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Sunday, December 9, 2012

What to do with mint?

Our Mint Eradicator

This past summer I haven't spent much time in my garden. I was out of the country for work several times, a family member passed away, and I had a big project that caused any number of late nights.

In the mean time, my aquaponic garden grew like gangbusters. Unfortunately, I let a friend give me some mint. She's a kind-hearted soul who hates to let any living thing die.

Luckily for me, my daughter acquired a rabbit this fall named Silver. He's a chinchilla colored rex buck (for those of you who know rabbit terms). Luckily for me, Silver loves mint. So I can pull it out in big handfuls and he'll happily munch it down. We have enough mint from this past summer to keep Silver happy for quite a long time yet to come.

My last post was about making emergency lights for Hurricane Sandy. Luckily, our power didn't go out for long and the storm passed us by. I had a chance to spend a long weekend up in New York helping clean up homes in Queens, which was hit particularly hard by the storm.

Hope you have a great holiday season! I'll be back posting about aquaponics again in the new year. Greenhouses, solar heaters, and more!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Making an oil lamp

Two DIY Oil Lamps - Soot is from blowing out the wick instead of dowsing it in oil

Hurricane Sandy is hovering over us at the moment. Since we expect power to go out today (and stay off for several days), I thought I'd share how to make a simple oil lamp from materials most people have at home.

You'll need:
  • pliers (needle nose pliers are best)
  • a thick glass jar or glass (works with goblets as well)
  • oil (olive oil is ideal if you have it)
  • wick (can make from cotton cloth if you don't have wicks)
  1. Twist a coil in the end of your wire. This will hold the wick and prevent the flame from burning down the wick.
  2. Bend the wire so the wick is held in the center of your jar. It helps to bend a small loop in the wire where it will be outside the jar to help you lift the wire out of the jar for lighting your wick.
  3. Push the wick up through the coil. Pull the wick so it is only an 1/8th of an inch over the wire coil. The end of the wick should be long enough to reach the bottom of your jar.
  4. Place the wire and wick in your jar.
  5. Add oil to your jar so it comes just below your wire coil. You can pour the oil over the wick if you want.
  6. Pull the wire/wick up and light it. Oil doesn't like to burn, so it won't catch very quickly.
  7. When the wick has caught, lower the wire/wick down into the jar.
  8. If the flame is too high, life the wire/wick out and tug gently on the bottom of the wick to reduce the amount of wick sticking out above the coil.
  9. When you want to extinguish the flame, dip the flaming end of the wick in the oil. The oil will not catch on fire, but will immediately cool the hot end of the wick. This will prevent the wick from smoking, which it will do if you just blow it out.

If you don't have wicks in your utility drawer, you can cut strips of cloth from either a cotton t-shirt or a used tea towel. These home-made wicks will last longer if you lay them in a shallow dish of water, then sprinkle liberally with salt. Let them soak for an hour, then let them dry. For more information, read Ruth deJauregui's article on How to Make a Wick for an Oil Lamp Using Recycled Materials.

Here are some more pictures.

Materials you can use to make your oil lamp

A closer view of the wire/wick assembly

Lighting a second wick from a lamp that is already burning

PS - As always, be careful with fire. The top of the jar will get hot.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Videos of Rocket Mass Heater and Bell Siphon

Here are a couple of videos I finally got around to putting together this weekend. The first shows a small bell siphon system I put together for a science fair last February. I used a bin I got at Ikea a few years ago, that happened to fit perfectly on top of a 10 gallon fish tank.

Over time a glass bell will start to grow an algae film, which rather defeats the purpose of having a clear bell. But it's fun for a science fair or classroom.

Small system I put together for a Feb 2012 science fair

That month I also put together my final rocket mass heater configuration, using cinder block and bricks with the 55-gallon steel drum.

My Rocket Mass Heater in Feb 2012

I like using the cinder blocks in the place of the insulated section of chimney because it is far less expensive. In addition, four stacked blocks are the perfect height inside a standard 55 gallon steel drum, leaving 1.5-2 inches of space for the gases to escape at the top.

