Monday, March 30, 2009

Aquaponics System under Construction

Today i gathered all the components for the aquaponics system. I found a 100 gal. tank I forgot i had so i can grow a lot more fish! I built the hydroponics bed and put everything in its place.
Tomorrow i will put the liner in the hydroponics bed and get the biofilter set up. Robin says she thinks there is a pump in the basement somewhere. If not I'll have to buy a pump. That would be the only component i didn't have lying around somewhere waiting to be used for something.
I will definitely be giving the system a trial run tomorrow.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Turn Coffee Grounds into Gourmet Mushrooms

Oyster mushroom mycelium loves coffee grounds .... and coffee filters ... and tea leaves. I put some moistened shredded paper in the bottom of a small bucket. To that i add a handful of oyster mushroom spawn and mix it up. We put the bucket in the cabinet under the sink. Each morning Robin puts her used coffee grounds and filter into the bucket. We also add tea leaves when we make a pitcher of iced tea which is about every other day. It takes 2-3 weeks to fill up a small bucket. By the time it is full the mycelium has run up to about the 3rd layer from the top.
When a bucket is full we put it on the screen porch and start another bucket. It took about 3 more weeks for the mycelium to completely colonize the bucket and start producing mushrooms. We expect to harvest several flushes of mushrooms from the bucket. After that we can dump the mass out of the bucket and use the mycelium to start more buckets.
We bought the bucket from Happy Donuts (used to contain donut glaze) for $1.00 We paid about $30.00 for a bag of mushroom spawn from Mushroom Mountain. We can start about 100 buckets from a bag so that cost is $0.30. Total cost $1.30. We will get at least $5.00 worth of mushrooms. Not a bad profit from a waste product.
I will update you on the actual amount of mushrooms we can harvest from a bucket.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Aquaponics is a technique that combines aquaculture (fish farming) with hydroponics (growing plants in moving water). By doing so the plants get fed by the fish wastes while cleaning and aerating the water for the fish. I have been wanting to set up a system since i took a workshop at Growing Power in Milwaukee a few years ago. I was casting around the internet a few days ago and i found some videos on youtube of some simple systems. I realized I have everything i need to set a system up except a few fittings, a pump and some fish. I sketched out the system and as soon as it stops raining (not complaining) i will get started on this project.
This will be a prototype for a larger system i plan to install in an earth-sheltered passive solar greenhouse i'll be building over the summer. I want to monitor how much food i can produce from this small system. I will be reporting on progress in future posts.
Fish me luck!
Aquaponics System 1 Aquaponics System 1 leekfixer A sketch of an aquaponics system I plan to build from materials on hand.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Expanding the Garden

We are expecting a lot of rain over the next few days so i spent yesterday preparing new beds in which to grow herbs. My friend has a vegetable delivery business called Vegetable Husband and i will be providing her with herbs for her customers. Her business is expanding rapidly so i will need to grow lots of herbs.
I recently started twittering. At first i thought it was just another time-waster but as i have learned more about it i have found it can be quite useful. I found through twitter some very useful garden planning software called plangarden. It allows you to do a plan of your garden, record planting dates, harvest amounts, etc. Today i have been working with it to make a plan for the Funny Farm. I have recommended it to my workshop students and will be using it with my design clients to help them plan their gardens.
Check it out. Move the cursor over the plan and you can navigate through the plan.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Some Like it Hot!

Peppers need warm soil to stimulate seed germination. 80º is the recommended temperature. Last year i sowed them in an unheated greenhouse in March. It took 2 months for them to germinate and the germination was spotty at best. This season i wanted to do it right. First i bought some heating cable and built a box, filled it with damp sand and buried the cable. Between the heat from the cable and the heat from the grow light above, the soil temperature got up to 70º. Worked for tomatoes and zinnias but not good enough for peppers i thought. I was looking around the basement and spied a sun lamp left by the previous owner. (they left us all sorts of useful stuff). I got the idea to build a box to put the sun lamp in heat to the top of the box. I put a plug tray seeded with pepper seeds on top of the box and sure enough the soil heated up to 78º. Close enough i figure. The seeds have been on top of the box for 2 days.
I'll let you know when they germinate.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Worms will eat your garbage too!

