Aquaponics Garden Part 5 – The tiny critters that make it all work

I’ve been saying that the aquaponics garden works because the plants use fish waste water as fertilizer and while that’s true, it is, like many things, a gross simplification. Fish poo and pee and also excrete ammonia directly through their gills. Not only is ammonia toxic to fish, but plants cannot actually use these things either. Luckily there are bacteria everywhere that will convert the ammonia to nitrates which plants do use. These bacteria may be everywhere, but it takes time before a sufficiently robust colony of them is established in an aquaponics system (or aquarium) so that a full stocking level of fish can be safely kept. The process of establishing this colony is called cycling.

Cycling can be done with fish in the tank or without, but I have chosen to cycle with a small number of fish. Madeleine has a healthy, fully cycled aquarium and she gave me some well used filter floss from her filter to jump start the cycling process. This stuff is loaded with the nitrifying bacteria that will colonize the grow media with its huge surface area and ultimately every surface in my system. I buried them in the grow media just under the water inlets of the grow beds. Nitrifying bacteria are pretty slow growing in bacterial terms, doubling in about 15 hours more or less, depending on temperature. The four small goldfish will hopefully provide enough ammonia to keep the bacteria fed while they are growing.

I’m doing daily water tests to determine whether the system is cycled yet or not. It can take up to six weeks to cycle from scratch. So far, I have not detected any nitrites or nitrates, and only barely detectable levels of ammonia. Since there will be a period of time before nitrates appear, I have added liquid seaweed to the system to provide nutrients to the plants, and a small amount of ammonia for the nitrifying bacteria. I’ve been heating the water in the tank to 23C, for the benefit of the bacteria, though the fish and plants are fine with it, too. Goldfish are able to tolerate a wide range of temperatures, a real advantage in terms of fish suitability for an aquaponic system, but for now they get to enjoy the warm bacteria-growing water.

Getting the system cycled is my immediate goal as it is the key to happy fish and plants. As an aquaponics gardener I am basically a bacteria farmer. If I can keep the bacteria happy, everything else should fall in place.

Aquaponics Garden Part 4 – Going live

20131220_171117Construction of the aquaponic garden is complete, at last. We (and by we, I mean my husband with moral support and fetching from me) designed, built and installed the tank covers today. After a couple of days of running the system without them, it was pretty clear that covering the tanks would reduce evaporation, humidity in the basement and some of the water sounds. We bought a few of those clear polystyrene lighting panels that go in suspended ceilings under strip fluorescents. They’re very brittle, but not very expensive, and Luc was able to cut them to size without breaking any. They are very light so they are easy to remove to get access to the tanks.

20131217_161845#1A few days ago, I planted a bunch of things in the grow beds. The plants that are visible in this picture, taken shortly after, are what I call the produce-section garden. I bought a couple of potted herbs, some green onions and a bunch of celery. I rinsed the soil off the herb plants and stuck them in the media. They were in pathetic condition at the time – suffering from not enough light or water, and in shock from the brutally cold temperature between the store and car, and car and house. They do seem to be enjoying the nice warm water bath they receive every ten minutes, and I think they’ll make it. The onions and celery were rather unceremoniously jammed in the media after I cut their tops off, and they are both sprouting new tops like gangbusters.  I sprinkled some seeds around the beds, and today I noticed that the brassicas, lettuce and swiss chard had germinated already. This is very easy compared to dirt gardening, not least because everything is at waist level, but also, well, the lack of dirt. And this is from someone who has a rather overdeveloped respect for soil and all its inhabitants.

20131219_185233The most recent additions to the aquaponic garden are these four beauties. These are actually the first four of a dozen or so goldfish that will eventually occupy the fish tank. My daughter Madeleine is acting as the fish consultant for this project because she is a fish nerd and also works at an aquarium store, so I trust her judgement and advice. She has been quite stern with me that we are not to stock the tank too heavily at first, in order to ensure the welfare of our piscine friends. Which brings us to cycling, which deserves a post on its own and is for next time.