Within minutes of me posting the cinder block rocket mass heater video, someone warned me that cinder blocks explode in fire. I have had no problem with this in the fires I've burnt in this system over the past six months. But I checked it out.

Allegedly moist cinder blocks can be a problem in fires - the water rapidly evaporates and the expanding gas can cause the blocks to shatter. My blocks aren't getting wet since they are covered by the steel drum. If they were to shatter, the flying bits would be contained inside the steel drum.

While I've read too many accounts to completely discount the danger of exploding cinder blocks, a search for exploding cinder blocks only yields videos of young men blowing up gunpowder inside a pile of cinderblocks (a really, really bad idea, by the way).

This fall I'm planning to reconfigure my greenhouse so the rocket mass heater is inside the enclosure itself. That way I'll capture the radiant heat off the heater itself, not just the heat traveling through the exhaust ducting running under my grow bed. I'll also be playing with solar heating. Fun times!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Geo-thermal Cooling

It's been extremely hot outside this week, and we're suffering a significant drought in much of the country. The chart above shows the levels of streams compared to their historical levels for this time of month. Though some regions are getting a lot of rain (the deep blue dots), much of the center of the country is experiencing drought conditions reminiscent of those over sixty years ago. The Dustbowl, as the period from 1934-1936 became known, was a drought characterized by Roland Dewing as the "most extreme natural event in 350 years."

Back to the heat, I got thinking about the Underground Heating Exchange Systems (UHES) the Chinese developed a while ago. The idea to pump air underground was first patented in the United States in the wake of the oil crisis in the 1970s. But the Chinese picked up on this technology and highlighted it as part of an integrated agricultural approach to feeding the Cold North East.

When I saw the Chinese paper (republished on the UN FOA website), I thought it was amusing that they'd used clay pipes for their experiment. After all, folks in the US typically use plastic drainage tubing for this sort of heat exchange system.

Then I got thinking last night - a problem with the plastic is getting it to simultaneously drain the water that condenses and keep out roots and pests. Clay pipe didn't sound bad, after all. Then the light bulb went off.

What if I used cinder blocks underground for the heat exchange "tubing?" At $1.65 per linear foot, it is more expensive than the HDPE drainage pipe. But I wouldn't have to worry about water draining through the blocks (it would) and I wouldn't be worried about the "tube" getting crushed.

That took me on another little adventure of the mind, as I tried to figure out how deep to run the "pipes" underground. The Chinese used half a meter, but what if one went deeper?

The ground temperature at 30 feet below the surface is constant - which is why caves are cooler than outside in the summer and warmer than outside in the winter. How far below the surface do I need to go to get to that constant heat, I wondered?

Then I found out something really fun at the Build it Solar website. It turns out the temperature profile of the ground lags the air temperature profile. Air temperatures peak in July (in my area), but the soil temperature peaks in August.

Then comes the cool part. That peak heat migrates slowly down towards the earth's heat skin, so that the date of peak heat level at deep depths lags the temperature of the surface soil by weeks and months.

So not only will deep Underground Heat Exchange Systems access a larger thermal mass, the ground around that thermal mass will actually be heating up when the rest of the world is cooling down.

I'm not sure how practical it is for a home owner to dig down 6 feet or more, but this kind of effort would be within the reach of a minor business. I would love to experiment with this next summer, if I can find a lot where I could dig deep...

Saturday, July 7, 2012

My new "Green" car

You're probably looking at this picture and wondering how an old 1999 Ford Escort is a "green" car. Let me explain. I've been in the market for a new-to-me car and spent a fair amount of time doing market research on the new cars on the market these days.

I particularly love the Fiat 500 because it's cute and reminds me of the two years I spent in Italy in the 1980s. The minimum advertised price for one of these is $15,500 and it gets 30/37 MPG with premium fuel. I even kow all the old Italian songs about the 500 or "cinque cento."

The engineer in me loves the Toyota Prius, starting at about $24,000 and getting 51/48 MPG. Some family members have Priuses, so I've had a chance to drive them and check out the features (video showing reversing, keyless entry, trip computer plus GPS). Prius is definitely a nice car.

