Now that I’ve said goodbye to the year 2014 (you really sucked after the first three months), I can move on to the new year 2015. Let’s hope you do better than the year before.
Since it’s a new year, I decided to begin something new, or to be more precise, to bring that something back to how it was before. I’m talking about my current hydroponic system which I’ve used for growing lettuce and right now, basil and peppers. After meeting up with my adviser/professor/business partner whose idea it was to sell the herbs as produce rather than the plant itself, I knew I had to revert my hydroponic setup back to an aquaponic one. We agreed that being ‘organic’ as much as possible is a choice that is too good to pass up on, both as a practice and as a selling point. I realized that if we…
We have been in our greenhouse now for a couple of months with
our aquaponics setup. It has gone very well and we are starting to get some small growth from our herbs, cherry tomatoes, radishes and other plants in our existing two grow beds. Now is the time to add our 3rd tank and bed, which we decided would be a constant height system vs the fill & drain systems we currently have installed.
We would have to put the new tank in a corner by the equipment door opening, so I had to run new electric outlets over to the area before I could set a tank in. SInce I don’t touch electric-even dead electric, my neighbor and brother-in-law were nice enough to do the installation for me, while I worked on the tank.
Adding the new tank in the corner meant also that it will get the least amount of sunlight throughout the day. With less sunlight and being a constant height aquaponics system, the growth in the bed will be primarily cooler or shady plants-so a lot of leafy greens and maybe some celery.
Since I already had an extra grow bed I could use from a previous tank conversion, I decided I would keep the IBC tank as whole as possible to allow for larger water storage, thus more tilapia. I only cut about half the top and a little of the front, just enough for me to be able to work with my tilapia as needed. This will allow me keep about 200 gallons of water in the tank at all times.
Once the electric was done, the rest was pretty easy: move tank and grow bed into place, then add all peripherals (heater, aerator and pump). It all turned out pretty good but now I did have the problem of adding some type of filtration since the constant height system does not automatically filter like a fill & drain system.
I came up with 3-stage filter system that seems like it will work pretty well. I won’t go into length on it now, but you can see how I built it by going to the above link.
This completed the installation of the third-and last- tank for the greenhouse, but we do have planned many more growth opportunities, including a gutter garden and vertical gardening…..so stay tuned for later updates.
In moving forward in our aquaponics adventure in the greenhouse, my next step was to build a constant height system vs the fill & drain systems (See previous post for explanation of each) that I had previously built. One issue which presented itself was that an additional piece
would have to be added-some kind of filtration system, since the constant height grow bed has no grow media-only water. with foam rafts. Putting the brain to work, I came up with a plan to build an inexpensive 3-stage filter.
The first stage would have to remove solid waste, followed by a second stage to remove smaller impurities. The third stage was the most important, being that it would not only filter but grow necessary bacteria to return to the fish, known as a bio-filter.
I started with a 5 gallon bucket. The
bottom of the bucket would serve as a swirl filter for solid’s extraction, which would need a water inlet near the bottom. Drilling a hole and using a uni-seal for 1/2″ PVC, I inserted an inlet pipe, adding a 1/2″ 90 inside to promote the swirl in the bucket base.
From here, I would need something very sturdy to keep the base of the bucket open-for swirl process, yet be able to hold the weight of the foam and bio-filter: enter hardware cloth. The hardware cloth would add enough stability in the base of the bucket to support the weight of the next two stages. I cut the hardware cloth into a large “X” leaving a circle in the center the
same size as the internal dimension of the
bucket. I then folded the legs of the “X” to make a table of about 4″ high, which would fit down tightly inside of bucket.
This was the hardest section to do, working with the hardware cloth. The next step would be the foam filter, which would be as simple as cutting a round piece of foam to fit tightly inside bucket on top of table.
Once the foam was in place, it was simply a matter of rinsing my bio-media and adding about a 6″ layer on top of the foam filter. This completed the 3 stages of the filter, which left me with only a way to pump the filtered water back into the grow bed.
My initial thought was to use a gamma-seal lid and pressurize the filter from the pump so it would flow from the lid of the bucket back to the tank. Unfortunately, even a gamma-seal could not hold the pressure and leaked horribly. I mean this as no detriment to gamma-seal’s as they are great for food storage etc, but just could not maintain a seal under pressure.
So rethinking, I just added a 1″ drain through the top portion of the bucket and positioned the bucket so it could just flow back into the grow bed.
The filter has been hooked up now for a full day and seems to run just fine. I will be adding some gold fish to the system today to start getting the ammonia and ph balance right before I add my tilapia fish next week.
We recently had the opportunity to visit the Cylburn Arboretum Aquaponics Project. Cylburn Arboretum is 200 acres of open space, beauty, and learning located in northern Baltimore City. The Mansion and grounds are maintained by an association to ensure the preservation, enhancement, and interpretation of the site’s gardens, woodlands, historic buildings and collections as educational, environmental, and recreational. Although the mansion and grounds are beautiful, we focused our day on the aquaponics project, vowing to come back in the spring as all the gardens begin to bloom.
