Three Acre Paradise Goals

Three Acre Paradise is not a gardening blog. To date it may seem that way but the real goal is to document the creation of a self sufficient lifestyle which enables me to be prepared for the good times and bad. When things go bad, I don’t like life interrupted any more than necessary. For example, if there is a hurricane that takes out local services for several weeks (Puerto Rico for a more extreme example) I don’t want to be sweating at night and eating cold soup from a can. I’d rather be enjoying air conditioning, hot showers, and fresh cooked food. I’ve been without power for weeks a few times in the past and while not horrible I’d rather not deal with it at all.

There are a couple of other things that go hand in hand with self sufficiency, these are prepping (being prepared) and homesteading.

 

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I define self sufficiency as not having to rely on others for basic needs. In today’s world that is difficult to achieve 100% but we can get close, especially for a short term. Most people can go a day or two without leaving the house, how about extending that to a couple of weeks? Now, what if you can also do without public utilities such as power and water? My goal is to be able to get by a few months in this situation, not that I expect any outages to last that long. These are accomplished through the homestead and prepping.

A homestead by definition is a principal residence including the land and structures. Years ago homesteads provided a lot more than they do now, a lot of homes today are just a place to sleep. To me, a homestead should give back, not just consume. If you make most of your meals at home then the home is providing an output, more than a place to sleep and waste time. If the home has a garden, even better. If you run a business from home that’s another plus, solar power would be another example. A home can be so much more than just a building and yard that has to be maintained, I want Three Acre Paradise to provide most of what I need for daily living. We have solar power, well water, and a septic system so there isn’t complete reliance on utilities (in Florida you can’t legally go off grid for power). There are gardens, fruit trees, a pond stocked with fish, and a chicken coop with a lot more to come.

Prepping is a fun subject. In the prepping world they often talk of bugging in or bugging out (leaving) depending on the situation. Personally I’d rather stay put if possible on my homestead but there may be times when bugging out is the correct choice due to things like fire or industrial accident (I live near a water plant).Almost everyone is a prepper at some level, I’d rate the average working person around four on a scale from 1 to 10.

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Anything you put on the internet will offend someone but I needed an examples for this one. The stoner in this example is living in someone else’s house (parents, friends) and is just getting high all day. They live for the moment and the most prepping they do is to grab a bag of chips to munch on for the next hour. On the other end of the scale are the zombie preppers who refer to Walking Dead as a documentary and have primarily focused on guns, ammunition, and MRE’s. My example of the average working person at the level of four has a job, bought a home, has a 401k and health insurance, and a few days worth of food in the kitchen. They probably also have some basic first aid supplies on hand.

I’d rate myself around a seven on the scale. I prep as much as possible for the inevitable such as hurricanes, power outages, and job loss. I’m ready to evacuate for a fire but also have fire extinguishers on hand and a plan to protect the house in case of nearby forest fire, which  happened last week and damaged two neighbors homes (picture is of actual fire).

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Being prepared brings a feeling of security. Last year was the first time I completely stocked up at the beginning of hurricane season, when we got news that we were in the path of a storm I had a checklist of things to do but didn’t have to go fight the crowds at the stores for fuel or supplies. Instead, it took just a little time to get the house ready and I had more time to help family and friends get ready.

Being self sufficient and prepared brings real peace of mind. I’m not completely there yet but have a defined path to get there. I’ll go through some of the things I’ve done and future plans in a post later this week. There’s also a lot of fun smaller projects coming up and I’ll list a few of those. Until then, keep on prepping!

 

The Best Produce I Didn’t Plant

It’s been just a little over three years since we moved onto this property and about two and a half since I started gardening, it was a slow start but even those very small efforts have grown into much more over the years. The first year after the house was built there wasn’t much time to even think of planting a real garden, we were busy moving in, clearing the land, and digging the pond. My vision then, and now, is that one day there will be a huge variety of edible things growing that require minimal care, they just produce year after year with little effort on my part.

Florida is a great place for growing, there’s many challenges such as heat, insects, and bad soil, however the year round warm climate turns what would be annual plants in many areas into perennial plants here. Plants that aren’t perennial often reseed themselves which also helps reduce the need to replant every year. These two things have already shown their value at Three Acre Paradise.

My first planting was on a whim, we bought some green onions and I remember reading that instead of throwing the cut ends away you could stick them in the ground and they would regrow. I didn’t have a garden or any area allocated as such so I just stuck them in the ground near a well head where they would be safe. They grew, and grew very well. A few months later I transplanted them to a pot and put them in a makeshift garden area. They became a constant handy source for green onions for salads and cooking and actually grew quite large. Then, one day they flowered. I didn’t really know what would come out of that so I left them alone. They finished flowering, then went back to normal.

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Funny thing happened, all the sudden there was dozens of new onions growing. They were in the same pot and in every pot and container nearby. Aha! So those flowers did produce viable seeds, and they grow very good! I’ve planted many store bought seeds since then but nothing seems to be better than seeds fresh off the plant. I transplanted a bunch of the baby plants to new containers, and here we are a year later and those children are flowering. This time, I’ll catch a bunch of the seeds and put them around the yard so they can grow year after year with no effort. These turned out to be really good white onions so I pull a bulb once in a while or just continue to harvest the green leaves.

