Thursday, April 28, 2011

Injury in the garden

There was a bit of a sad moment in the garden today when I saw that the monstrous 3' tall summer squash vines had toppled over, causing some severe splitting at their bases. The splits go anywhere from 1/3 to 2/3 of the way through the vines and will be easy points of entry for any interested bugs. The plants are still alive and seemingly doing well, but in the future I think I'll put tomato cages around the seedlings when growing in this sort of environment. (I'll probably end up with summer squash plants that look like Christmas trees.)

Mammoth Rock cabbages, with my conveniently sized foot-long foot to provide scale:

The first of the Early Sunglow is beginning to send up tassles:

It's interesting how the beets are growing their bulbs above ground, kohlrabi-like, as an adaptation to growing in rocks:

A young tomato fruit growing as fast as my belly during the holidays:

The pumpkins have decided to go exploring:


Monday, April 25, 2011

How I got involved in high tunnel aquaponics

I'm a pretty effusive optimist, but I'm also a bit of a doomer.

Problem: My dad has Type 2 diabetes. If his supply of medication were interrupted for an extended period (due to any number of realistic possible causes), how could we keep him alive and healthy?

Solution: Without medication, radical dietary changes would be necessary. A traditional Western, highly refined, carb-based diet would kill him in short order without his meds. To use metaphor: if proteins are logs, carbs are twigs, and fats are leaves, and if the ideal state for a Type 2 diabetic is a steady, slow-burning fire, then logs are the way to go. This means that his diet would need to be primarily protein. I've seen this referred to as the "face" diet, as in, "For Type 2 diabetics in scenarios without meds, if it doesn't have a face, don't eat it." Of course, the staple of meat would be supplemented by fresh fruits and vegetables (as much as his body deemed tolerable), but it would be wise to have the capacity to supply a pure meat diet for him if absolutely necessary for an extended period of time.

Problem: But if the supply of meds is interrupted for an extended period, then the supply of protein would almost certainly be interrupted as well. I don't live on a site with adequate room for growing livestock, and my dad doesn't want chickens, so how can I guarantee that he has access to an adequate supply of protein?

Solution: How about fish farming? This allows for the production of huge amounts of high quality protein in a limited space.

Problem: But growing fish in high densities requires massive water filtration; otherwise they'll quickly get sick and die. So how do I keep the water safely clean?

Solution: The toxicity of the water is caused by the accumulation of things that can be used to grow plants. Therefore, if I add sufficient plants to the system, they'll uptake the excess nutrients and clean the water for the fish. (When I got online and began researching the concept of combining fish and plants in a symbiotic growing system, I learned that this method of growing is called aquaponics.)

Problem: How do I keep an aquaponics food production system going year round?

Solution: Enclose the aquaponics system in a greenhouse environment.

Problem: How do I do that effectively and economically?

Solution: Use a modified high tunnel as a passive solar greenhouse.

So that's what I'm doing.

14 Benefits of High Tunnel Aquaponics

1) Allows for economical year-round food production. The water in the system serves as a large thermal mass that traps heat during the day and keeps the environment warm enough during winter nights to support continuous growing.

2) Drastically reduces pollution of crops. First, it keeps contaminated rainwater off of them. Second, it gives us the opportunity to clean the internal environment up a bit for them. If we pull outside air through a filtration system and blow this clean air into the tunnel, then unwanted pollution would have a hard time seeping in, as any possible path in would be filled with clean air rushing out. If we complement the clean air with clean water pulled up from a deep well, we would have a pollution-free environment in which to grow our food. Pollination would then pose a problem, but if we make the buildings large enough to host small bee hives (or provide insulated tube pathways between smaller tunnels for them), we'd get fantastic pollination...and a tasty crop of honey.

3) Allows for massive localization of food production. Not only will produce be fresher, this allows consumers to have access to superior-tasting varieties of produce that aren't carried in our grocery stores because they don't ship well. On a community level, localized food production leads to other major benefits as well, such as enhanced local employment and all the positives that go along with that. It should also be noted that this would have a significant effect on social stability: our current food distribution system leaves our society susceptible to calamity (starvation and massive unrest) if shipping were to break down, whereas large-scale localized food production would make our society much more robust and capable of enduring much harsher conditions without disintegrating.

4) The need for supplemental irrigation is eliminated. The plants are already constantly and automatically irrigated.

5) The need for weed control is eliminated.  Since crops are predominantly grown in gravel, clay balls, or just water, the systems are initially weed free.  And since the high tunnel keeps weed seeds from blowing in, the systems stay weed free.

6) Pest problems are greatly reduced.  The high tunnel keeps bugs and vermin out (especially with the help of an electric fence).

7) Allows our food system to be far less dependent on fossil fuels. The amount of fossil fuels used for shipping food would be drastically reduced (no longer shipping hundreds/thousands of miles), as would the amount of fossil fuels used to fertilize the crops (no longer needing to use as much natural gas to make nitrogen fertilizer, since fish waste would supply more than enough nitrogen fertilizer).

8) Wind damage of crops is greatly reduced. The tunnel provides a sanctuary against the destructive force of winds, thereby allowing faster and lusher growth.