Our interest in the aquaponics project stemmed from seeing a more commercialized operation, as well as learning more about growing tilapia fish, since that is their fish of choice also. I was impressed with the size of the tilapia they had-ranging from 3-5# each at about 2 years old. One great reason to grow tilapia (other than the great taste) is their quick growth rate.
The large hoop barn which housed the system was well laid out. Utilizing both fill & drain and constant height aquaponics sytems. Two extremely large constant height systems (some call them raft systems, because of the use of styrofoam rafts for planting) encompassed the entire left side of the hoop barn.
The fill and drain system was much smaller on the right and was the first thing you saw upon entering. The remaining space housed the fish tanks and solids & bio-filter’s. Bio-filter’s are a media (grow-stone, clay pellets, or plastic bio-balls) which grows necessary bacteria for the fish to survive in the system.
All in all is was a great day to have the opportunity to see another aquaponic system, giving us more ideas for our own. If you are ever in the Baltimore area, I recommend a visit to the Arboretum, especially in the spring or fall time of year!
In my previous post, “Preparing for Spring?”, I spoke of the need to get the garden beds ready this fall for next spring planting. So my garden beds are ready, but prepping for spring is far from over.
Of course with our new greenhouse and our aquaponics setup we are year round growers now, but the winter plans for the spring plantings must still happen to insure we get 2-3 grow cycles from our garden beds next season.
We traditionally start right after the first of the year pre-planting
in grower packs, toilet paper tubes or gallon milk jugs. Yes I said toilet paper tubes! They make great seed starters because when it is time to plant in the ground, the entire tube with plant is buried. The paper will break down and compost quickly.
Plastic gallon milk jugs make a great mini-greenhouse and can
allow for some (cooler crop hardy) winter growing. These are great for your lettuces, spinach, kale, arugula & mescaline.Using these are easy, just cut the gallon jug in half-not completely, just enough that you can hinge it open towork inside. Add your grow media, then your seeds. Close the top and seal the jug back with a strong tape-duct, packing, etc.
Water and watch, you will see quick sprouting, then handle as you would any container garden or transplant . We have started many of our spring plantings this way in the winter.
This year was a little different since this is the first winter with the greenhouse.Normally we start our growing on a rack in the master bedroom. (It gets the most natural winter light in the house), but this year we have already started our growing because we have plenty of room in the greenhouse to start them.
We start with our own seeds from last years crop-keeping and drying the seeds from the best plants of the year. When we seed harvest each year, we also keep a few seeds back in the freezer, just in case we need them for some unknown reason.
The seeds are added to an organic compost that we produce, and put into grower packs or inside toilet paper tubes. As they start to sprout, we can identify non-growers and replant those so we insure plenty of growth for our need and a couple of neighbors that we do starts for. This usually means by mid-March we have around 500 plants to go in the ground.
For this year (2015 spring planting) we have already started our
planters, since some will go to the aquaponics system. The rest can be transplanted in a pot if they get too big before they can go to garden, but they can stay in the greenhouse until we can get them in the ground.
Getting plants started this early helps us to extend our outdoor grow season. Usually where most gardeners can only run one harvest on longer grow vegetables, we
can many times get two separate harvests-one mid to late summer and one late fall.
At harvest, our crops are handled one of 4 ways:
1) Eaten immediately
Most harvests will yield us 1-2 years of product, so if we have a “bad” year on a particular vegetable, hopefully we will have enough from the previous year preserved.
Regardless of how foods end up, it is imperative that we start as planned to gain the most value from a planting season. So starting plants early to mid January is a normal happening around our little suburban homestead.
Most people think that gardening begins when the weather breaks after a nasty winter, but most likely they are not gardeners. Any true gardener knows that preparing for a successful harvest means preparing in the late fall-early winter for the NEXT harvest season. Outside garden beds which in most cases just lay fallow all winter, must be properly “put to sleep” to insure that vital nutrients are available for the planting in the spring.
After the harvest in the fall when weather will no longer allow us to plant in our region, we begin the garden hibernation
process. Actually we involve many of our neighbors, because they know we want all fallen leaves and grass clippings from their yard. They happily cut, rake, blow and bag as they would every year, but instead of setting it out for the trash or going to the dump they call me. I will gladly stop by and pick up all bags. Why? Because leaf and grass clippings make a great garden bed cover for winter!
Processing for use is simple. I just get out my mulching lawnmower, open the bags, and mulch away! Mulching the grass and leaves into very small pieces will allow for maximum composting over the winter.
The only other ingredient I add is the
manure/hay mix from our rabbits. This is one great reason to keep rabbits as their manure is highly compostable and rich in N-P-K. (Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium).
