THE SAGA CONTINUES

Rich PhotosThe backyard garden is well into its summer growing season, the plants are going crazy, making me wish I had planted bush squash and beans instead of vines. And more compact growing tomatoes. With 3-4 months of grow time left I won’t even be able to navigate the area for the overgrowth. A couple of things stand out in my third trial garden, the first out of doors Aquaponics, the previous two trials were in the greenhouse where I produced some of the finest black aphids, mealy bugs, slugs, scale, and whiteflies in the state of CA!

The number one observation is that on certain plants an abundance of nitrates can produce excess foliage and leggy vines. The second is that the squash and tomato fruits are about half the size of those grown in the ground, this directly goes back to observation #1, a disproportionate amount of nitrogen to potassium and phosphate. Also, until I added calcium both the tomatoes and squash developed end rot. I do put eggs shells in the worm buckets and in the GBs, but that wasn’t enough. No more problems with end rot. Since this aquaponic experiment also included vermiponics I was hoping that the nutrient regimen would be more balanced. I had observed prior to starting any of the trials, while wading through tons of YouTube type of videos on Aquaponics they all showed all of the plants with long spaces between internodes on tomato, peppers, and most of the other stalk plants that I observed in the videos.

The main reason for including “Vermiponics” with the Aquaponics was to eliminate this problem, because along with that comes stunted fruit/veggies. I have kept at least one worm box with red wigglers for most of the last 40 years, sometimes seriously working with them and then much of the time just having a box to throw food scraps into. I am aware of the potential of worm castings, even for starting seeds and cuttings without being diluted. A look at the 27 worm buckets that were planted in pure worm casting shows the potential plants can have. I have spent many hours going through the latest studies I can find on Vermiculture today and as it is in any industry there are two different approaches. There is the marketing approach, how easy can we make it for marketing purposes and yet get away with using data from studies done with the proper care and feeding regimen.

The second approach is what we need to do to produce the most desirable results. The marketing approach feeds off of the results from the second approach. Raising earthworms is no different. The quality of the worm casting is in direct proportion to the quality of the feed they are given. Go easy on the newspaper. The safest is just black print, the colored print even though not on glossy paper is not considered safe by many, no copy paper. I knew from reading the Aquaponics Magazine forum information that there were nutrient deficiencies. Calcium and iron are two others that come to mind. My goal is to create a natural way to provide the necessary nutrients required for proper development.

This first outdoor garden experiment was to incorporate the Vermiponics, hence the bucket garden. By the way there are only 27 buckets not 29 like I had been reporting. I discovered my error when I brought home 30 drip system stakes, (I usually lose at least one of whatever I am working with) but I had 3 left over. Hmmm, so I counted the buckets starting from left to right, I came up with 27, not willing to accept the fact that I had previously miscounted to 29 and publish it for all the world to see, I decided to count from right to left (think I saw this on the three stooges), still only 27! Originally not having a clue what ratio of 5 gallon worm buckets to 600 gallon FT was required to produce the results I wanted, instead of one worm bucket why not a bunch, so that is how I derived at the 27 buckets for this “scientific” study. That isn’t entirely true, I only had room for 27 buckets on the elevated rack my nephew and I had built! What actually makes this trial generate more questions then answers is that I have no idea what type and how much the worm buckets were contributing in nutrients, and even though I have been periodically adding food for the worms, I have no idea how many worms are left in each of the buckets. Now that the plants roots fill the buckets it makes it impossible to actually see the worms to get any idea how many worms are left. I also have no idea how many worms were in the worm bedding material at the beginning of this trial.

One thing is obvious by recent photos is that all of the plants are growing very fast and very large. The goldfish, however many are left are about 3-4 inch body size now. There should be close to 200 still in the Biopond, but unless I drain the Biopond I really don’t know. I no longer have fish dying and the fish are coming up for food twice a day. Other observations have to do with the system itself. The loss of water, due to the drip (more like a pour) system for the buckets, the uptake of the plants, three dogs drinking out of the Biopond, and the containers using coir and perlite. I can find no leaks in the system, but I go through a lot of water, at least 25% per week. I understand there is a lot of transpiration from the plants, but can’t measure it.

Bioponics and drip systems do not do well together, they clog up on almost a daily basis, hence the pour system, each valve is wide open. Even using pre-filters, the filter cartridges would have to be cleaned frequently. I am working on a preliminary design for a filter that in theory will resolve this problem with very little help from the outside. Hope it works! The concentrate from the proposed filter will go to the grow beds, while the filtered water will go through the slow sand filter to the worm buckets. The nutrients produced by the worms and their food will supply the nutrients for the plants. This will involve adding at least two additional vessels. After dividing up the worms and worm bedding from my original 4 worm boxes, I was left without backup worms should this worm bucket experiment fail. I brought in 2 more lbs of adult red wigglers and they are in two worm boxes chowing down on food. They receive veggie scraps and compost that is cooling down to the point where they can go in and scavenge the bacteria and fungi that were instrumental in the final stage of composting.

