Furnishing The Greenhouse

Now that the greenhouse construction is completed, it is time to furnish it!

I chose aquaponics for the main focus of the greenhouse. There are several ways to go about growing plants in an aquaponics system, and a brief introduction is needed here. Some of the methods are:

  • Floating Raft or Deep Water Culture (DWC) – Plants sit in small pots in holes in Styrofoam sheets. The Styrofoam sheets float on a body of water a few inches deep. Plant roots dangle in the water and take up nutrients.
  • Media Bed or Ebb And Flow – A Media Bed is a tray several inches deep that is filled with gravel or special expanded clay balls. Nutrient water floods and drains this media on a regular basis. Plants are planted directly into the media and take their nutrition from the water.
  • Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) is a system of nearly-horizontal PVC pipes. There are holes in the pipes, and plants in small pots are set in the holes. A small amount of nutrient water (a film) flows continuously through the sloping pipes. The roots of the plants dangle in this film and take up nutrients.
  • Dutch Buckets – Usually used in hydroponics (no fish), Dutch Buckets are often just  5-gallon buckets. Water fills the bucket and exits an overflow pipe. A plant sits in a hole in the bucket lid and its roots dangle in the water. Dutch Buckets and Floating Raft are similar in that there is a constant body of water.

I chose to go with the Dutch Buckets for several reasons.

  • In the Floating Raft method the Styrofoam often gets covered in algae, the greenhouse smells like algae, and the plants have to compete with the algae for oxygen and nutrients. Also, the Styrofoam gets banged up puts Styrofoam bits and pieces into the water that is returned to the fish. I just don’t like the look.
  • The Media Bed method can get clogged with old roots and muck from the fish tank and has to, with backbreaking work, be completely dug out, cleaned, and renewed from time to time because the wrong type of bacteria can grow in the anaerobic muck. Additionally, if a power outage happens when the bed is in its drain cycle, delicate roots will die quickly without water.
  • The Nutrient Film Technique is vulnerable in a power outage because the roots will die quickly without circulating water.
  • Each system has many pros and cons. Some of the cons could be solved with an emergency generator, but this adds a layer of complexity. I made my Dutch Bucket decision by weighing pros and cons after seeing what others do on YouTube.

Before I bought buckets, I needed a table to sit them on. I drew several plans on graph paper, finally making a design that maximized the number of pots for my space and was easy to walk around. I welded the table frame from my old standby default material, 2-inch square, 1/16-inch thick square tubing. In this first photo, I am making some table component parts in the carport; they will fit through the door to the greenhouse. I’ll weld them together in the greenhouse:

To keep corners square while I welded them, I used the aluminum corner braces that Cynthia gave me a few years ago. Really helpful to keep a square from looking like a trapezoid. Thank you Cynthia!

I clamp the pieces of tubing to the square, keeping everything square, then weld the joint.

Here is the assembled and painted frame in the greenhouse:

The PVC pipe  under the table is the drain line from the pots. On the right, notice the concrete thingies. 

Three coats of paint finished my day and I took a break:

Cynthia informed me that my shoes had gone above and beyond the call of duty and had reached the end of their useful life. I wore them to the hardware store the other day. A guy working in the material yard was wearing a similarly-dead and distressed pair. We commented that we must be brothers. Or at least equally as frugal. I would probably still be wearing them, but cat Winston peed on them. Conspiring against me, the both of them!

Before I made the table top, I hung a 4-inch PVC pipe under the table. The Dutch Buckets will drain into this pipe. I drilled a hole for a drain for each bucket. I tried a large twist drill, a flat spade drill bit, and both failed miserably. But a Fostner bit (used for boring flat-bottom holes) worked the best with no grabbing, wobbling, or chipping of the PVC. The 4-inch pipe completes its run by draining into a buried-in-the-ground plastic tote in which I have installed a sump pump. The pump will return the water to the fish tank. I bent pipe hangers from 1/4-inch steel rod:

Now on to the table top. It has to be strong because it will support concrete pots filled with water, so I chose strong-and-no-maintenance concrete. I ran a ribbon of 1-inch by 4-inch wood around the table to contain the concrete. Then cut and placed pieces of 1/4″ cement board (tile backer) on the metal frame. At the location of each bucket, I drilled a 4-inch hole in the cement board and placed pieces of PVC pipe to act as forms for the concrete pour. A little caulk holds them in place. At this point, I needed help mixing and pouring the concrete. I had to wait the better part of a month for Armando to be released from the Covid-19 lock down:

