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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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moresquash

Earthbox Self Watering Containers

I need to ask your forgiveness. I followed some very bad advice in my container garden this year, and worse, I passed on the information before I tested it. I trusted the source and just ran with the idea. What a mess I made. For once, I hope you ignored my advice. If you listened, I hope the things I’ve learned will help you fix any problems you might be having.

Regular readers know I love wicking beds and self-watering containers. I use them almost exclusively now. They are easy to build and are extremely water efficient. Last year, I even learned that if you have good wicking action, you can top water and don’t need to worry about the fill tube.

Over the winter, the same source who found that top watering was ok, also posted that you don’t need to have rocks or other ‘reservoir’ in the bottom as long as you have good drainage. I got very excited about that and built all my 2014 self-watering containers that way. And…I taught the method in a Gardening 101 workshop this past spring. Who does that? Who passes on a gardening tip that he hasn’t tested? Well, I did.

The results have been disastrous. All the containers I built this way have had poor results: stunted and dying plants. I am getting terrible anaerobic activity in the bottoms of the buckets and containers. It’s a mess. I’m in the process of fixing it now. Fortunately, I only have about 20 containers built this way, mostly buckets, to deal with, so it isn’t too labor intensive.

First, I want to apologize to everyone who listened to me and implemented this. I was WRONG. I should not have recommended something I had not proven out. Please forgive me.

Now for the good news: It’s an easy fix unless you built a huge wicking bed this way. If you stuck to containers like I did, there are two ways to correct it mid growing season. One is to simply pick up the bucket and drill holes in the bottom, or if the plant is too big, drill a hole as close to the bottom as possible. The excess water will drain out and the anaerobic activity will slowly cease.

SAMSUNGAlternatively, you can do what I did. I started over. I emptied the buckets into a wheelbarrow (what a stink. Anaerobic soil is foul.). I added fresh soil conditioner and planting mix to it to freshen it. While it rested and drained for a few minutes, I filled the buckets up to the drain hole with lava rock that I got from a Big Box Store. I put a layer of landscape fabric over the rocks and refilled the bucket with planting mix. Simple.

As a control, I emptied two buckets that had been built the right way (as described in the paragraph above). They needed to be replanted because the pigs had eaten the tomatoes out of them. When I emptied them, there was no bad smell, drainage was good and

landscape fabric as wicking material

landscape fabric as wicking material

the plants had strong root growth.

Lesson learned.

I love to hear from you and so do other readers. Please feel free to respond with your own garden mistakes and how you dealt with them.

 

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Photo comes from theaquaponicsource.com

Photo comes from theaquaponicsource.com

Two weeks ago, I was at my wit’s end with, and over, the whole Aquaponics thing. I threw up my hands and said, “I’m done. The end. El fin.” And probably a few other things, not ready for prime time.

The first two or two and a half years of my Aquaponics journey had been rather positive.  Sure, I’d had some problems, but I had successfully kept a batch of Tilapia, Bluegill, and Catfish alive, while raising loads of herbs, okra, duckweed and KangKong in the grow beds. Using water from filter changes and routine partial water exchanges, I had successfully grown a number of plants in self watering containers. I had even saved a small naval orange tree and a pineapple plant from the brink of death and watched them bear fruit. Life was good in Aquaponicsville.

Late last summer, though, things just went to…, um, er, well, lets just say they went south.  I had filter problems, pump problems, plumbing problems and even predator problems (it turns out, we have wetlands right behind us, complete with blue herons. You can figure out the rest).  I lost a lot of fish and spent days and days working on my systems.

Just when everything seemed to be gaining traction again, we were visited by the coldest winter in Georgia since 1912. My greenhouse isn’t heated, so I use aquarium heaters in the winter water. During normal winters, that’s not a big deal. This year, though, it was a nightmare. The water heaters just couldn’t keep up, but my electric bill sure did.

The cold kept the beneficial bacteria from growing, so it was very difficult to keep the water clean. In the end, my fish died and I was not happy. I had towel in hand and was ready to toss it into the ring and surrender, when my moment of enlightenment came. I had my priorities all bassackwards and was working too hard towards the wrong goals.

