Aquaponics update- the system is cycled and ready for A*****e to move in.

It has taken many weeks for the system to go through it’s ammonia-nitrite-nitrate cycle, but it is finally ready to house A*****e. Today is the day we move him to his new pond.

The lettuce and spinach are growing really well; I have been harvesting them consistently.

This is the lettuce the day I planted it.
Doesn’t the lettuce look healthy?

When I first turned the system on, the sound of running water outside sent me into a near panic every hour (the water cycles through for fifteen minutes every hour) when I heard the sound of our precious water running away. Drought does that to you. Now I am used to it, I find it relaxing and calming; splashing water is such a rich sound don’t you think? (drought does that to you too)

I have continued to add occasional fish food to the system to give the bacteria some ammonia to work with and I added a cap full of Seasol to the water to feed the plants.

Three weeks ago I tested the water to see if it was ready to accept fish in the system; it was not. Water testing is a big part of keeping an aquaponics system healthy (not to mention the fish). Fish can die very easily in high ammonia and nitrite water, so it is important to wait until the bacteria colonies are established before adding an ammonia generator (which is what fish are). Below are the results of the test from the first week;

The pH was 6.6…it should be around 7.3
The ammonia was 2.0…it should be 0.0 (or close to it)
The nitrite was 1.0…it should be 0.0 (or close to it)
The nitrate was 10….it can be quite high

The fact that there is a nitrate level to read shows that both the bacteria that turns ammonia to nitrite and the bacteria that turns nitrite to nitrate are there, living in their little clay ball cities. I just had to wait for the populations to grow enough to get the nitrite and ammonia levels down to almost nothing.

Two weeks ago I tested the water again;

The pH is getting higher.
The ammonia is lower.
The nitrite is very high.
The nitrate levels are high, yay!

Not ready just yet. We will wait another week.

This week I tested again and found a surprising result;

The pH is going in the wrong direction; it is 6.0 when it should be 7.3
The ammonia is close to 0.0, yay!
The nitrite is below 0.25
The nitrate is around 80…perfect level

To begin to change the pH I added 1 teaspoon of aglime to the water and retested after a few hours. I also began to acclimatize A*****e by getting my daughter to put him in a bucket about half full of his water then I poured water from the new pond into it at the rate of 1/4 cup every 15 minutes or so. After a full day of this he was ready to be poured into the pond.

He’s in there somewhere.

My daughter also moved over some sand, weed and a floaty rock thing for him. He seems very happy in there so far. The water test after three days was encouraging, except the pH.

pH is still 6.0 to 6.4
Ammonia is 0.0
Nitrite is 0.0
Nitrate is 80.0. Plenty of plant food.

My next move is to add another grow bed. I am really enjoying the mad scientist element of aquaponics; test tubes, coloured chemicals, wild solutions.

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Plants in the garden- Madagascar beans

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There are a lot of plants in my garden (not as many as my mother’s garden, but still, a lot), and these plants don’t often get to be noticed by anyone other than me. So I thought I would start a series of posts that introduce the plants I manage to grow in my garden, despite animal depredation, insect attack, serious neglect and outright attack with a mower or whipper snipper.

First in the line up is the Madagascar bean; a perennial , sub-tropical lima bean. I planted 5 seeds in toilet paper rolls in the Summer and planted out the sweet little seedlings about three weeks later. I chose a spot in the Hugelkultur garden that would let the beans climb on the fence and would eventually give shade to a couple of beds for planting lettuce and silverbeet in the hot summer months. Little did I know that the plants grow like Jack’s beanstalk and look likely to take over the whole vegetable garden roof area. I think that I will be doing a lot of pruning next Spring to keep some growing areas in the sun.

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Somewhere in there are 5 little bean seeds

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Planted out as young seedlings

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I have created a monster

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Apparently the seeds can be eaten when young as a broad bean substitute (steamed or boiled) and the dried beans can be used anywhere dried beans can be used (soaked, cooked and put into soups, stews, burgers, casserole, etc). My vines have pods, and I am now waiting around impatiently (checking my watch, sighing, pacing a little) for them to form beans so I can try to trick my partner into believing I have grown broad beans for him (he doesn’t know what the plant looks like anyway). I am becoming a big fan of perennial vegetables, I think I will seek out a few more.

New Hugelkultur bed- final update

It’s finished at last, the new bed is built, mulched and planted. Even the path is done. Now to wait for those yummy broccoli and Ceylon spinach plants to grow, and let’s not forget the broad beans I planted today.

 

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Broccoli and Ceylon spinach growing madly

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The dark line on the right of the picture is where the broad beans are planted

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The gum leaf path over cardboard is in place.

