Thursday, May 31, 2012
Okay, I just made up the word carponics, but it describes in a word the process I use to feed my plants and keep aesthetically-pleasing fish in my deck garden. “Ponics” in Latin means “working”, as in hydroponics or aquaponics (“hydro” and “aqua” both translate to “water”). Carp is the species to which goldfish and Koi belong. These types of fish are working to provide fertilizer for my plants (if you call excreting waste “work”), so I named the process carponics.
In my garden, I use a very low-tech system, but for innovative gardeners with an extensive garden (or little time for irrigation), an automated system with a timer could be used.
Fish Tank Set-up
Three years ago, I bought a 32-gallon plastic bin (food-grade plastic is recommended) as a makeshift fish tank and it has held up very well outside under shelter. It does tend to bow out, so I fill it only 2/3 full of water and put it between other heavy bins to help hold its shape. You can find the rest of the items for the tank at a pet store. You will need de-chlorinator drops, an air pump, tubing, a bubble stone, goldfish food flakes, 8-10 feeder goldfish or Koi, and a heater for winter months. You may also want to purchase an ammonia filter and tester if the water will not be changed often. I also added a couple of fish caves for extra shade and a Blue Mystery snail to keep the algae under control. My teenage daughter has several aquariums so we had many of these items on hand. I did not use gravel because fish waste would settle in it, reducing the amount of fertilizer available for plants. If you are a hobby aquarist and have a pH monitor and thermometer on hand, these would also be beneficial. I tried using aquatic plants for more cover, but the goldfish quickly devoured every bit of the plants.
My first fish were so hardy that they survived a winter outside (with an aquarium heater) and a move across two states in a cooler in our vehicle. They were fed well (but not overfed) and they grew quickly, especially with the frequent water changes. They did well in their new spot outside on a ground-level covered patio next to some woods…what they didn’t survive was the sly fox that came for dinner one night. If you are in an area where wildlife may appear, I would suggest keeping a screen over the tank at night or keeping the tank on an elevated porch or deck where animals would be less likely to visit. We have started over with new feeder fish this season and they seem to be thriving.
Because a large portion of this blog is dedicated to gardening in self-watering containers, I feel that I should mention that I do not use fish effluent in our self-watering bins. With these containers, I prefer using the small amount of chlorine in our city water to help prevent undesirable bacteria from growing. I don’t know of any scientific studies on this, but my intuition tells me that one should not add fish effluent to a dark, enclosed space with standing water to be wicked up to vegetable roots. I do have evidence (the health of my family and garden) that adding the effluent to soil in pots with good drainage is beneficial as a mild fertilizer.
For more information on carponics and how it differs from aquaponics, as well a description of watering methods I use, and reasons that fish effluent is good for plants, please visit an informative blog called Suburban Hobby Farmer . It is hosted by Bill Brikiatis who is an excellent garden writer on growing food organically in your backyard. I guest-authored a companion post to this article this week.
Thanks so much for reading, and blessings on your gardens!
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Have you ever come home from your favorite garden store with an impressive variety of seed packets and imagined the beautiful, lush garden that will grow from those seeds, but waited too long to sow them for your growing zone? This was an area of procrastination for me because working with peat pots or a soil mix and cell packs can be messy, costly, and time-consuming. I needed to make starting seeds more convenient, time-efficient, and inexpensive. I researched soilless germination and found several articles on the subject. The paper towel / plastic sandwich bag method is quite inexpensive (under a nickel per seed pack planted) and takes up very little room. Instructions on how I started seeds with this method are on my previous post: The Gardening “Decks-periment”–Part One.
My variation of the "plastic bag" method is to use the moist paper towel in a small, recycled plastic food-grade container rather than a plastic sandwich bag that gets thrown away after seeds have sprouted. You can find these plastic containers in grocery stores or fast food restaurants. They are used for baked goods, trail mixes, salad, etc., so you don’t need to purchase anything other than food you would normally buy in these containers. They can be re-used many times. Just wash the containers with a bit of dish liquid, making sure all traces of soap are rinsed before sowing seeds. The containers stack well and don’t need as much room as standard cell packs or seed starter growing kits. These containers obviously require a bit more space than sandwich bags, but I prefer that my seed sprouts have a small “ceiling” in case they germinate quickly and need some growing space before I am able to transplant.
This video shows seeds that germinated using moist paper towels and clear food containers:
Below is an update of the asparagus beans and lupine flowers 10 days after sowing, now transplanted into a potting mix in a cell pack. They will form a healthy root system here before being transplanted into either a large bin container or the ground.
I love starting seeds this way! The initial sowing project took only 12 minutes from start to finish to sow seeds from 16 packets (half packets, actually – I wanted to save some for a second sowing). There was no mess at all, and everything fit in a neat row on my potting bench on our deck. (Seeds can also be started indoors if the weather in your area is too cool for germination.)
