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Posts Tagged ‘hydroponic gardening’

 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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

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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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Full Disclosure: I was trying to figure out how to keep my YouTube videos from being letterbox. The good news: it worked. Stay tuned for more hydroponics information.

http://tinyurl.com/qfy83jp

 

 

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Zephyr Squash. Did it make the list?

Zephyr Squash. Did it make the list?

As I was looking through my seed library the other day, I finally accepted the reality that I’m a hoarder. I not only have seeds for varieties I’ve never planted, I have seeds of things I’m not even sure what they are.

Mostly though, the excess comes from the fact that while I know I’m going to grow certain standard, favorite varieties, I like to try a few new things each year. Unfortunately, seed packets come with too many seeds for most of my ‘tests’, so I end up with lots of left overs.

Seed catalogs don’t help. All they do is make me want to try more and more, encouraging my experimental nature and feeding my hoarding tendencies.

In nearly every type of fruit and vegetable, there are so many varieties to choose from, I could almost become indecisive. If that’s true for an experienced gardener like me, what’s a beginner supposed to do?

Since ‘Our Edible Suburb’ attracts a large number of beginning gardeners in addition to all you crazy garden addicts, I decided it would be a good idea to add a new twist and review new varieties from time to time. I will do the reviews as YouTube videos and link to them here on the blog. I’m kind of excited about it. Stay tuned.

Today, though, I’m going to highlight some varieties that would be my pick if I could only grow one type of each veg. To be fair, these might not necessarily be my favorite, but for one reason or another, if I could grow only one, these would be my choices.

  1. Tomato. Most years I grow from 15 to 30 varieties because Brittan and I love tomatoes. We love them
    Large Red Cherry Tomatoes

    Large Red Cherry Tomatoes

    fresh, canned and dried.  We like to can as much of our own sauce and paste as possible, and variety is the spice of live.  I would be hard pressed to choose my favorite, though ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’ comes to mind as a real possibility. If I could only grow one variety it would be ‘Large Red Cherry’.  Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Large Red cherry is an indeterminate variety so it keeps growing and producing all season. The tomatoes grow in nice clusters of usually 4 to 8 one to two inch fruits. They are full of great tomato flavor, with enough juiciness to enjoy fresh, but meaty enough for roasting, grilling or canning.  They are small enough to put in your salad, yet just big enough to slice onto your summer sandwich. The plants are extremely hardy and seem to be resistant to blossom end rot.  And, because they are indeterminate, they get lots of suckers, so I’m able to get all the cuttings I want for second season tomatoes (yes, we have two seasons here. Three if you start your seeds in a greenhouse in January, like I do.)

  2. Hot Pepper. Everyone who has read this blog for very long knows I’m a true heat lover. Growing hot peppers is my very favorite part of gardening. I grow a wide variety of them, from Early Prolific
    Biker Billy Jalapenos

    Biker Billy Jalapenos

    Jalapenos to Carolina Reapers, and I think I love them all.  If someone stuck a gun to my head, I would say yellow Jolokia (ghost peppers) or yellow Moruga Scorpions are my favorite and that Serrano peppers are the most versatile for cooking.  If, though, I could only grow ONE hot pepper, I would choose the ‘Biker Billy Hybrid’ Jalapeno. Biker Billy’s are prolific producers with a heat level somewhere between a Cayenne and a Habanero.   They make outstanding poppers, and if allowed to completely ripen are great for roasting. They make a darned fine pepper jelly.