As a side note: I believe chickens are better than rabbits as they are much more beneficial to gardening overall than rabbits. If you have followed our other posts, you already know why we have rabbits instead of chickens. If not, read: Saving Buffy our year old Orpington
After processing I spread the mixture across our garden beds to
lay all winter. This mixture will compost down over the winter and in spring afford us some nutrient rich soil. Many years, I have also sown winter wheat and hairy vetch into the mixture which in spring is just cut and mixed into soil to further enrich the spring soil.
Now my garden beds are ready for their winter sleep, waking in spring energized, enriched for a great spring planting!
I cannot believe how hard it is to carve out just a few minutes just to post updates on our little suburban homestead. In retirement, I find I have less time than when I worked full-time+. Thinking back, I wonder how I ever found time to work a job? But that is not what this post is about, so let’s get on topic. I wanted to update the progress of the aquaponics systems since our greenhouse was completed.
Our first attempt was pretty shabby to say the least, but it did work well enough for me to want to continue to develop the perfect tank for us. Over the past two years I have developed a very good working system that has become quite popular regionally. We have built 100’s of tanks now for several people in the mid-Atlantic states, which has given me great opportunity for R&D with trial application. Although it was not my intent to build tanks for others, it did afford me the opportunity to fund our greenhouse to completion, including our own tank systems.
The tanks I have been building use a “fill & drain” system, meaning that the grow bed is filled with a non-soil grow media (grow stone, expanded shale, clay pellets) and the water is pumped from the fish tank into the grow bed to filter through the media and plant roots. When the water reaches a certain height, the grow bed will then drain all the filtered water back into the fish tank. Then the cycle begins again, thus fill & drain.
Now that we are actually in the greenhouse, we have expanded to a
2 tank system. We are still growing only tilapia fish, even though we have discussed adding possibly catfish to the setup. I believe with the tanks we have and the education I have gained on tilapia it is best to stick with what we know works.
I am currently working to build a third. Because of the layout of the greenhouse and space consideration, the third tank has to be custom built to accommodate the “extra’s” I want to add on it.
The third tank will be a “constant height” system versus the fill & drain. No grow media is used in this tank, as the water will remain at a constant height always. A styrofoam raft will be used for plant placement which keeps plant roots in the water at all times. I will talk about this system more when I build it and have it in place.
This tank will be set in a corner that get’s less sun than the rest of
the greenhouse. Because of this, our plan is to only grow cooler, less sun exposure plants, primarily leafy greens. Lettuce, spinach, arugula, and mescaline will all lend well to this tank. Because of the location I have to put it in, I decided that it would also work well to feed my future “gutter garden”. I will post more on this later.
Still a lot to do, but we have come a long way since we started. Be sure to follow the blog, as in my next few posts I will be expanding on the raft system, gutter garden, and showing our new vertical gardens.
This has been one tough summer and fall. It seems that the more I worked this year, the further behind I got, Needless to say, my postings the last few months have suffered, or should I say been non-existent. But here I am. In the last few days, I have had a little time to start concentrating again on catching up the the post’s I had planned.
Several have asked how the greenhouse was coming along, since this was my major project this year. I must say that I am pretty happy with the exterior which completed phase 1. But now we have been focusing on the inside: plumbing, electric, and heat.
These have been major undertakings, but we have now completed them and have added our aquaponics tanks.
We are still in the process of “cycling” our aquaponics tanks to get the proper bacteria forming on the grow media. The ph, nitrites, and and nitrates must be in range before we can add our tilapia stock, but all is coming along.
The first tank seemed to be pretty good so I added 5 of my adult tilapia and after 3 days, they are doing very well. We also added just a few plants (herbs) to the grow bed to help with bacteria growth and filtration.
Since the tanks for tilapia must be maintained
at a constant temperature, I am still using electric heaters to insure the temperature never goes below 70 degrees. Most of the time the tanks are maintained at 85 degrees.
I did take the time also to add a strawberry barrel to the greenhouse, so we should have some fresh strawberries before long. That will be a nice addition this winter!
Well with winter setting in on the mid-atlantic region and the almanac calling for a cold, wet winter, I am glad I was able to get this project completed. I can comfortably work in the greenhouse all winter and have some great fresh vegetables and tilapia all year!
Last winter was tough for many in the northeast with the polar vortex. Unfortunately, just because the winter of 2013-14 is over and 2014-2015 is starting, many are still paying for the cold weather last year.
Utility rates in the northeast have skyrocketed in some cases, but it seems that those in Massachusetts are among the hardest hit. National Grid was approved as of November 1 to an increased rate to 16.18 cents per kwh-nearly double the previous rate.
The Boston Globe reports an expected 29% increase in the Nstar rates-from 8.379 to 14.972 cents per kwh.
These two are among the highest increases out there and it seems, at least NatGrid, is expecting this trend to continue!
Fortunately, there is an answer, you don’t have to accept these utility rates! You can lock in a great savings rate of 11.99 for the NEXT THREE YEARS if you act before November 30, 2014.