Because of the success of the plants in the greenhouse with very little help from worms, the fish alone provided enough nutrients to produce delicious tomatoes, and large wonderful sweet potatoes. Not to mention some very hot chili plants, Caribbean reds, and Bhut Jolokia, that are really pretty to look at! Not to mention the greens, kale, herbs, Swiss chard, lettuce, spinach, a couple of orphaned euphorbia cacti, and zygo cacti that had no where to go. The leafy veggies do very well of course, but not immediately, it takes time, as has been emphasized many times in this forum, for the system to mature. However, it is always difficult for me to be patient; I live in a society of instant. It has to be noted that the tomato plants inside the greenhouse suffer from long internodes and small tomatoes also. There are some red wigglers in the GBs, but not enough to clean up the sediment from the fish. To be able to evaluate how to what extent the worms are a benefit to the system, controls have to be in place. It would be necessary to separate the worms to be able to monitor their population.

There has to be a way to monitor the nutrient uptake by the plants. The unknowns would include the concentrating of nutrients because of the uptake of water by the plants and evaporation. Using an API nitrate test kit is way to general in its readings. Not to mention how to be consistent in shaking the bottle of regent and the vial. My objective was to combine readily available natural self-perpetuating methods of providing nutrients in a consistent and sufficient manner to produce the crops that are actually nutritionally beneficial to the folks that need them, which lettuce isn’t. So far that has eluded me. Outside of adding specific additional nutrients I do not know how to arrive at my goal. It has been mentioned that within the feed the fish receive are additional minerals that benefit the fish. However, if Aquaponics is going to work for the folks that do not have, they can not be buying prepared fish food. It’s fine for us to do that, unless we are trying to be self-sustaining.

Another variable is the diet of the fish that are being raised; do herbivores such as tilapia produce different nutrients then carnivores such as yellow perch or bass? Most people in this country would not be raising tilapia unless they had sufficient funds to pay for the utilities. I could see it being more practical provided they have the room, to raise earthworms, compost their biodegradable waste and feed the worms to the fish. Any Aquaponics program for feeding a family of four requires a fair amount of room and a fair size initial investment of at least labor.

Rich PhotosThe attached photo shows the growth as of July 22, 2011. Jiffy Pellets work much better for me if the seeds are allowed to germinate in a covered tray and not in a raft system. Most of the seeds of various plants sown in the Jiffy Pellets in net pot floating in the raft system did not germinate.. The nitrates have stayed around 80-100ppm the pH has fluctuated because of added water but is usually in the low 7’s. the temperature has fluctuated considerably one day in the 90-100 degrees the next couple will be in the 60-70 range. Total dissolved solids around 270ppm. I will continue of course to let it grow, especially in hopes of a more mature system producing a better level of nutrients. I will continue to search for a source of phosphates and potassium; that will work with the fish and supply the needed nutrients. I am not interested in getting them out of a box, but from a natural source that can be incorporated into the system. As noted there have been considerable, but not totally satisfactory successes with “rfeiller’s-outside garden construction.” This is a growth experience. Observations at my garden, your experiences could be entirely different:

1)  Seedlings have a very slow start in the GB with the bell siphons.
2)  Greens such as Swiss chard, salad greens, spinach actually do better for me in the rafts then in the gravel GB’s.
3)  Strawberries have done very well in the gravel GBs.
4)  Celery hearts rooted very quickly and produced large new stalks with huge leaves, (not blanched) in the gravel GBs..
5)  Bok Choy bolted so fast it never formed a head in the GB, but rotted in the raft.
6)  Kale, Green beans, squash, tomatoes, peppers, grow better in the GBs, and will not grow in the raft system.
7)  The marigolds did ok in the raft, but do better in the GB.
8)  Herbs such as basil, rosemary, garlic, and sage do better for me in the GB than in the rafts.
9) Working with plants such as roses, regular potatoes, sweet potatoes, and asparagus, kale, peppers, and tomatoes also do better in a coir/perlite mix whose container is either on a matt system or the container is being irrigated and draining back into the FT.

One general observation that surprised me was the taste of everything, strawberries, celery, tomatoes, etc., all have a much more intense flavor. I do not find this when they are grown in the soil. I expect the summer veggies to continue until November, but as these summer crops come to an end, fall and winter crops will take their place, such as broccoli, winter squash, cauliflower, salad greens, bok choy, etc. and of course the potatoes and asparagus will be encouraged to continue growing. I believe the biggest challenge will be asparagus. It usually does not do well in the confinement of a container.

There are numerous cultivars, all of mine are in the Washington group, which can withstand warmer temperatures without bolting, but cannot endure long extremely cold winters like the Jersey group. I found out a couple of months ago that the asparagus would not sprout in the red lava GB with a bell siphon. Several of them started to throw out roots and then the roots died. I’ve since transplanted the twenty crowns into a GB with coir and perlite, 15 of the 20 have sent up sprouts. Hopefully, the remaining 5 will take up the program. I have an additional 19 crowns out of 20 that are growing in pots filled with coir and perlite. I have had to supplement their nutrients with organic fertilizer containing phosphates for all of the asparagus, they just seemed to be struggling with just the fish water. I want to be able to produce asparagus year round. According to everything I have read so far that isn’t possible. We’ll have to wait and see.

Future plans for the “outside garden” are to enclose it with PVC piping and plastic for the winter months. I do not plan on heating it. Just hope to get a few more veggies out of the plants. There are several different modifications and additions that will also take place. In the meantime, I will continue to learn and share from the “outside garden construction”. Happy growing Rich

Post Author: Rich Feiller

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