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Monday, July 22, 2013

The Titan Arum or Corpse Flower

The US Botanical Garden's Titan Arum on July 21, 2013

The Titan Arum is called the Corpse Flower because of its intensely pungent scent when it blooms, which it does for a single day once after several years. For over a week we've been watching for the Titan Arum at the US Botanical Garden to bloom. Then Sunday happened and in the press of family stuff we forgot to check.

Apparently the Titan Arum did its stinky Corpse Flower thing Sunday night. By Monday morning the stench was gone, leaving only a humongous flower (still pretty danged impressive). Folks at my household hope to view the amazing bloom Tuesday morning, assuming it survives the night.

From the description currently up at the US Botanical Garden website:
The titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), also known as the corpse flower or stinky plant, is blooming at the United States Botanic Garden Conservatory! Once fully open, it may remain in bloom for 24 to 48 hours, and then it will collapse quickly.

The magic of the titan arum comes from its great size - it is reputed to have the largest known unbranched inflorescence in the plant kingdom. Referred to as the corpse flower or stinky plant, its putrid smell is most potent during peak bloom at night into the early morning. The odor is often compared to the stench of rotting flesh. The inflorescence also generates heat, which allows the stench to travel further. This combination of heat and smell efficiently attracts pollinators, such as dung and carrion beetles, from across long distances.

The titan arum does not have an annual blooming cycle. The time between flowering is unpredictable, which can span from a few years to a few decades. The plant requires very special conditions, including warm day and night temperatures and high humidity, making Botanic Gardens well suited to support this strange plant outside of its natural range.

This plant is native to the tropical rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia, and was first discovered in 1878. Public viewing of this unique plant has occurred a limited number of times in the United States. The U.S. Botanic Garden last displayed a blooming titan arum in 2007.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Awesome Aquaponics Events for Earth Week (1 of 3)

Various folks are rolling out the aquaponic carpet for Earth Week. I'm going to be holding tours every night, as are several dozen other aquaponics folks across the United States.

For tonight, I wanted to mention a workshop my friend, Sahib Punjabi, is putting on down in Florida. If you've seen the book, Sahib is the one who has created a garden paradise in a vacant alley behind a strip mall. He's got everything going on down there, from floating rafts to vertical towers to media beds, including wicking beds and xeriscape-like root-zone watering of plants and trees along the verge of the parking lot.

Tomorrow I'll talk about free tours being held by members of the Aquaponics Association, but for those of you ready to move forward to some serious gardening, Sahib's workshop near Orlando, FL, is a great opportunity.

Sahib is also working with the non-profit Feed Hunger Now to train folks on how to use aquaponics to alleviate hunger, using "dead space," areas that get sun and rain but that are currently empty.

Sahib's Florida vision is very close to that of Eric Maundu, of Kijani Grows. Hundreds of thousands of people have been introduced to Eric's vision of converting urban wastelands into productive gardens and farms, as shown in the video below:

A third place I know of that is working to serve the urban hungry is The Grow Haus in Denver, Colorado. Tonight I'll close leaving you with a short piece where Coby Gould talks about the neighborhood food hub concept behind The Grow Haus. Very Cool!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Aphids and Worms

Video of Worm Cocoons Hatching

Fortunately, I had several plants winter over, including cabbage parsley, beets, sage, strawberries, garlic, chives, and onions.

Unfortunately, my onion, chives, and garlic on one bed became infested with little black aphids. Interestingly enough, the chives and onions in other beds on the other side of the greenhouse (3-4 feet away) were not affected at all.

Chives, garlic, and onions are supposed to protect other plants from aphids. But apparently there's a type of the little bugs that is adapted to love what other aphids despise. Which is entirely unfair, in my opinion.

After trying for a few days to hose the bugs off in place and applying organic sprays, the black bugs were still thick on the plants. So I decided I had to rip the affected plants out of my grow beds and start over. I figured with luck I would be able to salvage to add to a dinner dish, at least.

It turned out that when I had the plants completely out of the grow bed, it was possible to hose them down really well. All the little black things are gone. So while that would have been good enough for me for adding yummy bits to dinner, I thought maybe I'd give the plants another change to continue growing in the beds. I particularly wanted to save the chives, which had formed a large patch, and which we love to add to dishes.