 

Aquaponics Garden Part 3 – Just add water

Another exciting day in the basement! Yesterday we got the whole system put together and today it was time to wipe down all the tanks and add some water. As expected, there were a few minor leaks that we were able to stop, and no doubt we will find more as the system starts to fully operate. So far we are flood free.

The most exciting part of the day for me was testing the bell siphons (also known as autosiphons). Ever since I first started learning about aquaponics, I have been slightly intimidated and impressed by them. According to quite a few folks, they won’t work right the first time but will work forever once they are correctly set up.  These are mysterious gadgets that allow the grow beds to continuously fill, while periodically draining at a much faster rate. This is called a flood and drain system, and it ensures that plant roots have access to moisture and nutrients but also are exposed to a lot of oxygen. The media the plants are growing in consists of small marble size balls of expanded clay, which leave lots of air gaps so that plant roots will never be water-logged.

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The standpipe, which is simply an end of 3/4″ pvc conduit piping with a 1″ opening.

A bell siphon consists of a standpipe, the height of which determines the maximum water level in the bed, and a “bell” or in this case, a pipe with a closed top and openings in the bottom which come up to the minimum water level in the bed.

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The bell is a length of 2″ pvc pipe with slits cut up to about an inch from the bottom.

Water enters the siphon through the openings in the bell, until the height of water in the tank is at the top of the standpipe. At that point, water starts to drain over the top of the standpipe, eventually filling the pipe and excluding air. At this point a siphon is formed, and just like you can steal gas from a car, you can drain most of the water out of the grow bed, until it reaches the level of the openings in the bottom of the bell. If you’ve stuck with me to this point, you may want to have a look at this video, which explains it rather well.


The siphon in the video has a separate tube which accomplishes the same thing as the slits in the bottom of my bell. The siphon is protected from grow media and plant roots by a larger perforated tube. I was very impressed that the siphon ran fine on the first try, but I’m a little nervous that it shouldn’t be so easy. I actually took a video of the end of the draining, which was amusing for me, but likely not for you, so I refrained from sharing it.

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This is what all the excitement is about. The bell siphon is working as advertised and draining the tank into the sump.

Next up: rinsing dust and debris off 100 gallons of grow media and filling the beds.

Aquaponics Garden Part 2 – Putting it all together

Finally, we’re at the fun part – putting it all together. It’s all assembled now; there were a few frustrating moments and a couple of hardware store runs, but all in all, it went rather smoothly.

It started by drilling a hole in the bottom of a grow bed and installing the bell siphon. That first hole was a bit nerve wracking, but using the right bit made all the difference in getting a clean hole with no tearouts. I’ll talk more about the bell siphon in another post.

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The “bell” of the bell siphon: a 2″ pvc pipe with a cap on the top and slits cut in the bottom.

It took several hours to get to this point ( I know, I know, that comment I made in the last post about projects taking twice as long as expected was way understated). The two grow beds are each equipped with a bell siphon and media guards (designed to keep the expanded clay balls and plant roots out of the siphon) and drain to the sump tank.

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The grow beds with their siphons and drains into the sump tank.

Things went a little faster when installing the fish tank drains. There are two separate drains in case one gets clogged. They are simple pipes that are open at the top so a siphon does not form (we do not want the fish tank draining itself dry) and have large openings in the bottom to draw water and fish waste from the bottom of the tank. This should keep the fish waste from accumulating at the bottom of the fish tank and allow it to be distributed to the plant beds, where it will be broken down into plant nutrients.

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This is the last hole being drilled through the tank walls. A bulkhead fitting is inserted and the 3/4″ pipes are friction fit to it.

I like the tidy look of the tanks and their drains, but there is more to come.

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We decided to use 5/8″ drinking water-safe garden hose for the supply lines. Apparently, most garden hoses contain lead, which means I am surely suffering from lead poisoning, and which might explain a few things. Anyway, our fish and plants will not be subject to lead hose. Using a garden hose allowed us to use a garden hose manifold valve, and it seems like it might make things slightly easier to adjust than using fixed pipes.