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I can’t say I didn’t plant those original onions, but going forward they will keep going with no effort. I’ll make several areas in the yard for them and mix them among other plants. Here’s another reuse of a grocery store cut off, a celery stalk placed into the aquaponic system. It is growing great, I’m hoping it goes to seed and I can spread those around as well. Since a lot of our store bought produce comes from Mexico and Central America those varieties seem to do well in Florida.

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The garden area is full of volunteers (plants that weren’t planted on purpose). Here’s a Cucamelon plant growing up near an EarthBox, normally I pull these out but I’m going to let this one go to see what it does. Tomatoes and peppers are the ones that seem to do this the most so this little guy gets a pass for being different. The seeds probably came from a Cucamelon that fell off the plant.

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Last year I had some Bok Choy that bolted, I know most people say to yank plants out when they bolt but I’m trying to save seed so I let it go. I harvested a lot of seeds from it, so many that I didn’t bother with the last batch of seed pods but rather just crushed them up and spread them on the ground around one of the banana circles. Not much happened until a few weeks ago them bam! – hundreds of plants popping up. Technically these were planted but there wasn’t much effort involved, they weren’t even covered with soil. Now I can have Bok Choy every day.

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OK, all the above were started by me but are on autopilot. What about the real volunteers? That’s where it gets fun. I’ve got pepper and tomato plants growing in all kinds of places, too bad I won’t know what variety most of them are until I get some fruit. Here’s a new tomato growing in a banana circle, probably started from some chicken poop I threw in there after cleaning the coop.

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It gets better, here’s a tomato plant that started in one of the mulch bins. It is now producing tomatoes, and they are very good. They are most likely Husky Cherry Red based on size and flavor. That tall plant to the left is Romaine lettuce that recently bolted which will provide some seeds for next year.

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I haven’t treated the tomato plant very nice and in exchange it is producing pretty good. Seems like tomato plants like a little abuse.

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That metal grate on top of the mulch bin is to keep animals out, I cover one bin or the other depending on which is currently being used. While the mulch bin plant has been good, it doesn’t come close to what this next volunteer is doing. I do know this is an Everglades tomato, one of my favorites and a Florida native. These tomatoes are small and sweet, perfect for throwing on a salad.

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It’s hard to tell scale from this picture, this plant is around twelve feet across. I have never watered it or taken any care other than to not mow or weedwack it down. It is producing hundreds of tomatoes. I’ve been eating a bunch but also taking them and throwing them into other areas hoping to repeat this. Here’s a closer picture:

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No question that is my favorite one to date and I did not plant it, in fact it’s growing and producing better than any I have purposely grown. This is what I’m trying to accomplish but with a variety of other useful plants.

One other I’ll show here. This is interesting because I only recently learned about the plant. It is called a Plantain, not the one like a banana but this one is actually considered a weed in some cases. It is edible and has some amazing medicinal qualities, after reading about it I put it on my list of seeds to order. A few days later I hosted an event at the property for a local permaculture group and some one pointed out that I had some Plantains growing wild, nice! No need to order seeds, I have some plants and I can try to get seed from them so I can grow them where I want. Here’s what a Plantain plant looks like, this is one in my yard:

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Here’s what a bunch of them look like:

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Great! I have a lot of them. Actually,

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hundreds and probably thousands of them. This can be checked off the list.

My self sufficiency plan includes growing as much food as possible, as well as some animal products (eggs, quail, fish), power, and water production. These go hand in hand with homesteading and prepping which will be my topics for next week. Until then, keep on planting!

Aquaponics vs EarthBox – 3 week results

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Last week I wrote about an experiment to compare growing some leafy greens in 3 different types of systems and comparing results. These systems are aquaponics media beds, aquaponics raft, and EarthBoxes. I’ve used EarthBoxes for a few years but couldn’t wait to get into aquaponics as it seemed to have a lot of the same benefits, or maybe even more with the added bonus of fish production.

To keep track of the results, I measured the plants progress and counted leaves, it seemed like a nice simple approach although not very scientific. Some other comparisons I have seen will actually weigh the crop results but I don’t tend to harvest all at once, rather I take a little off of each plant as needed. If the results were too close to tell I’d give the edge to the EarthBoxes because of their lower cost and they are much easier to set up. Again, the aquaponics has the added bonus of fish production but that’s not what I am looking for, I’ve got a pond already in place for that.

I don’t want to make any haters out there by claiming one system is superior. I’ll be the first to admit my aquaponics system is probably far from optimized, it is fairly new although it was a previously established system. All water tests have come back good, I have not had any fish or plants die, and there are established plants in there that have been doing well. To appease the EarthBox crowd (or the similar GrowBoxes) I have mentioned many times that they are less expensive and a lot easier to set up and maintain. Mine have practically no maintenance required as I use a drip water system on a timer to top off the water reservoir every morning.

OK, with all that said, what were the results so far? Well, forget the leaf count and measure method as I won’t need that. The EarthBoxes absolutely crushed the aquaponic system. It wasn’t even close, or in the same field. See for yourself below. As for the aquaponic results, the media beds did better then the raft system.