Some folks might ask why not skip the paper-towel step and sow directly into the pot or ground since you have to transplant at some point? Direct-sowing works great for many gardeners. I direct-sow large seeds like corn, sunflowers, pumpkins, beans, and plants that don't respond well to having their roots disturbed. I use the paper towel method for everything else because it is clean, convenient, space-efficient, time-efficient, and non-wasteful. You can see exactly which seeds have sprouted which is helpful for spacing plants correctly during transplantation.
Here is a picture taken this morning of our container garden on the deck. In May we enjoyed lettuce, tomatoes, basil, and spring flowers. We look forward to tasting summer vegetables in a few weeks!
Blessings on your gardening!
Sunday, May 20, 2012
As a homeschooling parent, it is always a bonus to have an unexpected learning experience come to you by way of Mother Nature. Before organizing the deck for growing, we noticed some pine straw in a pot; the next day it was formed into a nest, and the next week there were 5 little wren eggs and a mama bird sitting on them. We have happily cohabitated on the deck together for several weeks. The mama wren is used to us and trusts that we won’t disturb her nest. We leave food for her and she drinks the rain water in the deck bin. Hopefully, we will soon be posting pictures of baby wrens in that nest!
As I mentioned in my last post Gardening "Decks-periment" - Part One, we use our deck as a potting shed, plant lab, and incubator for seedlings. The deck is old and in need of repair…it was not in great shape when we moved to NC a couple of years ago, and it had declined even more during the time we were away. The plan was to rebuild it this year, but I filled it up with plants and now the construction will be postponed until the growing season is over. (I’m compelled to share this disclaimer with anyone who views pictures or videos made on our deck - also, I am working to improve the upload quality of the video below.) This video shows our bin garden progress at 5 weeks.
Things were looking great, though one bin had a clogged overflow hole after a heavy rain which almost drowned our iceberg lettuce. The lettuce has recovered with minimal signs of stress and the offending large perlite particle has been removed. I would recommend checking each overflow hole each time you fill the watering tube just to make sure there are no blockages.
A few weeks ago, I noticed a moth hovering over the Brussels sprouts and cauliflower for a couple of days, and was concerned that cabbage loopers or cabbage worms would follow. I garden organically, so man-made insecticides are not an option, especially when my family will be eating these vegetables. Sure enough, an army of cabbage worms made an appearance. When I made the video, the damage was minimal and I thought that slugs might be chewing small holes in the leaves. Within two days, several leaves were almost skeletonized.
I found the small green worms and their droppings on about 75% of the Brussels sprouts leaves and on 50% of the cauliflower leaves. My daughter and I picked off as many as we could (dropping them in soapy water), and in some cases, pulled the entire leaf off the stalk. This slowed down the damage and the plants now seem to be doing okay, though much less photogenic. In retrospect, I should have had some Neem oil on hand to eradicate the pests at the first sign of leaf damage. Neem oil is an organic biopesticide made from seeds of the Neem tree. For the ambitious gardener who would like to grow and process his or her own Neem oil, here is a link to instructions on growing a Neem tree in an indoor container: http://www.discoverneem.com/how-to-grow-neem-trees.html. For more info on readily available Neem products, check out the Greenlight website http://www.greenlightco.com/products/neem/.
In the past, I have not had the best of luck in trying to grow celery from seeds, but have recently read on several different gardening blogs about a method of re-growing celery using the bottom of the stalk that usually gets cut off and thrown away. I put two of these bottom pieces in a shallow jar of water and in a few days saw new leaves emerge from the center of the stalk as new roots began to form at the base of the stalk. When more roots appear, I will plant this to see how celery grows in the bin garden. It will be interesting to see how many times one can re-grow from the same stalk! (The bottom picture below shows new root growth.)
My last two blog posts have summed up how we use our deck for gardening and aquaponics projects and experiments. I have really enjoyed sharing these with you, and would like to close by sharing a couple of pictures I took last week of my favorite bridge at the The State Botanical Garden of Georgia http://botgarden.uga.edu/.
Blessings on your gardens,
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
It has been a productive couple of weeks since my last post. We are currently in our 7th week since planting our first two bins, and now have a dozen bins planted with vegetables growing on our deck.
Since moving back to GA a few months ago, we decided we would create different growing areas on the property based on the types of plants we’d like to grow and based on the wildlife we would like to attract to our yard. We are working on a bird and butterfly sanctuary, a shady flower garden entrance, a tilled garden plot for large or sprawling vegetables, and our deck garden. All are works in progress and we are very much enjoying the process.
In this post, I will discuss the deck garden – a sunny, south-facing spot we use as our “incubator” for seedlings, bulbs, new transplants, and any container/bin plants requiring extra protection from wildlife and/or possible soil diseases. One might describe it as a “working deck” and not so much an aesthetically pleasing garden spot (that would be the intent for our front shade garden – more on that in a future post).