I've really liked the smart car since the Smart Fortwo came out in the US in 2008 (starting at $12,500 and getting 34/38 MPG). Alas, my husband requires we have cars that can fit the family, so he wants a car with four seats.


In a few months the first all-electric version of the Smart Fortwo will be available for individual consumers. The cars have a range of almost 85 miles, based on data from the Car2Go carsharing service, which has been using the Smart Fortwo vehicles in their fleets since November 2011. In fact I got myself an account with the Car2Go service in the city where I work. Unfortunately, I live outside the city limits, so the carsharing idea doesn't meet my commuting requirements.

So why buy an old car, when all these new cars are so awesome and "green?" Though a new car saves any amount of gas money and emissions for the owner, there's always the fuel, water, and emissions incurred in creating the car in the first place. In 2010 Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark at The Guardian said it takes about 17,000 metric tons of CO2 to produce a new car. By comparison, the US EPA estimates the average passenger vehicle produces 5,000 metric tons of CO2 per year.

So if I buy an older car and drive it for 3 1/2 years, it's the same CO2 impact as purchasing a new car and leaving it in the garage for 3 1/2 years. It'd take a powerfully fuel-efficient vehicle to get me a ROI in less than, say, 10 years.

The 1999 Ford Escort I just bought has less than 65,000 miles on her. She could stand getting aligned and no doubt needs a tune up. But she cost me about $3000 and this year/make/model routinely gets ~30 MPG based on actual customer results (based on 50+ fill-ups). It would take a really, really long time before I could earn a return on investment for any of these new green cars in terms of either money or CO2 emissions relative to this old but new-to-me vehicle.

There are other perks. My insurance rates will be lower, as well as my local car taxes. Repairs will be less expensive when required, and this car has the old-fashioned keys that can be copied at the store for less than $2.00.

And you know the really funny thing? The car, itself, is actually painted green. You can't get more "green" than that!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Automatic Fish Feeders

I go on travel a lot. I have people who can feed my fish when I'm away, but sometimes they forget. Sometimes I forget, when it's busy.

I've had my eye out for some good way to feed my fish their pellets. Most automatic fish feeders I'd been seeing were either too large or too small. We never even got to the "too expensive" category.

Then I found a "Programmable Automatic Pond Fish Food Feeder With LCD display" on Amazon for less than $50. It looks like it should work, and it's free standing.

Purchased the commercial unit online and have been looking forward to playing with it. Then my buddy, Rob Torcellini, posted a youtube video about the automatic fish feeder he has created. So cool! I don't have a tack welder or a sand blaster, but the video gives me an idea how I could create an automatic fish feeder using the tools available to me.

Luckily for my fish, there's a commercial feeder en route. But for fun, I look forward to seeing if I can rig up a DIY something to work in case the feeder I've bought were to fail. Should be fun!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Community Supported Agriculture

This past spring a lady at church e-mailed about the CSA farm she wanted to join. The hook - if we all ganged together, we could get cheaper delivery than if we went separate, and we also wouldn't have to drive out to the farm every week.

I figured a half share wouldn't be too dangerous - after all, how many fruits and vegetables could that actually be?

A lot, it turns out.

Between the crops I'm harvesting from my aquaponics system and the boxes of fruits and veggies from the CSA, we are well and truly over-run with yummy vegetables. Luckily, the CSA publishes recipes and lets us know what these things are. I had never eaten Patty Pan squash before, for example. Who knew a meal of Patty Pan Squash Fritters could be so amazingly filling.

Tonight we had sauteed beet greens with pistou from last year's garden, along with the squash fritters and pickeled onion and red beet eggs. So good! So filling!!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

How it all started in Australia

I'm writing about Australian Fish, and wanted to hark back to the 2006 segment on Gardening Australia that kick-started aquaponics in Australia. It was a five minute tour of Joel Malcolm's backyard paradise, lush plants powered by silver perch and yabbies, all free of chemicals and enjoyed to the sound of constantly flowing water, yet far more water-efficient than any other form of gardening.