9) Water is conserved to an extreme degree. Recirculating aquaponics is often said to use about 95% less water than traditional irrigation farming. And by placing an aquaponics system in a high tunnel, I'm guessing that of that 5% that manages to enter the air through transpiration and evaporation, something like 95% of it is captured and reused in the winter when the tunnel is buttoned up fairly tight (the water condenses on the leaves and plastic film, then drips back down into the system). This means that a high tunnel aquaponics system can retain and recycle something on the order of 99.75% of its water during cool/cold weather. This number would be lower in warm weather, as more of the airborne water would be able to escape due to increased temps and increased ventilation, but water retention would still be impressively high.

10) Allows for enormous growth of inland fish/seafood production, which is immensely important since virtually all of the oceans' natural fish stocks are facing catastrophic collapse.

11) Allows families to provide the type of diet for themselves that many people suffering from Type 2 diabetes would require if meds were unavailable. (Discussed in another post here.)

12) Allows families to have a large supply of fresh water on hand for emergency use. It's true that a good high tunnel aquaponics system can generate enormous amounts of food, but since the human need for water is even more urgent than the need for food, it's nice that these systems double as massive stores of fresh water.

13) The system is ideal for organic food production. Since harsh fertilizers/pesticides/etc would hurt the fish, gentler organic methods are naturally preferred.

14) Provides a soothing and therapeutic sanctuary. It's tough to convey just how much pleasure I derive from my own high tunnel aquaponics system as a place to relax, think, and enjoy nature. I wish everyone could have such a place for themselves.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mmmm...summer squash in April!

The first bowl of summer squash for 2011!

Speaking of which, the summer squash are starting to get a bit freaky. The plants are 4 feet tall, their bigger leaves are 18+ inches wide, and the darn things are vining almost as much as pumpkins (the squash vines are about 3 feet long now). And they're still young! The first fruits have just begun to form, but they're already thick. For comparison's sake, I found some summer squash plants at a nearby nursery that seemed to be about the same age...but were only about 1/10th the size of mine. One of my typical plants is 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide with 18" leaves; theirs are about 6 inches tall and 8 inches wide with 3" leaves.

Photographic evidence:

One of the Prizewinner Hybrid pumpkins is beginning to get ideas...

The Goliath snow peas are doing their best to get their work done before things get too warm:

A strawberry blossoms in echo of Eve, and never again will gardens' song be the same:


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pics from 4/17/2011--

Picks from today (4/19/2011)--

I think we're going to have a few cucumbers. The pic above shows one of the cuke plants; there are about 70 more.

Last Year's Proof-of-Concept Test Garden

Here are some pics of a small aquaponics system I set up late last year to test the concept of aquaponics. As you may have guessed, the testing was highly successful:

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Overview (it's beginning to get a bit jungly in there):

This head of buttercrunch was the best tasting lettuce I have ever had:

This is supposedly iceberg lettuce. The thing is, iceberg is supposed to form a crisp head, but these icebergs are instead forming giant sprawling fountains of leaves. Tastes like good iceberg, though. Weird.

The tomatoes are already getting thick, a harbinger of the major pruning that will be required down the road.

A peak underneath the summer squash leaves reveals the heart of their operation:

A young beet is beginning to bulb up:

The oldest section of Bodacious sweet corn is starting to send up tassles:

Nice looking little spinach:

Here's a bit of Outredgeous Romaine lettuce that I planted outside:

Outside the garden, a rosebud tree gives its opinion on the nice spring weather:

Finally, here's a pic of our new set of rodent removal devices (not yet fully assembled):

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Lettuce kick spring off in style!

For some reason, my big sister just doesn't seem all that big in these photos...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Early April in the Garden


A group of beets lingering behind the corn:

The cucumber plants are already getting fruit on them:

A pepper plant is starting to look like a pepper plant:

If you're wondering about the A&W bottle in the preceding pic, it's because I'm propping up the big zucchini leaves with makeshift braces in order to keep the pepper seedlings underneath them from being smothered. My first attempt was with a bottle that I happened to be holding when I discovered the problem; version 2.0 involved a high-tech upgrade to sticks.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Bring on the Sunshine!

The past two days have been sunny (after a long bout of crummy, cloudy weather), and the plants have responded. It's like an explosion of green when you peek inside:

The lettuce continues to amaze:

And the broccoli heads seem to be doubling in size every 24-36 hours:

Here are the Royal Burgandy garden beans (top) and pumpkins (along the bottom). The cluster at the bottom right are Prizewinner Hybrids that can get up to 300+ pounds. The cluster at the bottom left (under attack by snow peas that line the left side of the pic) are Big Max, which can get to around 100 lbs. The two in the bottom middle are Atlantic Giants. The plan with the pumpkins is to have them run right out the door; that way, they have some room to run around while still being able to keep their toes in the honey jar. [You'll also notice a Bibb lettuce that I plopped down in the middle of pumpkin avenue, and on the very bottom left, growing in the dirt, is some Parris Island romaine lettuce (the bigger plants) being followed up by some carnations.]

I'll end with a shot taken from the blue cushion in the first pic of this post looking back toward the entrance: