Buying Plants and Interesting Property Finds

It’s been a busy week! For this post I want to mention some of my thoughts on the best places to buy plants then I’ve got some pictures of things that I’ve found on the property.

We spent last weekend in Minnesota visiting some relatives, while there we dropped by Walmart to do some shopping for a birthday party. I took a few minutes to browse through the nursery area to confirm something I have suspected for some time, the plants and seeds they were selling there (hardiness zone 4b, St. Paul) are almost exactly the same ones they sell here in Florida (zone 9b).

The big box stores don’t care if your plants grow. What they care about is selling you something, even if it’s not right for your area. I’ve noticed that many plant varieties sold at the home improvement stores are often for the wrong zone. I have a couple of suggestions to help avoid ending up with something that won’t grow.

First, take advantage of the guarantees offered by the big stores. Most offer one year guarantees, save the pots and your receipts and take them up on this if the plant doesn’t live. Second, try to buy from local sources. Nurseries will usually have plant better suited for your area and you can also find a lot of private sellers on sites like Craigslist selling plants they have propagated. Third, buy seed from mail order suppliers that offer more options and choose varieties that are better suited for your zone.

On to the next subject, interesting property finds. When we purchased Three Acre Paradise it was completely overrun by Brazilian Pepper trees, a big nuisance here in Florida. I wanted to keep as many of the good trees as possible so I spent around 6 months clearing the property which exposed a lot of interesting features. Some were removed or destroyed by the land clearing process but a lot still exist which I spent some time yesterday taking pictures of.

The first one here is an oak tree with a few dead branches. A majority of the trees here are oak and palm followed by pine. A lot of the oak and pine trees have dead branches which look really eerie at night when the moonlight shines through:

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The daytime picture isn’t nearly as interesting as a night shot but I haven’t had much luck getting night photos. A majority of the dead branches may be due to the trees being stressed when the land was filled in years ago. Some other damage has been caused by wind over the years, I’ve got a few palm trees which fell over at some point then continued to grow. Here’s a some examples:

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The next one is what I call the four sisters. It is four palm trees that grew up in an almost perfectly straight row. Maybe they were planted that way on purpose? I doubt it but it is strange:

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Here’s a man made oddity, an old fence post that an oak tree grew around. This is on the west property line, a chain link fence has since replaced the original barbed wire one. Three Acre Paradise was originally part of a larger property (to the east) and was divided out at some point.

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For more of a natural hug, here is a couple of trees that grew up around each other. I’ve got dozens of examples of these since the trees are so dense in some areas.

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Because of the dense cover, a lot of trees have grown up at odd angles as they try to reach for some light. Here’s one of many examples of these. Notice how they are all growing towards the left:

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I’m slowly thinning out trees as it makes sense, I want the new growth to be stronger and straighter so more things can be planted. I’m only removing and trimming as needed though as the trees have provided an excellent wind break during the hurricanes that have come through in the last two years.

This next one is man made, the remnants of a tree fort from who knows when:

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Whoever built it did a great job for the foundation to still be there after all these years.

The next four pictures are just some of the plants that were already here growing wild, there is some Wax Myrtle, ferns, and an unidentified plant that likes the wet areas:

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I’ve preserved as much native vegetation as possible while also improving the drainage and water retention of the property. I know that sounds like two opposing goals but the plan is to direct runoff water to designated holding areas so I don’t have to irrigate but still have high & dry areas to grow.

The last pictures are the most fun. These are a couple of things that were found while clearing the land, starting with a traffic light:

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Now, remember I mentioned the property was heavily overgrown? Prior to the purchase we walked around as much as possible but were limited due to the density of the plants, primarily the Brazilian Pepper trees. Here’s how dense it was, we never noticed this until after the purchase and the clearing started:

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Yes, that’s an airplane hiding in there. I’ts actually just the fuselage, a lot of parts were scattered around but no wings were found. I’d really like to know the history but none of the neighbors seem to know anything about it and they have lived around here for a long time.

