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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Skirting Disaster, A Series of Unfortunate Events

Really cold weather hasn't been much of a challenge until last night when my son-in-law reported that there was a fire in the greenhouse. This occurred because the propane tank we used had been overfilled at the gas station where we take our tanks to be replenished. The empty tanks were refilled to a proper level, but the partially empty tank received more than it could hold and still function properly. At any rate, instead of neatly heating the radiant area there were flames coming out of the top of the attachment that screws onto propane tank. The situation was caught before extensive damage occurred. One of the rain gutters used in the float system was slightly deformed by the heat and some of the primroses were wilted but not scorched. We have a back-up system of a small barbeque brazier, the tabletop kind that is about 18" in diameter, which burns charcoal briquets. We used it last night when the temperature dipped into the teens and it kept the greenhouse from a hard freeze, even though the tomato plants have likely met their end. The water in the system didn't freeze. One of my sons keeps the heater or the brazier going as needed and it is he who responded to the fire and diagnosed the cause. Today is cold, under 20 degrees until after 10 AM. He will be in the greenhouse 'burning off' the extra propane while doing various things to the system. Less than a week ago we woke after a late night and family party and discovered that there were only three inches of water in the fish tank. Eeeeeek!. Fortunately I store extra water in 50 gallon barrels, partially as a heat reservoir but also as an 'at need' source of water that has sat long enough to degas the chlorine. I immediately added the water to the fish tank. Later we added additional water with a hose once the faucet and the hose were thawed enough to use. I add the chlorinated water through the plant beds and so far that seems to moderate the chemistry enough before it reaches the fish tank that the fish haven't visibly suffered. Apparently whatever caused the loss of water was fixed in the process of 'messing around'. So far we haven't had to add more water once the normal levels were restored and the system was up and running, draining and filling through the bell syphons. At this point mint, strawberry plants, parsley, kale and primroses are standing up to the stress of winter cold and we haven't lost a significant amount of fish, although I suspect that 'floaters' are not a realistic indication of fish loss. There are signs that the larger trout, some of which are longer than 6 inches at this point, are predating the smaller trout. This is just as well since it keeps down the nitrogen from too many fish.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Primroses Are Edible!

I felt like I had made a compromise when I added primroses to the greenhouse solely because they are winter hardy and provide a nitrogen absorber. Their efficacy has been proven by the smell test. With a proper balance of plants and fish, the air smells fresh. I decided to do some further research. I discovered that both the leaves and blossoms of the primrose plant are edible, having a taste ranging from mild lettuce to the more bitter herb. This makes them very eligible for a good aquaponics plant. Even though I plan to leave the leaves in place, once the blossoms appear I can harvest them and add them to a salad as a very pretty addition. Dandelion is another plant that can be eaten. My chickens prefer dandelion leaves over other greens. When they appear in my lawn this spring I plan to harvest some seeds and plant them in the greenhouse.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Tomatoes in December and a Primrose Bonanza

Through thorough insulation and the use of a small propane heater on nights that go below 30 degrees, we have been successful in maintaining growth in our mint, parsley and tomato beds, as well as some of the strawberry plants. As I worked in the greenhouse this evening I harvested a handful of cherry tomatoes from the somewhat struggling vines. Today we went shopping for some nitrogen absorbers. In other words, our fish are outstripping our vegetation. I have become familiar with the cold hardiness of primroses, mostly as I enter and leave the Provo LDS Temple where the winter plants of choice are the hardy little plants that almost seem overcome by a sharp frost or deep layer of snow, but which bounce back as soon as warmth returns, providing a green ground cover in the winter and giving a lovely floral display in early spring. Although so far I have avoided floral plants in favor of fruits, vegetables and herbs, our trout are growing and as they grow, they eat more and provide more 'plant food'. Without an adequate amount of vegetation, they will end up with too much nitrogen in their water. Cook's nursery in Orem, west of the 1600 North interchange had mostly indoor plants and poinsettias for sale, however we found some flourishing primrose plants in a cool corner of a heated greenhouse. We placed them in the rain gutters that I used for float trays in the summer. I was pleasantly surprised to pay only a little over a dollar a plant for 18 plants.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Two Weeks and Fish are Thriving In Spite of Some Problems

When I was dealing with 20 cent feeder gold fish I didn't feel the economic pinch too much if a bunch of them floated to the top of the tank a day or so after I brought them home. I feared at first that I was responsible but a reliable source told me that feeder fish are notoriously infected with various things that make them short lived. The survival of two of the original gold fish through last winter, living on algae apparently, surprised me when I noticed them at last. The trout represent a greater investment. I paid for them by the inch as well as paying for delivery. Fortunately the delivery cost was split between me and another aquaponist in the area who ordered larger fish from the same trout farm. In addition, the man who delivered the fish threw in a few extra. Actually he threw in more than ten extra. But he didn't want to carry a load of water and a few small fish all the way back to his trout farm. Following his recommendations, based on the number of fish, I fed them about a cup of fish pellets from Intermountain Farm Association where I purchased 50 pounds for just a little over $35. Even though any remaining pellets should be discarded after 3 months, this still beat the price of fish food from the pet store. Then I discovered that my three hens are crazy about fish pellets. I had read somewhere that hens fed on fish meal produced eggs with higher levels of omega fatty acids, so I consider it a win/win situation. The fish pellets are twice the cost of layer pellets for the chickens, but with no need to worry about wasting the pellets after ninety days have passed, I figure all is good. At any rate, feeding the fish at the rate of a cup a day didn't work out well. The fish let a lot of the pellets sink to the bottom of the fish tank where they became food for algae. Suddenly my pumps seized up from algal clogging and the water in the system turned nearly opaque. After cleaning the pumps and getting them started again I put a piece of polyester upholstery foam in a rectangular plastic colander and set it beneath the outlet from the fish tank into the sump. The following day, Thursday, we didn't feed the fish. On Friday the filter was filthy, the water in the fish tank was crystal clear and the fish eagerly ate the handful and a half of pellets fed to them. No casualties were detected. I was happy to learn that even commercial aquaponists use chelated iron as a supplement. I have used it with good effect. My tomato plants had turned a sickly yellow green earlier this month but an application of chelated iron brought them back to a lovely green. I'll wait until the greenhouse gets too cold to support them before pulling them out and replacing them with cold weather crops.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Progress Report FISH