I searched my blogs high and low and couldn't find this video. Crazy! So here it is. If you've seen it, you know how delightful and relaxing Joel's 2006 garden paradise appeared to a parched nation worried about chemical additives.


Monday, July 2, 2012

Beets and Canned Bluegill

I was delighted to see that my beets have actually developed roots this year. Last year the roots were tiny, and I had resigned myself to only getting beet greens.

I simply rinsed the beet root and simmered it in salted water for 45 minutes. After the root is cooked, the skin slides right off. The root was delightful as is and was even better drizzled with good olive oil and a dash of sea salt.

In other news, I came across a recipe for canning bluegills that eliminates the need to skin or bone, and lets you use even little fish.

Bayou Bill's Canned Bluegill Recipe

I love the idea of being able to preserve the fish like that, since there'll be winter days when fishing a fresh one won't be my idea of fun. These canned bluegill look like they'd be a bit like canned salmon, with the crunchy but edible bones.

Bayou Bill passed away in 2009, but I had a chat with his widow, Nancy. She'd be delighted to know folks are using Bill's recipes. Enjoy!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Footprints, Aquaponics, and "Being Green"

The conversation these days is full of talk returning to whole-grain foods and "being green." Yet it's not always clear what advertisers and green activists mean by "green." There are three different views of what "green" means:
  • Reducing our reliance on petrochemicals, our carbon footprint
  • Reducing our consumption of natural resources, our ecological footprint
  • Reducing our consumption of fresh water, our water footprint
Most folks focus simply on saving fossil fuel, the carbon footprint portion of the equation. This becomes contentious because reducing fuel use is often equated with changing existing market models. If you're in mixed company (e.g., liberals and conservatives) arguments will likely break out where those benefitting from the status quo and those advocating for change coming to near fisticuffs over the science behind "carbon footprint" and global warming. Typically proponents of the status quo claim "green" scientists and liberals are idiots. The UN target is ~2.0 metric tons of carbon per person per year. The current world-wide average is ~4.0 metric tons per year, and the average person in an industrialized nation produces more like 20.0 metric tons per year. Oops.

A more comprehensive measure is ecological footprint, how many "worlds" worth of earth's resources we consume, or how many "worlds" worth of earth's resources would be consumed if all earths inhabitants lived like us. The science behind ecological footprint isn't as likely to be challenged, because it is less well-understood. Besides, the slogan "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" is pretty catchy and obvious. We are "sustainable" if we use only as many resources as the earth can renew in a single year. Currently humans worldwide consume resources it takes the earth 1.5 years to produce.

More recently the United Nations has begun focusing on water use. When it comes to water, there is no fossil fuel resource we can tap. The fresh water available is a finite resource, and mankind is not doing a good job of managing this resource. An old saying goes "Beer is for drinking, water is for fighting." Many of us forget that water is limited because all we have to do is turn a knob and water gushes forth. But lack of water is the natural "disaster" responsible for the greatest number of premature deaths across the globe.

When I grow food using aquaponics in my own backyard, I am arguably saving fuel relative to what I'd "spend" driving to the store. But as researchers have carefully measured and I've observed, aquaponics uses only 1/10th the water required for traditional gardens.

Aquaponics might not strike everyone as sustainable, since some of the components must use electricity or at least be made from relatively modern materials. However once you have your infrastructure in place, aquaponics is one of the most sustainable or "green" ways to grow food, particularly from the standpoint of saving water.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Aquaponics: Synergies with Other Topics

At left:

Example of a book you could look to for info on creating a 365 aquaponics system

I love aquaponics. But when you're looking to create your aquaponic garden, you can pull from numerous other resources. One of my favorite topics is year-round gardening.

I love the idea of being able to have vegetables (and fish...) during late fall, winter, and early spring. Most of the current aquaponics literature talks about growing in climates that are warm throughout much of the year, which makes it easy to have your fish and veggies year round. But what do you do when the temperature plummets to crazy low?

