Friday, September 30, 2011

Newspaper pots

Here are a few pics of the seedlings we have started for the system after the move.  I also made a video on how I make the pots.  It's the first video I've made, keep that in mind. 
The pots are great.  They're free and can be disposed of in a composter once you're done with them.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tainted Cantaloupe

Cantaloupe tainted with Listeria is at the top of the news right now.  It's bad news for Jensen Farms, much worse news for those who are sick, have died, and have yet to show symptoms.  And keep in mind all the people indirectly affected by this Listeria outbreak.  The family and friends of those who are/will be sick and those who have died are going through terrible times, as well. 
     If you have any cantaloupe from Jensen Farms or don't know where the cantaloupe you have came from you should toss it out.  From the news I've read the tainted cantaloupe is coming to the end of its shelf life, so the outbreak is at its end.  Having an outbreak of a deadly bacteria due to contamination at the farm/processing level brought to mind local food.
     If you're buying your produce from local growers outbreaks such as this are nothing to worry about.  There is still a risk of some contamination, but because the grower is producing a smaller crop they usually have more quality control of their crops.  If there is contamination and ensuing sickness, it's localized.  That isn't much comfort to those who are sick, of course.  But localized sickness is easier to track than sickness across 18 states.  And one small local grower selling a contaminated crop has a much smaller impact than a commercial sized farm due to the significantly smaller amount of produce that is sold by a local grower.  This event doesn't just bring to mind buying local.  I'm reminded of the benefit of home gardening for food.  Yeah, you'd need a whole heck of a lot of space to supply yourself with all the food you'd need, but even cultivating a small home garden decreases your need to buy from a commercial farm.
     Buying local does have its downfalls.  Local produce is usually more expensive, for one.  It's hard to compete with the giant commercial farms out there.  And buying local often means eating what's in season.  Most regions don't have the ability to produce certain crops year round.  So your diet would have to fit around what's available at any given time of the year.  If you're not too picky this isn't an issue.
     While the number of people who have gotten sick or have died in this outbreak may sound like a lot compared to outbreaks in the past, in reality the numbers are minuscule.  Less than 100 people getting infected in a nation whose population is over 300 million is next to nothing.  My point is that you are unlikely to ever be one of the people infected during an outbreak caused by food contamination.  But it doesn't hurt to consider the benefits of local food.  How small the number is compared to the total population of the nation does nothing to comfort those who have been affected, though.  I hope the number of those affected doesn't grow much over the next few weeks and that it's awhile before another of these outbreaks occur.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Moving an Aquaponic System: Keeping Fish Batches Seperated

     Alright, it's been pretty busy around here so I haven't posted anything in a bit.  There's been a lot of running around, throwing things in boxes, staying up late at night, and all that good stuff.  So, how's moving an aquaponic system going? 
     We've been brainstorming mostly.  Our biggest concern is for the fish.  I don't want to lose all the bacteria that have established themselves in the systems, but it might happen to some of it.  Bacteria is free, though.  Plants aren't very expensive, unless you're counting time to grow seeds (time is money, so they say).  Replacing around a few hundred tilapia will put a dent in your pocket, though.  A very noticeable dent, if you're not rolling in cash.  A large part of our planning is being dedicated to the fish.  I'll get to the plants and bacteria in a soon to be published post.
     What have we got so far?  Laundry baskets and pool noodles.  Because the fish that are stocked in the systems we're moving are of two different sizes it's important to us that we keep them separated.  We're planning on moving them all in one tank, though, to cut back on the weight.  The truck we're using wouldn't stand for too much weight in the back.  But dumping them all in one tank and fishing them out with a net would not do the trick.  There's no way we'd be able to separate them once we got to our destination!  So we're planning to get a laundry basket with a plastic frame and lining the top of the frame with a pool noodle.  The pool noodle will keep the basket afloat, which allows us to dump the smaller batch of fish in the basket while keeping both batches separated.  In principle it works.  We'll find out soon enough.  Once we put together our little floating fish net I'll get you guys some pictures.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Taking Notes