During the ripping out and re-installing the plants, I found a lot of worms. Like, whoa, a lot of worms. And there were a lot of little tiny ones as well. From time to time I'd also come across these little elongated globules. Unsure what they were, I had flicked a couple of them out into my yard.

Then it hit me. They are worm cocoons! I made sure to leave all the other ones I was finding alone.

Looking it up tonight, I see that worms tend to massively increase population when the weather warms up. So you'll get a lot of cocoons and baby worms either in the spring or in the fall if you bring your worm bins inside. Worms continue reproducing throughout the warm season, of course, but since I don't usually go looking for them, I'd never seen enough cocoons in real life to realize what I was looking at.

Trying to find out more about composting worm cocoons, I stumbled across the video above that shows itty worms hatching out of their cocoon. Apparently you can have anywhere from one to six little worms per cocoon. Pretty cool!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Complete Idiot's Guide to Aquaponic Gardening - it lives!

Today "my book," the Complete Idiot's Guide to Aquaponic Gardening, was officially launched. Around 4 pm today I finally got a hard copy to look at.

A year ago I got a random e-mail, which read:

"I am a literary agent scouting on behalf of a major publisher for an expert to write an introductory book on aquaponics. I found your site and wonder if you have interest?"

I responded, saying something to the effect of "Heck yes!" and began a whirlwind journey creating the book I wish I could have bought, back when I started into aquaponics in the spring of 2010.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Aquaponic Gardening (CIG to AG as I came to know it) was a labor of love. I did get paid, but this was a work for hire deal, which means I don't get royalties on book sales. Given the way my head works, that's actually really great for my sanity. The book pulls heavily from the collective wisdom currently available via online forums, innumerable scholarly articles, conferences, and endless youtube videos. So I would have felt guilty getting royalties for this book. However, I did put many, many hours into crafting the book, and that labor deserved some payment.

It's been interesting today, reading the book. I haven't seen it for four months, so it's kind of fresh. I find several instances where I wish I could edit the English just one more time to make it read more smoothly. And the glossary includes one problematic typo - nitrite misspelled as nitrate in the definition of cycling (p. 306), but the definition in the body of the text on page 126 is correct.

It will be interesting to see what folks say. I read this book knowing the hours I spent gaining the knowledge contained in each paragraph, not to mention the additional hours it took to distill that knowledge into comprehensible prose. Only I and a few others know how many authorial "darlings" were killed during the creation of this book. If you were one who read an early draft, I think you'll agree the final product is far superior to what you saw.

I hope the book helps people make the transition from hearing about aquaponics to confidently embracing aquaponics as part of their lifestyle. In the mean time, I'm thrilled to have the book itself, with an index! What I would have given for such an index three years ago! It's fascinating knowing how much of that information was unknown to me in March 2010 when I first tumbled across the word "aquaponics."

Lastly, I have to acknowledge again the amazing generosity of this community, and how willing people were to share their experiences and photos. I am humbled to know such wonderful, innovative people!

Now back to enjoying my own garden, and actually getting to tend it, unlike the neglect that writing the book necessitated last year. Beets, bok choy, spinach, radishes, and turnips are thriving, as are most of the plants that wintered over. All the fish are alive, and despite the cold, ammonia levels are nearly zero (a great thing). It's great to merely have to do the simply daily visit I mention in the book, to check water temperature and level, feed the fish, and notice what plants need nutrients or organic pest control. It's my happy place, where the world is simple, life abounds, and the speed of "information" is the rate at which spinach seedlings put forth their first true leaves.

If you have been thinking about aquaponics but haven't yet set up a system, I invite you to take the plunge. It's well worth it!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Aquaponics on 60 Minutes in Australia

I was pleased to see that 60 Minutes in Australia did a piece on Aquaponics this Sunday. I always love seeing footage of Murray's farm, and it was cool to see the segment about the roof-top farm in Brooklyn.

On the other hand, I was a bit less enthused about the idea of growing plants in high rises using high-tech LEDs. If the business case supports it, that's great. But I don't think we're there yet.