There are some smaller, 1/2-inch PVC pipes standing here and there on the table. Later, I’ll drop pipe-support brackets into these holes. You’ll see…

Before the Covid-19 lock down, I found a couple local sources for plastic 5-gallon buckets. I needed 44 of them, but at six-bucks a pop, I rethought my options. For about the same money or less, and with a lot more work, which of course I am all in for, I could make concrete pots that wouldn’t suffer the ravages of UV rays, and look better too without company logos screaming at me all the time. So I cut and assembled five wooden forms, and Armando and I poured them five at a time until we had 45 pots all stacked up. Here we are pouring; I’m vibrating one pot with a hammer in my left hand while I hold a drain pipe with my right hand. Kind of like playing the drums:

When the concrete had cured for a few days, I removed the forms. The outsides came off easily, but the insides didn’t want to budge; they took some engineering and significant clamping persuasion:

With an enormous amount of force applied to the clamps (I had to tighten the clamps to the max with large slip-joint pliers), all of a sudden the wooden form would POP out of the pot with incredible force. “Oh wow!” I exclaimed when the first POP happened; physics in action – release of stored kinetic energy!

After five pots were freed from their forms, Cynthia helped pull nails to prepare the forms for the next pour:

From the look on her face, I must have said something stupid or goofy.

Here are most of the pots poured and stacked. I didn’t like all the air holes in the concrete, so later I mixed up some grout and coated the pots.

In the concrete, I included a polymer strengthening additive and some basalt reinforcing fiber.

The next photo shows the finished project – all the pots are on the table. Next, I ran PVC pipes above the pots – the top pipe will deliver the nutrient water to each pot, and the bottom pipe will deliver air to each pot. Air will keep any unwanted anaerobic bacteria from colonizing. With valves, I can adjust the amount of water and air to each pot.

Also shown in the next photo is the ceramic tile that I put on the wall of the fish tank. I think it goes well with the water theme.

I wanted to make some sort of top over the fish tank to keep the overhead hot sun off of the fish, and thought that this would make a great spot for some old fashioned dirt farming, giving new meaning to raised bed gardening. You can see some plastic pots up in the hyper-raised bed. I can walk along the top of the fish tank to tend the plants:

I made pot covers from 1/4-inch tile backer. The three yellow trellis grids will support plants such as climbing peas and beans.

Under the table, I installed 44 drainpipes from the 44 pots above:

The 1/2-inch drain pipes are dry fitted (not glued) in case I need to remove a pot. Installing all this piping was the most funnest of all. 

Here is a photo of the raised bed garden space almost done:

Half the gravel is in, more to go. At first I was going to fill the raised bed with dirt, but then decided to conserve dirt and reduce weight by using plastic plant pots.

I bought a label-maker/printer and I’m labeling everything in sight – my solar project components, plastic boxes of stuff in storage, food storage plastic totes in the kitchen pantry, and in the greenhouse. I tried to refrain, but I couldn’t help myself with this label on the front of the raised bed garden:

A friend asked me, “Why?” Firstly because I find it to be hilarious, and secondly, I hate labels on new products, such as, “Not suitable for children under 12 as it can kill them” or “Use caution; you can fall from this ladder and be injured or killed.” or, “Warning, coffee is hot and can kill you.” When did we lose our ability to think? When did we become so litigious? End of rant.

I couldn’t wait until the aquaponics was operational; I had to start a few plants in dirt. For the “dirt,” I used Mel Bartholomew’s Mel’s Mix from his Square Foot Gardening system. If you want to start a small garden, especially one for children or a community garden, give this system a look. Mel’s Mix is one-third peat moss, one-third compost, and one-third vermiculite. The plants are loving it! Here are some peas at about two-weeks enjoying exploring the trellis:

And in the raised garden I have a couple herbs and some Moringa trees I planted from seed. I am about to move the Moringa to individual growing bags and after a while they will go outside. The fish will enjoy the leaves as food, and so will I. I can’t wait to harvest the leaves and use them in salads or dry them and incorporate it into our food. Very nutritious; people in food-famine areas are growing Moringa as it contains nearly all vital nutrients:

Back to construction – I ran some water and air supply plumbing. A friend asked if I had a permit for the nuclear reactor that I was building. I feigned ignorance:

In total, there are three fish tanks; one large and two smaller ones.