     When I first got into horticulture it was the first time I'd really done any gardening.  One of the things I always used to tell myself was "I'll remember...."  I'll just remember when I started these seeds, when this problem first appeared, etc.  Sure enough I never got any better at remembering dates.  Taking notes on your garden is an invaluable tool.
     If you'd like to set up a schedule for your garden you'll need to know how long certain crops take to become harvestable or to produce fruit.  Taking notes will tell you how long these things take in your garden.  The number of days a seed pack tells you it takes to get to your first harvest may not be accurate for your area and should be taken as a ballpark timeframe.  Having somewhat detailed notes will also give you an idea of which crops you're growing do really well in your area.  It will help you choose varieties that grow fast and/or strong.
     Notes will also help you with problem solving.  Symptoms may appear ambiguous when they first pop up.  One deficiency may look like another.  Some pests cause similar damage, making identification tough.  By taking notes you can build a symptom complex that will narrow down what exactly is going wrong, which allows you to handle the problem before it gets out of control.  Notes will also highlight any recurring problems that constantly plague your garden so you can prepare for them in the future.
     And one of the most rewarding parts of taking notes is recording your harvest.  Detailed notes will tell you how much space, how many plants, etc. it took to get a certain harvest.  If you'd like to improve your harvest or get more of another variety notes will help you plan for the next season.
     Notes don't have to be extremely detailed.  A date and how the plants are doing is about all you need.  It also helps to record details such as how often you are watering and any amendments/fertilizers you are adding.  If a problem occurs simply record the symptoms and the date they first appeared.  If you keep notes on your garden regularly it will pay off for you.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Moving an Aquaponic System

     Personally, I don't find any fun in moving.  Even when I'm going somewhere that I want to go, the process of packing everything up and transporting it is high up there on my list of things I don't enjoy.  What could make it even worse?  How about a little over 4 tons of water. 
     Right now Trinity Aquaponics is in the process of moving locations.  One of the challenges ahead is in successfully transporting our demo systems without losing the fish and beneficial bacteria currently in the systems.  There is a game plan, but that doesn't seem to make it sound like any less work.  And the idea of losing over 300 fish is a scary thought.  Of course, they're tilapia.  And tilapia are an extremely hardy species.  Chances are if any are lost it will be a small number.  It is still worrisome, though.  Then you have to think about the plants.  We'll be cloning the mature plants in the systems and starting from the beginning, basically.  The seedlings that were recently started will be transported in trays with water in the trays to keep the roots from drying out.  So we won't be starting out completely from scratch.
     We will document the actual moving of our systems and share the experience with you here.  We will surely learn from this.  And those lessons learned will hopefully help you should there come a day when you have to pack up and move a system.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Teaching with Aquaponics

     Nature is an amazing system of balances between the chemical makeup of our planet and various forms of life.  Aquaponics is an amazing way to teach children about one of these systems through hands on learning and observation.
     In nature the decomposition and conversion of organic matter into nitrogen and other nutrients provides plants with the materials they need to produce their own food.  We all depend on plants to survive.  Without them at the base of the food chain we would not have a means of converting raw material to food we can process.  Aquaponics displays this process of conversion right before your eyes. 
     When you feed the fish of an aquaponic system they produce waste.  Ammonia is excreted through gills and in urine, and solid waste is produced from undigested and uneaten food.  Ammonia is a form of nitrogen, the most used nutrient by plants.  It is unavailable for use, however, because plants cannot absorb N in the ammonia form.  This is where the beneficial bacteria come into play.  Nitrosomonas sp. oxidize ammonia as they utilize it for growth, which converts ammonia into nitrite.  Nitrite, another form of nitrogen, is still not available for uptake by plants, though.  From here, Nitrobacter sp. convert the nitrites into nitrates.  Nitrate is a form of N that is very available to plants.  Now that there is a form of N that can be utilized by plants, they use the nitrates and filter the water for the fish.
     Aquaponics can be used to teach children about life in several ways.  Watching fish in a system displays the cycle of life in animals.  As the fish are provided the right environment and are fed they grow and, eventually, die.  While some may find it morbid to consider death a lesson for children, it is an inescapable aspect of life that is better coped with when understood.  Aquaponics also teaches us about the balance found in nature.  The fish rely on the plants to filter their water and, in some cases, provide food.  In turn, plants rely on the fish for the nutrients they need to survive and thrive.  It is also a great way to teach children about plants, how they grow, how to cultivate them, and how important they are to us.  A more advanced look at aquaponics would reveal lessons in chemistry and biology.  But we'll keep it simple today.
20 gallon desktop aquaponic system