I was pleased the other day to re-read a 2005 article by Dr. Wilson Lennard, where he discussed his findings that aquaponics is almost always more productive than chemical-based hydroponics. Beyond that, deep water culture and media-based growing systems are 20% more productive than the nutrient film technique so often used in hydroponics. This is important because so many of the farm-in-a-highrise schemes are based on hydroponics, and presume ample use of electricity to achieve adequate growing conditions.

I think the secret is to start small - at the level of individual families and communities. Grand schemes that require hundreds of thousands of dollars (or even millions) in up-front investment must first be found attractive by venture capitalists. Even then, the big money involved in such endeavors can tempt the weak and immoral among us, as sad experience has demonstrated.

Still, it's fun to see these topics being aired on major TV shows, rather than simply on gardening channels.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Square Foot Gardening with Aquaponics

A Grow Bed with a Grid

I like the idea of square foot gardening - marking your growing space into square patches that are each about one square foot in area. But since I have these oval rubbermaid tanks, I hadn't wrapped my mind around how to do the marks.

But this past February I decided to pay attention and figure something out. I took some thin rope and black binder clips. The binder clips can be the small ones that hold 3/8-inch of paper. This allows them to grab onto the edge of the lip of the rim securely. Then the thin rope is tied between the handles of the binder clips on opposite sides of the grow bed.

When I initially created the grid, the rope was slack. Here's where the rounded edges come in handy. I moved one of the binder clips for each pair around the lip so the distance between the two clips was smaller. I re-tied the rope between the clips, then slid the clip back into position. This made the rope taught.

Once I was done, I broadcast seeded the squares, as well as planting my floating raft. I also added seed to bare patches in my two grow beds that still had plants that had survived the winter. Here's the map I drew for myself.

I planted seeds on 2/16, and a month later the bok choy, turnips, and radishes have germinated. I'm starting to see hints of cabbage and leek, and my carrots and beets are still AWOL. I'm sure they would have germinated more quickly inside, but direct seeding is much easier. And even though most of the nights since February 16th have dipped below freezing, the temperature of the water in the fish tanks has held steady at 40-50 degrees, as measured by my "through the cover" meat thermometer.

My tank temperature was still 38 degrees on February 23rd, even though night-time temperatures had dipped well below freezing for six nights in a row leading up to this picture.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

An Underground Greenhouse or Walipini

An Underground Greenhouse in La Paz, Bolivia

I was chatting with my family online this evening and my sister mentioned an underground greenhouse. Intrigued, I followed the link she posted to an article at treehugger.

The Benson Institute developed the plans for the walipini or "place of warmth" as a way for families in La Paz, Bolivia, to garden throughout the year, despite the intensely cold mountain winters. The plans for the 20’ x 74’ greenhouse requires roughly $250-$300 in materials, assuming free labor and no need for heavy equipment. The Walipini manual indicates you'll want about 100 square feet of growing area to feed a person year round.

The basic walipini plans could be further enhanced to include subterranean heating and cooling, since there is already significant sub-floor work involved to ensure adequate drainage. The plans also mention the benefit of incorporating water barrels to store heat energy. In my research associated with this article, I learned (or re-learned?) that water holds four times as much heat energy per unit volume as concrete. So using water to store heat energy is more effective than a trombe wall. And if the water you are storing is also irrigating your plants and providing a habitat for fish, all the better!

By the way, my book on Aquaponic Gardening will be available in less than a month. Very exciting! And I just saw the cover for the first time:

Pretty and green!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

One Good Turn

Meg in New York with Mormon Helping Hands after Hurricane Sandy

This past Thanksgiving weekend I was planning to prepare my garden for the winter. But Hurricane Sandy had hit New York City hard that fall, so I joined a group of volunteers to help clean up in Queens instead. The damage was amazing, even several weeks after the storm hit. Here were a few more pictures I took during that weekend. The first is a car damaged by the storm, the next one of the houses we helped clear out (this picture is after the dump truck took away most of the contents of this home, newly remodeled only the prior November).

I don't regret the time I spent in New York, but my own yard remained messy throughout the winter. There were remains from various projects, yard debris, and general unkemptness. Here's a couple of shots showing the mess:

Then my local Mormon missionaries stopped by this past month. "Is there anything we could do to help you?" they asked.

"Anything?" I said. "Well, I could use some help with my back yard..."

