Sunday, March 17, 2013

How My Garden Grows ...or Doesn't

Early strawberries
I'm not Irish, but in the spirit of St. Patrick's day, I'm trying to turn my thumb green. A few months ago I posted about building a greenhouse for the Grandchildren so we could try our hand at growing winter vegetables. We had mixed results. We had a great little crop of onions but I didn't create a trellis for the peas in time and they produced only viney bushes. The greenhouse got so hot (even through winter) that the lettuce grew like wildfire. We harvested two heads before the rest of the plants bolted.

Fish tank above ground
Now, as promised, we're trying something new for this year. I've spent the winter gathering materials and knowledge to build an aquaponic garden. Of course, like everything else I attempt, I had to go cheap, so it's been a learning experience.

Aquaponics is a hybrid of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants in water without soil) and can be quite enjoyable for geeks like me because the process uses scientific principles in an attempt to enhance nature. Basically, one uses the natural nitrogen cycle in a closed environment to grow plants using fish poop as fertilizer while the plants and media clean the water of ammonia for healthier fish.

Grandson in hole for fish tank (about 4 foot deep)
I'm now at the point where I must 'cycle' the system in an attempt to attract the proper bacteria so they can grow and attract other bacteria which will process ammonia into nitrites and then into nitrates that will be further processed into nitrogen and oxygen. The nitrogen is used by the plants and the oxygen goes back into the fish tank along with nice clean water, although I wouldn't drink it.

I've learned a few things, mostly the hard way, about aquaponics. Of course, most of my problems were caused by my own stubbornness and stupidity.

First I would say that my aquaponics design was based on some very specific needs -  that is, it had to work for my Grand kids. I wanted the growbeds to be low enough that they could easily plant and tend their garden. I also wanted the fish tank to be low enough where they could look inside and see the fish. So far I have a few plants and no fish in the system.

Complete aquaponics garden with one growbed
You'll notice, in the pictures, that the growbeds are not fully filled with gravel. This was my first lesson learned. Some folks used expanded clay pellets, called hydroton, for their growbeds, but it is expensive. Did I mention how cheap I am? Anyway, I filled the beds about halfway with gravel (still expensive, given how much I had to buy) but quickly found that it can be quite uncomfortable sticking little fingers into the hard rocks while planting. So, I will now have to suck it up and fill the bed the rest of the way with hydroton.

Good thing I've only built one of the two grow beds I would eventually like to have for the system.

Mistake number two came as I entered that difficult and highly scientific process of cycling the system. I chose to use the 'fishless' cycling method because most of everything I read said that I would kill fish during this process. Problem is that in the fishless method, one must add some form of ammonia in order to attract the proper bacteria to get the cycle started. See, I told you it was highly scientific. This ammonia can come in a number of forms. The cheapest way to get ammonia into the system is from urine. I opted not to use urine because it's gross and the urine must be pure, meaning it must come from someone who doesn't drink coffee.

I don't know anyone who doesn't drink coffee, or some other caffeinated drinks except my grandson. Sure, I could ask him to pee into the fish tank but I think everyone knows what would happen if you tell a five year-old boy it's okay to pee in the fish tank. Yep, you guessed it, I'd find him using our fish tank as a toilet all summer long. Still, I considered it because it don't get no cheaper than free.

Instead I thought, hey, I'll just buy some ammonia from the local grocery store and use that. It wasn't until after I'd put the first treatment into the fish tank that I went back to the Aquaponic gardening website and found, upon further reading, that store-bought ammonia is a no no if it has anything other than ammonia in the bottle. I checked, and sure enough, my cheap bottle of ammonia also had 'surfactants' in it. Back to the drawing board.

Well, I finally got the water going again and have planted a couples things in the growbed. One picture shows some lettuce and the other some corn. I'm sure I'll have to transplant the corn before it towers over the top of the growbeds but I have a nearly endless supply of lettuce sprouts I can feed the system with.

lettuce and corn seedlings
How about you? do any of you out there have a garden? Gardening can be a great pastime, and it's always good to have some extra food on hand so you're prepared during the coming zombie apocalypse.