I have been pursuing fish as the end game, which is not my real priority in Aquaponics Gardening. Brittan and I don’t eat that much fish, and our market is fairly limited. The stress of trying to keep fish alive all winter was totally unnecessary.

To a large degree, even the plants we grow in the system, aren’t the end game, either.  They are  important to our operation, but the ones we raise in our growbeds are mostly there to take up some of the excess nutrients created by the beneficial bacteria.  In truth, I’m using Aquaponics to farm nutrient rich water, which in turn, grows the vegetables in both my Aquaponics growbeds and my wicking beds (self watering containers). Yes, the water is the end game, and I don’t need nutrient rich water in the winter time.

The moment the realization hit me, the lights came on in my head again and all the pressure melted away. Until my greenhouse is heated, Aquaponics gardening will be a seasonal venture.  I can raise just enough Tilapia to put in our freezer and sell a few of the excess and use twenty cent goldfish to run all my other systems.  After I harvest the Tilapia in late fall, I can bring the goldfish into the greenhouse, shut down the grow beds and overwinter the goldies in the big tank.  They can handle the cooler water.

I feel so much better now.  I didn’t want to give up on Aquaponics. I’ve never seen okra, basil or kangkong perform better than they do in aquaponics systems. I didn’t want to lose those results. Using the fish water in the wicking beds actually builds the soil rather than creating a toxic salt build up like some commercial nutrients do. On the other hand, I can’t go through another winter like this one, running up an electric bill, only to watch my Tilapia die off one by one in the frigid temps. Now that my priorities are back in focus, I don’t have to. Aquaponics is fun again!  I like fun.

 

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Cantaloupe

Cantaloupe

Just look at these cantaloupe plants.  They want to take over the world.  These little beauties are perfect illustrations of the power of aquaponics.  They are being grown in earthbox self-watering containers and are primarily being fed with water from my aquaponics systems.  How is that for awesome?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I do supplement with a dash of chelated iron and some Epsom salts, but that’s about it.  I am loving the results.

I forgot to take photos of the current state of our raft system but it is the perfect way to grow greens, herbs and okra.  Also, I had some tomato seedlings that were struggling in their starter trays, so I moved them to the raft aquaponics for a couple weeks and, BOOM, the growth was off the charts.  I transplanted them into their earthboxes and they are outperforming the plants I put directly into the boxes.  It’s incredible.

With that awareness, We are putting up a series of small systems throughout the garden to provide nutrients for all our containers and wicking beds.  We bought two 100 gallon stock tanks to be used as fish tanks and are using half barrels as filters/grow beds.

system being planted

system being planted

The systems, as you can see from the pics are simple, almost rudimentary.  The half barrels are just sitting on top of the tank and are used primarily as a bio filter.   A simple 40 watt submersible pump sends the water up into the grow beds where it is filtered by clay pebbles and lava rock and falls directly back into the fish tank.
As a side benefit, they will also grow plants.

One of my additions to these new units was to add a garden hose faucet to the water line.  This is cheaper than running a bunch of drip lines, but saves a lot of time and effort vs. filling watering cans.

Because it’s late in the season, I’m using comet goldfish in everything except the raft system which has catfish.  Next year each unit will have catfish and Tilapia.  We will also add some 500 gallon (2000 liter) tanks as well, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  I have a lot of electric lines I need to run before I can even think about a major expansion.  For now I’m just enjoying the power of poo; fish poo, that is.

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aquaponics greenhouse in progress

aquaponics greenhouse in progress

Our Edible Suburb has ALWAYS been about optimizing small spaces for gardening and farming.  We’ve also been focused on being good stewards of the earth and treating God’s creation with respect.  With each passing day, I become more convinced that Aquaponics and Aquaponics related methods are the key to the future of small space, back yard,  limited acreage and urban farming.  Aquaponic methods are water wise, energy efficient (though not yet fully sustainable, but we’re working on it) and kind to the earth.