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The plane will never fly again but it was reborn into a running vehicle, I gave it to a friend and he used it as a project with his sons to turn it into a parade vehicle. It now has the running gear from a golf cart and can be driven. Here is a picture of the plane as it was removed from the collapsing shelter:

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This week might be an exciting one, if all goes well we will have the front fencing installed (if the weather cooperates). My big goals for this year are to have the fencing in and the infrastructure for future projects completed, this would be all the underground water and electrical wires as well as grass borders.

Oh, by the way the first image isn’t from the property, it’s from the lake down the street. It’s a popular gathering spot for watching sunsets.

Until then, stay dry!

Aquaponics Filter Build

It’s raining here! Unfortunately it seems like we are either in a drought or flood, there hasn’t been any significant rain in a while and now it looks like a tropical depression has parked itself right over the state. Hurricane season is right around the corner. The good news for me, I finished the filter build and it has been tested prior to the beginning of this deluge.

Starting with this post I’ll be updating the format a little, I’m going to put a section at the bottom of each post with information and links to any items used within the article. I think this may be better than just having links throughout, if you want to help support this site please check out any Amazon links provided as I am on their referral program. I’ll link to other sites as well but I’m only affiliated with Amazon at this time.

On to the filter build, there’s a lot of plans on the internet for different types of filters but the basic idea is to capture and eventually remove large solids from the water flow. One of the most common is called a swirl filter, this is where the water is swirled to create a vortex to trap solids. My design started with this in mind but changed a little bit as that didn’t seem to trap enough, I wanted as close to 100% removal as possible with little maintenance.

The first step was to build a stand for the filter to sit on. While not very exciting of a build, it may help someone out so I’ll cover it here. I measured the height of the fish tank and filter tank to figure out the height of the stand so your requirements will probably be different, but basically the top of the filter is just below the top height of the tank (using gravity flow for the water). Next step, cut the legs and shelf supports using 2×4 lumber:

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For aesthetics and strength, I routed the legs so the shelves would be recessed into them. This also helps keep everything square.

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Nailed together shelf supports:

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Attached plywood to shelves:

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Screw shelves to legs:

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At this point I tested the height and made sure it was level in the location it was going to be installed. The pavers aren’t perfectly level so I figured how to orient the stand to be level and not wobble on the ground. Turns out I had to cut all the legs down by about an inch. You can see I also cut a hole in the middle, this is for the filter drain.

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The final step was to paint it so it has a fighting chance against the elements. I had plenty of leftover exterior green paint left so that became the color of choice.

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For the filter I had a 15 gallon tank that had previously been used as part of the water system for the house, a lot of designs use 5 gallon buckets but that just seemed too small. This tank had an opening on the top already but it was too small to work with so I cut around a ridge to make a larger opening but also tried to leave as much material as possible for strength.

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Here it is with the cut off part removed:

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Next I cut a hole in the bottom for the drain. I went off center to avoid a plastic seam.

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“MADE IN U.S.A” – awesome.  Bulkhead installed. I’ll put a link to the one I used at the end of this post.

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The drain is just a PVC quarter turn valve from Lowes:

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The aquaponic system doesn’t have any leaks and I want to keep it that way. Before going any further, a leak test:

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Next step is to cut holes for the inlet and outlet pipes. The inlet (from the fish tank) is slightly higher than the output (to the media beds) to allow for the gravity flow through the system.

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Uniseals installed. These are the most common types of seals used in home built aquaponic systems and for good reason, they work. Even if you have to go through a curved surface like this filter or a bucket they handle it with no problem.

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Don’t let anyone fool you, pushing the pipe through the Uniseal is not easy. I’ve found it helpful to bevel the pipe edge slightly and use some soap as the directions recommend. Once you get the pipes through they do a great job though and they are quick and easy to install.

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Here’s what the pipes look like inside the filter. The water coming in is to the left, it is directed near the bottom at an angle to start a swirl, then exits out the top.

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Here’s how it looks from the side:

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This design did work but the lighter particles still remained suspended and were getting through. One thing that I tried was to reduce the suction of the output flow by adding a pipe with holes. The idea was that this would break up the flow into more but smaller drains.

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This did help, but the lighter solids were still not settling into the tank, instead they would eventually find their way out. I tried adding some screening to this pipe but it would clog up in a few hours. I added some plastic fencing rolled up near the top of the filter to break up the circulation but that only helped slightly. The final solution? I filled the filter about 3/4 of the way with lava rock. Bingo! This works great.

