Monday, February 28, 2011

DIY Aeroponics System

I plan to make one of these cheap aeroponic systems in the future, but until then I want to share the video with you so you can make one too. The total price as documented in the video is less than $90, which is less than buying a commercial unit from a hydroponics store. (I have the timer already.)

Read more about the homemade deep water culture hydroponics unit I made.

Herb Garden Novice

While my partner in crime is dreaming of a $3,000 turn key aquaponic system, I am starting my own little herb garden. Recently, when searching for a terra cotta pot for a blackberry bush we are planning to purchase, I found a pot that screamed herb garden.

I must admit that I have been a pretty avid user of dried spices from Watkins, but with our increased amount of fresh veggies we have access to I want to use fresh herbs when cooking them. I started with some basics including chives, oregano, basil, and parsley. I think I am most excited about chives. These are all herbs that some of our favorite recipes use on a regular basis.

These are pictures from when I started it about a week ago, soon I will update the picture when the sprouts get started.

Building My First Aquaponic System

It feels good to type this, because one of the biggest parts of goal setting and goal achievement is to write them down.

I've been researching aquaponics via Google searches for more than 3 years, but I have not yet built my first system.  I compost with worms and sell my extras on Craigslist for $17 per half pound and $30 per pound. I grow vegetables in above ground beds. I even have a very simply designed deep water hydroponic grow bed made from an 18 gallon Rough Tote plastic container with cheap air stones/bubblers that is beginning to grow it's first bell, banana, jalopeno, and pobalano peppers. But...I don't have an aquaponic system.

Hopefully that will be changing soon.

After finding via a Google search a couple weeks ago, it's rekindled my desire to build an aquaponic system that will grow enough fish to feed my wife and I a weekly meal of catfish and enough vegetables to severely reduce our grocery bill for store bought produce. 

It would have happened sooner if aquaponics design was simpler to understand and more inexpensive to build.  I can probably build a DIY barrel system for under $200 to experiment with.  Or, I can purchase a basic hobby-level system for $1,200 - $1,300 from a few different suppliers that will grow out a few fish each year. Or, I can buy a turn-key purpose-built aquaponics system that will grow a substantial amount of fish for between $3,000 and $4,000; and as a bonus the designers of this system will likely even deliver it to my house and help me set it up. Or, I can take the time to learn more of the in's and outs' of building a system by improvising my own components, my own media, my own beds, fish tanks, etc. and probably make some mistakes along the way, but save $1,300 - $1,800 in the process.

Besides deciding to prioritize spending money on something that may not be as simple as it sounds on paper, my second thru sixth largest obstacles has been convicing my wife that we should spend the money on it, sacrifice space in our backyard, risk a few uncomfortable glances and comments from my neighbors, and risk the HOA police putting the kabosh on the entire system before it really gets going well.

Whew! I'm getting tired typing out the list of all those obstacles that are probably closer to excuses than actual obstacles.

I am a complete novice just beginning the journey, but I have learned one thing for backyard aquaponics system is not going to build itself some night while I'm sleeping.  I'm going to have to get my hands dirty and step outside my comfort zone a little to turn it into reality.

I guess I've already taken the first several steps in the process this weekend by making the decisions to use a 300 gallon Rubbermaid fish tank stocked with catfish and attempt to camaflouge the set up with some type of bamboo fencing or some type of retention wall made from a concrete composite or stone pieces.

Only 239 more decisions and steps to take on the journey. Wish me luck!

Build an Aquaponic System

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Commercial Hydroponic System for the Backyard Gardener

We're members of a local Community Support Agriculture (CSA) vegetable farm.  They use a commercial hydroponic system from Verti-Gro as their primary growing method, but they also have a smaller system set-up for demonstration purposes that they use for growing herbs.  Members are encouraged to choose a few of their favorite herbs each week, at no extra charge, and they get a mini-course in how their food is raised at the same time.

Four tower hydroponic system from Vertigro
Nutrients are stored in the plastic trash can and then pumped through the plastic plumbing pieces into the top of the vegetable towers.  The water then trickles down through the stacks providing water and required nutrients for the veggies.  The growing pots in each of the towers rotate 360 degrees to make harvesting a breeze. 

This type of gardening system is often used in areas with poor soil quality due to environmental factors such as hot and arid climates with sandy soils. The basic system provides a commercial quality food production system option for backyard gardeners without the time, effort, and expense involved with building above ground growing beds. 

If I understand the price lists correctly, this system is sold for approximately $400.  That may sound like a lot, but if you price supplies to build a traditional above ground bed separately you might be surprised to find that $400 isn't quite as high as it might first seem.  Counting the water savings alone versus traditional sprinkler and drip irrigation, the break even point might surprise you.  Plus you don't have to worry about weeds, cultivation, bending, stretching, etc. to harvest your food.

For comparison purposes, here's a picture of the main hydroponic system used by the CSA to provide weekly vegetable supply for CSA members and a couple of local produce stands.

Commercial hydroponic tower systemm from Verti-Gro

Vegetable Quiz

Can you identify all the vegetables in this picture?
 The picture quality isn't great because it was taken with a cell phone, but this week's share of the CSA harvest was impressive. 

