Monday, July 25, 2011

System Update

Everything is coming along, of course there are always ups and downs but for the most part everything is doing okay. Last week we had our first harvest of lettuce, and it was quite yummy. We harvested all of the big leaves but a lot of it has already grown back within the past week!

This is the middle growbed in the bottom row. We just started to train the cucumbers to climb the twine.

We are having some issues with the cucumber plants. I think they are getting attacked by some sort of pest, although it only looks like this on one or two of the plants and only on the bottom leaves. When I examined the leaves I didn't see any pests though so they aren't sticking around. Or I guess it could be some sort of nutrient deficiency but I am not sure. I must ask an expert.

Another issue we are having is a couple of the cucumber plants have leaves that are infected with powdery mildew. I just discovered what it was today and I plan on trying a couple of remedies tomorrow. The ones that are too far gone I am going to cilp, and I will spray a solution of water and baking soda. Powdery mildew is a fungal infection that arises from humid, poorly ventilated conditions. Because the cucumber vines were resting on top of the growbed (instead of climbing up a trellis or string) I think the walls of the growbed restricted some of the air flow. That combined with the humidity resulting from evaporation is probably the reason a couple of my plants are infected. From looking at pictures online, I think it is at an early enough stage where we can treat it effectiely (crosses fingers)

We are also having issues with the bottom right growbed. We think the plants are struggling because the water level does not come high enough before the bed starts draining. The Anaheim Chili plants were the most shocked to begin with, so that is probably compounding the problem.

Here are some close-ups of two of the chili plants. As you can see the leaves are curled and droopy indicating they are stressed. The tips are also drying up on the bottom leaves and that worries me. It's been almost a week since they were transplanted so I don't think that transplant shock is the only cause, although it certainly would contribute to the problem.

And now for some good news! This is the top right growbed and things are coming along great. The zucchini is growing like crazy! There were several small basil plants that were basically getting smothered by the large zucchini leaves so we transplanted those to other growbeds with more space. However, I did have to pull out the two kale plants that were in this growbed. I noticed today for the 2nd or 3rd time there were these little green bugs that were munching away on the kale. I knew I was taking a shot in the dark when I planted the kale because they are a winter crop, but I did not want to continue that experiment any further because I did not want to risk attracting more pests. I will try the kale again when winter comes around.

The first zucchini fruits are starting to take form!

This is the middle bed of the top row and everything here is doing great as well. I will need to make or buy some tomato cages soon though as those Roma Tomato plants are starting to get big.

This is the left growbed in the top row and it is also doing quite well. I caught a caterpillar munching on the onion and basil plants last week and it did some damage but not enough to kill the plants. I wish I took a picture of the lettuce after it was harvested because it grew a great deal since then and not even a week has passed since that time.

The cherry tomatoes are starting to ripen!

Second Greenhouse System

I thought I would provide an update on our second system. While we have not technically started to build anything, we have been doing a lot of work preparing everything for our greenhouse expansion. This system will be slightly smaller than our current system and will go on the other side of the greenhouse.

This is where my second system is going to go. We had to level the area slightly as there is a small but noticeable incline.

The view from inside the greenhouse

4 more IBC's! I got these for a great price, $250 for 4 and that was including delivery. They previously stored nitrogen fertilizer and they have already been cleaned.

Today I made a trade on craigslist for a 240 gallon fish tank, a 50 gallon conical tank, and a biofilter. I traded away a couple of growlights, a grow tray, and a reservoir. Overall I am extremely happy with the trade both with the deal I made and the quality of the items I received.

This is the 50 gallon conical tank. I am unsure at the moment exactly what I am going to do with it but I have a number of ideas floating around. It could serve as my nursery for sick fish, I could turn it in to a swirl filter, or I can even use it as a growbed (perhaps for a berry bush or a dwarf fruit tree).

This is the biofilter. I am not sure what I am going to do with this either. I am not sure if the filter would be more effective if it was used as it was designed or whether it would be more effective as a growbed. I will have to do a little more research before I make a decision.

Here is the fish tank. It is 4'x4'x2' and holds 240 gallons. It is made of thick HDPE plastic which is food grade and it is UV stabilized. I think I want to try and grow trout in this tank and set up a third system underneath the veranda using a 4'x8' grow tray and a 4'x4' grow tray. The fish tank would double as a sump tank and hopefully the shade that the veranda provides can help keep the water temperature down. The reason I would want to build this system outside of the greenhouse, other than the fact that I have no more room, is that trout require a high level of dissolved oxygen in the water. Since dissolved oxygen dissipates from the water faster at higher temperatures, lower temperatures means more dissolved oxygen (along with other factors, but generally speaking in regards to water temperature). While the greenhouse will not be covered during the summer months, it will be over the winter and fall seasons and I am not convinced I would be able to raise trout in a covered greenhouse in our climate. Anyway, that is a project for the future.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

An update

Wow, it's been almost two months since my last update but things have been moving along. Since my last update my sprouts have finally started to grow, but that process took a couple of weeks to start because the feed we had been giving the goldfish were just goldfish flakes. That kind of feed is formulated to enable the fish to take up as much of the nutrient in the feed as possible. It is specifically designed to reduce the waste they produce, which would make sense because in an aquarium setting you want as little waste as possible. However, for our application this was less than ideal because it meant that our plants were getting no nutrients. Thus a lot of sprouts, particularly the ones in the lower tier of growbeds, did not make it.

