Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Aquaponics in November in a Hoophouse in the PNW

I'm sure everyone is dying to know what's happening in an aquaponic hoophouse in November. You have questions like, "are the fish freezing?" "Are the tomatoes freezing?" "Did you take care of the moisture problem?" Things like that. So here I am to answer all your burning questions.

The fish are happy as clams. As you will recall, they were born shortly before July 18, 2012, so they are now almost exactly 4 months old. According to what we have been told, they should be ready to eat in 5 more months. They'd make a pretty small meal right now; most are about 4 inches long or so. They also could start making babies, even at a young age, but we haven't seen any yet. Though I'm not sure we would without a magnifying glass anyway.

They will not freeze as long as Jeff keeps stoking the fire that heats their water. He keeps their water temperature around 70 degrees, but they have had water temperatures as low as 60! They survive lower temperatures, but will stop eating, and, obviously, not grow as fast. And not poop, I might add, thus not feed the plants.

Everything in the greenhouse is growing very quickly and greenly - obviously there's a lot of nitrogen access to those roots! If you ever wondered what a tomato would look like if it could keep growing through the winter, well, I can say that they are a weed! They are winding everywhere. Exploding would be a good word. However, their fruit is ripening very slowly now, and there are fewer of them. I am guessing this is due to the reduced temperatures and reduced hours of daylight.

Today I was trying to trim them and string them and control them somehow - they are so unruly. My hair got caught in one of the fans and I fell into a White Currant tomato vine. So I took it out. White Currants aren't my favorite anyway. They're ok, and kind of interesting looking in a bowl of mixed small tomatoes (we have Chocolate, Sungold, White Currant, Jolly Elf Grape, and Sweet One Millions), but though they're sweet, they get soft quickly.
November 13, 2012  On the ground is the removed tomato plant with root system sitting on top

June 26, 2012 - these are the same tomatoes  on planting day. They were almost dead from waiting to  be planted.
We still have the moisture problem, but the moisture doesn't seem to be settling on the plants like it was.  Jeff put in more fans and covered the fish tanks. We still get "rained" on every time we bump the roof or close the door firmly, but the basil isn't rotting anymore. In fact, every plant looks very happy, like it's not even November!

So now you know everything you always wanted to know about an aquaponic hoophouse in November. :)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Hoophouse in October

For us, Fall began on Friday. Though outside night time temps have dropped below freezing a couple times already, the rain began just 2 days ago. And this is how fall has affected the greenhouse. It's WET! Huge droplets of water tremble above our heads, splatting on us when they're too heavy to hang on. When it rains, it rains inside too; the drops shake off the inside of the plastic.

So we don't like this of course. We're trying to figure out a solution. A second layer of plastic, stretched just an inch above the existing layer, is our first plan. (Should have done it when it was dry!) The fans are already fanning - doesn't seem to change anything. Tomorrow I'll try wiping the insides with a big shammy on a stick, and wring it out outside. Jeff's installing the heater with fan, as I write. Somehow the boiler will be heating the greenhouse - hmmm, not sure how, a Jeff thing. We've been feeding wood to the boiler for awhile now, to keep the water around 70 degrees for the fish. We covered the fish tanks, hoping to eliminate some evaporation. 

The good thing about the rain - all our rain tanks are full again! When we had a water loss this summer we had to use city water and wait 3 days for it to de-gas because we had no rain water left. 

Thanks to Angela for feeding the fish and the boiler when we're gone - seems we've been gone a lot this fall, with one thing and another - got to stop that! Angela had to use the tractor and go get wood, and shove it all in there, and break it up to fit, and get her hair all smokey - twice a day! All of you who plan to start your backyard systems - buy a solar heating unit - that's my female opinion! Or maybe one of those cute little pellet stoves they're selling for this purpose. 
But thanks to Angela and Alister the fish are fat and happy. Two weeks ago, Alister was giving a tour to an interested party. 
"And here are the fish, in these tanks here, oops tour is over." 
A pipe had blown, and the fish were gasping at the bottom of the tank. They were saved by the two of them running buckets of water back and forth from the sump.  The pipe blew at the sump, where it gets quite a jolt of pressure each time the pump comes on. Fixed now.
These are some tough fish, let me tell you!
And here is their first photo: 

Pretty terrible photo! Need an underwater camera! But you can see the variety of sizes. Weird how they grow at such different rates. We'll probably have to size and separate them at some point. 