This next sets of pictures show the results of the best plant from each system, From top to bottom the results are from the aquaponic media bed, aquaponic raft, and EarthBoxes. First, the Chinese Cabbage:

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Aquaponic Media Bed
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Aquaponic Raft
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EarthBox

What you probably can’t tell from the pictures is how much bigger the EarthBox result is. The larger aquaponic plant is around 8 inches across, the EarthBox one is about 24 inches.

Lets look at the Kale next:

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Aquaponic Media Bed
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Aquaponic Raft
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EarthBox

Similar results, the largest aquaponic plant is around 7 inches and the EarthBox is at least 18 inches across. Finally, the Swiss Chard:

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Aquaponic Media Bed
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Aquaponic Raft
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EarthBox

You may have noticed the leaves are darker green on the aquaponic raft results, this is actually just due to the camera. I think it was adjusting the white balance due to light reflecting off of the raft. They are actually the same shade of green as the other plants.

Here’s the largest aquaponic result along with the EarthBox result with a tape measure for scale. Chinese Cabbage:

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Aquaponic
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EarthBox

The EarthBox results would actually be wider if the leaves were held up. Kale results:

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Aquaponic
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EarthBox

And Swiss Chard:

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Aquaponic
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EarthBox

To see more of a progression of growth, here is the aquaponic media bed from day one to the end of the three weeks. I’ve circled the Chinese Cabbage in red, Kale in blue, and Swiss Chard in yellow. Note the previously planted Swiss Chard in the upper left corner is doing well, I made sure to keep it trimmed back from shading any of the new plants. As planted:

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End of week 1:

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End of week 2:

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End of week 3:

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Now, lets take a look at one of the EarthBoxes through the same period. This is the one with the Chinese Cabbage, as planted:

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End of week 1:

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End of week 2:

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End of week 3:

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Pretty impressive eh?

Here’s my thoughts on the results so far. I know my aquaponic system can be improved, I plan on adding a swirl filter over the next week or two. I’m not sure that will help growth but it will reduce maintenance. I also know my fish load is not very high, this will increase as they grow. I’ve also heard that it takes a few weeks for plants to get settled but I haven’t seen that yet as the case, established plants are growing good but the new EarthBox  plants are still outpacing the older aquaponic plants.

If you are a new gardener I would strongly suggest starting with an EarthBox or similar self watering container. They are inexpensive, even when compared to building your own (they last for many years, DIY systems may last a season or two in the sun). They are easy to set up and give you instant results. They don’t take up much space although they are pretty heavy once filled with water.

Aquaponics certainly has more wow factor, when friends come over that’s the one they want to see. It also gives you a fish output, but is far more complicated to set up and maintain. I got lucky by finding a deal on an established system but it still requires monitoring, cleaning, feeding, and adding nutrients. I’m going to continue to improve and possibly expand this system but more for my own curiosity rather than production.

Last ramblings, the EarthBox is producing so much at this point that I harvested some Kale and Chinese Cabbage for dinner tonight. I’ll post an update at the 6 week point to see if there is any major difference, maybe the aquaponic garden will start to boom by that time. Until then, keep on growing!

Aquaponics vs EarthBox, which is better?

If you are like me and are always looking for the easiest and fastest way to grow vegetables, you are probably familiar with aquaponics and self watering container gardening. There are many other ways to grow plants but these two constantly pop up as some of the easiest and most productive systems with the least amount of work. For new gardeners, it can be frustrating trying to get the first harvest due to poor soil conditions, weeds, pests, and poor watering practices. These two help solve a majority of those problems. Or do they?

Just to be clear, I use EarthBoxes but do not receive compensation from the manufacturer in any manner. A few years ago, I was on the fence about trying an EarthBox or GrowBox (their main competitor), while looking around at a local nursery I saw they had EarthBoxes in stock so I picked one up. I was leaning towards the EarthBox due to the watering tube difference but this just made the decision easier since it was right in front of me. I was talking with an old timer who worked at the nursery and he said he had been gardening for 40 years and switched to EarthBoxes 5 years prior and that’s all he uses now.

Since my last few posts went over the aquaponics system setup I thought I’d run through an EarthBox setup in this post. Next week will be the third week they have been planted and I’ll show results to date, and again at the six week and three month point.

For this competition I’ll use three brand new EarthBoxes, three different types of plants, and two of each type of plant in each system (EarthBox, aquaponics media bed, aquaponics raft) for a total of 18 plants. Here’s the EarthBoxes ready to be set up:

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First step is to put the aeration screen and watering tube in place. The water reservoir is right below this aeration screen.

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Next, pack the corners with moist potting mix. This is where the water will be drawn up or wicked up from. Potting mix is used instead of soil, it is sterile and does not contain any fungi or weed seeds to cause problems.

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Add more potting mix to just a few inches below the top edge. I put the bag in the picture so you can see the brand used for this competition. In a future competition I’ll try comparing a few different brands but I’ve had good success with this one.

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Add dolomite (lime). This helps counter the acidic nature of the potting mix.

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Mix in thoroughly then add more potting mix. When complete the box uses two cubic feet of mix. Next will be a strip of fertilizer, how that is laid out depends on how many plants will be in the box and what orientation they are. For my purposes it’s just 2 plants so I’ll put it down the middle.

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Add fertilizer, in my case I used 6-6-6.

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And top off with potting mix to form a mound.

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Next, place a cover over the box. They come with two elastic covers, once those are used up I just use black plastic sheeting. The cover keeps weeds away and moisture in.

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Here’s the three boxes covered and ready to go. It may seem like a lot of steps at first but once you do it a few times it is actually pretty fast and easy. Also, for replanting you don’t have to go through all these steps, just add dolomite, add fertilizer, top off with potting mix to replace any lost, then cover again.

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In trying to keep the competition fair I wanted to have all plants to have the same sun exposure. The backside of the aquaponics system faces south so I put the EarthBoxes on this side and low enough that they wouldn’t shade the aquaponics system.

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When putting plants in the EarthBoxes you cut a hole in the top covers, I use an empty soup can mounted on a bolt (I’ll post a picture next time). I heat the can up with a propane torch then burn a hole in the plastic. This makes a nice round hole that is less likely to rip.

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Here’s the EarthBoxes planted:

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Aquaponics media beds planted. There is also some other plants already there, I left them as a way to monitor the system (they are growing and healthy).

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Aquaponics raft bed planted:

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The plants selected were Swiss Chard (started by seed), Chinese Cabbage, and Lacinato Kale (both bought). All of these were selected since they are leafy greens and should do well in the aquaponics system, both the media beds and raft bed. All seedlings were about the same size and healthy.

The EarthBoxes are set up with automatic watering, I do this with all of them that I have set up and it is simply a drip water system on a timer that tops off the reservoir every morning. There’s no worry about over watering as any excess just overflows out. The aquaponics system has an automatic fish feeder set up to feed the tilapia twice daily. I also tested the aquaponics water to be sure all levels are good (pH, ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates). I add nutrients to the aquaponics system on a regular basis to ensure the plants are getting required minerals.

That’s it for now, next week I’ll post the first round of results and my thoughts on the two types of systems. Until then, happy planting!

Pond Rebuild – Aeration and Housing

This is the final post related to the pond rebuild after the fish kill in 2017. When doing this rebuild project I had not anticipated posting the procedure in a blog so there isn’t as many pictures of all the steps as I would like but I think there’s enough so that it may give other people ideas.

With the pond sump now in place it was time to hook up and test everything out. This next picture shows the basic items hooked up which include the aerator and water feed to the fountain. The aerator I used is the Aquascape 61000 Pond Aerator Pro, this gem has performed flawlessly even though it was out in the open and uncovered for several months (including through a hurricane).

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The sump was plumbed up with a high flow valve like what is used for livestock feeders. This worked well except it was constantly cycling, normally not a problem but it caused the pond fountain to pulse with the same frequency. I later solved this by adding an inline timer valve to just add water in the early hours of the morning.

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The aerator included an air stone but that quickly showed a weakness. Because the pond floor is very soft silt, the stone caused an upwelling of the dirt underneath and ended up on it’s side blowing large bubbles. The primary issues are that it was too small and light and too close to the bottom. After a lot of research I went with a membrane style diffuser and made a plan to give it a semi permanent mount on the pond floor. Here;s pictures of the diffuser top and bottom (with pvc attached):

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Turns out a standard 5 gallon bucket is just about the same diameter of the diffuser, lucky me! To create the concrete base, I first cut a hole in the bottom of a bucket to fit the threaded PVC piece to attach the diffuser.

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Next, I attached the threaded piece to an elbow and measured the height of this on the outside of the bucket. This is done so the top of the threaded pipe will just about be flush with the top of the base (which is now the bottom of the bucket). It will be more clear in a minute. I marked the hole location for the entry pipe:

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Then cut the hole.

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Again, the base is upside down at this point. Since I don’t need the whole depth of the bucket and wanted to remove extra to make the pour easier, I cut the bucket off a few inches above this new hole and set up the pipes inside.

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Next, concrete was added to a little more than an inch over the side entry pipe.

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This wasn’t going to just drop out when hardened, I used a multi tool to cut the sides and peel the base out.

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Now this may make sense, here’s the base flipped over so you can see the threaded part.

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Now with the diffuser screwed on.

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This has worked much better than the cheap airstone that came with the pump. The diffuser is larger, keeps itself clean, is higher of the pond floor, and is weighted down by about 20 pounds of concrete. One last picture of this with the brass connector added and the concrete is drier.  Ready for installation.

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Now for the sump housing. Again, I don’t have a lot of pictures of the construction but I’ll explain how it was built. I made the four sides separately then screwed them together to form the box. There is a one inch gap at the bottom to allow water and debris an escape and also for air flow. Once the box was assembled and squared, I created a roof frame that also doubles as a flip up lid.

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Plywood added and painted prior to shingles.

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This was built completely indoors in my workshop, it’s a lot easier to do that than try to lug all the tools and materials out to the pond area (also cooler in the shade). Once completed, I used the tractor to move the housing over the sump area and tied it down to the slab with some galvanized angle iron and tapcons. Here’s a picture of it installed:

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And with the lid flipped open:

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Inside there’s plenty of room to work around things and enough space to add a water pump for irrigation. At this point I’ve got the timer valve installed and the lighted fountain going.

