drops below 55 degrees F.  Also, many plants won’t grow in cold water. And lets not forget that if you’re growing inside, electricity is needed to power the grow lights.

I’m aware that both passive and active solar can provide ways to heat water in the cooler months.  I also know it’s possible to use heat generated from wood stoves, if properly vented, but the water must still be transported through the system and that is a problem.  Every system I’ve seen, whether floating raft or flood and drain has at least one pump.  This is troublesome for those of us who want to be as sustainable as possible.

Currently, most affordable solar pumps will only work during daylight hours, so the water stops circulating during the dark periods.  This is fine for the plants, but fish will quickly die if there is not enough oxygen in the water.

I’m not sure what the answer is.  For now, we’re just using electricity and compromising my principles, but in the long run I have to find a solution.

Perhaps investing in a bank of batteries and solar panels will help, but that will require an ac/dc inverter.  Even then, I don’t know if a system will run all night.  It might demand that we run the circulation during the day and use the battery bank to run air stones through the night.

Perhaps there is a way to use a a siphon that runs continuously.  My instincts tell me that would work for a barrel ponics or other small system that has a single grow bed, but might not work as well with larger, multiple bed units.

I am not an engineer, so these challenges vex me terribly.   I want to know that in the event of an extended electricity outage that we can continue to use fish and plants together to assist in Our Edible Suburb.

A workaround might be to drain 20 or 30 percent of a tank on a daily basis, use the water to water traditional raised beds and replace the tank water with dechlorinated tap water, well water or captured rain water.  If the tank is large enough and the stocking density low enough, this might work during warmer weather as long as enough water is turned over daily to prevent ammonia build up in the fish tank or to cause oxygen to be lost.  A simple siphon  running from the tank up into a bucket filled with filter media that drains directly into the  fish tank, might just eliminate both of those problems.

As you can see, I have more questions than answers.  Aquaponic Gardening may very well be the chosen garden method of the future.  It has incredible potential. It has, though, a few steps to go, before it is truly sustainable.  Until then, we make compromises and try to become creative in our inventions.  Or, at the very least, to steal ideas form other people.  So, if you have any ideas I can steal, please feel free to share them…

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Here’s our first nursery tank filled and cycling.  It’s a 55 gallon system.  Ultimately it could support a great deal of veggies. For example, you could split a 55 gallon plastic barrel in half, create a grow bed in each half and this tank would feed it. That could produce a lot of food right there.  We also have a 75 gallon tank and two 20 gallons ones.  These will mostly be for housing our breeding fish.  We have a 300 gallon system ready to be put together and will get to it shortly.  Next weekend we’re going to drive north about an hour had get some IBC totes and plastic barrels to convert into diy systems.  Brittan is very excited because she gets to break out the power tools.  Love that woman!

 

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I’ve had a few problems with my first two aquaponics gardens.  Frankly I had better luck last summer when I was floating basil right in the goldfish tank similar to a floating raft tank.  I liked that so much, I may do another one.

Tonight, I took the earthbox off of the aquarium and set it up as a traditional self watering container to see if I can save the cauliflower.  The fish tank was not producing enough nutrients for the cauliflower and I couldn’t seem to get the ph up high enough either.  The biggest problem, though was heat.  Our sun room is still getting too hot in the day and the leaves cooked.  I think I can save two of the plants, though.

When I was moving the earthbox, some of the water from the reservoir spilled into the fish tank.  The chelated iron from the reservoir really clouded up the tank.  I think I will take the opportunity tomorrow to remove the fish, clean the tank and start it over.  I have some starter bacteria and a fresh pad for the biofilter, so I will just do it. I think I will even remove the gravel, but I may use some of it as bacteria starter for the Goldfish Tower.

By starting over, I might be able to get the ph above 5.5 finally.  I’d like to get it to 6.5, but even 6 would help.  I’m not discouraged.  In fact, I’m really glad I’m making these mistakes with goldfish.

The other lesson I’ve learned is to stick with herbs and greens with the goldfish gardens. We’ll save the bigger plants for the Tilapia.

Tomorrow is a new beginning.

 

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After one day of cycling, it is obvious that the small pump/hydroton grow media combination will not work in this system.  The clay pebbles are dry as a bone.  I am going to take out about 75% of the pebbles.  I will leave a layer in the bottom of each tray to assist drainage, but will replace the rest with coconut coir.  I am pretty sure the wicking potential of the coir will keep the beds moist.  The coir I’m using in my earthboxes is doing a splendid job of wicking and getting moisture to the plants.  So tomorrow we start work on version 1.1.

 

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