Now I needed a water pump, an air pump, and a couple water filters, or bio-filters in my case. The bio-filters I chose to build are plastic tanks that are about two-thirds filled with a bio-media that over the course of several weeks becomes spontaneously populated with beneficial aerobic bacteria. The bacteria are a vital part of the aquaponic process — the bacteria eat the ammonia, a major component of fish poop and pee (ammonia is toxic to both the fish and the plants), and convert it first to nitrite and then to nitrate. Nitrate is a near-perfect nutrient for the plants. The plants are happy and help to further clean the water before it is returned to the fish.

Here is the bio-media – I think of it as bird houses for bacteria. It looks like pasta, providing perfect nooks and crannies for bacteria to colonize in. Note to self: do not store extra bio media in the kitchen food pantry:

Warning: Not a grain-free substitute for whole wheat pasta!

I bought on Amazon and had shipped in two cone-bottom tanks. I silicone-caulked in place shower drains inside near the bottom to keep the bio-media from escaping through the bottom clean-out drain. Here I am fabricating a shelf for the two filters:

I cut holes in the tanks for in-feed and out-feed pipes. I pushed the pipes through rubber grommets that I installed in the tanks.

Next, with no small amount of unplanned-for difficulty, I fitted the shelf into the mechanicals closet (next to the greenhouse door). I also installed a water pump (black) and a regenerative air blower (silver) to provide air to the fish tanks and the plant pots. I labeled everything just because:

The red piece of equipment is a variac, a rheostat device that allows speed control of an AC motor. This variac will allow me to slow the air blower to a dull rumble instead of a high-pitched neighborhood-annoying whine. I also stuck some sound deadening foam on the wall, but it only reduced the decibel level by a couple points. Inside the closet runs about 62 decibels, and around 55 decibels outside with the closet door closed. 

So this marks a milestone in my build. Now I can focus on cycling the fish tanks and plant pots (to establish the friendly bacteria) and soon procure fish and start some plants. I’m pretty happy to see it at this point after carrying and implementing my vision for several years!

In Other News: 

Cynthia, Armando and I got to talking one day about where to put more garden space. He likes to grow yucca, and the fish will enjoy eating the yucca leaves. In addition, we need a good location for the moringa trees.

About the only available space is across the street between the drainage ditch and the road. I wanted to raise the ground level there to keep torrential rains from washing the topsoil away, so Armando and I started work on a retaining wall (you can see him, wearing a red shirt, working across the street).  As he cleaned and dug out the ditch, I welded a rebar framework that we would embed in the foundation and stack concrete blocks on. Here is my framework:

Sixty feet long! It took three guys to wiggle-wobble the thing into place.

We put a temporary dam at the high end of the ditch and put a pipe in the ditch to reduce the amount of water/mud that we had to work in. Here we have a few rows of blocks laid:

Water is draining out this end of the temporary pipe.

Here is the wall at its final height. Armando is plastering the ditch side of the wall. He is having way too much fun in the mud:

I planted an avocado pit some time ago. It is doing well (to the left of the stack of concrete blocks). Although they can grow to great heights, Armando said he would keep this one to six-feet high or so for easy harvesting. He said the tree would put out a lot of fruit if kept small.

We are now entering September, October, and November, the wettest months of the year, so this project is on hold until December. In December/January, I want to build a half-dozen or so six-foot diameter round, (normal height) raised-bed gardens. Stay tuned.

Picture Frames – We have turned the second bedroom into my watercolor, exercise, and music room. I found some guitar-info wall posters that I liked, but I didn’t want to just duct tape them to the wall – that would be tacky (haha). Picture frames were in order.