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The garden so far.

The hose manifold valve has water entering from the pump in the sump tank, and exiting to the grow beds and fish tank. The middle two outlets go to the fish tank.

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Close up of the water distribution hoses and valves.

Next on the to do list: testing the bell siphons and the entire system for leaks. Stay tuned!

Aquaponics Garden Part 1 – Ready to assemble

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It’s taking a little longer than expected (first rule of project management – it will take twice as long as you think) and costing a bit more (second rule of project management – it will cost twice as much as you think), but the aquaponics project is ready to put together. It’s a bit overwhelming to look at all these bits and think about all the little things that need to be done to them to herd them into some kind of order. I’ve spent lots of time on websites and youtube, and reading aquaponics books, but I’ve never actually seen a system in operation in real life. I am not following any specific plans, but I’m not straying far from some that I’ve seen. Inevitably, I will figure out better ways of doing things, but with the naive confidence of a complete novice I think I’m on the right track.

The shopping has been interesting. I bought the stock tanks at a farm store, the expanded clay grow media at a hydroponics store, a bunch of stuff like a heater, grow lights, a water pump, and an air pump on Amazon, some more grow media from a guy on kijiji, and a bunch of plumbing bits and various hardware stores in the area. If my recent browsing history hasn’t put me on some kind of watch list, my purchases surely have.

Tomorrow we (oh yeah, I’ve enlisted some very competent help for this project – I even had the foresight to marry him 23 years ago, so he’s kind of stuck with it) start putting it all together. We’ll be assembling a couple of bell siphons, which I’ll explain in a future post, but which use the laws of physics in a way that I’m eager to see in operation. Luckily we live only a couple of kilometers from a well-equipped hardware store, so if it turns out my shopping list was incomplete we should be able to get what we need without having to mount a huge expedition.

Gold fish and green plant grow op.

So this is my latest project. I’m setting up an aquaponics garden in the basement and I’m very excited about it. Aquaponics uses water from a fish tank to fertilize plants. The plants take up the nutrients in the fish waste that would otherwise pollute the fish tank, resulting in clean water for the fish and nutrient-rich water for the plants.

There is a 100 gallon stock tank that will hold a dozen or so goldfish, 2 50 gallon stock tanks that will hold the growing media and all the plants, and another 50 gallon tank that will be the sump tank, containing the pump that will distribute water to the entire system.

This is a pretty big indoor setup, and the learning curve is pretty steep, but I’ve been enjoying the research and planning phase. The next step is to assemble the components and test everything before installing plants and fish. I’ll be posting pictures as I go.

 

All there is

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Van Gogh – Starry Night

Someone once told me they went to church because they didn’t want to believe that the physical was all there is. I didn’t have the presence of mind at the time to say that you’re asking an awful lot for there to be more than the physical, since the physical world is actually mind-blowingly huge. I remember reading a book about the universe to my daughter when she was young, and somewhere on the page that described the billions of galaxies, I had almost a physical sensation that my brain could not possibly absorb any more. Yet there was more, so much more. How could all of this not be enough? And just in case it isn’t actually enough, there’s an equally mind-bogglingly tiny universe of things that we can’t possibly understand. And if the very large and the very small aren’t enough, then perhaps the parallel universes, black holes, multiple dimensions and, to misquote Donald Rumsfeld, the known and unknown unknowns, will satisfy the need for “more”.

One thing I’ve noticed about a lot of people who believe in God, is that they seem to believe that humans are special. That humans have souls, some ghosty appendage not shared by any other creatures, and which means we get to live forever. That we’re not just some species of primate, but a superior kind of thing altogether. The trouble with thinking that we’re better than animals and plants and rocks and not even subject to the laws of nature, is that we act as though we’re not subject to the laws of nature.  We destroy the homes of our fellow Earthlings to make way for waterparks and megachurches. We confine animals in appalling conditions to produce cheap meat. We pollute water in the business of extracting fossil fuels, which we burn to heat the atmosphere. All of which is making our beautiful and very special planet uninhabitable not just for us, but for all the soulless creatures made of exactly the same stardust as we are.

