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.

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.