I can’t wait until this bed is just a mass of green…it won’t take long. I also had another play with time lapse video, I did a quick video of my daughter (yes, she has pink hair this week) and I putting pig poop and mulch on our trailer bed and planting some snow peas. It is a bit far away from the action for me, I think I need a stand or something to hold the iPad at the right angle. This kind of video has a lot of potential I think, it is certainly fun to play with.

I have been dumping a good layer of pig poop on every bed I can find, covering it up with mulch and planting into a handful of potting mix in the bed to prevent too much nitrogen burn and give my plants something to get their roots into before they get into all that poopy goodness.

 

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I also weeded, fertilised and mulched my poor little pomegranate tree while I was going.

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Doesn’t she look a lot happier now.

What a relaxing and carefree day I’ve had in the garden. This is what we need to do to maintain sanity…or a close facsimile there of.

Making pots out of newspaper

I have been doing this on and off for a while now. Up until recently I found the pots would encourage fungus and sprout all sorts of mushroom-y things. Then I found the ‘Under the Choko Tree’ You Tube channel and watched as Nevin made pots from newspaper. It turns out I was using too much paper; the walls were too thick so they were not able to dry out enough to keep fungus at bay.

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This is how I used to make my pots. See how thick the walls are.

So I bought one of those cute little pot making things and off I went. These pots are working very well…no fungus and they hold together  (which was why I made my pots thick to begin with). In fact the whole seed raising system has been working brilliantly, except that my seedling raising area was in the open and the trays kept filling up with water and drowning the seedlings. I fixed that by adding a little roof to the area which I will remove (it can just be lifted off) on less damp days.

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Thinner walls and no fungus…they still get waterlogged though.

On another, but sort of related note; I have been learning how to use an iPad (for work) and have discovered that the camera on an iPad has a time-lapse setting (also a slo-mo setting, but I haven’t played with that yet), so I decided to make a time lapse clip of me making and using my little pots.

And here it is;

What do you think. Does it need to be a bit slower. I haven’t found that setting yet but I will.

Update on the new hugelkultur bed

A0F7399B-80BE-4591-9590-B2A5E47DB16EI have finally had a chance to finish the new bed; thanks to some help from my daughters and a friend. After much carrying of wood chunks, shoveling of manure and frequent stops to rest, we have planted the first half of the bed with broccoli and ceylon spinach (which I just happened to have a lot of).

The grass on the path has been smothered with cardboard and I will rake up some gum leaves to cover it with soon. The pig poop (composted) was shoveled into an old bin and lifted into the bed over the period of about a week. Spread over the pile of sticks it has made a really rich bed, even though it is still composting and so is putting out a bit of heat. The broccoli seedlings seem to appreciate the extra heat, even though they are planted into a double handful of potting mix in the hole (because I was worried about the pig poop being too hot for them).

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Our big pile of pig poop

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Happy little seedlings

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The newspaper and cardboard path

I am loving having some new space to plant and it promises to be as easy care as the other hugelkultur beds. I guess it’s on to the next project; the trailer bed needs some TLC.

The first Hugelkultur bed is powering on. I do love this style of gardening. The rest of this post is made up of photos of my powering garden….for inspiration…mine.

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Seedlings all ready to be planted out. My seedling raising area is going well this year.

 

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A late pumpkin vine….I might be lucky

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Madagascar beans on their way up some well placed sticks

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A riot of productivity

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The tamarillo is producing fruit….one at a time

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Late corn….it’s flowering

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Sourdough chocolate zucchini muffins

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My zucchini patch

Having stated that I really don’t like to cook, I thought I would do another post on how I use left over sourdough starter. While I don’t enjoy cooking and spend a fair amount of time in the kitchen grumbling in a very unbecoming manner and wishing I was outside, I do like to eat and if I don’t make it I won’t eat. Also I hate to throw out that magic starter, it seems truly amazing to me that you can mix flour and water together and end up with bread (after a bit of neglect). I have a fair few zucchini plants busily producing the famed glut in the garden, so what better way to use up spare sourdough starter and too many zucchini than to turn them into chocolate.

I found the original recipe for these muffins here. I found a recipe for zucchini brownies while I was searching that looked good too.

 

Sourdough chocolate zucchini muffins (makes about 12)

3/4 cup honey

Sourdough starter

1/3 cup of vegetable oil (the original recipe calls for butter but I couldn’t find any)

2 eggs (or 4 bantam eggs in my case)

1 tablespoon of vanilla

a pinch of salt

1 1/3 cups of plain flour

1/3 cup cocoa

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 grated zucchini (it doesn’t matter too much whether it’s a big one or a little one)

Method

Mix all the liquids together until the sourdough starter is combined then add the dry ingredients slowly until they are combined. Add the zucchini and mix through well. Spoon into muffin cases or a tray then pop into the oven at 180-200 degrees Celsius for about 20 minutes.