We're feeling a little ignorant about fish-raising (aquatics). Jeff is working on going to a one day intensive seminar at the end of the month on raising fish, and also on greenhouse environmental management. 

About 2 or 3 weeks ago, everything started to really take off at a new speed. The tomatoes I almost threw out because I thought they must have blight,now have lots of new growth on them. Some of the tomatoes are maxing out the height of the greenhouse and more. The basil and lettuce, which were kind of stalled for awhile (temperatures too high??) have grown inches in days. 
I'm not sure why this is. The chemistry is about the same, except the nitrates are lower due to our most recent water loss. And I've only given the system one shot of maxicrop - right after the water loss. 

I'll leave all the heat lovers in while they're still loving it, but I also planted lots of cool weather plants today - broccoli, kale, cauliflower, lettuces, spinach, arugula.  So we'll see who does better as the weather gets colder.

Found a ton of aphids on the parsley, so I took it all out and fed it to the fish. Also the thyme had something on it - spider mites I think. Those I pulled out, shook all around in the fish tank to get the bugs off, and replanted. Trimmed all the herbs, stuck some of the trimmings in the gravel to grow more. This works really well in this system - I've put cuttings of all the herbs, and tomatoes, into the gravel and they grow like crazy. 

This would be prettier if I hadn't just picked all the ripe tomatoes. Making salsa tonight! New plantings at left.

Our own rainforest

Flashy Troutback and Red Sails lettuce

The basil bed
We've been seeing a business adviser as well - he's helping us figure out all the necessary steps to making money from aquaponics. He's nice - "very cutting edge, and he's proud to be part of it," he says. 

So consider this - you too can grow food all year round in your own backyard! With just one tank and 3 growbeds, you can feed a family of 5 all the veggies and protein they can eat. Watch "Food Inc" and think about it! Jeff and I would love to feed the world (sans pesticides and roundup and GMO's) by promoting urban farming to anyone who will listen. But if you can't garden, then "know your farmer." (Us) :)

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Pests, Tomatoes, and Two Recipes!

My topics of the day don't really go together very well. Sorry.
We'll start with the bad news and end with the good. :)

Beware! The pretty white "butterflies" flitting about everywhere right about now, are the harbingers of brassicae disaster! They are cabbage butterflies, and they are searching out their fav places to lay their eggs - plants from the brassica family! Soon they will turn into little green caterpillars and eat your supper!

The other day I found their evil work in one of our growbeds. That pretty picture of mixed greens I posted previously, had a collard green in the mix. The leaves were riddled with holes. The watercress and arugula were affected as well. I pulled all the plants from the gravel, and was horrified by the millions of tiny green caterpillars I saw on the gravel surface! I wanted to reach for the BTK (Bacillus thuringiensis kurstaki) so badly! But knew I could not! Though BTK is approved for caterpillar killing in organic gardening, I can't spray it into my growbed because of the fish.

Time to get creative. Jeff adjusted the drain so the bed filled totally with water. We left it that way for a day. Voila! All caterpillars drowned. Scared me though. Insect infestations in a greenhouse can take over everything. As soon as we have to close up the greenhouse for winter, I will watch closely and order beneficial insects, such as ladybugs and lacewings as necessary. I can also use, in moderation, a foliar spray made of molasses, water and dish soap. Insecticidal soaps and neem oil can be used if I am very careful not to get the spray into the bed itself and thus to the fish. Smaller plants can be pulled from the growbed and dunked upside down in the fish tank, where the fish will be happy to eat the bugs. I haven't needed to try this yet. Apparently the Aquaponic Source is selling a fish-safe insecticide - I think I will buy some just to have on hand.

There is also one tomato plant that looks like it might have late blight. Maybe it was too close to the water input and its leaves were splashed. I've never had a tomato with late blight before, so I will take some photos of late blight to the greenhouse tomorrow and see if I can identify it. Or if anyone lives nearby and recognizes late blight when they see it, I'd love your help!