I certainly won’t be going to church to feel part of something bigger than myself.  I’ll just go outside and look around.

The dark season

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“When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin

A cold front is moving through as I write this. There is thunder and lightning, wind, and rain and the temperature has dropped several degrees in the past half hour. I’m sitting in our little cabin watching the leaves fall and listening to the plink plink of raindrops on the metal roof. That fine stretch of mild and sunny fall days appears to be over and we are being transported rather ceremoniously into the dark season. Once we go back to standard time in a couple of weeks, the darkness will be a constant. We’ll only ever be a few hours from blackness and even during the middle of the day, the sun will be feeble and low on the horizon. This dark and stormy afternoon is foreshadowing many dark days to come.

I feel this darkness as a physical sensation. It weighs me down until late January, when at last, glimpses of light return. I do my best to get outside every day in the winter; to make sure I soak up every bit of light there is and sometimes, when it is clear and cold, and the light is reflecting off snow and ice, to feel relief. Even when it is snowy, or windy, or freezing rain, I like to get out in it, for a while at least, if only to appreciate the warmth inside afterwards. When I worked in an office, I used to have to get out into the weather everyday just to feel alive.

One of the pleasures of heating with wood, is that a fire provides not only heat but light as well, and the warm glow of a wood fire is as perfect an antidote to a cold night as there can be. We have a wood stove in our living room and one in the tiny cabin in our woods and they both contribute to my sanity throughout the winter.

The coming dark season does rather seem like a fine excuse to think darker thoughts and eat darker chocolate, and I plan to do both.

Have you ever really known a chicken?

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From left: Martha, Penny and Luxanna contemplating the wider world and their place in it.

When I look at large groups of people; soldiers marching in formation or images of Chinese factory workers, I see the group. I see the uniforms and stoic expressions. I might wonder for a second about the guy who is a head taller than the rest, or the worker with a wry smile, but it does not cross my mind to think about the life of the fellow, fourth from the left, who looks the same as all the rest. When it comes to animals I’m even worse. I see cows or pigs or chickadees. But not chickens.

Our backyard has been home to half a dozen or so chickens for nearly five years. Some have been with us since the beginning, some are younger, and two were hatched and raised right here by a broody hen.

Every one of the birds has a distinct personality and place in the flock. At first glance they all look like chickens doing chicken things, but to my more familiar eye, they are individuals doing chicken things, more or less, but certainly with their own personalities and relationships.

Patty, a red hen, is one the of the old birds. Since she stopped laying very many eggs, she has filled out glorious feathers, comb and wattles, and I always think of her as a middle age woman in full strength and vitality, if not fertility. She climbs a full story up onto our raised deck every day at around supper time to receive a little treat of rolled oats or wheat berries. She peeks in through the glass door until someone obliges her. Patty and Lisa used to be practically inseparable, until Lisa had a mid-life crisis a few weeks ago, more on which later.

Patty’s new companion, though not bff, is Luxanna, another red hen. Luxanna is scrawny and always slightly unkempt looking, but one of our best layers. She spends much of her time exploring away from the others and has gone through periods where she decided to bed down on the woodpile, instead of inside the coop with the others. Luxanna is a plucky chicken.

Uhura is known for laying huge eggs and chasing the dog. She’s pretty vocal at times, especially in the morning before the coop door is opened for the day.

Martha is a pretty Barred Plymouth Rock. From the time she was a day old, she was slower and dumber than the rest. Martha has been voted most likely to be eaten by a coyote, as she does not seem to have developed any smarts over the years.

Our broody hen is Penny. A broody hen is one that will sit on eggs until they hatch, pretty much no matter what. The last two years we have indulged her maternal instinct and found fertilized eggs for her to raise. The other birds seem to understand her aggressiveness towards them when she is raising chicks, because they welcome her back without any hesitation when she returns to the flock.

