Sunday, October 11, 2015

Aquaponics Experiment

I am replicating an experiment  that I saw at The Aquaponics Source: Plants that are "heavy feeders" grow better in a porous bag containing highly nutritious soil type mixture than when planted straight into the grow bed media (expanded clay balls that look like cocoa puffs).

The plants: 
Tomato - Patio Princess Hybrid from Burpee, grown from seeds
Bell Pepper - Purple Beauty from Botanical Interests, grown from seeds

The soil in bag media:
2 parts coconut coir (shredded coconut shells)
1 part vermicompost (worm casting)
small amount of powered mycocillium inoculate

The bag:
5 gallon Aquapouch from the Aquaponics Source store in Longmont

Results to date:

Day 1 - 06/09/2015 planted seeds using Rapid Rooter plugs into the seed "barge".  I decided to float the seed tray in the fish tank as many folks recommend warming the seed tray to about 70F and that just happens to be the current temperature in the fish tank.  Bonus: the fish like to hide underneath the tray, I think it makes them feel safe.

Week 17 10/11/2015 - plants in Aquapouch much larger than plants in grow bed media
Bell Peppers


Dramatic difference, especially for the tomatoes. The bell peppers look unhappy in either media.  Will have to investigate what growing conditions better suit the bell peppers.

The kale took forever to sprout, but when the seedling finally took off, wow, it's a great grower.  We have been eating kale for several weeks now off this batch:

We have gotten a few squash from this plant, maybe only 3 so far. I'm letting this one grow to see just how big it will get.  It's about 4" long right now.

Also, I'm letting the basil go to seed just for fun:

 The little poopers that fuel the whole system:
 Right now, we have:
 15 Comet Goldfish (they started life as feeder fish) 2-3" each
2 fat Fantails 3-4" each
3 Koi 5-6" each
2 Butterfly Koi 6" each

and that's still not enough. Regular water tests show 0 ammonia, nitrite and nitrates which is fine for the fish, but I would like to see some nitrates register on the tests as that is what the plants need to "eat".  Next spring we will get some Tilapia, until then I'm just feeding the fish 4-6 times per day to maximize growth (and poop).

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Growing, Growing, Growing

Just a quick Aquaponics update:

Everything is growing well and the fish are thriving.  The color in the pictures is weird because the artificial lights have a yellow/red cast,  I tried to correct it in Photoshop to little avail, so you will have to trust that these plants are actually normal green colors.

The red bell pepper is already starting to set flowers and even fruit 36 days after transplanting into system from 4" starter:

We've been eating fresh salad greens (clipping a few leaves off each plant) every day and I'm still having a hard time keeping up with the growth rate on them.

Patty Pan squash is also starting to set fruit, although none the flowers have actually bloomed yet.

Some of the basil leaves look strange with lighter colored areas between the leaf veins, not sure of the exact cause, but the pH and other water chemistry has been changing rapidly since start-up so this is not surprising.  I hope the next batch looks better, however, it all tastes great, very strong, delicious basil flavor.  We have been using it as well as the sage and thyme for cooking the last few weeks.

 And finally the fish appear to be thriving.   We now have about 20 1.5" goldfish in there, all from the feeder fish tank at the local Petsmart. 

The nitrites and nitrates zeroed out a couple of days after adding the last batch of 10 fish as can be seen at the end of the chart.

I suspect the bacterial colonies are adjusting to the small number/size of fish which are likely producing less ammonia than I was manually adding to jump start the cycle.   Also, the addition of squash and now duckweed is helping to soak up the nitrates.

I added duckweed to Sump Tank 2 to provide some fresh treats to the goldfish occasionally, they seem to love it, and to soak up the excess nitrates I was seeing up until just a few days ago.  The duckweed is doing well in this tank with relatively little water disturbance (this tank is tied to Sump 1 at the bottom) and mostly shaded.

and finally pictures of the growbeds as of 5/25/15

We are having fun with our system and starting to harvest some delicious greens already.  We also have a fierce defender should we be attacked by a roving band of barbarians.  He is well armed with blue rubber bands and is a crack shot, so be warned.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The birds and the bees

Spring has definitely sprung!

A pair of Robins has graced us with a nest.  They chose the top of the electrical panel box, likely because it constantly throws off a bit of low heat, good choice really.  So far, she has been extremely tolerant of our activity in the area as this is right next to the back door.

I managed to get up there when momma was off getting dinner and snap a picture of the inside of the nest.
Wowsers, these sure are the prettiest eggs I've ever seen!  The incubation period is about 2 weeks.

The aquaponics system is humming along.  The original plants have doubled in size in Grow Bed3 (GB3)


 The spinach and kale are lagging behind in GB2.  Of the 20 or so seeds of each we planted, only a handful have sprouted.