Okay, now the good news. We're FINALLY getting enough ripe tomatoes at a time we can't eat them all. Some are from the dirt garden - I planted them in dirt when they grew too big waiting for the system to be ready. Yeah! After sharing them, I will make heirloom tomato sauce!! Here are some tomato pictures. Aren't tomatoes beautiful?
Orange Oxheart, Brandywine, Japanese Trifele (my fave) Sungold, and I forget the name of the round red one.
I bought some Romas at a stand, fearing I would never have enough tomatoes to can. They were $17.99 a box! I've paid anywhere from $8 - 12. before. Apparently there's a drought or a blight or something somewhere and tomatoes and potatoes are expensive this year. I tried roasting them instead of boiling them to get the skins off - suppose to be delicious. I like that you can just pick the skins off their backs.

 Hmmm, this turned out to be a picture of my countertop that happens to have canned tomatoes on it.
Fellow tomato lovers rejoice! I have found yet another way to love tomatoes! This is awesome:

Slice your amazing heirloom tomato onto a plate
Brown some butter (put butter in a pot, swirl now and then, let it get light brown, then pour into another container before it goes too dark)
Pour the delicious nuttiness of the browned butter over your tomatoes while it is still hot, thus sizzling into the juices of the tomatoes and creating something different than you've ever tasted before! Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Or just salt. Eat immediately. Wow! I tried this today for the first time and was wowed!

And I did promise you a watercress pesto recipe to put on top of your tilapia. The peppery lemoneyness would be lovely on any white fish, as well as on pasta or sandwiches etc. I think arugula would be a nice substitution for the watercress if that's what you  had.

4 cups watercress, leaves and smaller stems
2 garlic cloves
zest and juice of half a lemon
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 - 1/2 cup walnuts or pine nuts
1/4 - 1/2 cup grated parmesan, grated off a real block of parmesan
1/4 - 1/2 cup olive oil
In a food processor, pulse all except olive oil til chopped, Add oil in a stream til smooth and desired consistency.

The fish, by the way, are getting fat and sassy. Almost time to let them go into the big-boy world of the tank.
On that day, I will take a photo of them and post it for you to see.

Friday, September 7, 2012


This is how you spin honey:

Pick a lovely sunny day and do it on your deck. Why not?
I'll tell you why not, you will be swarmed by the very bees who gave you the honey, and they're all screaming, "What the *&$# is this? Give us back our honey! Okay we'll take it back ourselves then. Perhaps we'll take a pound of flesh too!"

Plan B is to scoop everything up, shake the bees off, and hand it all inside, quickly shutting the door after every item.

Cut the cap off, scrape the comb with a forky thing from Lowe's that's real purpose it to clean paintbrushes. Place in the spinner. Crank by hand, spinning the honey out into the giant tin can, and also, unknowingly,  spraying a fine spray of sticky honey all over everything in the room.

Pour into a bucket. Strain three times with graduated strainers to get the wax out.
Clean up the mess!! Melt wax and honey mixture from cappings in a double boiler, never reaching any higher temperature than 140 F. 137 is perfect. Pour this mixture in a straight-sided jar and lay a piece of cheesecloth on top. The wax will float to the top and you can neatly lift it off with the cheesecloth. Put this wax outside for the bees to clean up. Use the wax for candles, soaps, salves, lotions etc. Eat the honey!!

How to grow stuff:

How to pickle stuff:

How to ferment stuff:

Place desired veggies in a jar. These jars have green beans, carrots, yellow beet, cauliflower, garlic and onion, pepper flakes and italian seasoning, brine. Cover and let sit for 4 days, burping daily. Soon it will look cloudy. Then one day when you burp it, it will bubble all over the place. Taste it and see if you like it. Put in fridge, where it will continue to pickle. This is called Veggeroncini. Next I will try saurkraut. Next time I will also post a recipe for watercress pesto, which is delicious on TILAPIA! And we are growing a LOT of both!