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I can’t think of anything I’d do differently at this point. If anything, maybe make the pad a little larger and run a few more pipes into it for the eventual sprinkler pump. Over time there will be plants and trees hiding most of the box but for now I think it looks pretty good.

Hopefully all these changes will prevent another fish fill like last time. Another big change is that the pond is only stocked with tilapia now. Previously, it had tilapia, brim, bass, and catfish. I have already noticed hundreds of tilapia minnows which I never saw before since the other fish were eating them.

Now that spring is here, I’ve got some great projects planned. Stay tuned!

Pond Rebuild – Sump

Last week I went through a brief history of the pond, what prompted a rebuild, and construction of the bulkhead. This week I’ll show how the sump was built and installed.

The sump is simply a 12 inch diameter piece of PVC 3 foot in length. It was installed at a height so that the ideal water level of the pond would be about a foot up in the sump, this would allow the installation of a float valve to help maintain this level. In addition, I ran an additional pipe to the sump area for running hidden wires and hoses into the pond.

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The first step was to dig a trench from the new sump area to the pond. I placed the sump close to the artesian well head to minimize additional piping. The sump area will also have power run to it for the aerator and lighting, in the future I could also place a water pump in there for irrigation.

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For the sump itself, I needed to seal the bottom of the pipe and ordering a PVC cap would be expensive (I got the pipe from Craigslist). A concrete plug was the simple and inexpensive answer here, all I need to do is pour it down the pipe and it would create a plug. To keep it from slipping out after hardening I drilled a few holes around the base and inserted some long nails in place, these would become part of the plug.

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It’s hard to tell from this next picture, but with the pipe flipped over the nails remained around an inch above the ground so they would be in the middle of the plug.

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Next step, mix up some concrete and drop it down the pipe. I set the pipe on a scrap piece of plywood and taped the nails in place so they wouldn’t get pushed out or leak. This all worked very well.

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Once the plug dried I flipped the pipe over and made a hole in it for the feed pipe from the pond.

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One more thing before installation, there would be a secondary pipe coming from the bulkhead for wiring, hoses, or any other additional lines needed to the pond. I needed a 90 degree bend for this pipe but using an elbow would be too sharp for pulling through. Using a propane torch, I heated a section of pipe and carefully bent it so give a nice slow bend without pinching it.

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Ready for installation! Laying the pipe out was the easy part, the two runs were kept side by side with a slight gap between. Here’s where they ended by the sump.

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Here’s a view looking down the sump. I used a little spray foam to help seal where the pipe came into the sump tube.

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Looking towards the lake, note the pieces of 1×2 to keep the gap between the pipes when I filled the dirt back in.

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A closer view where the bulkhead meets the lake. The bulkhead angle doesn’t match the lake slope perfectly but that’s OK. You can see the dirt near the top will be towards the back of the bulkhead, this is good as it keeps dirt out of the area where the pipes exit.

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Another view, from the bulkhead looking back towards the sump. The total run is about 35 feet long and about 2 1/2 feet below the ground level at the pond.

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View from across the pond for perspective of size.

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With everything in place the dirt was put back over the pipes. The next step is to pour a concrete pad for the sump area. To preview the size and orientation I marked corners with these fiberglass rods. This will eventually be covered and surrounded by plants.

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When building this last year I wasn’t documenting it for a blog otherwise I’d have more pictures of the process of making the pad. In any case, here’s the result after it was poured. In the next post I’ll show the process of building the cover and I also painted the pad, in future projects I add color to the concrete to save a step and it looks better in case the concrete gets chipped.

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You can see a total of four things coming through the pad. There’s the sump, extra pipe to the bulkhead, a PVC run to go to the well head, and a smaller pipe for electrical. The black flex pipe coming up is a water line for a fountain. Here’s another view, looking towards the pond.

Pond_Sump_15

Next steps are to connect the well and float valve, paint the slab, hook up the aerator and run the aeration line, hook up the fountain, and build the cover for everything.

One more note about the build, notice the slab looks pretty thick. I actually built up the middle with dirt at about 3 inches, total height is about 6 inches. I wanted it to be high enough to keep everything above probable flood level and keep mulch and dirt out. Turns out we had record flooding later in the year and this was just about perfect, water never came above the top of the slab. All electrical I have run outdoors has the connections up high to keep them out of water and it all remained functioning during the flood.

Until next time, happy planting!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pond Rebuild – Bulkhead

When we moved into the house in 2015 one of the first yard projects was to dig a pond. This served two purposes, the first being the aesthetics of having our own private pond to enjoy and the other is that it supplied a lot of dirt for building up low areas of the property.

Pond drained for servicing

With a 60 foot diameter the pond was calculated to be about 25,000 gallons.  For a water source I had an artesian well installed, this is a deep well that has natural pressure and is pretty commonly used in Florida for irrigation. This well provided enough pressure for a fountain and helped maintain the water level of the pond since there was continuous loss through ground seepage and evaporation. The loss was pretty minimal but the fountain also provided aeration to help support the fish. Neighbors supplied Tilapia, Brim, and Bass from their ponds and by the end of 2015 we were in business.

