Monday, April 21, 2014

Weekend Gardening Projects

An Herb Spiral in Germany

This weekend was beautiful here in New Jersey and Delaware.  I finally had the opportunity to start work on my garden projects.  I recently bought a Big Bag Bed raised bed, inspired by this youtube video from John from  It’s a pre-made raised bed made from durable cloth, which allows greater drainage than a normal raised bed, and induces air pruning of the roots, which should help growth.  I also convinced my landlord, who lives on the first floor, to buy 2 of these Big Bag Beds and let me help him with his own garden.  I was hoping to fill the beds on Saturday, but I couldn’t find coco coir anywhere around me.  I tried Home Depot, Lowes, and two local garden centers, and called a bunch more.  Everyone had peat moss, but no one had coco coir.  Peat moss is extremely harmful to the environment to harvest and is very unsustainable.  I refuse to use it if at all possible. 

So, I ordered some coco coir and Azomite Rock Dust on Amazon, which should arrive tomorrow, and then I’ll fill the beds.  I also need to get either seeds or plants to put in the bed.

My Plan is to loosely follow this design.

On Sunday, I went to Delaware to work on some projects at my parent’s house.  I’m building an herb spiral with a small pond, according to the plans here:

Herb spiral in progress.  It'll have a sprinkler system to water the garden from the water in the little pond.

My dad and girlfriend helped out, and we got the pond hole dug, and some decorative bricks laid down to mark out the garden.  We also started filling it in, but we’ll need more stones to complete the garden on a future weekend.

The coldframe

My dad had saved an old window that he got through his work, and build a cold frame.  Since it’s not that cold out now, I was planning to use this to start some seeds, for now.

Starting some seeds

I asked my girlfriend to start some seeds that I had with some of our kitchen compost and garden soil mix, and we seeded some tomatoes, lettuce, kale, spinach, strawberries, basil, and arugula.  I’m not sure if it’s too early or late to start seeds, or if I’m doing it right, but I’m just going to go for it.

I'm starting with just the IBC tote, and once it's running well I'll add the 50 gallon stock tank as an additional grow bed.

IBC Tote aquaponic garden

The last thing that we worked on was the IBC tote aquaponic setup that I obtained last Fall.  It’ll sit in a small dirt patch and in the winter we’ll build a thin but tall greenhouse frame from PVC to shelter the setup.  I still need a threaded PVC connector and to set up the bell siphon before it’s ready, but most of the plumbing and the pump are ready.  I’m also getting an inline hose water filter tomorrow so that I can filter the water that I fill it with.  Hopefully within the next month this will be pumping water and holding fish!

It was a busy day, but the beautiful weather kept everyone’s spirits high.  Happy Easter!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

SAGE Collective Aquaponic setup in Trenton, NJ

I recently disassembled the 105 gallon aquaponic setup in Philly, but I'm reusing some of those components for a system in Trenton, NJ at an Art Collective's studio space.  The SAGE Coalition is a group of local artists that do public murals, run a community garden, and host art gallery shows at their studio.  The Gandhi Garden is a beautiful community garden transformed by Graham Apgar, Jonathan Gordon, and other members of the SAGE Coalition and local residents.  I've only met Graham and Jonathan so far, but I'm excited to meet more of the artists here.  Here's what the Gandhi Garden looks like:

Here's some photos of our work so far:

Each shelf has a fluorescent light underneath.  I think we might remove one shelf to give each row some more space.  The goal is to eventually have the entire shelf be aquaponic grow beds connected to the 55 gallon tank on the floor.  Unfortunately, some rocks got into my aquarium filter, so I'll just be using a pump with no additional filter.  I am planning on making a radial flow filter to test out, but it's not a priority at the moment.  I just received the pump in the mail, and am waiting for a uni-seal to arrive, then we'll get some water flowing to the grow bed.

I'm currently off-gassing the chlorine from the tap water.  The pH is balanced, and I've added some ammonia to start cycling.  Hopefully in a few weeks this will be flowing!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Apartment Aquaponic System disassembled

The 105 gallon system set up in my friend's apartment in Philly was disassembled yesterday.  We'll be moving most of the components to the greenhouse that we're building in Wilmington, Delaware.  We already have a 330 gallon IBC tank waiting, and we're going to be building a PVC hoop house.  We'll be attaching the grow bed from the apartment system to the IBC system as well.  Also, I have obtained some old windows to make some coldframes at the same location.  Lots of excitement coming this Spring, but it was a little sad to take apart the system that I had worked so hard and long on.  We did harvest about 2 supermarket bags full of kale, and I filet'd the tilapia we had living in the apartment system.  I'm sure I'll have tons of updates and photos from the Wilmington garden this Spring.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Aquafarm Update from 23 Jan 2014

Back to the Roots sent me a new air pump to replace my original pump that died.  They also sent me more zym-bac beneficial bacteria, and a large bag of wheatgrass seeds.  They also sent some new instructions that say to place the air pump vertically next to the aquafarm and run the air tube into the aquarium.  After setting it up, the water is flowing much better now, and I seeded all 5 pots with wheatgrass.  Since my aquafarm doesn't get a lot of light (necessary to grow basil or lettuce), and I drink a lot of smoothies, I wanted to try to grow a bunch of wheatgrass to add to my fruit smoothies.  I'm glad the water is flowing, and the bacteria will be cleaning the water again.  I'll keep updating with the results.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Winter Survival Foraging Class with Dan Farella of Return to Nature

A few weeks ago I saw a post on the Philly Permaculture Facebook group for a Winter Survival Foraging class in Somerset, NJ. I was going to be in Brooklyn that morning and since the class was in the early afternoon, I thought it'd be cool to check out.