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The wet ingredients

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Mixing the wet ingredients together

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The dry ingredients

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Mixing the dry ingredients in

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The daily zucchini harvest

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One grated zucchini

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The mix ready to bake

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When you run out of muffin papers half way through…just make some from baking paper and keep on spooning

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They came out OK

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Even the ones in make-shift papers

I am sure this cooking thing is just a passing phase born from having so much produce in the garden, bear with me, it will be over soon.

Tomato supports made from sticks

The tomatoes are getting tall, they have needed something to support (and cage) them for a long time. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to put cages over them (which makes them hard to pick, but is quick and easy) or tie them to stakes (which is a lot of work and needs constant pruning and tying, but does allow access and looks really professional), so of course I did nothing. Until I happened to visit some friends last week; they had built a tomato support out of sticks and it looked really pretty, made picking easy and was quick and cheap to put together. I didn’t take a photo of theirs, but trust me it looks whimsical and natural. So…armed with a vague idea and some zip ties I ventured out to the garden. I  found some long sticks in the tree line around the humpy and dragged them into the garden.

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This is the unruly tomatoes, busy crowding out basil and bush beans

As you can see in the photos I just stuck some sticks into the ground and zip tied yet more sticks to them to create a fairly sturdy support for the tomato plants and allow the beans some room to grow. This was so quick and easy to do I even had time to harvest some basil and make pesto before the day got too hot to work.

It doesn’t look as pretty as my friend’s version, but it will do the trick. It will hold the plant and fruit off the ground and allow air flow to lessen mould problems, it will keep the tomatoes off the beans and semi confined and it will be easy to pick fruit from the vines. What do you think?

Use gum leaves in the garden- part two

The gum leaves on the path idea seems to be working so far; my plants are still growing and the weeds on the path are mostly suppressed. I have been slowly raking up leaves from around the humpy and spreading them on the path over old newspapers and cardboard boxes. The weeds at the unfinished end of the path have grown to be the same height as the plants in the bed, but I am making progress slowly. I start by slashing the tallest weeds down with a shovel then lay newspaper over them as thickly as possible. Finally the raked up gum leaves are dumped onto the top and spread out with the shovel.

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You can see where the path ends at the moment and the height of the weeds in the remaining bit of path. This photo was taken from the doorway to the garden.

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This photo was taken from the other door (to the north)

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A close up of where the leaves end and the weeds begin

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It’s hard to tell, but there are vegetables in there; tomato, beans and basil

Despite the messy looking garden, I am still picking food from the space. The gum leaves seem to be slowing down the weeds enough for me to stay ahead of them on the path I have already covered. It isn’t really clear whether the leaves are allelopathic or not because the weeds are suppressed by being covered (no light) and having restricted water (the leaves make a water resistant mat) as well as any possible allelopathic effect.

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Walking onion, basil, silver beet and zucchini from my messy garden

 

My seedling raising area is powering along too. Initially I didn’t cover the seedling with a sheet, but I  soon found out that wet sand, hot sun and no shade led to cooked seeds and no seedlings. Now I have an old sheet draped over the whole thing the seedlings are just jumping up.

 

 

Using gum leaves in the garden

It is really hot at the moment, so the fire danger level is high. I am raking up leaves from around the house at a rate of one or two 20 litre buckets a day (and fighting a losing battle). Summer solstice (or Litha) is when gum trees drop a lot of leaves and shed their bark like a Hollywood actress shrugging out of her overcoat to reveal she is naked underneath. All that newborn bark is exceedingly beautiful to look at and I love walking  in the bush and letting the cicada song wash over me like a sound ocean, but…extra fuel on the ground leads to extra fire danger.

Common knowledge says that gum leaves are no good for compost; they are allelopathic (don’t play well with other plants), highly acidic, slow to compost and hydrophobic (don’t soak up water). In fact the only thing they have in their favour is we have a lot of them, but what to do with them?. I always struggle with where to put leaves once they are raked up from the constant drifts around the house. I usually rake them away from the house and leave it at that. This year I thought I’d try something different.

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The path in my Hugelkultur bed area is constantly sprouting weed seedlings, which I try to keep up with by pulling a handful or two as mulch  every time I go in there (not a very effective method) but missing one day means the big weeds are taller and harder to pull out and there are just too many of them. Every year I try to cover the path with cardboard as boxes come into the house, then I cover the path with something; wood chip, sand, mulch hay, etc, anything that will keep the cardboard down and can be shoveled onto the beds the following winter. This year I have decided to try gum leaves and bark.