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I know the swirl has been stopped but the results speak for themselves. The picture above is what the rock looked like after about a week of running, the debris at the top is actually algae growing but the water exiting is crystal clear. I left the additional filters in the media beds so I could see how much was getting through and with this setup it is very little.

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Now the very last problem to solve was that there was algae growing in the filter since I had left the top open. This was solved by cutting the bottom off of a large nursery pot of about the same diameter and holding it down with a bungy cored. Maybe in the future I’ll come up with something more elegant but for now this works.

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The filter has been in place for about three weeks so far and the water seems to be a lot cleaner. I have flushed the filter out weekly but it could probably go for a month or more between cleanings. One reason I’ve had to clean it more often is that raccoons have discovered the automatic fish feeder and have dumped the entire contents into the fish tank twice so far so that is something that will have to addressed right away.

Thank you for reading and if you want to help support this site please check out any of our Amazon links below or from the Product Links page. It doesn’t cost you anything 🙂


Links to products mentioned in this post

Lifegard Aquatics 3/4-Inch Double Threaded Bulkhead

Uniseal – best prices I have found are from  The UNISEAL Warehouse

 

EarthBox vs Grow Bag Challenge

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I like EarthBoxes, and I like grow bags. If you aren’t familiar with grow bags, they are basically cloth pots made from a durable fabric that is UV resistant. The advantage of a grow bag over a traditional pot is that the water drains out easily and the roots get lots of oxygen by breathing through the bag. I have found they work well with plants that don’t like too much water such as herbs. In my experience they work better for herbs than the EarthBoxes do, maybe I’ll do a comparison of that in the future.

For this challenge, I wanted to compare the growth of a pepper and tomato plant between the two. Before I get into the results, here’s how the grow bags were set up. I went through an EarthBox setup in the Aquaponics vs EarthBox post so I won’t repeat that.

Since the EarthBox is fixed in size, I wanted the grow bags to be similar in volume. EarthBoxes hold 2 cubic feet of potting mix which equates to about 15 gallons, since the EarthBox has two plants and each grow bag will only hold one I went with seven gallon grow bags (I’ve used this brand in the past and they have held up over the years). For the soil I used Miracle-Gro Raised Bed Soil since it is formulated for vegetables.

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each bag held just about a cubic foot of soil which was perfect.

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Now, just for fun I filled an extra bag with nothing but straight cow manure to see how a tomato plant would do in it.

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By the way, if you are using cow manure for any gardening don’t go for the cheap stuff, there is a difference. I’ll post some pictures in a future post proving it but one simple test will show you, put equal amounts of Black Kow and a cheaper brand in a pot or cup and spray down with water. The cheap brands are mostly un-composted wood fibers. Who would have thought that genuine cow poop would be so expensive.

Here’s a shot of the EarthBox and grow bags set up. I put them in an area where they would get equal amounts of sun. The grow bags are directly on the ground for this test and the EarthBoxes are raised up so they don’t get shadowed by the grow bags.

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I’ve been asked how to cut nice circles into the plastic EarthBox covers, here’s my solution. I use a can with a bolt attached as a handle and heat it up with a propane torch. It’s simple and easy and you can make a couple of different sizes.

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Next, I set up drip watering for each. The EarthBox gets a two gallon per hour dripper, each grow bag gets a one gallon per hour since they are half the size. The drippers run every morning for thirty minutes. I’d say the EarthBox has an advantage here as the water does not evaporate or drain out like it will with the grow bags.

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The last step is to put the plants in. For tomato plants I’m using home started Roma Tomatoes, for the pepper I’m using Lunchbox Orange from Bonnie Plants. I try to select plants that are the same size.