I checked out the instructor, Dan De Lion, before coming to the class. If I was going to be picking wild plants and eating them, I wanted to have an idea about who was telling me what was safe and not safe to eat. I saw that Dan had several comments from people who had taken previous classes and lived long enough to post thankful remarks about the experience. I also saw that he had several of his own YouTube videos about foraging, posted articles about wild food pretty often, and had his own project, Return to Nature, to teach about wild food and medicinal plants. He seemed to know his stuff, so I felt pretty confident.

I arrived at the park a bit early and chatted with some other people waiting for the class. When Dan arrived, he sat down in a grassy area next to the parking lot and sat down. I came over and introduced myself, as did several other people who were now waiting for the class. After introductions, Dan asked how far we thought we'd have to go to find an edible or medicinal plant. It turns out, there we're several within a few feet of us. We picked some small wild strawberry leaves, and some wild onions (from the Allium family).

They both looked like what I had always thought of as weeds, I would have never guessed they were related to strawberries or onions. The onion looked like a round blade of grass, and the strawberry, some sort of small clover or something. Dan also pointed out how to make sure that the plants were safe to eat, and not a similar looking toxic plant. He noted that we should look for orange spots on the underside of the strawberry leaves, which could be a fungus that could make us sick. With the wild onions, we would need to dig down to the bulb of the root and make sure that we only eat plants with, "one bulb, for one plant." Multiple bulbs with one plant, or vice versa could make us sick. I was also impressed that Dan knew the scientific name of many of the plants we found. I particularly liked the mild but distinctly onion-y taste of the wild onions. I brought a few home to share with my girlfriend.

As a side note, permaculture videos that I've watched have taught me that many "weeds," actually have value when we look at them a bit differently. I've always been taught that they're invasive, worthless plants, but I've read that they can be used to heal nutrient deficiencies in soil, and many can even be eaten as nutrient dense foods. This was another reason that I was interested in taking the class. I've heard about foraging for wild mushrooms and other plants, and it seemed like something I wanted to know about.

We moved on to some nearby pine trees and talked about them a bit. Dan shared some pine needle tea, and explained how we could make our own. Did you know that pine needle wreaths were originally given as DIY tea gift kits? You would break off some pine needles and some other spices or herbs in the wreath to stew different teas. I always thought that they were decoration. More evidence of how our society is losing touch with nature-focused traditions and knowledge.

Dan also asked us to notice how we felt after drinking the tea. He mentioned that all the knowledge about wild plants in books came from people consuming the plant and being aware of how it makes you feel physically and mentally. He stressed that if we want to learn about foraging and wild plants that we should touch, smell, and taste the plants that we're taught are safe. This leads us to a more intimate connection with the plant than just looking at it, and deepens our knowledge of these plants.

Some other plants that we came across within a short walk were lance leaf  plantains (a "drawing" plant that can help with big bites or stings, or even ulcers), Mugwort, Sweet Anne's Lace (wild carrots), Pokeberry, Primrose, and Curley Dock.

Overall, the experience was a lot of fun, and I learned about a bunch of plants that I can look for during my hikes in the Spring. Some I can eat, and some I should avoid, and now I have a better idea of how to tell the difference. I feel like this is just the beginning of my education about wild foods. If you are near Philadelphia or New York, and are interested in learning more about wild foods and other nature skills, look up Dan's project Return to Nature. I know I'll be looking forward to his future classes.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Aquaponics Facility at Cheyney University in West Chester, PA

Wow, I can't believe I just found out about this.  While reading about the Riverbend Environmental Education Center's planned aquaponics facility, I found out that there's a 10,000 square foot aquaponic basil farm in West Chester, PA.  I work in West Chester, so I'll definitely need to check this place out and try to get a tour on my lunch break one of these days.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Riverbend Environmental Education Center in Gladwyne, Pa to build Aquaponics Center

I recently saw in my Google Alert email for aquaponics that there is a huge aquaponics education facility being built in Gladwyne, PA, just outside Philadelphia.  The Riverbend Environmental Education Center is trying to raise $800,000 to build a 4,380 square foot greenhouse and aquaponics facility.  The Riverbend Environmental Education Center conducts programs to educate kids and adults about environmental issues and solutions.  The aquaponic facility will be staffed by local Veterans.  I can't wait to visit and hopefully I can get involved with setting up the facility.  Super cool!