Fast forward to early 2017 just as spring was arriving and heating up the water. I  went out one morning and saw a few dead fish floating up. By the end of the next day there were several hundred floaters with no signs of life in the pond. I spent the day cleaning up and trying to figure out what went wrong and after discussions with several people the most likely cause was oxygen starvation. The water level had dropped pretty low (I would manually add water when we were in a dry spell), the water was warming up causing organic matter to start breaking down, plus there probably wasn’t enough aeration to begin with (well water may have little or no dissolved oxygen).

This was a good time to implement a few ideas I had been thinking about. I would dig the pond deeper to help keep it cooler plus add more water volume for the fish, add additional aeration, and figure some way to keep the water level constant. A big part of the solution was to add a remote sump, that would allow me to add these additional features without a bunch of ugly pipes and pumps exposed near the pond.

Pond sump drawing

I’d add a second pipe to the sump area to run additional wires and hoses for things like the fountain and aerator hose. With a plan in place, it was time to get down to business. The easy part was digging the pond deeper which also provided more fill dirt to use around the yard. The next step was to build a concrete bulkhead, this is where the pipes for the sump and accessories would enter into the pond. Previously I had just run a pipe straight into the pond but that was ugly, may as well do it better this time.

Forming a bulkhead from scratch seemed pretty complicated so I just started with a concrete block cut down. I found a bunch of 2 1/2 inch electrical conduit on clearance at the local Home Depot so that would be the size used, otherwise I would have gone with 3 inch. To get started with the concrete I just placed the pipes face down on a piece of plywood (with their appropriate ends attached and taped up to protect them).

Setting up pond bulkhead pipes

I made them slightly different lengths so the connections wouldn’t be exactly lined up, it also served as a reminder to keep checking which I am working with later since they serve different purposes. Here’s another shot of the setup:

Pond bulkhead pipes pre-concrete

Once the concrete was poured and hardened, I built a form for the front part to give it a slope and a lip on the bottom. The purpose of the lip is so I can fan off any debris that gets there without worrying about undermining the bulkhead (protects the dirt underneath). No scientific method went into the angle as the bank slope varies. 45 degree seemed good enough and it ended up working well.

Pond bulkhead formed up

During the concrete pour I inserted some wire to add strength. Note I tried to build the form to be easily disassembled after the concrete set, that didn’t quite work as designed so some of it had to be cut to be removed.

Pond bulkhead form poured

The result after removing the form:

Pond DIY bulkhead

It came out very nice and strong after letting it cure for a few days. A view of the back:

Back of pond bulkhead

One last thing to mention, the connectors are different on the pond facing part of the bulkhead. One of the openings is threaded, that is so I can connect a pipe or hose so when filling the pond so the water doesn’t just flow right out of the opening. If it did, it could cause erosion or undermining of the bulkhead. Instead, I’ve made a distribution pipe that can be screwed in to spread the water out, much like a sprinkler. The other connection is not threaded since it is just for accessory lines.

Completed pond bulkhead

The next step for the pond was to build, plumb, and install the sump along with the bulkhead, these will be the topics of the next few posts.

Happy planting!

Oh Deer, the Heat!

Spring is fast approaching, oh wait, it’s here. We’ve been experiencing very warm days already and it still surprises me to turn on the TV and see it is still snowing in other parts of the country. I’m behind on getting things planted and a lot of the fruit trees that are still in pots are starting to really grow.

Back to that in a bit, the bigger problem here is still the wildlife. Over the last few months I’ve planted a few new areas including the banana circles and a Sunchoke (Jerusalem Artichoke) mound. Turns out deer really like these, they’ve been tramping through the new mounds and eating the tops of the plants.

Deer tracks

Here’s a banana plant where the top  has been chewed along with some of the leaves, the plants are starting to grow faster now so they have recovered quite a bit. When this first happened it was chewed down to the stalk.

Banana damage from deer

The long term plan is to fence a majority of the property. We will leave a corridor in the back so wildlife can still pass through from property to property, the front fence will also be setback so there will be open space there as well. We have already contracted a fence company to do the front and 40 feet along the sides with a 3 rail fence and gate, the remainder of the sides and back will be a deer & wildlife fence that I will install. In addition, garden areas will have their own fencing to keep the inside animals out such as our chickens and dogs and will act as a secondary barrier for anything else that still manages to get in past the other fence.

For deer control now, I’m trying an experiment with some solar powered motion lights. I got a 3 pack of these from Sams club for $20 so they are a little over $6 each. Here’s what one of these looks like mounted to a tree:

Motion sensor closeup

And a view further back for scale. The light is mounted about 6 feet up.

Motion sensor on tree

As you can see, these are pretty small and after reading the fine print turns out they only have about a 10 foot activation zone. I tested these at night by walking around and unfortunately that is pretty accurate so they will not give the coverage needed. I’m ordering these from Amazon as replacements as they claim a 26 foot detection range. I’ll reuse the other ones around the chicken coop and aquaponics area and also give a review of the new lights once tested.