Last time I mentioned the site. The interface is a bit clunky, but I love being able to look at climate information for any major city anywhere in the world. So if I'm reading a book written by Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm, for example, I can look up his address in google maps, find the closest major city, and see what his climate is. In Eliot Coleman's case, that's either Augusta or Bangor, ME. If the lengths of his days and his temperatures are similar, I can have some confidence that the solutions he's developed can be applied to my situation.

On the other hand, if the person giving me advice on winter crops has their garden on the equator, I may want to be a bit more sceptical about whether the measures that work for them will be adequate for me.

PS - I haven't posted much lately for various reasons. But the most trivial reason for my silence is running up against my storage limit. Getting me and my credit card and the website to buy more space together all at the same time wasn't working. Luckily for me, Google has shifted to their "Google Drive" concept, along with 5GB of free space (I think it was 1GB before). I'll still be absent a bit for the next few weeks for the other reasons I've been hiding. Towards the end of June, however, you can expect to hear from me more regularly.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Urban Farming Guys in India

I woke up this morning to a cool e-mail from the Urban Farming Guys. They'd gone to India, to the isolated city of Imphāl, to install a barrelponics system for an orphanage.

The e-mail contained three videos. The first two minutes of the first video gives you a glimpse of the barrelponics design they were installing. Then next 30 minutes of video mostly gives you a sense of the beautiful people they were serving, and the primitive conditions with which they had to work.

UFG goes to India (14 min) :

part 2 (8 min)

part 3 (10 min)

Thinking back, I initially didn't like the barrelponics system. The blue barrels and lack of aesthetics bothered me. But after over a year of trying to figure out elegant ways to create DIY systems one can create from local materials, the barrelponics concept is growing on me. And I think it would be possible to modify this system to make it less screamingly blue plastic DIY-ish. Anyway, check out at least the first couple of minutes of the Urban Farming Guys' video if you're just interested in plumbing ideas. The rest of the video is fun if you want to experience another world.

Another cool thing I discovered this week is the website Gaisma, where for any major city in the world you can find sunrise, sunset, and averages for the amount of sunlight ("insolation" in kWh/day taking into account weather and cloudcover), the amount of rainfall, windspeed, and temperature. For example, here is a portion of the Gaisma page for Imphāl.

At a glance you can see the amount of sun a location gets in each month of the year, the average monthly temperature, and the amount of rain (you can change the units if you're not used to the default measurements (e.g., inches of rain versus mm of rain)). Using for my location, I was able to calculate the amount of rainfall I could expect per year on my greenhouse, in case I wanted to limit my rainwater harvesting to the relatively-clean plastic roof over my garden. In my case, it comes out to almost 2500 gallons per year for my little 8'x12' greenhouse. Crazy!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Aquaponics Videos at

The Planet Stewards website went live a few days ago. And the free teaser (32 minutes worth) is the video they shot of me and my daughter, Tara Phillips, at the September 2011 Aquaponics Association Conference.

I remember being very happy and very tired that night. But it's fun remembering that weekend. I explain a bit why I started designing my own system (because I couldn't bear to pay for shipping for the systems then available) and some plumbing improvements I either discovered or imported.

Other videos from the conference are available for $20 apiece, if I recall correctly. Considering the price of air fare, hotel, and conference registration, that's a good deal (not to mention the fact that time travel to a past event would be prohibitive).

Visit or click here to just watch the interview.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Aquaponics at the Philadelphia Flower Show

A few weeks ago Sarah Gabriel e-mailed and asked if I wanted to do an aquaponics lecture at the Philadelphia Flower Show.

"Sure." I'm always up for doing something about aquaponics, but I had no idea what a huge event this is. The Philadelphia Horticultural Society is the oldest such society in America, formed in 1827. The Flower Show has been held annually since 1829 and is now the largest flower show in the world. Oh my goodness!