The lettuce mix seeds we broadcast have been sprouting like crazy.

  Day 14  - 05/03/15

  • Temp: 71F
  • pH:  7.2
  • Ammonia: 0.5 ppm (24 hrs after addition of ammonia)
  • Nitrite: 3.5 ppm
  • Nitrate: 80 ppm

I've been adding 40-60 ml of ammonia (to get to ~4ppm) every day (the fish will do this when we get them) and the bacteria are starting to change it from ammonia to nitrites and nitrates.  The ammonia is going down to zero every day, but the nitrites are still at 3.5 ppm. I interpret this to mean that the Nitrosomonas bacteria are doing a great job converting ammonia to nitrite, but the Nitrospira bacteria are lagging a bit behind converting the nitrite to nitrate.

When ammonia and nitrites (both of which are toxic to fish) are at or near zero we can stop artificially adding ammonia and begin adding live fish which will produce their own ammonia and the bacteria cycle should just keep cooking along.   I expect this to occur in the next week or so.

Since the kale and spinach seeds germinated so poorly, I moved them to the edge of the GB and planted several more plants from Home Depot in GB2 and a couple of zucchini in GB1.  I am hoping to harvest the lettuce mix before the zucchini squash take over the whole space.

All the seedlings, either sprouted in a GB or starters transplanted from Home Depot have been amazingly tolerant of getting moved around in the media.  Just to get the ones from Home Depot into the system, they had to undergo a rather traumatic "de-soiling", in which the roots were vigorously shaken and then rinsed several times in water to remove the potting soil.

Just for curiosity, I have separated all the leeks, which were in one large bunch like grass, into individual stalks over a few days time all except for 1 or 2 have lived and seem to be thriving.  I also moved several of the tiny lettuce sprouts and all have survived (so far).

4" starts from Home Depot (Bonnie brand) planted 05/03/15

  • Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum)- start harvesting at 4-6 leaf sets, annual, 2 additional
  • Red Bell Pepper (Capsicum annuum) - package: 70-80 days to harvest at 4-5" long peppers
  • Easy Pick Gold Zucchini squash - 32 days until harvest, 6-10" fruit
  • Golden Scallop Pattypan squash - 49 to 54 days until harvest, 2 to 4" fruit

Thursday, April 23, 2015

AP update 04/19/15

We are waiting for the nitrogen cycle to commence before adding more fish.  The first batch of (10) 1.5" feeder fish died the first night, probably too much stress from cooler water temperature and higher pH than pet store.

When water is reasonably clear, nitrogen cycle is present and general water conditions (temperature and pH) are stable, THEN we will add more goldfish.  I don't think the family can handle another massive fish "friend" die off again.

Day 1 - Starting conditions 04/13/15
  • Temp:  55F
  • pH:  >7.6 (upper limit of test)
  • Ammonia: 0 ppm
  • Nitrite: 0 ppm
  • Nitrate: 0 ppm
  • kH: not measured

Day 6  - 04/19/15
  • Temp: 68F
  • pH:  >7.6 (upper limit of test)
  • Ammonia: 0.5 ppm
  • Nitrite: 0 ppm
  • Nitrate: 0 ppm
  • kH: 70 ppm

In the meantime, I added a seaweed nutrient to the water to get some plants started.  Poured in a whole bag (10.7 ounces) of Maxicrop powder (bag states 1 teaspoon/gallon, our system is ~ 250 gallons)

The Maxicrop turned the water to Guiness (ok, just the color and opacity of Guiness).  Research indicates this should clear up in a couple/few weeks as the plants take up the nutrients.

Planted yesterday and today.

4" starts from Home Depot (Bonnie brand)
  • Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum)- start harvesting at 4-6 leaf sets, annual
  • Sage (Salvia officinalis)- similar to basil, but lightly first year (year??)
  • Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum)- package: 80 days to harvest at 15-18" tall
  • Orange Bell Pepper (Capsicum annuum) - package: 70-80 days to harvest at 4-5" long peppers
  • Lemon Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) - snip stems as needed after it gets bigger, perennial
 Seeds from Botanical Interests
    Planted 2-5 seeds per piece of cotton ball, placed cotton balls just at grow bed high water line
  • Dwarf Blue Curled Kale (Brassica oleracea) - expect sprouts to emerge in 5-10 days
  • Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) - expect sprouts to emerge in 5-10 days 
     broadcast seeds on top of growbed, attempted to poke down any visible seeds, watered over top to help set seeds into media
  • Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) - expect sprouts to emerge in 5-10 days 
  • Arugula (Eruca sativa) - expect sprouts to emerge in 10-15 days  

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Aquaponics Install Complete

We hit a major milestone in the Aquaponics Adventure this week.