They were good to their word and showed up last Saturday, ready to make quick work of a mess that had bothered me all winter. Here's a couple of shots after they'd moved the trash out of my yard:

Yeah missionaries! Many hands make light work. Now I can get started on my spring garden without hours of dirty, heavy lifting in my way!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sincere Flattery?

I spent a few minutes today catching up on favorite youtube channels and blogs. In the process, I stumbled across a video that looked unusually similar.

There was the bulkhead fitting created out of electrical conduit connectors. The standpipe had the Affnan-style flared mouth I figured out how to make out of standard US plumbing fixtures. The bell on the siphon had the same cap and a series of slots sliced into the base, as I'd done.

On the other hand, I didn't see a media guard. And instead of using the single 45 degree connector to exploit the coanda effect to form the siphon-starting water plug, the author of the video had a traditional 90 degree connector, but with a 45 degree connector at the end. From a hydrodynamic point of view, the 45 degree connector at that location wouldn't do anything useful. The video creator didn't cite any prior influences on his design, so it's not clear if he even knew his "design" was completely derivative of what I'd posted. Then again, he didn't repeat my faux pas of calling a standpipe an "upstand." ::blush::

It's not like I do any of this for money or even fame. I really do just want to make aquaponics accessible to the maximum number of people. But it was surprising to see myself so completely copied, if copied imperfectly. Heavens knows I've learned much of what I know about aquaponics because of the generosity of individuals who made their information available on the internet. But there are a couple of ideas that weren't out there before I posted them.

I'm reminded of a wonderful poem my mother wrote. In later life she went back to college to complete a Bachelor's Degree. In one of her college textbooks, she found her poem, attributed to "Anonymous."

The Gardener
by Pat Chiu

If you were a gardener, your child the seed,
Your task it would be to nurture and weed
'way wild things that threaten distruction and strife
and prepare the young plant for the rigors of life.

But a daisy's a daisy. A rose is a rose.
The child must be true to its form as it grows.
True to the form from the maker sent
And not to the will of the gardener bent.

There are so many people to whom I owe my understanding of aquaponics. And in some cases they may have been leveraging knowledge from others of whom I never knew. We all stand on the shoulders of giants.

May those who've learned from my little contributions go on to further the journey. Upward, towards more effective and efficient systems, and forward, towards ever-more affordable ways of doing this kind of gardening.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

No Heaters and the Fish are Still Alive

A picture of one of my bluegills from last summer

One of the most fundamental tenets of medical ethics is primum non nocere, or "first, do no harm." In the practice of medicine, this means it may be better to do nothing rather than commit an act that risks causing more harm than good. When it comes to aquaponics, I've taken this advice to heart when it comes to feeding my fish and heating their environment.

I covered the greenhouse in early January but I didn't get around to connecting my rocket mass heater and solar heaters. Last year I was worried about either exhaust leaks or melting things in the case of the rocket mass heater or pumping cold air into the greenhouse during overcast days in the case of the solar heater. I eventually figured out how to overcome these difficulties. But 24 hours isn't enough time to do everything I want to accomplish in a day. As a result, my lovely heaters haven't been in use this winter. When I say "No Heaters and the Fish are Still Alive," I mean there has been no supplemental heat at all this entire winter.

And yet the fish (goldfish, bluegill) have survived.

I had a scare while we were fixing dinner for Chinese New Year. My son-in-law mentioned the green onions in the dishes were from the garden. Since I hadn't been to the garden that day, I asked about my goldfish. The goldfish live in the sump tank, and the sump tank water levels had gotten low that week.

He said, "I didn't see any goldfish. But the water is only a quarter inch deep in that tank."

I was sure the fish were dead. But when I got a chance to go out and inspect, I saw that the sump tank, though nearly empty, still had a couple of inches in the bottom. The pump is elevated on a pad so it stops pumping water when the level drops that low. The three goldfish were still in there, alive and well though cold.

In the same vein, I've worried about the bluegill. During cold snaps, I've gone for days and even weeks without visiting the greenhouse, much less feeding the fish. Whenever that happens, I begin to worry that I've got a tank full of cold water filled with dead fish. I'm just hard-wired to think an animal has to eat every day. Intellectually I know it's actually more harmful to feed fish when the water is nearly freezing. But the anxiety monster grows until I get a chance to go out and lift the lid of the tank. So far I've not had a single bluegill die.