To counter the lack of nutrients we used an organic liquid fertilizer that was high in nitrogen, however I found that there were some concerns with some of the ingredients as they contained the waste from warm-blooded animals. This could potentially cause problems as warm-blooded animal waste could contain pathogens that are harmful to humans. And so I stopped using this fertilizer.

Because we had already added the fish, it is also not recommended to directly dose the system with ammonia, as a high dose of ammonia could kill the fish. In a system without fish you could just pee in the system to get the system cycled (yeah a little gross but as long as the person providing the pee doesn't have any infections or medication in their body, everything is kosher). So I came up with a stopgap measure to provide our plants with some much needed nitrogen. I cleaned out our second sump and filled it with water. Next I put a drain on a 55 gallon open top blue barrel and piped it to drain back in to the sump. I filled the barrel with gravel and set up a pump and some pipe to pump water from the sump in to the gravel barrel, which would then drain back in to the sump. My intent with this endeavor is to cycle this "system". Since this setup does not contain any fish, I can just dose it directly with ammonia until everything is cycled. Once you introduce ammonia to the system bacteria will convert it to nitrite, which in turn will be converted to nitrate by other bacteria. Nitrate is the form of nitrogen that plants can take up. So my plan is to dose this setup with urea nitrogen (which is a synthetic chemical fertilizer, and I feel awful about it but I'm only using a little bit and only in the beginning to cycle the system) and when ammonia and nitrite levels read 0 and the nitrate levels read 80 ppm and up I will transfer that water in to my big system and voila provide my starving plants with nitrates.

So far it is going pretty well, except that the first dose of urea I added to the blue barrel system was way too much and my ammonia levels were reading at like 8 + ppm, which was the highest reading my test kit provided. If I had done this in my main system with the fish, they probably would have died. Because I added so much urea, it took awhile for the ammonia and nitrite levels to go down, but they are finally at zero now and ready for another dose. The experiment seems to be working as the plant growth has taken off as I have added the nitrate laced water to the main system.

Another issue that was contributing to the slow growth of the plants had to do with the PH of our water. The PH of our tap water is relatively high, around 8. This is a problem because when the PH of the water is that alkaline, nutrients are locked out to the plants. This basically means that the plants can not take up the nutrients in the water because the PH is too high. In an aquaponics system, you try to aim for a PH of around 7 as this is a good middle ground for things to operate smoothly for both the plants and the fish. Luckily there is a solution to high PH, and that is iron. Iron helps the plants take up the nutrients even though the PH is high. The reason for this, I do not know. In fact if someone can enlighten me as to why, that would be awesome.

We also had to add shade cloth to the fish tank and the growbeds to restrict the growth of algae. A month ago, the water was basically completely green and this was problematic for two main reasons. One, we couldn't see our fish. With the algae we could only see about 4 inches or so in to our tanks, and thus it was really hard to see the fish. Two, the algae was taking up what little nutrients were available and leaving none for the plants. Usually just covering the tanks with shade cloth would take care of the problem, but because we were impatient we rigged a plastic vegetable washing basket with a towel inside (the kind with a bunch of holes) and placed it under the pump outlet coming from the sump. The water cleared up in about a week.

On Thursday, I went out to an Armstrong Gardening Center and bought a bunch of vegetable plants that were in 3" containers because a good amount of our sprouts did not survive, and because it is a little to late in the season to start plants from seed. I bought Roma Tomatoes, summer squash, Anaheim Chili, Armenian Cucumber, zucchini, and some sort of cherry tomato and planted them in all the empty spots in the growbeds. They seem to be doing okay, I'm hoping I didn't shock them too bad, but the Anaheim Chili plants still look really shocked. Hopefully they all survive. I think I still want to get 2 or 3 eggplants but at the place I went to on Thursday, none of the plants looked healthy enough.

Anyway, enough of the blah blah blah. Picture time.

In this bed: Cherry tomatoes, squash, and Armenian Cucumber

In this bed: Summer squash and more Armenian Cucumbers

In this bed: Zucchini, Anaheim Chili, and squash

In this bed: Lettuce, basil, onions, and cucumber

In this bed: Roma Tomatoes, carrots, celery, and green onions

In this bed: Zucchini, kale, onions, basil, and cucumber.

Not the best picture, but we now have 6 fish (4 pictured). For awhile we had an insane amount of algae and couldn't see 4 inches in to the tank because it was so thick. But now we can see all the way to the bottom.