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!
Here is the assembled and painted frame in the greenhouse:
Three coats of paint finished my day and I took a break:
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:
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:
After five pots were freed from their forms, Cynthia helped pull nails to prepare the forms for the next pour:
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.
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:
Under the table, I installed 44 drainpipes from the 44 pots above:
Here is a photo of the raised bed garden space almost done:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Here are the three completed and varnished frames ready for me to hang:
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:
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:
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:
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.