Monday, August 13, 2012

First Tomato

Today, we sliced into our first tomato! Pretty late for a first greenhouse tomato, due to our June 26 planting date.  Said tomato - a big Brandywine heirloom. My selected tasters said it was great, but my critical judgement says "it is pretty good, despite having grown up on nitrates, worm tea and seaweed fertilizer."  Then  Alister put some Marmite and avocado on toast and topped it with the tomato slice! Crazy delicious! (It's the New Zealand way to eat a tomaawwto.:)

The Tilapia are only just a little over an inch long, and reduced in numbers (as per last post), so they have provided the tomatoes with minimal fertilizer thus far, and the ecosystem in the growbeds won't be fully developed til next spring. So to me, this tomato is a thing of beauty! Since the fish are not very photogenic yet, you only get a photo of the tomato:

We've begun to eat our honey! Great chunky spoonfuls of it, globbing it all over fresh peaches, wax and all, drizzling it on artisan bread toasts with goat cheese, toasted hazelnuts and chopped rosemary. Also, I admit, there's a frame of honey sitting on the counter and we just dig at it with spoons whenever we want!

There was a price to pay for stealing honey from those bees. Jeff was meddling in the bee hive without a suit again and a bee stung him IN the nose! Here is Jeff, looking ridiculous and alarming. If you have ever seen Jeff before, I think you will agree. 

We seem to fit more than enough of the criteria for a grant from the USDA (urban farm, water conservation, alternate energy, new farming technique, etc) so we are looking into that. If that materializes, look for some big growth around here! :) 
young greens ready to harvest
cucumber sandwiches for lunch

Meanwhile, I need to go tie up some tomatoes and plant some brassiccae seeds for winter!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Fish and Misfortunes

300 FISH ARRIVE WEDNESDAY, JULY 18, at 9 am. We wondered how it would happen - this is how it happened. The post lady called and said she had a box of tropical fish and would we like to pick them up? If not, she would deliver them later in the day. So we immediately drove to the Post Office and brought our babies home. They were in a 14 x 12 x 10 ish box with colorful fishes painted all over it. Inside was a styrofoam ice chest. Inside that, was a thick plastic bag. Inside that, another thick plastic bag with about an inch of water in it, and 300 tiny fish, about 3/4 inch long.

And this is the story of the first days of the lives of our baby fish. 

The farmer sets the bag of fish in a big tank of water and checks pH and temperature of the fish water for compatability with the tank water. Thirty minutes later, the babies are swimming in their new home - a nylon mesh laundry hamper set in the big tank - happy as, well, baby fish! :)

The next day family from out of town arrive and niece Tessa gives the fish their first feeding. Such lucky little fishes there never were. UNTIL...

A thunderstorm settles over them for most of the night. The power goes out. Then it comes on again. But the timers are now out of sync, and too much water dumps into the tank where our fishies are hanging from the top bar in their laundry-basket home, safe from the big world of the tank. The water rises higher than the laundry basket and some very brave and foolish fish venture forth into the big tank, some of them never to be seen again, lost in the maze of pipes with holes big enough for tiny fish to enter. Others are recaptured by the  farmer when he comes to see them in the morning. .

So an unknown number of baby fishes are now swimming in the laundry basket. AND THEN, the farmer and his wife and guests go to Creationfest till very late into the night. When they return, the farmer goes to tuck in his new baby fishes and discovers their laundry basket home hanging in the air, their little bodies flapping in a shallow skim of water on the bottom. Acting quickly, the farmer cuts them loose, lowering their home down into the few inches of water at the bottom of the tank. He cuts the power to all the pumps. He puts two air stones in with the fish, then searches for the answer to his question, "WHERE HAS ALL THE WATER GONE?" He has only a flashlight on his forehead to search the greenhouse for the problem. There appears to be nothing wrong. 