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Now for some results. Here are the tomatoes and peppers after one week, each shown side by side (EarthBox on left and grow bags on right):

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Tomatoes Week 1
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Peppers Week 1

Not much difference so far, the seedlings are just getting settled. Now for week two:

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Tomatoes Week 2
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Peppers Week 2

Boom. The EarthBox plants have taken off while the grow bags haven’t done much of anything. Week 3:

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Tomatoes Week 3
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Peppers Week 3

The EarthBox has once again reigned king. Now I know you may have noticed the yellowing leaves on the grow bag plants, this is most likely due to lack of water. For the next three weeks I have changed the drippers on the grow bags to two gallons per hour each, effectively doubling the amount they are getting now. That may or may not help since the bags are so porous. In the future I’m going to re-run this competition with some changes to the grow bag setups, details will be provided when that is started. I’ll post these plants again in three more weeks to see what has changed. Here is another view of the containers after three weeks:

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Oh and lets not forget about that extra plant, the one growing in the cow manure. how has it done? See for yourself:

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I’d say not so well, in fact it barely looks alive. I’ve upped the water on this one as well so maybe that will help, time will tell.

If you have any feedback or ideas for future comparisons I’d love to hear it! I do have a lot of things already planned but am always open to new ideas. One more thing, if you do any shopping on Amazon please consider clicking one of my affiliate links first, there is no cost to you and it helps support the site 🙂 A list of links can be found on this page, I try to update it with new products as they are shown and used on this site.

Over the past week I’ve been working on a filter for the aquaponic system and it is now in place, I’ll show the build process for that next week. Until then keep on planting!

 

Deer Control and Banana Circle Updates

It’s been 3 months since I planted the banana circles and I thought there hadn’t been much growth. This is one reason I created this blog, it’s a way of documenting the property build out and I can look back to see how far it has come. The bananas have grown a lot more than I thought, there’s also been a lot done to the circle themselves (here’s the original post).

There are two banana circles, I’ll call them the southeast and southwest based on their locations. Here’s there approximate locations on the property, note that the orientation of this is north down:

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Lets start with the southwest circle of Dwarf Cavendish. Here’s the before picture right after it was planted, note the almost dead looking banana plant to the left:

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And here it is now, that almost dead plant is the one to the front right:

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One big difference in this circle is that an additional mound of dirt was just added outside the previous circle. This was done since I built up the ground in this area up to the same level as the original mound, I didn’t want to move or replant the bananas so I just added an outer ring of dirt. Over time I’ll migrate the new banana pups to this outer ring. The original banana plants have not been moved so you can see that they have grown a lot and there’s a lot of new pups among them. I’ve also thrown some vegetable crops in with the banana plants, mainly Bok Choy, various beans, Daikon Radish, and sweet potatoes. When I do a six month update I’ll try to have the same orientation as this picture so it is easier to see the growth difference. It’s all part of the learning process for the blog 🙂

Now for the southeast circle of Hua Moa. Here’s the before:

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And current:

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The orientation of these two pictures are pretty close and it is pretty easy to see there has been a lot of growth. By the time I do a six month update this circle will also have similar changes as the other one, I’ll be building the soil up around it and adding an outer ring. The vegetables added to this mound are okra, onions, Daikon Radish, and some Roma Tomatoes (with a few Everglades Tomatoes thrown in). I’ll also be adding a third banana circle in the future but I haven’t planned out exactly where yet, probably in the front yard to give them some separation from these.

See the object in the picture circled in red? That’s the latest attempt at deer control. It is a remote motion sensor I picked up from Amazon (link). It’s designed as a driveway sensor, it included two remote sensors and a monitor for $25. It actually works very good and has good range, the house is around 150 feet from the sensor and there are walls in the way, the monitor still picks up the signal. The sensors have good motion sensing range, to mount I simply screwed them to some 2×2 posts that are stuck in the ground.

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The plan was that anytime the alarm goes off I would ping the deer with a pellet gun. It doesn’t hurt them, probably feels like a mosquito bite does to us. This worked, I would get waken up at night, go out and hit them with a few pellets and eventually they would go away. By the way, these green flashlights work great for sighting animals at night, they can’t see the green light but humans can quite well. Anyways, my hope was that they would get tired of it and eventually stop coming around. That part of the plan didn’t work, apparently they don’t learn their lesson and I got tired of being waken up at 3 AM so now the alarm stays off.