Our deck serves as a potting shed and plant lab – a convenient place to do growing experiments. Below are some seeds I received as a gift on Mother’s Day (my family really knows what I love!). I started saving plastic food containers to use as mini-greenhouses for seed-starting and now have a small collection. To germinate, I placed the seeds between 2 moist paper towels, misted and enclosed them in the container, then labeled the plant variety and sowing date with a small Post-it sheet. I moved the stacked containers to the potting bench away from direct sunlight, and I will check to see what has sprouted every few days.
This method works well if you do not have a large space to dedicate to seed germination, and if you would rather not deal with the mess of potting mix or peat pots in your kitchen sink and window sills or other indoor growing space. It can, however, require a bit more work when it is time to transplant. When using peat pots or potting mix in cell packs, you can just remove the rooted seedling and place it in a larger container or garden spot. With paper towel-sprouting, you remove the seedlings at an earlier stage – just after the seed sends out the tap root. Transplanting is easy to do with medium and large seeds, but a bit tricky with tiny seeds. For smaller seeds, I usually lift the whole sprouted paper towel out of the container and lay it directly onto a watered potting mix surface. Rooting continues in the soil mix and the paper towel eventually dissolves.
If a particular seed variety happens to have a low germination rate, you haven’t wasted peat pots, soil, or cell pack space. If you have problems with birds eating corn or sunflower seeds that are directly sown in your garden, pre-sprouting these seeds on paper towels might help to discourage wildlife seeking a meal of dry seeds.
Our “decks-periment” and other uses for bins
I have a makeshift aquarium (32-gallon plastic bin) on a sheltered part of the deck where I keep 10 goldfish and one blue mystery snail (the snail is for algae clean-up). There is an air pump for oxygenating the water and a couple of fish caves for cover. I change the fish effluent water once every week or two and use it to water plants in pots (not bins) on our deck. The combination of the oxygenated water and the nutrients in the fish effluent water is quite beneficial to plant growth. Plant roots need oxygen for health and vigor. Using this watering method has blessed us with some beautiful produce!
I have another open bin under a rain spout on the deck to collect rain water. We normally keep a back-up bin on a dolly to move under the drain spout in case of heavy rain. My daughter keeps a large brown tadpole (picture below on right) in the rain bin to clean up algae, and if we cannot use the water before mosquito larvae grow, we put a goldfish in the bin for a couple of hours and the fish eats every bit of the larvae. I am currently using a low-tech system, manually watering the potted plants with the fish and rain water, but hope to eventually move toward a larger, more efficient aquaponic system.
I use our garden hose to top off the water in the bin reservoirs every other day. Not much water is needed in 10 of the 12 bins. The 2 tomato bins require more watering. I contemplated pouring rain or fish water into the bin reservoirs, but I feel it is a healthier practice to have very clean water (no particles) in an enclosed container. This is only my opinion – there may be folks who have had success using recycled water in enclosed containers. I would love to hear how this worked for others – please email me at BeenGardening@gmail.com or post a comment sharing your growing experiences. I always welcome suggestions and feedback!
Thanks so much for reading this post. Below is a picture of a garden gift that bloomed today and also happens to be my favorite scent – freesia!!
Enjoy your gardening,
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
What a beautiful season! We have had many warm, sunny days in GA and the container plants are doing very well! Below are comparison pictures of the “Better Boy” tomato variety transplanted from the same 4-cell pack five weeks ago. One was planted in a 6” pot and the other 3 were planted in one of our homemade self-watering bins. I used the same potting mix (Miracle Grow) for both containers, transplanted them on the same day, placed them both in full sun on our deck and watered both thoroughly. I continued to water the potted plant every other day or when the soil started to dry out. I monitored the level of the reservoir of the bin plants everyday by spraying water into the watering tube and counting the seconds it took for water to come out of the overflow hole. I added a bit of water as needed to keep the reservoir full.
|Bin tomato plants compared to potted tomato|
The results have convinced me that the wicking method (water in a reservoir being wicked up to the potting mix and roots) produces a healthier and more robust crop. The tomato plants grew twice as tall with lush foliage and healthy green tomatoes. We’ll be making more bins this week to experiment with growing melons, potatoes, and garlic.
Last week I started thinking about some variations I wanted to try on our bin design, to attract more pollinators, offer natural pest control and biodiversity, and to make the rows of bins look more aesthetically pleasing. I drilled two 2-inch holes in the front of two newly constructed bins. These are to plant flower seedlings that will grow on the front of the container, giving a more colorful look to the silver bins. I planted petunias in the first set of bins, and plan to plant marigolds in the next set of bins (for insect control and to add color). The 2-inch hole seemed a bit large, so I will reduce the size to 1.5” on our next set of bins.
I would love to hear from others who have had successes and challenges with growing food in homemade containers. May your efforts be blessed!
Enjoy the May sunshine!