We were joined by Heidi Wood-Tucker who works with Dr. Stephen Hughes on the aquaponics program at Cheyney University. We had about 60 people attend our talk and demonstration. Heidi talked about the large aquaponics system they have at Cheyney, where they raise tilapia and grow basil - even using all their resources to produce basil, they are unable to satisfy the huge demand in this area. For my part, I put together a small demonstration system. I used the 10 gallon fish tank I'd gotten at PetSmart and a boot box from The Container Store, all on a wire rack from Target. In the process of preparing for this I made the awesome discovery that I could make my bell out of a glass jar as long as I propped it up a bit to allow water to flow underneath. It was fun getting to "see" how the bell siphon works!

I had a great time after the presentation wandering the show and talking to folks. I came home with lots of new friends, some nifty tools and gifts, and great ideas. Awesome!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The IBC of Aquaponics

Backyard Aquaponics has released an awesome manual on aquaponics, featuring 43 (yes, forty-three) systems made with Intermediate Bulk Containers or IBCs, appropriately called The IBC of Aquaponics. Even though I don't have an IBC system, I think IBCs are great. In fact, I'll be helping teach an aquaponics workshop in May where we'll be creating about a dozen IBC systems.

Why the IBC of Aquaponics is Cool - A list.
  1. The manual is free. That's always cool in my book.
  2. The introduction and appendix contain great (and pretty) information about aquaponics - all that stuff experienced aquapons have forgotten they ever had to learn.
  3. There are great pictures and write-ups on all the systems.
  4. Many of the articles about systems include hyperlinks to youtube videos, sketch-up models, and forum discussions about the systems.
Check out this cool chart, showing the relationship between nutrient availability and system pH. I've seen charts like this before and simplified the message in my own mind to "6.5 is good." But this version of the chart is absolutely lovely.

This level of professionalism and beauty continues through the rest of the document. If creating an aquaponics system out of an IBC tote appeals to you, you can browse several dozen different configurations, and even create a 3-D version of how your system could look (Google Sketch-up required).

If you live in the DC area and would like to participate in the May IBC workshop, drop me a line. Totes will be provided as part of the workshop!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Making an Indoor System

The last weekend in March I will be presenting a workshop at the Home Grown Institute Conference.

The conference will be held at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, in NW Philadelphia with the theme "Springing Good Intentions Into Action.” There will be over 50 home-scaled workshops, including edible gardens, community and school gardens, seed-saving, soil enrichment, 4 season harvest, bees, chickens, worms, aquaponics, food preservation, fermentation, re-purposing, upcycling, and natural building.

Lots of fun!

I'll be putting on the aquaponics workshop, demonstrating the construction of three different systems:
  • An aquaponic windowfarm, using recycled water bottles
  • A apartment/patio system
  • An outdoor system using stock tanks
All the systems I'm demonstrating emphasize putting together something relatively nice-looking out of local parts on a budget. In my own aquaponics journey, I went straight from a windowfarm to a system made from stock tanks. But I can imagine many people would want to start with something in between. So I've been playing...

First, structure. I like the look of wire shelving. But heavy-duty wire shelves can put you back a pretty penny. Luckily, Target carries a small three-tiered set of wire shelves for just $19.99 as part of their Room Essentials line. The shelves can carry a moderate load, particularly if the load is evenly distributed, such as would be the case with the flat bottom of a fish tank, or a flat bottomed grow bed.

Second, the fish tank. I'm fine with a 5-gallon water jug, but my daughter really liked the idea of an actual fish tank, where you could clearly see the fish inside. I was happy to find a 10-gallon tank at PetSmart for under $14.00. That would work just fine for a tank located under the growbed with a pump inside. Or I could cut a 1" hole near the top with a diamond hole saw if I wanted to have a "Constant Height of Fish Tank" configuration with a pump in a sump tank.

Finally, the growbed and sump. I've used concrete mixing tubs in the past, at least for a grow bed. But TC Lynx over at the Aquaponics Gardening community mentioned that she uses bus tubs for a demonstration system she packs along when she's selling her wares at the farmers market. Bus tubs are sturdy, designed to carry a load of dirty dishes from a table to the dish-washing part of a restaurant kitchen. They are also compact enough that they're still luggable, even when filled with gravel. I was able to find 7" deep bus tubs online from a variety of sellers. I decided to get three: one for a sump, a second for a media growbed, and a third for a floating raft grow bed.