First, let's just admire the lovely green concrete support blocks.  There was some skepticism in the household about whether or not this was a good/feasible idea.  I'm delighted to write that painting these was as easy as pie.

OK, now onto the important parts.  A good friend, Dr. McNie, assisted with the plumbing and a good thing that was too, she definately prevented what could have been some costly mistakes!  

I got all the parts from The Aquaponics Source Store to plumb a 3 IBC system.

It took a couple of days to get it all installed and tested.

Thanks to my guys, we got the lights hung up (the windows provide some light, but it's not really strong enough for robust plant growth).

and the beds filled with Coco-Puffs!

 Just kidding, the fill media is called Hydroton.  It is small balls of expanded clay.  This kind of media is ideal for the system has it lots of tiny crevices inside the balls, which will eventually get colonized by the beneficial bacteria that keep the whole system running.

and Voila!

Now we wait for the beneficial bacteria to colonize the system and start doing their groovy thing.  They turn ammonia (fish poop) into nitrates (plant food).

For the true geeks out there:

Nitrosomonas bacteria convert Ammonia (NH4-) into Nitrite (NO2-)
NH4+  +  1.5 O2  =  NO2-  +  2 H+  +  H20  +  84 kCal/mol of Ammonia

Nitrospira bacteria convert Nitrite (NO2-) into Nitrate (NO3-)
NO2-  +  0.5 O2  =  NO3-  +  17.8 kCal/mol of Nitrite

 for everyone else:
Ammonia and Nitrite BAD, Nitrate GOOD

Saturday, March 28, 2015

AP Construction continues

The AP system construction was interrupted last week as Aidan and I spent his Spring Break in California visiting family and good friends.

Aidan had a blast as Master Fire Poker

and Apprentice Pasta Maker

and Flying Trampoline Man

While I got to hang with the Beautiful People (one of whom is made of wax, I'll let you guess which one)

Meanwhile back home, the AP system is coming along slowly, but surely.

All the IBC's are cut and staged in the patio.  
A test fit of the 3 grow bed layout looks like a perfect fit!

The support blocks are painted and glued together (for extra stability, cuz water is heavy!).  I chose a happy green color for the blocks, in part because Aidan informed me that the all white walls were "so boring".  He approves of this color :)

Next is putting it all together using the kit of "special" PVC parts from the local Aquaponics Source store in Longmont.  I should only need to purchase and cut the straight runs of PVC pipe.

I'm really looking forward to the plumbing part, I think it's going to be like adult level Tinker Toys :)

Happy Spring!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Aquaponics baby!

The aquaponics adventure begins.

A couple of years ago I read about a couple who had reworked their backyard pool from a leisure feature to become a nearly self-sustaining food production area.  They converted the pool to grow edible fish in the deep end, the fish water (nutrient rich with fish poop) is then pumped through vegetable growing beds. And they have some chickens in there providing yet more nutrients to the growing system.  From this they can sustainably produce their own vegetables, fish, eggs and the occasional chicken to eat.  You can read more about that here:

I was very intrigued by this idea and have since researched Aquaponics (AP) like a mad woman.  Having always liked keeping aquarium fish as a hobby and a growing interest in vegetable gardening (pun intended) this seems like a cool thing to do.  From the moment we first saw our new home, I became obsessed with putting an AP system on our screened patio.

The patio is an ideal place to do this as it gets great morning sun and is fully screened to minimize garden pests (we have lots of rabbits, squirrels and racoons around here as well as the usual multitude of vegetable garden eating bugs).  Additionally, as the patio is big enough to accommodate a nice seating area as well as the AP system, the sound of running water will enhance the whole vibe.  And finally I'm hoping this will help us put a lot more fresh, organic produce on our plates.

The first step was preparing the patio. 


after much sanding, painting, reworking storm windows and minor electrical upgrades:

I know, it hardly looks different in the picture, but trust me it is much lighter out there now with the dark wood and red brick painted white. Also, we insulated the ceiling area to better hold in whatever little heat there is in winter to help the future fish tank temperature.

Now we are ready for the next step; setting up the hardware.  We have purchased 3 IBC (intermediate bulk containers) previously used to store agave syrup.  Each tank is 275 gallons.

The plan is to cut them up as follows:

IBC1 = 1 grow bed and 1 fish tank
IBC2 = 1 growbed and 1 sump tank
IBC3 = 1 growbed and 1 sump tank

The growbeds will gravity drain into the sump, the water is then pumped from the sump back into the growbeds and fishtank.  The fish tank will have an overflow siphon back into the sump tank.  This keeps the water in the fishtank at a constant height.

Aidan had a fine time rinsing out the tanks yesterday (grow bed and fish tank).

my new favorite tool:
It cuts through metal and plastic like butter!

Stayed tuned for further developments.