(Side note: I don’t really call what I do “exercising.” I have two five-pound dumbbells that I kind of flail around for zero to ten minutes most every morning. I find that doing it for zero minutes really doesn’t accomplish much, but the ten-minute end of the spectrum keeps my 72-year-old upper body in good condition. I also do a couple planking exercises. Muscle mass contributes to bone growth and prevents osteoporosis, so common in us folks of a certain age. Also, good musculature is conducive to maintaining a proper hormone balance (testosterone-to-estrogen). Testosterone naturally declines as men age. But men should work to keep testosterone levels higher than estrogen levels because high estrogen in men can cause swellings and cancers such as in prostate cancer. So when I die, I want to be in really, really good health!)

Some time ago I made a new table saw out-feed table. I made it in a slat style (I copied it from a metal welding table I saw online) so that I could clamp anything anywhere on the table. It sure came in handy in making my picture frames. I also put a router under one end of the table. I made a multi-adjustable fence for the router:

I connected a vacuum dust/chip collector hose to the fence. I used phenolic plastic for the gray sliding parts of the fence. Hand screws on the back side make adjustments easy. 

Here is the underside of the router. It is basically a movable box (the one that raises and lowers the router) inside of a fixed box. The inner box slides on plastic runners in aluminum track. A 12-volt linear actuator raises and lowers the router:

Not fancy, but it is working well. 

Back to the picture frames – I mitered the corners, assembled them with biscuits, and then applied a corner detail that matches the top corners of my watercolor supplies cabinet. Here they are gluing:

This is an extremely dense tropical wood and doesn’t absorb glue well. I chose this style of corner to bridge the miter and give some additional strength to the corners. The wood is wet because I wiped off the excess glue with a wet rag.

Here are the three completed and varnished frames ready for me to hang:

The posters are two-feet by three-feet.

It will take more than the rest of my life to memorize all this information. Please cremate them with me!

A Useful Building Material I keep a supply of 1/2-inch thick white plastic kitchen cutting boards on hand. Some of my uses include a self-lubricating hinge on the solar panel mount, and clips to hold window screens in place. My most recent use for it was to make some washers to put on the bottom side of some new bathroom sink faucets. The faucets are mounted on our concrete counters and the hole through the concrete was just a bit too large for the nut to seat well. I made some washers from the cutting board and easily completed the job:

This stuff machines well, although avoid getting it hot or it will melt and ball up on the drill bit. I used a Fostner bit to cut the holes.

The House Isn’t That Old – Why New Faucets? – I recently replaced four bathroom faucets. The spouts on the old faucets sloped upward and the on/off levers were extremely fussy to shut off completely. So if the faucet was dripping, instead of water dripping into the sink, it flowed backwards and down the faucet body, onto the concrete counter top, then onto the floor. The water soaked into the concrete and rusted rebar in one of the tops. The rebar expanded and caused the concrete to crack. Damn.  “I’ll get the mop.” Here are two of the nice new correctly-sloped faucets:

The old spouts sloped in the opposite direction from these. See that white spot to the left of the sink? That’s the crack. Insert frown-face here.

Lots Of Orchids – The orchids have been in bloom lately. Here are a few:

Not an orchid, but full of blooms out the kitchen window:

Every Few Years – Every few years, under the cover of darkness, a petty thief or two will wander through our area. Five of our neighbors were recently hit, all the houses were unoccupied so it wasn’t a violent situation. Typical booty is propane tanks ($50 deposit), microwave ovens, coffee makers, TVs. The worst of it is the damage done by the pry bar. Here is a typical mess to fix:

And then, right there in broad daylight, I came across this guy in my greenhouse. I told him, “Stop! Up against the wall! Hands up!”

With a long stick, I gently pointed it to the door and it scurried on its way.

Winston – No explanation needed:

Pizza Anyone? – Cynthia has been making a tasty grain-free pizza crust lately. You couldn’t pay me to eat a restaurant one again:

Rustic style, ham, olives, peppers, onions, home made basil pesto, no tomato sauce or cheese. Yum!

A Pet Peeve – Words you will never hear me say – I watch a lot of YouTube videos. Pick a video, almost any video, and you are likely to hear, “Okay, let’s get started.” “As you can see…” “Don’t forget to Like, Subscribe, and smash/ring/click/gong that bell.” “As I said before…” and “Virtually…” What’s your pet peeve?