There are other configurations I can imagine, but this is simple to put together without putting much strain on the family budget.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Keeping things warm

I hate working outside in the cold.

Unfortunately, I didn't get my two heating solutions finished before cold set in. With work, family, and short days, I've not had the time I'd hoped to finish things off.

Another concern I've had is getting things too warm. Since my greenhouse is so tiny, I had visions of scalding water and melted plastic. So I wanted to measure temperatures with the rocket mass heater without it being connected to the greenhouse.

This past week I finally got the rust stripped off and painted the drum and lid (from a second-hand 22.5" Weber grill) with high temperature paint. The high temperature paint is supposed to be able to go to 800 degrees Fahrenheit without out-gassing or burning off.

I've got a video here showing how I assembled the innards. I want to be able to disassemble the rocket mass heater, so making the components of cob isn't my first choice. If I had a chance to do this over, I would cut two 8 inch holes into the base plate or "lid" of the barrel.

I've found that it's a bit tricky getting these heaters to start. The method that ended up working for me is to start off with crumpled newspaper and a wax & eggcarton fire starter. Then feeding in small diameter sticks with the occasional piece of junk mail works great.

In my initial burn, I found that the top of the barrel (inside the domed lid) got to about 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The sides of the barrel warmed my hands when held about an inch away, and the top of the domed lid provided a similar level of diffuse heat.

If I had a greenhouse that was taller and could make a second version of this, I would consider having the heater inside the greenhouse. My greenhouse is short, however, so the roof plastic would only be a few inches above the domed lid. And this first version has the big rough rectangular hole for the exhaust, so I would be concerned about the exhaust fumes leaking in the enclosed space.

My next step will be constructing a nicer base out of bricks and connecting the exhaust to the duct work and structure inside my greenhouse.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Starting Seeds

We've been experimenting around with sowing seeds this winter, so I thought I'd share how that's been going.

Our first attempt was to plant seeds in rock wool, with the idea that we'd transplant the happy little baby plants into hydroton-filled net pots after they sprouted. That worked OK for a few seeds (peas, for instance), but for the most part we were left with itchy fingers and tiny plants that were too small to work with but too large to thrive in the original rock wool cubes we'd allocated.

For my next attempt, I encased each seed in a spit wad of tissue paper before planting it directly in a net pot filled with hydroton. I thought the tissue would keep the seeds moist and keep tiny seeds from falling through the balls of hydroton. I was hoping the tissue would be sufficiently flimsy to get out of the way of the plant when it started to grow.

My daughter, for her part, wanted to use peat pots, which she planted liberally with seeds. She poured lots of very warm water over the plants.

My daughter's seeds sprouted first - making a little carpet of green in her container. That was all well and good until it came time to transplant the little plants. It was nasty hard, and lots of individual plants were damaged in the process.

My seeds eventually sprouted, except for some old spinach seeds that likely were no longer viable. The spit wad idea worked great, and since the plants were already growing in hydroton, there was no need to handle the plants. All I had to do was plop my net pots into my floating raft out in the greenhouse.

Unfortunately, a fair number of the plants we set out in the greenhouse have "failed to thrive." All of the ones that haven't thrived are plants from seeds we initially grew in either rock wool or peat, the ones that had to be transplanted into hydroton. So taking all the good ideas and getting rid of the rest, here's my plan for planting seedlings as I wait for winter to end.

  • Encase the seeds I'm about to plant in a bit of tissue. I used a single ply of facial tissue, torn in 1/2" strips, then cut about 1/2-1" long. I put the seed in the center and fold the tissue over it. Then I moisten the folded square of tissue (licking works for me) and roll it into a ball or wad.

  • I fill a net pot 3/4 full of hydroton and place two of the seed spit wads on top.
  • Next I toss a few more balls of hydroton on top to cover the seeds and fill the netpot.
  • I arrange the filled net pots into a plastic container (to which I have a lid).
  • I fill the plastic container with nicely warm water so it almost reaches the top of the net pots.
  • Last thing for today, put on a lid and stick the plastic container somewhere dark and warm. I've found I can put it on top of some electrical appliance, where the waste heat keeps things warmer than average.