Back to the subject of the heat, I had taken the shade cloth down from the garden for the cooler months but it is already time to put it back up. I use a 40% shade cloth which gives pretty good results, I’m able to grow just about everything right through the worst parts of summer. There will be a new garden area created later this year that will also have some natural shading from oak trees that shed their leaves in the winter.

Garden shade cloth

The shade cloth is fairly inexpensive, especially if you compare it to the cost of a greenhouse. The framing is made up of 1 5/8 inch chain link fence toprail and pre-made connectors. I’ll put some links at the end with the sources I’ve used, all were bought online with the exception of the toprail since the 10 foot sections would be cost prohibitive to ship. I found a local supplier for the connectors and bought one as a test, it was rusted within a month so I went with mail order.

Garden shade cloth bracket

Assemble is fairly easy, I used a low peak design. Last year when we had hurricane Irma come through I removed the shade cloth but left the rest of the structure up and had no problems with it. Each leg is weighted down by a single concrete block attached by rope and that has also held up well and the connectors have shown no signs of rust after a year. I’d say the only real drawback so far has been that some of the pipe is sagging, not surprising since I am using 10 foot sections tied together for a 20 foot span. They do have connectors that can be used with additional bracing but since this is temporary I went the cheaper route.

Shade product links:
40% Black Shade Cloth 10×20 ft
6 inch Ball Bungee
9 inch Ball Bungee
Canopies and Tarps low peak fittings and if you order from Canopies and Tarps check out their coupons page.

That’s it for now, I’ve got some fun projects coming up including a lot of product and growing comparisons. Until next time, keep on planting!

Dragon Fruit – Frame Build and update

White dragon fruitIf you’ve never heard of or seen a dragon fruit (pitaya) then you don’t know what you are missing. This unique fruit tastes great and is really easy to grow in the right climate, here in Florida it does quite well. I was introduced to the fruit about a year ago at a farmers market, we purchased a few to take home and I was hooked. The fruit can be cut open and the insides scooped out with a spoon to eat directly or used in a recipe. Once mine produce fruit I’m going to experiment making a drink from it.

Building a Support

Dragon fruit plants must be supported as they grow and can get quite heavy, up to hundreds of pounds. Typical frames are built around 5 or 6 feet tall to allow easy access for harvesting. For my build I chose to use 8 foot tall 6×6 lumber as the upright support and buried it in the ground around 30 inches resulting in a 5 1/2 foot height. The branches of the support are made from 2×6 lumber and are 6 feet wide total. To save a little money I purchase 12 foot long pieces and cut them in half.

I built these frames in late October 2017 and planted the dragon fruit in early November. First step in prepping the 6×6 uprights was to cut 5 1/2 deep notches in the top to accommodate the 2×6 branches. Here’s a picture of just getting started, notice the saw can only cut a couple of inches deep.

Dragon fruit wood frame

Here’s a picture of the tops cut as far as I can with the hand held circular saw.

Cutting top of dragon fruit frame

Once those cuts were complete, I used a reciprocating saw with a long blade to complete the cut all the way through the wood.

Notches cut in dragon fruit frame support

A hammer and chisel made it easy to bust out the unwanted parts and clean up the cut area.

Dragon fruit frame notches removed

When I took these pictures I had no idea they would end up in a blog post so there’s not as many as I would like. The next step is to notch the 2×6 pieces in the middle so they fit together then they will be placed in the cutout just made. I also cut the ends at an angle and gave them a curve (used a paint can for template) to give it some flair. Here they are assembled.

Dragon fruit support

A closer view of the end detail. Nothing too fancy.

Dragon fruit support detail

And a closer look at the top of the support.

Dragon fruit support frame

I now added some 2×4 supports diagonally across the support arms. This assembly was not secured to the upright posts, they are heavy enough to just be placed on top once the 6×6 post is buried in the ground. If all goes well these will support the plant as it grows up and through (top view).

Dragon fruit support top

I built a total of two of these and placed them in opposite corners of the property. This is a strategy I use with a lot of plantings, spread them around in case one area has better conditions and as a backup in case the other gets sick or dies. Here is a view of the installed support in the back area.

Dragon fruit support installed

Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures right after planting. When planting I dug out a hole for each cutting and filled it with a combination cow manure and compost along with the cutting. I then placed mulch around the whole thing to keep weeds down and help lock in moisture, but kept the mulch from directly contacting the cuttings or post. The cuttings were all bought off Craigslist from two different people so I would get some variety.

Here’s their growth after just a little over 4 months after planting. It took them about 30-45 days to get rooted and begin sprouting so most of what you see here actually happened in the last 2-3 months.

Dragon fruit growing on support

All cuttings were single stems so everything else is new. I’m pretty impressed with the rate of growth, especially considering they have only been in during late fall to late winter. We’ve had a few cold days and maybe two below freezing but otherwise it’s been pretty mild so that has probably helped. Here’s a picture to see how high they have grown.

Dragon fruit climbing support

As you can see they’ve more than doubled in height, at this rate they may be through the top in another 4-5 months? In any case I’ll post an update in about another 4 months. Here’s one more picture so you can see the height at a different angle.