I did lose my single surviving minnow, a fathead minnow or toughie (tuffie) as they are sometimes called. However, these minnows are only supposed to have a lifespan of 14 months. It's rather astounding that this solitary fish had managed to survive for at least 22 months after I bought him. If I thought my toughie had died of disease, I would have disposed of him outside the garden. Old age, however, isn't a communicable disease.Since the water was near freezing, I slid him into the bluegill tank, where one of the fish made a quick meal of my toughie's mortal remains.

Though nighttime temperatures will continue to drop below freezing, the weather should warm from here on out, on average. More importantly, the days will become increasingly warm, and the longer days will begin pumping heat energy into the greenhouse, to the point that I may have to start lifting the side walls by April or May.

Average highs, lows, and rainfall

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

If I Were Starting from Scratch...

Southern State's 250 Gallon Poly Stock Tank

Southern States has apparently created their own line of stock tanks, and it almost makes me wish I could start over from scratch. These bright blue tanks are UV protected and less expensive than Rubbermaid tanks of the same volume. Plus, there are a few unique sizes and shapes, like this 250 gallon tank that could be positioned in a corner.

Now that I've lived the life of trying to observe my relatively dark fish in a black, covered stock tank, I also like the bright blue color. It wouldn't be everyone's preference, but I'm always thrilled to see a new, commercially available tank option!

In other news, I found out I have a supplier for expanded shale within a pleasant drive from DC. Matthew Ferrell has started a company called HydroShale, and is selling expanded shale that is the right size for aquaponics (3/4 inch). It's a bit pricey if you need to have it shipped, but if I can pick it up, I can get it in bulk for less than even the expanded clay beads Home Depot sells online (ViaStone from ViaGrow). Nothing will ever be as inexpensive as gravel, but I do like working with these lighter materials.

In the mean time, I'm just glad I finally put up my greenhouse this past weekend. The garden and fish have done amazingly well without cover for the first portion of winter, but the temperatures will remain well below freezing for most of this week. But with the protection from the wind and solar heating during the day, I expect my garden and fish will weather this bitter week adequately well. Hooray for bluegill and goldfish!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Q&A: Keeping fish waste from clogging the sump pump?

From time to time someone tracks me down and asks a great question. I usually end up spending a minor chunk of time answering. Here's a recent question I thought might be of interest:

Hello Meg,

Thanks for 365 Aquaponics. I find it very informative for my future plans in aquaponics. I had some quick questions- How do you keep fish waste from cloggin up the sump pump?

Thank you very much! Regards, R

Here's what I do:

  • I have relatively narrow pipes taking overflow water from my fish tank to my sump. This is not a good thing - if I were doing this over again, I'd make sure my drain to the sump was at least 2 inches in diameter. It's a solids lifting overflow, so it's supposed to suck the fish tank wastes out, and it does, to a certain extent.

  • I don't have a swirl filter. This is also not a good thing. I really like the swirl filter in the HD Aquaponics youtube videos (episodes 28 and 29 show it, as I recall. I have all the parts to implement a swirl filter constructed out of a 5 gallon water bottle sometime soon.

  • I have goldfish in my sump tank. They love to munch on stuff. So they keep the sump tank pretty clear. I also have a cover over my sump tank.

  • My pump is slightly elevated. I originally put it on a 1 inch thick plastic mesh pad (repurposed the internal pump filter) because I wanted to reduce the noise of the pump. But elevating the pump does three other great things:
  1. The plastic mesh isn't inside my pump. Leaving the plastic mesh filter inside the pump can leave you with a nasty slimy mess that you have to clean frequently. If you still want to have some waste filtration, put an external mesh bag filter over your pump.

  2. The waste that is in the system falls to the bottom of my sump. Since the pump is ever so slightly elevated, chunks of gunk are less likely to get sucked into the pump.

  3. If the water level in my sump tank gets low, the pump stops emptying the tank when there's still an inch or so of water in the tank. My goldfish who live in the sump tank are still able to get around and remain in water, so I'm pretty happy about that "accident."

Good luck!