  • Tomorrow I will drain off most of the water and wait. If I'm right, I should see little sprouts as soon as my daughter got sprouts. If so, I can move these plants to the floating raft in my greenhouse as early as next week.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

What's in a picture?

This past week some of us were designing a T-shirt to celebrate World Water Day and Aquaponics. The T-shirt is now live at Cafepress, and it's cool.

In the process, however, I came up with a slightly different logo, which I'll be using for my own aquaponics efforts. Thought I'd explain what I was thinking, and why this is such a perfect logo for "365 Aquaponics."

The T-shirt slogan talks about growing more food with every drop. Since I often have to explain aquaponics to folks, I thought a design that showed the fish in clean water and the plants in fertilized water would be cool. Of course, the plant would have to be above the fish. Since the system cycles constantly, I decided to show the drops chasing each other - it would also look a bit like the yin yang symbol, which implies completeness. Super-excited about my concept, I shared a sketch with the team:

They were underwhelmed. Frankly, I don't like it, after getting a good night of sleep. The term "hot mess" comes to mind.

The official T-shirt went forward with its elegant and simple graphic, but I couldn't get the idea out of my head. Around this time I decided to research the yin yang symbol, to make sure there wasn't some weird symbolism I wanted to avoid. That's when I found out that the original yin yang symbol was all about the seasons of the year.

Allen Tsai has a nice page describing the original origin, with plots showing the day when the sun shone longest (and cast the shortest shadow) versus the day the sun shone least and cast the longest shadow.

If you put a little white spot to symbolize the day the sun starts to "conquer," and a little black spot to symbolize the day the moon starts to "conquer," you get the familiar yin yang symbol. And it's all about the seasons of the year.

I created my yin yang art, and drew a fish. The plant is supposed to be generic plant - neither lotus nor lettuce nor flower, but somehow representative of all of these.

The final touch is the curved white line of bubbles, suggesting movement and the need to oxygenate the fishes' water. Voilà! An image that explains aquaponics and the full year, winter as well as summer.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

United Nations' World Water Day - March 22

I've known about Earth Day (4/22) for years.

Somehow, World Water Day hadn't made it to my radar screen. But the rest of the world has been concerned about water use for decades.

The United Nations theme for this year is Water and Food Security - crazy important. A topic that is very close to my heart.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find an embeddable version of their instructive animation. But because I think this should be better known, I converted content from the UN website into a youtube video. I'm not trying to raise funds or make money off any of this, so I should be in the clear... Below is the final result, with background music written by Little Red King, appropriately named "Rain in the Desert."

So what are you planning to do for World Water Day on March 22nd?

Friday, January 13, 2012

January Update - Enclosing the Greenhouse

It's been a busy fall, what with creation of the Aquaponics Association (yours truly is Secretary of the US Chapter). But I finally got a chance during the holiday break to enclose my greenhouse. Not much growing going on, but the fish are all doing fine, even through the nasty cold snap that swept through the eastern United States in early January.

I shot a bit of video on January 1st, when it was cool (55 degrees) but sunny. With the greenhouse enclosed, it got up to 83 degrees inside. Nuts! Slipping into the greenhouse was a bit like getting off the plane in a tropical locale.

For the roof of the greenhouse I simply have a double thickness of 3.5 mil plastic - though I don't have this inflated, there is still insulation value from the small air pockets between the two sheets. This is a time when "rumpled" helps.

I've been wanting to install some method of measuring temperatures, but the Stout family has collectively decided to be fiscally responsible in 2012. So no impulse purchases of environmental monitoring equipment for Meg. I've gotten a kickstarter project approved which would let me ask the collective crowd to contribute to the monitoring experiment (for prizes!). I'll see about going live on that project in the next week or so.

Anyway, here's video of the state of things on January 1st, starting with a snippet of video from September to explain how I get 10 foot wide sheeting to cover a greenhouse.