So he goes home to wait until daylight, but he tells his sleeping wife, "our water is all gone," and she sleeps no longer! All that precious, nitrate filled water! Next morning, the farmer finds a mysterious creature in his sump pump, which is the pump that returns water to the fish tanks after being pumped through the grow beds. The creature prevented the pump from working effectively, and eventually the sumps received more water than they could return, and overflowed.  Here is a photo of the creature:

And what did the farmer and his wife learn from all of this? There will now be an alarm system to shut all systems off when water reaches predetermined levels. The sump tanks need covers to keep creatures out. The timers need to be adjusted to prevent further problems. The pump for the heat exchanger was damaged, so the water is only 65 degrees - still a problem. The farmer can't go on vacation this summer. But the farmer is also very fortunate. The fish were found in time to save their lives, and the fish are so tiny, they don't need much water. Also, it rained again, just in time to refill our tanks with rainwater!
The farmer has to climb into the tank to secure the drain from small fishes.
 Our guests, however, were not so lucky. They were robbed twice while they were visiting us - once the thief reached into their car with my nephew sitting in it, and took my sister's purse!! Freakily bold! We are going to catch that thief through ATM cameras!!

The plants are all fine, by the way!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Cycling Has Begun!

Monday, June 25, 2012:
1200: Boiler is up and running!
1700: Jeff says he is "giddy" because all systems have been automatically running all day without a hitch. In the afternoon, the Hunts have some visitors from far away. They are intrigued by the aquaponics. They pray for "The Watered Garden". That was nice. :)
1100: Jeff runs back to the greenhouse to make certain no pipes have burst or something similar. All is well.

This is our over-kill water heater. We plan to use solar as much as possible. Beans, tomatoes and squash growing in the background. Found a birds nest full of birds in the woodpile!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012:
0600: Jeff again checks the greenhouse. All is well. 
0930: Water temp is 80, just as ordered, for the growing pleasure of the bacteria! 12 tsp of ammonia added to system via fish tanks.
10:00: I plant every plant that hasn't died yet, thinking "it will be a miracle if these plants make it, " for these reasons:
1. My hydroponically grown plants are emaciated and undernourished from being crowded in a teensy grow-sponge for approximately 1 - 2 months too long.
2. The healthy looking plants, I removed from the dirt, washed the roots in 3 successive buckets of water, and put them in the gravel naked. They love this (not).
3. The top of the gravel is dry, so the plants look just like they have been planted in a parking lot! A little disconcerting. (But the top of the gravel is suppose to be dry.)
I plant all these plants even though they don't look great, because we need the biofilter. I expect them to look worse before they look better, due to the stress of the cycling. I did add "Maxicrop" which is the recommended seaweed/fish fertilizer. I have lettuce and basil seeds started as well. If all else fails, we will be a lettuce and basil farm this year.
Poor little plants - can't even see most of them. 
12:30: Ammonia is 2 ppm, and the goal is 3.5. Six more tsp added.
2300: Ammonia is 2 ppm, and Jeff adds a bottle of bacteria. Maybe he shouldn't have.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012
0930: Ammonia .5 ppm. Hmmm. So check the nitrites. Nitrite .5. So are the bacteria Jeff added dealing with the ammonia and making it low already? Couldn't be. Check nitrates. O. Add 10 tsp ammonia.
12:30: Ammonia 2 ppm. Add 6 tsp ammonia.
1830: Ammonia 4 ppm. Okay, stopping with the ammonia already! Shouldn't have added the bacteria last night - too confusing. Now we test daily for ammonia and nitrites. When we have significant nitrites we'll start testing for nitrates.

So now we have been running about 3 days without any major problems. One fitting popped off, and we lost some water. There's a couple of small leaks that have to be dealt with. There's water build-up UNDER the sump bin causing it to bubble up - doesn't make us happy, the pump doesn't know where to sit. Weird. Nothing Jeff can't figure out. Actually he now tells me he just pumped the water out from under the sump.
And all the plants look perfectly happy so far. :)

So this is the beginning of "cycling". When this process is over, it's time for FISH! Some of us have been waiting to see those little fishies swimming around. Soon. :)


Monday, June 18, 2012

The Watered Garden

We have a NAME!
Here's where it comes from. "...if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like A WATERED GARDEN, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in. Isaiah 58: 10-12.