  3. Sweet Pepper. I’m only just now learning to appreciate all the nuances of the different sweet peppers, having spent most of my gardening years thinking ‘a sweet pepper is a sweet pepper’. Though I have grown several varieties, I’ve grown mostly California Wonder and other mixed colored Bells. Still, if I was limited to only one variety, I would choose the Giant Aconcagua, due to its size, versatility and sweetness. Aconcaguas are the perfect stuffing or roasting peppers and are fantastic sliced into rings for a salad.
  4. Zucchini. This one is really easy for me. I would choose Partenon hands down if I only had one choice. That’s because I’m really lazy and Partenon has been bulletproof in the three years I’ve grown it. Partenon is, as the name suggests, Parthenocarpic, meaning it can grow fruit without pollination. Because of this, I can plant early and often.  I frequently start planting in January in my greenhouse and with a good plan for sequential planting I can harvest through Thanksgiving.
  5. Cucumbers. Right now I would choose Socrates for the same reasons I’d select Partenon as my Zucchini/Squash.  Plus, the plants produce heavy numbers of cucumbers, so it only takes a few plants to keep us in Cukes all year. I love cucumbers and truly enjoy many varieties, but Socrates would be my pick if I could only grow one type.
  6. Beans. I’m not sure I could name all the varieties of beans I’ve grown over the years. It’s mind boggling to think about how many kinds there are. I know most people seem to prefer pole beans for small spaces, but I’m a bush bean guy. I like the low maintenance and the fact that I can continuously plant in different parts of the garden after other crops finish, which is good for the soil and good for our larder.  As I thought through which would be my ONE choice, I came up with a tie, because ‘beans’ is such a generic term. I would pick Fordhook Lima and Kentucky Wonder, both in their bush varieties.
  7. Lettuce.  I absolutely hate salad. In fact, I don’t have the vocabulary to describe how badly I hate salad. But I love growing lettuce more than I hate eating it. I enjoy growing ‘blends’ because there are so many surprises that come from the seed packets. Romaines are fun because they get so big and impressive in the garden. Buttercrunch is another visually appealing variety, but if I could choose only one, it would be Black Seeded Simpson. BSS is a well known, but often neglected heirloom. It can be picked as a leaf lettuce or grown out as a head lettuce. It grows beautifully, gets quite large, and for a lettuce, tastes pretty good.
  8. Cabbage is almost too easy to include. My choice would be Baby Bok Choy. It is ready for harvest about 30 days after germination. It germinates easily and I can grow it all year in my hydroponics systems.
  9. Potatoes. I know that potatoes seem to be politically incorrect in our low carb world, but I think that’s rubbish. If potatoes are grown organically, they are full of vitamins and minerals to keep us healthy and the right kinds of carbs to keep our energy levels high during those winter months when we need plenty of fuel to stay warm.  The pages of history are filled with stories of societies and people groups that have been literally saved from extinction because of the lowly spud.  And if I could choose only one type, it would be Yukon Gold. It grows well, has a good balance in its texture, tastes great and is versatile in how it can be adapted for cooking.
  10. Herbs. I think I’ll make this the last one for this entry, because it’s getting pretty wordy. I don’t think there is a single herb I dislike. Some are tastier than others. Some are prettier than others, but all are wonderful additions to our gardens, larders and/or medicine cabinets. If I had to limit myself, I would
    Oregano

    Oregano

    choose Sweet Basil from that family, Garden Thyme from the thymes and Common Oregano.  All are beautiful, fragrant and delicious.

Ok, it’s time to stop. There’s just not enough time to cover every type of vegetable. Perhaps I’ll come back to this theme another time.  If you’ve read through to the end, I hope you’ve heard some of your favorites and maybe learned of some new ones. Now it’s your turn because I’m desperate to hear about your favorite varieties.  Please add your comments and share what tickles your taste buds and shows up regularly in your garden.

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I’ve been wanting to play with hydroponic gardening for a couple years now, and I’ve finally broken down and put together a simple experiment featuring a deep water culture bucket.  The set up was very easy.

Bucket and Bubbler

Bucket and Bubbler

1. I filled a ‘Homer’ bucket with water and removed the chlorine and chloramines with a simple tap water conditioner used for aquariums.

2. I added a bubbler to keep the water oxygenated.  Again, this was a simple aquarium air pump and air stone I had laying around.

3. Because the water pH here is a bit high for plants, I buffered it a little with pH Down.

4. Next step was to mix a half strength solution of liquid seaweed and fish fertilizer. Remember, we try

and do things organically here, so I wanted to use natural nutrients.

Liquid Seaweed

Liquid Seaweed

5. While the nutrient solution bubbled away, I took a hole saw and cut 4 holes (just big enough to fit a 2 inch net cup) in a bucket lid and made sure the water came just barely inside the net cup.

Net Pot6. The last step was to take some Baby Bok Choy seedlings I started in vermiculite a couple weeks ago, and plant them in the net cups, using expanded clay pebbles (hydroton) as support for the seedlings.

And that’s pretty much all there is to it. Because I’m using liquid seaweed and Fish Emulsion, I’m not going to have to worry about salt build up in the water, so top ups should be pretty easy.Planted

Have you tried to grow plants hydroponically?  If so, what kind of results did you get? I’m curious.

Remember all comments during March are going into a drawing to receive a copy of Ed Smith’s great book, “Incredible Vegetables in Self Watering Containers.” Happy growing, everyone.

 

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