I’ve got one more plan to try for deer control, that is a large solar powered motion light mounted to a portable pole. I’ve tried some smaller motion lights but I think they just light up the buffet, maybe the big one will be more effective and moving it around may help confuse the deer. Other then that, I think fencing may be the only answer and is already planned so that may have to be the solution. Some people have suggested things like a rag soaked with urine, I really don’t want to have to deal with that. The other option of having deer fillets on the grill would work but I wouldn’t be too popular with the neighbors. I hear that Florida deer just taste like pine needles anyways.

Next week I’ll post the three week results of the EarthBoxes vs Grow Bags. Hope you have a good week and keep on planting!

Aquaponics vs EarthBox – 6 week (final) results

We are now six weeks into the Aquaponics vs EarthBox challenge and there’s no big surprises since the three week results. The EarthBox plants have grown huge, I’ve even harvested them a few times. The aquaponics plants have grown, not a whole lot in size but they have a lot more leaves but not nearly as much as the EarthBox plants. I had originally planned a three month checkpoint for this competition but have decided this will be the final update for this round. I’m going to do a few improvements to the aquaponics system then replant and see if I can get better results.

Here’s the EarthBox plants as of now. The first is the Chinese Cabbage, I’ve harvested these twice and they are still growing like crazy. For size reference the EarthBox is 29 inches wide. These two plants are dwarfing the box.

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Next, the Kale. This has been harvested once to make some Kale Chips and a few older leaves have been removed.

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Last, the Swiss Chard. I take a leaf here and there to mix in salads and cut off old growth when it starts to go brown. I’ve got Swiss Chard growing in several places around the property.

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Keep in mind these are all after six weeks of planting. The aquaponic system is working and growing but the EarthBox plants have just exploded. For the aquaponic results I’m just going to show each bed which has the same plants as the EarthBoxes (one of each per bed) plus a few other things. Media bed one:

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The Swiss Chard in the back left is not the one from the competition, that was planted earlier. For scale, these beds are 37 inches wide, eight inches wider than an EarthBox. Media bed two:

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The plant in the back center is celery that was a leftover core just stuck in the bed, it’s growing good and I’ll occasionally cut a stalk off for salads. Finally, the raft bed:

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Overall I prefer the media beds over the raft bed, the raft does have the advantage of being easier to clean.

Over the next month or so I’ll be adding a filter to the aquaponic system, covering the sides with something other than black plastic, increasing the fish load, automatic water level maintainer, and building a screen cover over the fish tank (I caught a raccoon fishing there one evening). I’m hoping to see better results and I’m sure there’s plenty of room for improvement. Surprisingly, I didn’t get too much hate mail from other aquaponic users but I did get a few that said the systems can’t really be compared.

Here’s my take on the results. For anyone starting out and just trying to get some vegetables to grow, go with the EarthBoxes (or GrowBox). They are fairly foolproof to set up and can get you some quick success. The cost to start up a single box is under $50 all in, including some seedlings. Annually, it runs around $1 to refresh the box (not including seedlings) and they should last 15-20 years. It really doesn’t pay to make your own, but I’ll still post a “how to” for that in the future.

Aquaponics systems have the advantage of a secondary output, the fish. You can eat the fish or raise decorative fish to sell at a profit. The downsides are a much higher entry cost, higher maintenance (you have to add trace minerals, keep it clean, and feed the fish), and a single problem can wipe out everything at once.

I hope some people find this useful, again I want to state I have not received any promotional materials or discounts from any manufacturer (or store). All of this is my own opinion, my goal is to just help others get the biggest bang for their gardening buck and I’ll continue to test and compare methods to show what has worked best for me.

If you like this post please like and follow our Facebook page to get the latest updates. The next comparison will be EarthBox vs Grow Bags for tomatoes and peppers, the planting has already been completed so I’ll post a three week update soon. Happy planting!

Upcoming Projects

Last week I posted my views on homesteading, prepping, and self sufficiency which are all goals for Three Acre Paradise. While those are all part of the big plan, there’s also some other things that are very important when working towards these. Low maintenance, aesthetics, and convenience are all key items. I like to build things so they don’t require a lot of work to maintain, otherwise I’d be spending my time with weekly chores rather than enjoying the property and working on new projects. They must fit in and be pleasing to look at to help create a relaxing and low stress environment. That’s what Paradise is all about.