Mother Earth Fair
We were just at the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, and heard Will Allen of Growing Power speak on how he was feeding the world around him through aquaponics and composting - starting gardens for the poor and hiring inner city kids and the like - very inspirational! Will Allen's website was the first place we ever heard about aquaponics and were inspired to start our own, so it was so cool to see him! The whole fair was totally amazing! If you're agrarians like us, put it on your calendar for next year, you won't be disappointed! Every aspect of a sustainable lifestyle was covered, but we were most encouraged by the speakers on aquaponics, including Sylvia Bernstein, whose book is our Aquaponic Bible, and by meeting locals like Don Stark of Sound Aquaponics and Raymond Lam of Silk Road Environmental. We're buying a solar water heating system from him to heat our water. http://www.silkroadenvironmental.com/

What's New at The Watered Garden
The media portion of our system is up and running. Jeff has been working very hard. We have a 5 zone indexing valve that chooses one row of growbeds at a time for flooding. The media beds are divided into 4 zones, and the strawberry towers will be the fifth zone. (The future deep water culture beds will be their own system.) Each zone floods for 4 minutes. So zone one will begin, and flood for 4 minutes, filling one row of growbeds. Each grow bed has a siphon, which is basically a tube inside a tube inside the growbed. When the water gets to the top of the inner tube, it spills over the top, creating a siphon which empties the growbed, leaving one inch in the bottom of the bed to develop an ecosystem to provide nutrients for fruit bearing plants. The water flows from the bottom of the grow bed into a pipe below the bed. The pipe dumps into one of three sumps. Then there is 11 minutes before the pump starts again and the indexing valve chooses the next zone.. Each row of growbeds has water in them for approximately 15 minutes out of every hour. When the sumps reach a designated level, the float switch turns on a return pump and the water is pumped from the sump back to the fish tanks, completing the cycle. We are presently waiting for a float level switch for the return pump so we can begin cycling automatically instead of manually.

Indexing valve in foreground. Fish tanks are behind you.
Water coming back to fish tank
We have to cover our tanks to prevent algae growth from the sun. Any ideas for  an attractive covering? We're not too excited about our present solution of landscape fabric.
When that happens, we're thinking about having a sleep-over in the greenhouse to be sure nothing goes wrong in the first 24 hour period. Some fine tuning needs to be done to the water heating system before we add ammonia and bacteria. Our present water temperature is 70 degrees, which is fine for the tilapia and plants, but we are trying to grow bacteria during the first few weeks, and bacteria grow the fastest at 77 to 86 degrees F. When we've achieved that temperature, we will add ammonia and start keeping daily records. The cycling process will have its own blog.

Today I tested the pH in every fish tank and also the sump. Weirdly, they are different from each other, but I expect they will even out when we start cycling 24/7. However, three of the tanks have a pH of 7.6 which is too high, so we're a little concerned  that our gravel may have some limestone in it. We did test it prior, but of course you can't test every piece. So we'll have to wait and see on that one.

Meanwhile, out in the dirt garden. Here is beautiful Olympia showing off the first strawberries of the year. We've been covering the berries with row cover to keep the birds off.

Not My Mother's Garden

Finally, I totally get it! While gazing at my unplanted aquaponic grow bed, I pictured myself curling up on the surface of the sun-warmed gravel and having a nap. As I was gauging the bed for size and deciding if I  should  take my shoes off before climbing in, my brain gave me a flashback photo of myself curled up for a nap in my mom’s flower box before there was dirt in it.

And that’s when I totally got it– and this was only five minutes ago!  I suddenly understand my mom. I understand why she had to plant an apple tree in a flower box on a float on the rainy, rainy, rainy BC coast. I understand her joy at seeing apples on it and why there had to be a photo of herself cradling that apple! There were only three or so, but no matter!

And here I am, repeating it all, and yet not repeating it at all.

My mom grew up surrounded by the orchards in the Okanogan Valley and worked in them every summer until she married my dad. She could out-pick anyone in an apple tree and she could twist a Mac in half with her hands. She showed me. Then Dad took her to a life that couldn’t be more opposite. A floating logging camp on the BC coast – a great area for growing very large trees and salal bushes but not much else!

She tried though – gardening on the mud flats, the geese eating everything, gardening in little bits of fertile looking dirt (dad was always on the lookout) in the midst of logging slash. She packed me across the logging slash on her hip. I found a salamander there and played with it while she dug in the dirt.

