Fencing, Dragon Fruit, and Grow Bags

This week I’m featuring three completely unrelated topics plus a bonus! The rain has finally eased up a bit although we still get an occasional shower but it’s nothing like the previous weeks, good thing so the fence installation could go on schedule.

The fence coordination required me to be around, I had to schedule it around work so it was a good thing everything went smooth. The installation company did a good job, I had confidence in them since they included a lifetime warranty. This part of the fence is just across the front of the property and goes forty feet back per side, the remainder will be a wildlife field fence.

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The installation included concrete at every post, that was a pleasant surprise. I went with the vinyl rail fence as it should last a long time, the lifetime warranty reflects their confidence in it. The gate across the driveway is aluminum, future plans include adding electric gate controllers (next year) and decorative columns (who knows when).

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It would have been nice to carry this around the whole property but that is cost prohibitive, also it really doesn’t offer any animal control so the front will have a secondary fence behind it to keep our dogs in. I’m not worried about deer getting across this as they tend to come in through the back where it is more wooded.

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Next topic – Dragon fruit (Pitahaya). Back in February I posted about the Dragon fruit holders that were built and installed in November 2017. It has been right around 7 months since they were planted and most of the plants are around 6-7 feet in length now and growing at about a foot per month. They are just at the point of going over the frame so it is starting to look nice and filled in.

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Once these branches grow over the support by about two feet it will be time to start pruning, this will encourage branching and new growth. As pieces are removed they can also be planted to get more plants started, I figure each support can handle six to eight plants. I’ve started using old cut up jean strips to support the branches, this helps prevent damage as it spreads the contact across a larger area.

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Now for the grow bag update, this is from the EarthBox vs Grow Bag Challenge. Once it was evident the EarthBoxes were way ahead of the grow bags and there was no catching up I decided to double the amount of water the grow bags were receiving. That turned out to not really matter as the sky also decided to open up for a couple of weeks so there has been plenty of water. Here is the EarthBox as it stands today:

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A lot of fruit has set in and I’ve harvested a few peppers from the plant on the right. Here’s the state of the grow bags:

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They are growing, but still far behind the EarthBox ones. In fact, they are still way behind where the EarthBox ones were a month ago. What about the tomato planted in 100% cow manure?

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It’s still the worst of the bunch. I really thought this one would do better.

Now for a bonus, I’ve been looking for good summer greens that grow well in the hot Florida weather. I’ve got a few that are working pretty good but this one has really stood out. It is growing in an EarthBox, in fact it is growing so well it has smothered the other plants that were in there. I have harvested it multiple times, it makes a great leaf vegetable for salads and is also good cooked like spinach.

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This is New Zealand Spinach. The plant you see has been cut down, harvested, and abused and it is still growing like crazy, it’s about 4-5 feet in diameter. This is one plant. If you are looking for a very productive hot summer leaf vegetable then give this one a try.

This coming week may be interesting, I’ve had a land clearing company get in touch with me and say they can bring several hundred cubic yards of tree chippings (for free!). This will be a huge leap forward in getting the soil built up, if it happens I’ll post some pictures next week.

One last quick note, if you are in the Brevard County, FL area I’ve started a local homesteading group, this will include at least a quarterly seed and plant exchange meetup. The details can be found at the link, I hope to see some people who follow the blog there!

Space Coast Gardening and Homesteading

Melbourne, FL
3 Members

This meetup is for people who want to become more self sufficient by reducing their dependency on commercial resources. The primary focus is on growing and raising our own foo…

Check out this Meetup Group →

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!

 

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!

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!