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You can see the multitude of weed seedlings on the path in this photo

My reasoning is that most people say the leaves will break down eventually, given a year on the ground and it is best to have the allelopathic qualities of the leaves spent on the path where I don’t want plants. Also the leaves will be broken up by the mechanical action of me walking on them often which will speed up their decomposition somewhat. I can add a high nitrogen source like urine to the path to further speed decomposition (pardon the indelicate reference) and dampness provided by the infrequent watering of the garden and rain will also speed the process. When I add the resulting leaf mold to my garden beds I will have to remember to add some lime with it to counteract the acidity of the gum leaf mold. This is an experiment to see if gum leaves can be useful in soil building, I am not sure whether it will work out well or be a failure, but we will see in six months or so.

In other news;

My Hugelkultur beds are growing well. Here are some photos to prove  it.

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The zucchini are flowering

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The tree tomato is growing new leaves (it isn’t really this pale, it’s just the camera)

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The chia is growing so fast you can see it

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I am picking lettuce and a tiny bit of silverbeet from this bed

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The beans are up at last and the tomato is ready to be tied up (I’m not sure I will do it though)

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I  have continued to build up the beds that were very low on organic matter by adding anything that comes to hand; horse and cow manure collected from beside the road, the contents of the rabbit litter box and any weeds I pull from the garden.

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Building up the bed ready for planting…probably in winter now, unless I can get some late corn in soon

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The rabbit litter tray; the litter is compressed paper pellets which soak up water and break down very fast, also rabbit poop, pee and hair

Seedling starting with a self watering system

At one point I was growing all my vegetables from seed in a little greenhouse thing I bought. Time constraints got the better of me though and I started buying seedlings. It is time to be inspired to grow my own seedlings again.

Recently I found the most amazing You Tube channel; it’s called ‘Under the Choko Tree’ the name drove me nuts at first because as we all know…choko is a climbing vine not a tree. Aside from the name, the channel offers some great tutorials for making seed raising mix, planting seedlings, making paper pots and making a self watering system for seedlings. The star of the show is Nevin Sweeney, I have been reading his articles in Grass Roots magazine for years and have read his blog for a while too (http://www.underthechokotree.com/).

Nevin’s video tutorial makes it all sound so simple, how could I not give it a go?

Check out his how to make seed raising mix tutorial Here

I used a hummus container (empty obviously) as my measure as the tutorial uses ‘parts’ as its measurement, one hummus container full equals one part. I collected sand from a causeway crossing beside the road, the compost was sieved from the chook pen floor and the coir bulking agent I bought from my local Rural Agent store.

Now I had all the ingredients it was time to get mixing;

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The recipe is as simple as 1 part sand, 2 parts compost and 3 parts coir. That’s it, just mix the lot together into a gorgeous looking seed raising mixture and start potting your seeds.

The Choko Tree has a tutorial with advice about planting seeds in punnets too; view it here.

I decided to give Nevin’s advice about planting only a few of each type of plant in each punnet a go. As you can see in the photo, my test punnet has chilli, rockmelon and capsicum in it (two of each). I like this idea as it allows me to plant only a few of the seedlings I don’t need many of (like chilli) and a lot of the ones I need more of (like tomato). It will also let me succession plant seedlings for a more sustained harvest (things like cabbage and lettuce) if I can plant new seeds every two weeks or so I can keep the harvest going for the whole season, I don’t know why I didn’t think of this myself.

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Next I built myself a self watering system for the punnets; the tutorial for that one is here.

The basic concept is that water will seep upwards into the punnets from wet sand beneath (as anyone who has ever sat down on a damp beach wearing jeans can attest…capillary action works). I filled my tubs, made from old oil drums sawn in half length-ways, with sand and plunked in a little pot at the end to be used as a holder for the water reservoir (an old juice bottle in my case). My newly planted punnets were just plunked onto the surface of the sand and water was added to the tub and reservoir.

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The water reservoir is filled with water from the duck pond, I figured I would add some nutrient to the mix (and the duck pond is closer than the tap).

Now to wait until they come up.

While I am waiting I made some colourful stone markers for the seeds I planted directly into the garden. I love these markers and have made them at every school I go to over the last few weeks. For mine at home I went for slightly larger rocks so they won’t get lost in the bushy garden. They don’t need a tutorial; I just used acrylic paint and wrote the names on with a permanent marker once the paint had dried. I did coat them all with clear paint when they were dry though, hoping it will extend the life of the colours.

 

What do you think?