I attended the 2nd Annual Aquaponics Association Conference last weekend in Denver and learned some new things about my hobby. One of the sections addressed the care and feeding of rainbow trout. Today Spring Lake Trout Fishery delivered more than 60 trout ranging in size from 2 inches to more than 4 inches. They are slender little things but they will grow large and fat if they survive. Fortunately my water temperature is in the right range, which is likely a bit too cold for my tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberry vines and probably explains why only the bed of mint is truly thriving. I redesigned my grow trays, making them hold more water in keeping with the idea that they are semi-deep water culture instead of being NFT. I purchased seed for growing winter crops that the trout lecturer indicated were successful crops to use with trout. A raccoon or some similar pest got into my greenhouse a couple of weeks ago on the night when my latest grandson was born. All but two inches of the fish tank were emptied. Fortunately the gold fish I already had in the tank survived. At this point the gold fish are fat and doing well, but the Spring Lake man indicated that as the trout grow larger they will probably eat the gold fish.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Death of a Tree

My neighbor on the north died this past year and now the great tree in his yard is also going. It is a mighty Chinese Elm. It has taken nearly a week for the tree to have all but the major branches removed. Perhaps I should mourn for the tree, but it had long since passed the dimensions common to the breed. Towering far above the 60' maximum. It is likely it was nearly the end of its life span in any case. But though I should feel some sorrow for the passing of such a magnificent specimen, I cannot regret it. The tree produced prolifically, sending the white discs of its seeds drifting through the neighborhood like a pernicious snow. The bottom picture shows the seeds caught in a coco fiber basket. This is not atypical coverage, and each seed can produce a little weed with a strong root that invades gardens and lawns. Somehow it even produced seedlings in my aquaponics grow bins which I seek out and remove. Good riddance tree.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The images above show my three aquaponics growth components. Last year I established six grow bins which are filled with expanded shale, linked into two drainage systems. I'm growing cherry tomatoes, mint, kale and parsley. This spring I installed eight grow tubes made of 4" PVC pipe with slots that permit planting vine crops. The tubes are suspended from a 1 1/2 " aluminum conduit tube with chains. The water is pumped from the fish tank and is fed in at the top and runs through expanded shale gravel to discharge at the bottom into a rain gutter that discharges into the fish tank. I also created a growing tray from lengths of 4" wide PVC rain gutter. I cut lengths of 1" insulating foam that are slotted with 1 1/2" square holes which are filled with 'Sure to Grow' polyester foam cubes. I planted romaine in the cubes. Water from the fish tank flows along the bottom of the rain gutters continually and discharges back into the fish tank. My tomato plants have begun producing well, the mint and kale are flourishing. The strawberry plants are blooming and bearing and the cucumber plants have begun to blossom. The greenhouse is cooled with an evaporative cooler (swamp cooler) set beyond the west wall of the greenhouse. When the air begins to flow the flap opens from the pressure of the air flow. I have about 15 large gold fish in my fish tank, still not adequate to provide all the nutrition needed by my plants, but next month I plant to put in trout.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Spring is Springing

I've been kept off my game by a persistent cold that made me want to stay warm.  Meanwhile my aquaponics system has plugged along through subfreezing nights.  In several senses it has been successful.  Mint has taken over one of the grow beds.  Mint is something I want to grow, but it has a tendency to spread too far in a garden.  In a grow bin it will hopefully be isolated to a particular bin instead of spreading through the system.  My parsley is also responding to the warmer temperatures and before long I might be able to use my own mint and parsley when I make tabbouleh, a dish which features bulgur wheat and various vegetables and greens including parsley, mint, green onions and tomatoes all diced up and mixed together with a dressing of lemon juice and olive oil. 
I scattered some peas on the surface of the three bins where I had  tomatoes growing until fairly late.  They have responded to the casual treatment by growing!  I planted some beets last year in a similar manner and had beet greens for quite a while.  There are still some rather stunted beet greens growing amidst the parsley and mint.  Now I need to plow ahead and get the other parts of my system up and running.  The fish have come out of hibernation and flit around.  I will purchase more 'feeder gold fish' since I'm not all that hooked on fish as part of my diet.  I get an egg or so a day from my chickens and that usually meets my minimum needs for animal protein, although now and then I poach a bit of salmon or make a tuna sandwich.  Or, when I'm feeling self indulgent, go for coconut shrimp.