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!

Banana Circles!

A typical banana circle is a hole dug into the ground with the excavated dirt mounded around the hole in which the banana plants are placed. The hole is then filled with organic material (mulch, tree trimmings) to help feed the plants and to maintain moisture. Sometimes they are incorporated into sloped land to also help capture water runoff for the banana plants. Other plants can also be incorporated to help control weeds, pests, or just make the circle more attractive or productive.

I’ve created two banana circles at Three Acre Paradise (link to types of bananas planted) with plans of at least one more. The design is a little different, there’s no need to try to capture water as that is not a problem here. Whenever we get heavy rains there can be standing water for up to a couple of weeks which has proven to be a problem for many plants. The design here is to create a mound right on top of the ground instead of digging a hole. I have a source of very rich topsoil which should make the banana plants quite happy.

Here’s the first step, just dropping the topsoil on the ground in an almost circular shape. The center hols is about 6 feet across and the diameter of the outer circle is about 15 feet. You can see how wet the ground is, it’s already seeping up into the dirt at the bottom.

Banana circle dirt mound

Next, clean up the circular shape.

Banana circle leveled

Drop the mulch in the middle. I’ve got several piles of this thanks to a local tree trimming company.

Banana circle mulched

Last, plant bananas. This circle has Hua Moa Bananas along with some Okra and Pigeon Peas direct seeded.

Banana circle planted

Here’s the other circle, it has Cavendish Bananas, Sunflowers, and a Cowpeas. One of the banana plants (the larger scraggly cold damaged one) was moved from a different part of the property.

Second banana circle

Once the companion plants begin to grow I’ll add some other plants, possibly squash and pole beans. It’s sort of a three sisters setup but with perennial plants. I’ll post updates in three months or sooner if things change quickly.

Happy planting!

Aquaponics System Build – Tanks and Plumbing

With the holiday season over it’s time to get back to building, and the rush is on to get things ready by spring. We experienced a setback in late December, a neighbors dogs got loose and killed all of our chickens. That being the case, I’ll document the process of raising them from chicks when we get new ones in February or March. I’ve also made a lot of other progress on the property, we are getting ready to start the first phase of fence and have started a couple of banana circles which I’ll show in a future post. For not, the focus is on the aquaponic system.

The system was originally going to be a three grow tank system with media beds, I’ve switched that to two media beds and one floating raft system. Last post showed setting up the pad for the system, now I’ll go through the assembly.

The Layout

First thing to be done is place the sump and tanks together. I’m starting with a simple setup, the fish tank will overflow into the grow beds, they will dump into the sump, then a pump in the sump will return the water to the fish tank. Here’s an amateurish drawing of the plumbing:

Sump based aquaponic system

The system does not have any additional filtration at this time, I’m hoping the sump and floating raft bed act as settling tanks and I’m also using some filter material in the media beds to grab any solids. There are some system designs that are probably better than this, one uses the pump return to feed the grow beds and fish tank so each subsystem can be isolated for cleaning or maintenance. For now, this will do and I can always change it later.

The Build

First step is to lay out the sump and grow beds to get their width so I can set up supports. I wanted the grow beds to be as low as possible to get good flow from the fish tank overflow, in the end I had to raise the fish tank anyways.

Blocks for aquaponic support

Once I had the width and depth figured out it was time to put support boards on. These are 12 foot long 2×10’s.

Aquaponic tank support

Next, put the grow beds on.

Aquaponic tank installation

Before getting too far, checking for leaks and testing the bell siphon.

Aquaponic leak testing

Here’s the underside of the center tank where it dumps into the sump. Yes, it’s a little dirty but I’ll clean it all up once assembled.

Aquaponic sump detail

The bell siphon test was successful, so I placed all the tanks and plumbed everything up.

Aquaponic tanks

A view of the fish tank.

Aquaponic fish tank IBC

Back side of the grow beds.

Aquaponic tanks plumbing

Here’s one of the spouts the feed the grow bed. I didn’t glue these connections so they can be adjusted or moved around as needed.

Aquaponic fill spout

Testing everything, success!

Aquaponic tank layout

And a final view of the raft bed.

Aquaponic being filled

So far everything seems to be working good. Next I’ll add the media to the grow beds, build the raft, and add aeration and a heater to the fish tank. If everything goes as planned I should be able to start planting early March. Time to start some seedlings!

Happy planting!

Aquaponics System Build – Base

I had planned on eventually building an aquaponics system but it wasn’t a priority – until there was a deal on eBay that was an absolute bargain. It’s a good size for starting out, has 3 grow beds and a fish tank made from IBC containers. Now I have this system sitting on the driveway waiting to be installed so the priority has gone to the top of the list.

The location needs to be near a power source and raised up to avoid any flood areas, I’ve got a good spot behind the workshop that is built up and fairly flat. I didn’t want to put it directly on the ground so I’m using a bunch of leftover materials to make a pad approximately 11′ x 13′ (canopy will be 10′ x 12′).

The first step was laying out the shape and leveling the edge boards in place. This will be a temporary setup (2-3 years?) so I didn’t want to concrete the pavers in place.

Aquaponics pad squared

Next, added paver base at about 2″ depth. Normally this would be deeper but again this isn’t a permanent setup and the ground underneath is very well packed down. This was just about a cubic yard of material.

Aquaponics pad with media base

Started tamping down the paver base by hand, eyeballing level to try to get it as close as possible to be 2″ below the top (height of a paver).

Aquaponics pad media base leveling

Finished tamping. A good workout.

Aquaponics pad media base levelled

Made a screed board, spaced a 2×4 under another using 1/2″ pieces of plywood.

Screed board design

Laying in the pavers a row at a time. I used a simple alternating direction pattern. Not fancy, but I didn’t want to cut any pavers so they can be reused again.

Aquaponics base paver installation

All pavers in place.

Aquaponics pad pavers complete

Brushing sand into the cracks. I had a bunch of sand left over from the last chicken coop clean out.

Sanding pavers on aquaponics pad

And the finished product. Now I just need to clean up the area around it. I’ll start the aquaponic system build in the next week or two.

Aquaponics pad completed

Until next time, keep on planting!

Where the Animals Roam

Hello! First post here so I’ll start with an introduction.

Three Acre Paradise is a privately owned residential property located in Melbourne, Florida (on the east coast). The property was bought in 2013 and the home built shortly after. The eventual goal is to turn this into a model for local permaculture as part of a larger plan towards self sufficiency.

In addition to the permaculture food forest there will also be traditional vegetable gardens and a host of experimental methods for growing food. We also have chickens and a pond to raise fish in. The home has solar power and water is provided by a well to help support the goal of being as self sufficient as possible.

Long term goals include having regular property tours and host events to help others learn more about growing their own food and establishing their own food forests. This will all be done as a project to help the community and is not a pursuit of income. We will gladly accept donations and will provide a page of needed materials and in exchange will help others with getting their forests started at no charge.

The first big hurdle we are facing is wild animals – they have been destroying trees, digging up vegetables, and stripping trees clear of their fruits. For the short term I’ve created welded wire fences around sensitive areas but for the bigger picture the whole property will need to be fenced. The timeline to have this completed is early 2018, in the meantime I’ll continue to address it on an as needed basis and will post a blog entry showing these methods.

Until next time, keep on planting!