The systems we’re designing and building now, utilize a combination of floating raft systems and self watering containers and their larger cousins, wicking beds.  Wicking beds of different sizes use only a fraction of the water of traditional earth gardens or raised beds.  Because the water stays in the system there is no leaching or runoff.  By utilizing captured rainwater we can minimize city, county or well water use as well.  And by composting our donkey and rabbit manure as well as using coconut coir rather than peat, we have extremely sustainable sources for our growing media.

Plants can be much closer together because they don’t have to compete for nutrients.  There are plenty to go around.  The earth is not destroyed.  There is no tilling to erode topsoil.  There are no chemical fertilizers to damage ground water and chemical pesticides are not necessary to control pests.  Imagine for a moment, a bed full of summer squash with no squash bugs to fight.  That is entirely possible with an aquaponics system.

B and I have realized that on our 6.5 acres with our dairy goats, rabbits, pigs and aquaponics systems we can produce around a ton of pork, half a ton of goat meat, a ton of tilapia and redclaw crawfish and many thousands of pounds of vegetables and fruit.  We will even be able to keep a dairy cow and an annual feeder calf.  I can”t calculate the milk products and by-products like soap yet, because we’re just too new in that field, but the potential is very high.  I haven’t even touched on rabbit meat, chickens, eggs, turkeys, worms or compost.  The potential is mind boggling.

It will be a slow process, because we don’t do debt and we don’t have any investors, but the future is very bright.  Our goal continues to be to ‘feed the world while we heal the earth’, but we also want to teach others how to do the same.  I am convinced that the average American family can cut their food bills in half by growing some of their own food.  I believe this is possible with a space as small as the average back deck.  And again, aquaponics systems are the key to that belief.  Stay tuned for details on an upcoming e-book on that subject.

Have you tried your had at aquaponic gardening yet?  Have you considered it?  Would you consider it?  Would you buy Tilapia, crawfish and ‘fresh water lobster’ from a local provider if it was available?  I’d love to hear your experiences and your thoughts.  Please do share.

 

 

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Wow, between my day job, annoying some people with my conservative libertarian political blogging over at http://www.samburtononline.com and dealing with the bulging discs and pinched nerves in my neck, it’s been more than a while since I’ve been here.  Looking over the site stats, I see that some of you have continued to check in regularly and we have some new readers.  You all rock.  Thank you for your faithfulness.

I just spent some time reviewing and approving a bunch of comments on old posts.  Please forgive me for being so delinquent.  I really have been ill.  Some days, by the time I get home from work, it’s all I can do to get into my chair.

For those who don’t know, and who care, I have 5 bulging discs in my neck and the nerves are being seriously pinched at C6 and moderately at C7.  After 12 weeks of tests and waiting, I’m finally receiving treatment.  I have tried to keep up my end of the work at the farm, but poor B has had more than her fair share to do.  She’s amazing.  I am able to help get animals fed and to do some other minor projects, but many of the big jobs are on hold for a while yet.  Hopefully, the panel of doctors attending me (and collecting a fortune in co pays) will have me fighting fit in the very near future.

Ok, enough with the sob story and apologies, we are expecting 2013 to be an outstanding year.  We are increasing the number of goats we’re milking (we’re = Brittan) from 3 to 7 and we’re re starting our rabbit breeding.  If the rabbits will ever breed, that is (don’t ask, I’ll tell you in a future post).  I have designed some new aquaponics units to build from recycled materials and this year’s garden will likely be entirely a combination of aquaponics and various kinds of self watering containers.  Water conservation is my next big experiment.

New DonkeyNext week I will try and begin keeping you better informed about our adventures and misadventures as Our Edible Suburb goes country.  In the meantime, take a gander at the first 2013 addition to East of Eden Farms.  Shylo (with some brief early help from Romeo) gave us another beautiful jennet foal, born yesterday.  She is gorgeous, isn’t she?  The little lovely still doesn’t have a name, so if you have any suggestions, please feel free to pass them along in the comments.  We love hearing from you.

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