Then dad built a new house on a nice new float, complete with flower boxes all across the front and down the right side, with two larger boxes for the apple trees. The front boxes for flowers, the side for vegetables. Though I can only remember rhubarb in the vegetable boxes.

Maybe the flowers were more successful because they were under the eaves. The flower boxes were filled with daffodils, peonies, roses, lilies, foxgloves, calendula, pinks, dahlias, gladioli, alyssum, sweet peas and nasturtiums. Of course I didn’t know any of the names back then. I only know now from looking at old photos. My least favorite in my mom’s flower bed, and therefore most memorable, was the little white stinky flower we kids loved to hate, which I recently learned is called Tanecetum. My childhood friends would love to know that Tanecetum got “weed of the week” in a gardening magazine and the name refers to Thanatos, which is death, or land of the dead. It did smell like something dead!

For 25 years she gardened in this limited fashion, but the moment she hit land, she dug up a square acre of dirt (it seemed like to me anyway) and wanted me to help her pick rocks and pull weeds. I hated living on land, it was too much work. And now here I am living on land and gardening with a method my Mother never heard of.  

Mom used to bury fish to feed her garden. I am using live fish to feed mine. She grew in dirt, which involves digging and tilling.  I’m growing in gravel and will do my best not to disturb the growbed’s ecosystem. She watered her garden; I don’t have to. She weeded her garden and picked rocks; I don’t have to. But though mine is not my mother’s garden, it IS in a box!

 I’m going to try growing an apple tree in an aquaponic growbed to prove that I totally get it!

Is it the sun or an imperfection on your apple that's making you squint, mom?
An aquaponically educational post is on its way.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Tomatoes, Tilapia, Bees, and CAKE!

What a great day!

Reason #1: WATER - The grow beds and fish tanks are now in orderly rows. We bought two "badass" pumps from a guy on Craigslist who had tattoos all over him. Jeff has little sketches laying about that look like squares with sticks between them, in many varying configurations; he's been painting things with purple primer and blue monster and twisting them together to look like the pictures, and has been regularly sending me to the plumbing store for this and that. And we (well, more Jeff than me) have been digging little ditches, laying pipe in them and covering them up. And Jeff dug a huge hole to put a tank with a sump pump for the lower beds. So today we are rejoicing to see water pouring into the beds, the siphons working perfectly to drain the beds, the sump sending the water back to the fish tanks - it's a beautiful sight!

Tattooed-guy pump - rigged for trial
Water flowing into beds
siphon - water raises to 1 inch below surface, then siphon breaks and water drains

Sump, working beautifully - rigged for trial only, Jeff wants me to  tell you

Water splashes into fish tank, aerating the tank. The gravel was dirty so we're flushing all the beds pre-fish.

Some stuff to do before we buy fish though, like plumb the remaining grow beds, do the electrical (pumps, fans) and "cycle" the system. Good news on the cycling - we can now buy bacteria from aquasource.com, which should really speed things up. And while we're waiting for the bacteria to change from nitrate to nitrite (or is it the other way around, very confusing!) we'll build strawberry towers!  I also started a lot of new seeds, because my previously planted seeds grew weary of waiting. I'll still use them, but they do look prematurely aged!

Reason #2: BEES - You might be interested to know (after last post) that we now have 6 buzzing, honey-making hives. Only one bee sting so far! (Alister made them mad while trying to feed them!) They are eating a lot of sugar water right now. If I'd read my bee manual, I'd know why. Okay, bees are fascinating but scary, so I mostly avoid them.

Reason #3: CAKE! This is a monumentous breakthrough for me and my daughter Anje! Here is an excerpt from today's "Seattle Times", which Anje emailed to me this morning.

 "... the Cottage Food Act of Washington, an economic blessing from the Legislature on small, home-based entrepreneurs looking to sell cakes, cookies, jams, jellies and other so-called "low-risk" foods.