Here is an overhead view of the property as it is today. The house, pond, and workshop are in the middle, the main road at the bottom and driveway leads up to the house and shop. The red border indicates the property line. The width of the property is about 230 feet, the depth is 550 feet.

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The top priority right now is to get the property fenced. I’ve had a lot of trouble with deer eating just about everything from the smallest plants to the larger fruit trees. They have chewed down vegetation, scraped bark off trees, and trampled through sensitive gardens. Secondary, the fence will keep our small animals in and others out. We have three small dogs and a flock of chickens that all seem attracted to the woody areas where predators like to hide. We’ve also had the neighbors dogs over feasting on the chickens, fencing should cure these problems. The first step is to fence the front and put up a gate, that has been contracted out and should be done in the next few weeks. The yellow lines show the approximate area for the this:

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Here’s what it looks like along the road. I’ve made sure the area is clear and level so the fence company shouldn’t run into any problems.

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The fence along the front will be a three board split rail made of vinyl, similar to this:

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The gate will be aluminum and eventually automated. Since the split rail does not keep smaller animals in or out I’ll have to put another layer of fencing behind it. This will be the same or similar to what is used on the remainder of the property. The only part that will remain un-fenced is a section along the back where there is a utility easement.

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The easement will allow animals (such as the deer) to easily pass between properties such as they do today and hopefully will keep them from thinking they have to jump over the fence. There’s already a good collection of wildflowers growing in that area, I’ll probably add seed for some other beneficial plants. I can’t put any trees back there in case the city has to dig to access the buried water main. Here’s what that area looks like today:

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The dirt mound is a raised and cleared path for the future fence, the utility easement is to the right. Since the neighbors yard behind me is fully fenced this access path is pretty important. The fencing that will be used will be a field fence such as this:

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Once the fencing is complete the focus will be on a new garden area. Here is where it will be on the property:

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The garden will be approximately 40-50 feet per side. There will be a pergola running down the middle with supports to help with plants that like to be trellised. The garden area will also be fenced so there will be two layers of protection from larger animals. An electric wire will help discourage the smaller ones from climbing in. Here is what that area looks like today, it has already been cleared and prepped:

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Next project will be a potting house on the pathway to the garden (PH on this drawing):

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This will be a work area for planting seeds and storing gardening supplies. I’m also thinking of adding a sitting area on the side facing the pond just as an area to relax. This area has also been prepped:

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Once the garden has been moved the old garden location will become a carport. I’ll have a concrete slab put down and a metal carport cover put in. This will have two parking places for whatever extra vehicles we have at the time (CP on drawing):

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We could also use the carport area for parties and gatherings, it’s nice to have some additional shaded area due to the sun and unpredictable rains. This is what the garden looks like today, it has a shade cover and everything is planted in containers:

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Yup that’s a lot so far, but the biggest stuff is done at this point. Timeline for these is by the end of 2020 but hopefully sooner. After these I’d like to build a fire pit and picnic area with paths leading to them (FP and PA):

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One more overhead to go, this one is pretty all inclusive. What I’ve added here is the current chicken coop on the left about mid way down, current aquaponic system behind the shop (AP), and a bunch of poorly drawn squiggly lines. Those lines are the approximate edge of the grass to natural areas. Basically, there will be grass parallel to the driveway, around the house, and partially around the pond. Everything outside that region will be gardens, food forest, walking paths, and other small coops or structures. The grass along the driveway will provide parking for when we have a lot of guests over.

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There are a few other things to be built but I haven’t pinpointed the locations yet, this includes a quail area, tractor shed, mulch bins, and aquaponic expansion.

Some of the other projects that are planned are expansion of the solar power system, battery backup, antenna tower, shop storage, aquaponic improvements, seedling start experiments, growing microgreens, and more growth comparisons (EarthBox, aquaponic, grow bags, raised beds, in ground, others).

For more fun, I’ve got some ideas for a “live off the land challenge” where I consume only what the property produces for a day, three days, and eventually a week. Planning for these are still in the works but I’ll post a timeline soon.

Stay tuned for next post in a couple of days, a six week check into the Aquaponic vs Earthbox challenge!

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!