Lisa is a huge, white, old bird. She recently broke up with her constant companion Patty, and moved into the portable coop with Penny’s brood from this year. We carried her into the main coop a few nights in a row, but she would not be deterred, so we let her stay with the youngsters, where she remains. The most remarkable thing about Lisa is her new hobby of crowing. Our young rooster is still practicing, but Lisa produces a respectable cockadoodledoo most mornings. Lisa has a violent reaction to the sight of me in red flip-flops. She has never explained nor apologized for the injuries she has inflicted on me.

Anyone who has ever had a dog or cat, or even a pet rat, knows that animals have personalities, feelings, and relationships. Of course it makes sense that other animals would have rich inner lives too, but it is a continuing pleasure to observe the daily dramas of a little group of birds.

Thanksgiving for a climate realist

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In my little corner of the woods, we’ve had as fine a stretch of September weather as I can ever remember, and it has extended right into the first half of October. Day after day of mild, sunny perfectness that a person could really get used to. Meanwhile, my life is one bit of ordinariness after another. Drive a kid somewhere, clean something, cook something, walk the dog, rinse, repeat.

Occasionally, my oblivious housewifing is interrupted by reading or hearing some terrible news about the likelihood that the planet will become uninhabitable for humans in the near term unless we make drastic changes soon. That our kids will have reduced lifespans because the environment will not actually be suitable for the continuation of life as we know it. But somehow, I’m able to stick that information in the part of my brain that has a very secure lid, and carry on planning a new kitchen. Life has never been better chez nous.

When I’m feeling thoughtful, I sometimes wonder shouldn’t I be doing something; or at least yelling at the top of my lungs on every street corner and social media website, warning folks about the coming shitstorm? But then I think, yeah, we’re all going to die, what’s different about that? It’s just the hubris of the modern age that has convinced us that somehow we were going to be the exception to that rule. Very few of us ever were going to be lucky enough to slip peacefully into oblivion in our sleep, leaving a pretty corpse and clean browser cache. No, we’ve always been doomed to either suffer pain and indignity at the end, or else die suddenly and leave behind an unprepared family, forced to change all their plans that involved good old healthy and alive us. So the only thing different now is that the remote possibility of living into peaceful and healthy extreme old age is remoter still. What would be so wrong if we all lived like patients given a year to live; if we enjoyed these pleasant moments like they were the last ones?

Report after report says things are heating up faster than predicted. The ice is melting and oceans are acidifying, faster than we could have known, and words like “tipping point” and “runaway” are getting thrown around by bankers and insurance companies, not just the usual suspects.

I live in a country where the government has labeled people concerned with climate and environmental issues as ideological extremists, while they promote tar sands development and exports without any regard for the climate or even for the health of citizens who live near them. Government scientists are muzzled while funding is cut for basic environmental research. Spin and propaganda is used by all sides to convince the public to support them, but no one dares tell the truth. The conservatives tell us that we can extract all the carbon we want, and in fact must to save the economy, because we can mitigate the negative effects, if any. The other political parties either believe the same thing, but won’t let on, or tell us we can have a sustainable economy if only we wish hard enough.

This is all to say that I really don’t think the whole world is going to get together and agree to do anything meaningful that will actually change the outcome. Not before it’s already too late, anyway. So like the hospice patient who is spending the last months living life rather than fighting for a miracle cure, I’m actively appreciating these beautiful days and the people in them. Is this the last “normal” Thanksgiving? Probably not. Almost certainly we have years rather than months of decent quality of life. By this time next year, things will be almost the same as they are now, but we will have endured some more extreme weather, and more trees will have died, and no doubt somewhere in the world, people will have endured unimaginable suffering and probably it won’t be us. I will be grateful for the sunshine when it’s out, and the rain when it comes, the fire in the woodstove when it’s cold, and a family to share it with.