A few years ago, Anje and I started to start a cake business, but couldn't find a commercial kitchen to rent. We did a lot of cakes anyway, which can be viewed on our lovely website, http://www.anjelcakes.com/,  created by my lovely daughter-in-law, Christine, who is a web designer. But soon we can legally bake cakes at HOME! WOW! We can sell cake along with our fish and veggies! Or jam made from our excess produce (tomato jam?), or pie, or...the possibilities are endless! We make a really mean chocolate cake, and a chocolate peanut butter cake, and a coconut cake, and a white velvet cake with berries and cream, a browned butter pumpkin cake, etc etc. 

So there you have it - I better tidy my kitchen so I can invite the health inspector over for cake. Maybe honey cake. Or fish cakes. Or, -  no, tomato cake just wouldn't be good!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Sting

Before I talk about what I really want to talk about, I'll update you on the aquaponics. The greenhouse is a big jumble of what looks a lot like rubbish, waiting to be transformed into glorious greenery reaching to the sky - strawberry towers dripping with red berries, tomato plants outgrowing their beds, etc etc. Jeff is on the ground, putting pipe together, and says he will order the gravel for Monday or Tuesday. Me and my tomato seedlings are getting tired of waiting. But we have been sidetracked by a very interesting turn of events.

 My daughter says, that according to the new Williams Sonoma catalogue, I am an "agrarian." So we have progressed from hippy to earthy to agrarian! " Our agrarian friends, the Hunts, and ourselves, decide to add bees to our list of fun things to do. We build 4 hives of 5 boxes each, and paint them pretty colors. We build 10 trays per box, and set them up on a nice stand by the garden.

Dave, one of our bee mentors, arrives with his bee suit to deposit three boxes of bees into the hives. First, he removes the queen bee in her little cage. Up and down the cage she goes. One end of the 3 inch cage has a cork in it. When she is at the far end of her cage, he quickly removes the cork and holds his thumb over the hole, and waits for her to go to the other end again. Then he plugs the hole with a sugar candy that looks like a licorice allsort. He hangs her little cage on a frame in the hive, and sets the open box of bees in the hive and puts the lid on the hive. That's hive number one, the green hive. Then he does the same for the brown hive and the purple (yes, purple) hive. The bees are suppose to eat the sugar candy and release the queen!  Meanwhile, she is being fed by more bees through the mesh walls of the cage. By the time she is released, all the bees are suppose to be happy in their new home, and love their queen, and start doing their thing. Next day, Jeff will take the lids off the hives and remove the travel box and add 5 more frames to each hive.
Loading the green hive

The Evil Queen herself!

Next day, Jeff goes to do this chore (oh, but with no bee suit on, since we forgot to buy one), and finds that all the bees have moved into the green hive and are a big boiling mass in there. He doesn't open the green hive! He calls for help. Alicia says she'll come over next evening with her suit and move some bees back into the other hives and take the green queen at least 2 miles away. That queen has obviously got too many pheromones, says Alicia. But late morning, while I am pulling weeds nearby, I hear a jet taking off, and the bees are slowly rising in a column up from the green hive. Up, up, forming a cloud, then a ball, and attaching to a limb above the hive. Alicia comes over right away to look. Yup, they've swarmed! $225. in a ball above our heads. She says they need to get back in their hive right away but she can't climb up to get them.  She suggests we use the forklift nearby and lift the hive up right next to the swarm to tempt them back in. We spritz the hive with sugar water to attract them and set it on a pallet and strap it down. This is all very unconventional, says Alicia, who has spent the last 8 hours on Beemasters.com trying to figure out what to do with the mutinous bees. She has a few words to say about the green queen who absconded with our bees! She's worried the bees will move the swarm, and not into the box. We decide to wait for Dave to come home from work and go up into the tree (because he's not afraid of heights and he has a suit!) and scrape them into the box. Meanwhile we are starved and Angela brings us all a burrito. :)
"She didn't even leave us any eggs!" 

So we all go back to work, checking on the ball of bees now and then to see if they like the green hive yet. Then it happens again. The jet taking off sound - and this time we watch them fly over the treetops!

We are very sad; we want new, faithful bees. But we are going to be all the buzz at the next bee club meeting!
Alicia shows us what a tray of bees is suppose to look like, with tiny eggs, larvae, hatchlings, nurse bees, drones etc