Gecko A Go Go – Every night on the outside of our kitchen windows, geckos enjoy a bug feast:

A Slice Of Local Life – School – Panamanian kids are schooling remotely. It is really rough for some of them. Classes are given online, via TV, and over cell signal. Many houses don’t have Internet, and some don’t have televisions, either. Armando’s three kids are doing their school work on cell phones. A $5 data card will last his family most of a week, and I am frequently slipping a pre-paid card into his pay envelope. I can’t imagine how stressful it must be to be a Spanish speaking kid trying to learn English remotely. How can they be expected to learn to pronounce anything? Armando said that the teachers can change from day to day and from class to class, and our housekeeper, Angela, said that the experience is total stress all the time for her kids.

And – In this time of Covid-19, there is hope in a stunning sunrise:

Next post I will probably have the solar backup system up and running.

That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.

16 thoughts on “Furnishing The Greenhouse

  1. Shouldn’t you be running the mechanical engineering department at NASA, or something? Can I take a nap now? But it was great to see a photo of Cynthia, and that pizza – Wow!

  2. I am once again amazed at your projects. BTW – I love those little labeling machines too. It’s probably a good thing I don’t have one. Looking forward to seeing the greenhouse in action next post.

  3. “Firstly because I find it to be hilarious, and secondly, I hate labels on new products, such as, “Not suitable for children under 12 as it can kill them” or “Use caution; you can fall from this ladder and be injured or killed.” or, “Warning, coffee is hot and can kill you.” When did we lose our ability to think? When did we become so litigious? End of rant.”
    Love the rant!
    YouTube pet peeve? The phrase “back in the day.”
    This video was a wonderful humor filled respite from the usual cr*p available on line.
    Thanks Fred

    • Hi Scott. Nice to hear from you and thanks for the compliment. I might also add to my rant, “It is actually virtually that easy.” Better: “It is that easy.” I had an English 101 teacher at a community college in Flint, Michigan. He was a wonderful inspiration to me. I remember one time a student asked him, “Prokus, how come I didn’t get a “A.” He answered succinctly: “Precisely.” That was back in the day. 🙂 Thanks again Scott. Fred

  4. Amazing. I’m convinced that if I was 30 years younger and had triple the amount of motivation I have at the moment and there was 30 hours in a day I could be at least half as productive as you are! Another thing that I find amazing is your ability to procure supplies. I live in Pedasí and I even struggle to find decent wood screws. I’m on the lookout for a woodworking bench vice and clamps at the moment and can’t find them anywhere. I will be taking a trip to the city when the restrictions are lifted and if I can’t find what I’m looking for there I will have to resort to using Amazon. I do enjoy your updates. Long may they continue.

    • I do think that there is something very wrong with me. For every item I check off of my ToDo list, I add three more. It is exhausting! But thank you so very much for your compliments. As to supplies, ah, yes. It is a major issue for sure. Since Covid, our monthly shipping bill has quadrupled. Even though we have a DoIt Center in Coronado not that far from us, their shelves are getting more and more bare. We buy a lot on Amazon now, I recently brought in a selection of 1/4-inch stainless steel nuts and bolts. I feel your pain. Our heavy/expensive items come through a shipper in the city. We pay them online and they take them to Uno Express who brings our stuff to their El Valle office. Quite simple, just expensive! I’m looking forward to a trip to the city myself now that travel restrictions have lifted. Discovery Center is high on my list. Thanks again for the hyer-extreme compliments! Fred

  5. Hello Fred!!
    I’m always amazed at your projects. They are awesome!!
    Also, I’m sure you have already thought about it but, you might want to recommend to your neighbors some motion sensitive lighting and some very inexpensive (in the USA) door and windows high decibel alarms. They are easy to install and it should scurry away the local rodents!!
    Good job as always.

    Hasta Luego.

  6. Hi Fred,
    …I see you got a very distinct tack on the Aquaponics theme!!
    I hope it works out for you!

    However I would suggest you seal the parts of the system where system water is in direct contact with concrete.
    Or you will likely fight high pH values for a very long time!

    Something is leaching/dissolving out of concrete that increases pH (which plants and fish tolerate to some extent, but as the system is recirculating – I assume you have to top of every few days to compensate for evaporative loses – eventually “stuff” accumulates! (…only the water evaporates, “Stuff” stays behind – as concrete keeps on leaching – eventually you get a high pH level…)
    NOT good in a recirculating system!

    Good Luck!!



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