Dragon fruit climbing support post

So far I am happy with the support system but it really isn’t doing much yet. It seems very strong and stable and I didn’t use any concrete to hold the base in place, the 6×6 post has a lot of weight so that may help. If it turns out to work really well I’ll probably build two more and at that time I’ll create detailed plans for anyone else that wants to use the same design.

Happy planting!

 

Aquaponics System Build – Final Steps

Now that the aquaponic system is all plumbed up and leak tested, it’s ready for the last few steps so I can start adding fish and plants. The first step is to get a baseline reading of the water – the critical measurements being pH, ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates. For a properly running system you want a pH to be around neutral (6.8-7 is a good range), ammonia and nitrites at 0, and nitrates around 20 ppm. If the nitrates are too high it is bad for the fish and too low won’t provide food for the plants. One of the most popular kits for water measurements for aquaponic systems is the API Fresh Water Master Test Kit. The readings were all good since the water was new, the pH a little high but as expected for a new fill up and nitrates were 0 since there hasn’t been any activity into the system yet.

Now that I had a water baseline, time to start adding media to the grow beds. I’m using expanded clay since I got it as part of the deal with the system, there are less expensive alternatives if you are starting from scratch. While adding them it was interesting to see that some sink right away and some float (bed to the right).

Filling aquaponics media beds

With the media added I was curious what the water readings would be after running for a day. The media had been used in a system previously so what effect did this have on the water? To my surprise and delight, the ammonia and nitrates were still zero but nitrates were at 30 ppm. This being the case, I went ahead and dropped some starter plants in to take advantage of it and get a jump start on balancing everything out. I also added some filter material into six inch net pot cups to act as mechanical filtration from the fish tank.

Aquaponic media beds ready

Next, I added an aerator to the system. It’s debatable whether additional aeration is needed with all the water splashing around already but it certainly won’t hurt. For this I selected the Aquascape 75000 Pond Air 2, primarily because it is the right size but also since I have had good luck with a larger Aquascape pump that has been running in my larger pond. For just a few extra dollars you can get the extended warranty through Amazon, in my opinion it was worth it. This aerator came with 2 separate air stones and plenty of tubing. The first stone was placed in the sump.

Aquaponics air stone

The second air stone was placed in the fish tank, and the aerator itself was put under the fish tank on the ground. A future project will be to make a weatherproof box to contain all the electrical items and a backup power supply.

Aquaponics Aquascape aerator

I also added a 250 watt heater to the fish tank. I’ll add a second one before winter next year but for now I think we are past any really cold days. I’ve chosen to stock the tank with Tilapia which can die out if the water goes below 50 degrees so it will be important to have some redundancy. Once the heater and aerator were set up the Tilapia were placed in the tank, around 35 total of various sizes so they can be harvested at different times.

Now there’s fish and some starter plants in the media beds, time to build a raft for the remaining grow bed. The board of choice is the DOW 2″ Blue XPS styrofoam board. If you can find it locally it will be a lot cheaper but unfortunately I couldn’t and couldn’t order it from any of the big box stores. The nice thing about the way i got it was that it was 2 smaller pieces so cutting to fit wasn’t very hard. I started by trying to use a foam cutting tool (looks like a soldering iron) but that turned out to be too slow and didn’t make a very nice cut. A battery powered circular saw was the better choice.

Sizing aquaponics raft bed

After the initial fitting the next step was to cut holes for the fill and drain. When drilling holes using a hole saw make sure to extend the center bit out so it pokes through the other side.

Drilling aquaponics raft bed

Most hole saws aren’t deep enough to go through all the way so you may have to flip the foam over and finish from the back side. Having the center bit poke through helps with alignment.

Test fit of aquaponics raft

Next, measuring and cutting holes for the net pots. I used 3 inch pots and from research it seems having 8 inches of spacing was the minimum suggested. Here’s a look of the layout I used, no actual measuring as I figured it didn’t have to be perfect.

Laying out aquaponics net pots

Once you have the layout, just use a mark the locations with a sharpie. To cut the holes I used a 2 7/8 hole saw that I got locally at Ace Hardware. The big box stores didn’t carry this size in stock. I tested using a 3 inch hole but the pots weren’t very tight.

Drilling holes for aquaponic net pots

This step is optional but I want the system to look good and hopefully extend the life of the foam . I painted the foam with a white latex exterior paint, one coat over most of it and 3 coats on top. I let this dry for several days before risking putting it in the system.

Painted aquaponic rafts

Last but not least for now, I wrapped the raft bed and fish tank with black plastic. This should cut down on algae growth. My original plan was to build wooden frames around the tanks but when pricing the cost of lumber that idea took a turn. The plastic will work for now and I’ll keep an eye on Craigslist for some free scrap fence panels or pallets that can be re-purposed for this.

Aquaponic beds ready

One final picture, a closer view of the raft once installed.

Aquaponics raft bed

Next I’ll be adding plants to the system. As time and materials allow, I’ll build nicer covers, a protective cover over the fish tank to keep birds and animals out, an automatic fish feeder, a backup power source, a box to house the electrics, and a shade cover over everything.

I’ll post monthly updates on how this system is doing, but for now I consider it a success. Happy planting!