     Getting into aquaponics needs not be a costly venture.  A tabletop system can be constructed for a relatively low price out of a fish aquarium and other inexpensive, readily available materials.  The added benefit is that it is easier to observe the fish in these glass tanks as opposed to the tanks used for larger systems.  And the ability to keep the system inside on a table or desk allows for more observation.
     Whether or not you have kids that you'd like to teach about life a tabletop aquaponic system is an amazing thing to see working.  Fish can be fun to watch swimming around and lettuce or herbs can easily be produced for cooking at home.  I encourage anyone who thinks they don't have the time, money, or space for aquaponics to consider putting one of these systems together.  It's a great introduction to aquaponics and can't be beat as far as cost goes.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Propagating from Cuttings

     To me, one of the most amazing things about plants is propagating from cuttings.  It's an amazing process to see take place.  And it's also a very productive and fast means to increase or replace plant stock.  While the process is easier and quicker with some species over others, taking cuttings is not all that hard to learn.  When I first got into horticulture my success rates with cuttings were low because I was learning by trial and error.  I hope to make cutting propagation a little easier for you with this article.
     Cutting propagation yields genetically identical offspring, or clones.  So it's great for when you want more of a specific plant for characteristics it displays.  There could be a number of characteristics.  Maybe the plant was a heavy producer, or was extremely hardy compared to others.  It could be that the plant just looked better than the others.  Whatever the reason for wanting more of the plant, seed propagation would not be the best choice for producing more of the plant.  There is too much genetic variation in sexual reproduction to ensure that you'll get seeds that produce more plants with the same characteristics of the parent plant.  The disadvantage of this lack of genetic variation is that all clones will be susceptible to the same pathogens and pests.  The introduction of the wrong disease can wipe out a crop quickly.  Dutch elm disease is a great example of this principle.  Seed propagation is, however, still a great choice for plant production.
     The cells in plant leaves and stems are differentiating during growth.  This means they are becoming specialized in one function or another.  They are able to dedifferentiate under the right circumstances, returning to meristematic conditions.  In the meristematic condition cells are able to contribute to the production of new roots.  Once cells have returned to a meristematic state they can differentiate into immature roots, or root primordia.  Then the new roots will emerge through the outer tissue of the stem and continue to grow.
     There are many rooting compounds available on the market.  The primary chemical at work in these compounds is the hormone auxin.  Auxin will promote the growth of roots without hindering bud development in most plants; but some, like begonia, will have shoot development retarded by the introduction of auxin to the area of root development.  In these cases the use of auxin is not recommended.
     So, how do you take cuttings?
     The first step is to select a suitable growth tip.  Newer growth is preferred as it will more readily root.  A good rule is to use stems from 4-6 inches long.
A growth tip with at least 4 nodes should be selected

     Once you select a section of stem cut it just above a node so that you have the right length of stem to work with.  Cutting just above a node leaves no unused stem on the plant to die off and cause trouble.  You will now have a length of stem similar to the picture below.
Stem with 4 developed nodes
     You should have your propagation media or cloner ready at this point.  It is important that once you make the final cut to the stem the cutting is put in the media or cloner immediately.  Otherwise air can get into the stem, blocking water from entering, which will kill the cutting.  Now you will cut the leaves and sideshoots from the bottom node or two (one node for media, two for a cloner).
Leaf and sideshoot being removed

     Now you will make the final cut.  This cut should be perpendicular to the stem and just below the bottom node.
Cutting the stem just below the bottom node

     If you are taking multiple cuttings, you can place the prepared cutting in a cup of water for several minutes before placing it in its final destination.  The cutting can also be dipped in a rooting compound at this point.  Now you have a cutting that looks similar to the picture below.
Prepared cutting ready for media or cloner
      Now it's time to place the cutting in a medium for root development.  Potting soil, coco coir, and perlite are a few options.  The medium must be kept moist, but not damp.  It is important that the cuttings don't dry out.  Keep the cuttings under indirect sunlight or artificial light.  Covering the cuttings somehow to increase humidity is beneficial, as is occasionally spraying the leaves with a mist of water.  This helps keep the cuttings going until roots develop for water uptake.  Another method is to use a cloner, like the one pictured below.

     In several weeks you should have new plants with roots that have developed enough to transplant.  If you rooted your cuttings in a medium such as soil or coco and want to transplant to an aquaponic system there will be a couple of extra steps.  First, the cutting has to be carefully removed from the medium.  You can break away most of the medium and rinse off what is left easily.  Then the cutting has to be placed in rockwool or a net pot for raft and nft systems or simply planted into a media bed.
     If you have any questions please email me at  I'm more than happy to fill in any blanks.