Setting up a worm bin in your home is a great way to keep organic waste out of the landfill and turn it into something useful. Worms will eat almost anything organic including paper, cardboard, kitchen scraps, and leaves. Their requirements are simple; air, moisture, food and darkness. You can make a bin out of buckets, totes, trash cans. We used a tote because we had one. You can get plastic buckets from a local restaurant or donut shop. We recommend reusing a container rather than going to a store and buying something new. The main requirement is that it is opaque because worms do not like light.
To provide air for the worms you need to drill 1/8" holes in the sides and top of the container. I put 2 rows on the sides about 3 inches apart. One row near the top and one row near the bottom. I drilled about 20 holes in the top. The bin also needs some 1/4" holes in the bottom for drainage to keep any liquid from building up which will rot the bedding. I placed a layer of landscape fabric over the holes in the bottom to keep anything other than liquid from coming out the holes.
Next you need to add about 3" of moist bedding. You can use shredded paper or shredded leaves. Soak the bedding in water and wring it out so only a few drops continue to drip out. It should feel like a damp sponge. Put the bedding in the bin and fluff it up so there is plenty of air. Next add some soil, from the ground not potting soil. About a quart will do. The soil contains microorganisms that break down the food into tiny particles the worms can ingest. They have really tiny mouths! They also get some grit from the soil which helps them to grind up the food.
Next add worms. You will need a pound of worms. We get ours from Bear Creek Worm Farm. Their number is (678) 794 6664. They will come with a pound of bedding. Dump them gently into the bin and spread them evenly over the surface of the bedding.
Next add some food. We keep a rot bucket under the sink into which we put our kitchen scraps, paper towels, napkins, coffee grounds and tea leaves. It takes us about a week to fill it up. During that time mocroorganisms are starting to break down the stuff on the bottom so that when it goes into the bin some of it is ready for the worms to eat. When you first start your bin put only a few handfuls in so that the worms are not overwhelmed while they are getting adjusted to their new home.
Cover the food and worms with another layer of moist bedding. Keeping the food covered will discourage fruit flies. When you add additional food it is a good idea to bury it in the bedding to keep fruit flies from finding it. In a week you can start to add more food. The important thing is not to add so much wet goopy stuff that air is prevented from getting down to the worms. They are voracious eaters so the food will disappear pretty quickly.
We recently got 10 pounds of worms for the members of our workshop to start their own bins. We put them into the tote and put the top on and went to bed. The next morning Robin came screaming into the bedroom. All the worms escaped she said! I went out to the screen porch and there were thousands of worms crawling in every direction. It took me 3 hours to pick all those suckers up and return them to the bin.
To prevent this, for the first couple of nights, keep a light on. Worms do not like light and will burrow down into the bedding to get away from it. As an additional precaution spread a 2" wide band of dish washing liquid (organic of course) around the inside top of the bin. The worms will not crawl over it. Once they get over the trauma of traveling and settle into their new home they will not try to escape.
What not to feed them: Animal fat, meat scraps, cheese. You can put citrus but not a whole lot at a time. Same with onions. They both have compounds that are toxic to worms in large amounts. You can put egg shells in but crush them up finely. They really like fruit like banana peels, mango skins, anything sweet and mushy. One of my students said she cuts her banana peels into tiny pieces and the worms devour them. They like coffee grounds too but again not too much because they are very acidic.
Once the bin is filled up almost to the top you can harvest the worms and move them to a new bin. The remaining worm castings are great for feeding your vegetable garden or house plants. I will explain how to get the worms out of the bin in another post.
Become a worm wrangler. You'll love it.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Cover Crops- Investing in the Future

Last year was our first season growing crops here at The Funny Farm. Production in some of the beds was not up to par. We decided to focus on the long-term health of the soil food web through the fall and winter. We planted those beds in a cover crop of rye and clover to build up organic matter and nutrients. We inoculated the clover seed with rhizobium bacteria so that together they would capture nitrogen from the air. Before planting we tilled in fresh horse manure and bedding to add even more organic matter and nutrients.
We got a good stand of cover through the winter. Yesterday i cut the stand with a weed eater and then tilled all of that lush green foliage into the soil and re-shaped the beds. I will leave it alone for a week or 2 to give the soil microorganisms time to consume all that organic matter to store it for future crops. Tilling really aerates the soil stimulating soil bacteria into a feeding frenzy so the cover crop will be quickly consumed. This will be the last time these beds get tilled. We will let the fungal component establish itself and remain undisturbed.
We expect good production from these beds this season.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Preparing New Beds

Last Sunday in our workshop we prepared some new beds for planting. The week before it snowed the soil had dried sufficiently for me to till in the weeds and get the drainage working so the soil could be worked by the time of the workshop. We laid out the beds 4' wide so we would end up with a 3' planting area and a 1' path. I got this from Masanobu Fukuoka's influential book One Straw Revolution back in the 70's. He determined that 3' is the distance most people can reach so a person can work the whole bed from one side.
We raked the soil from the path area up into the beds to create a raised bed. We spread kelp meal for micronutrients and espoma plantone organic fertilizer for macronutrients. We harvested wormcastings from our worm bins and spread them about 2" deep over each bed. We leveled out the beds and voila´we are ready to plant.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Funny Farm in the Snow

Yesterday we got our yearly snow storm. Everyone gets really excited here in the south whenever there is even a hint of snow to come. When it actually snows people go crazy. The bars fill up with celebrants who get drunk and drive in it. ( yes we've done it in the past). People who don't know how to drive are out and about being menaces to everybody else. We had an organic gardening class scheduled yesterday. We had gotten 10 pounds of worms for our students a few days earlier. We needed for everyone to pick them up so we would not have to care for them for another 2 weeks. Most of our students braved crazy drivers, falling trees, and downed power lines to come out and get their worms. Several were transplants from the north who were eager to get their worms and get back home to avoid the locals who don't know how to drive in even a little snow.
We lost power for a few hours so we built a fire in the fireplace. We sipped some hooch. We roasted potatoes, garlic and onions and had a nice feast. It was a lovely day.
We got 2". Wow what a storm :)