Aquaponics in the National Spotlight

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Vegetable Gardening Financial Trade-offs

I haven't been gardening long enough to calculate the costs of purchasing gardening supplies versus the financial benefits of the vegetable harvest, but in my second year of growing on a hobby level I have definitely learned that I need to be more conscious of the money I spend on supplies because it's easy for the out-flow of cash to out pace the in-flow of edible food that is actually possible from a small plot garden.

I took a quick walk through the produce department of the local grocery store tonight and quickly noticed that some vegetables cost a lot much more than others.  For example, tomatoes, egg plant, green peppers, bannana peppers, jalepeno peppers, and poblano peppers were on the upper pricing tier ranging in price from $2.99 - $3.99 per pound.  One particular out of season vegetable - okra - labeled as "a product of Honduras" was even  higher at $4.49 per pound.  In the normal growing season okra would likely sell for a much lower price point.  The okra illustrates the economic benefits of planning your family's meals around "in season" vegetables.  Squash, green beans, and cucumbers were at the lower end of the pricing tiers ranging from 75 cents per cucumber, 99 cents for an entire package of squash, to $1.49 a pound for green beans. 

In the two minutes it took to scan the vegetables and prices in the store it became clear that small garden plots increase their chances of breaking even or becoming profitable if higher value vegetables are grown rather than lower value vegetables. I'm not sure we'll ever dedicate space for green beans or squash in our garden because both take up a lot of area in an above ground growing bed.

I'm still not convinced that my small garden plot will ever break even in the short run, but perhaps my chances will improve by maximizing use of space and improving soil quality.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Local Harvest Resources

I realize that not everyone is interested in learning to grow their own food.  But hopefully most everyone can agree that they'd like to support local farms and buy their food locally when possible. has a large variety of information about small farms that sell their produce direct to consumers.  The site also has built-in search functionality for finding these farms.  The site will help you identify resources for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), Farmer's Markets, and Food Co-ops and other options that will show you how to contact these farmers directly.

Let's try it out...

I used to live in the 65233 zip code near Boonville, MO.  Tonight I typed the zip code into the farm search functionality and the search yielded three pages of farms within a reasonable driving distance.  In fact, the search surprised me a little bit with the depth of its' listings.  There's even a CSA in tiny Jamestown, MO where I attended elementary and junior high school.  The town has a population of around 300 residents, but does have its' own CSA farm called Happy Hollow Farm.  It's even a certified organic farm. Who knew?  I wonder if my relatives in Jamestown know about it.

A few more test searches via and I'm convinced now more than ever that the availability of locally grown organic produce is closer than you may think. 

Via Local Harvest, you can have your own farmer. Pretty cool isn't it?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Growing Upside Down Eggplant

I ordered an upside down hanging tomato planter from Gardener's Supply.  It arrived on Saturday and I spent an hour or so assembling the planter, potting an eggplant transplant, and mounting it on a spare Shephard's Hook we happened to have in the garage.

The Shephard's Hook will likely be a temporary home for several reasons.  Filled with potting soil, the basket is heavier than it looks.  After the eggplant grows for a few weeks it will not be long before the leaves begin to touch the ground.  The Shephard's Hook is not "heavy duty" and likely would not support the full weight of a fully grown eggplant. 

If you look closely, you'll notice the twine I am using to anchor the planter so it doesn't collapse under its' own weight.  That particular hook is designed for a bird feeder and three gallons of potting soil weighs considerable more than a quart of bird seed.  

If I can manage to keep the eggplant alive and prospering for a few weeks I'll find a better place to hang it, but for now I'd rather not invest any more time, effort, or money in the planter.

I'll post picture updates periodically so you can see the eggplant's progress.

Wish us luck.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Growing Onions in Containers

Here's a picture of two onion bulbs that we planted into an empty container we had on hand.  This one is actually sitting on the sidewalk in the front of our home.  We also have onions growing in the front flower bed.  

We purchased a couple of larger clay pots that were on sale this weekend with plans to start growing some blackberry bushes.  Right now we've got so many pots, I think we might need to stop buying containers for a while (lol).

Indoor Aquaponics Gardening

I've really enjoyed watching the aquaponics videos at 3x5Aquaponics for the past couple of weeks.  This aquaponics blog is a valuable source of information for anyone thinking about setting up their own aquaponics system.

Lettuce - The Second Time Around

Until recently, I didn't realize that you could harvest lettuce once and it will grow back for a second time. 

The photo above shows a lettuce plant that we've already harvested once. It's well on it's way to a 2nd harvest.

Like many things in gardening, we'll continue to learn as you gain more experience.

The second photo shows a portion of our current lettuce crop that was harvested for a lunch time meal a couple of weeks ago and now it's growing back for a second time. 

Since lettuce is primarily a cool weather crop in my area because summers get quite hot and humid, I'm not sure we'll get a third harvest from these same lettuce seeds.  I guess time will tell.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Home Grown Aloe Vera in Containers

We've been growing aloe vera plants in containers for 7 or 8 years.  The aloe plant in the picture to the right has grown pretty large, but it started out very small. 

Aloe seems to love the West Central Florida climate where we live.  If you look closely, you'll see a little cold weather damage on the tips of the leaves.  It doesn't get cold here in Tampa for long periods, but for a few hours this past winter it did get cold enough to frost.

We keep the container for this aloe plant situated pretty close to the house.  We never really move plant inside when the forecast calls for cold weather, but we do cover it with a sheet sometimes in an effort to protect it a little.

Aloe plants are succulents.  They don't need large amounts of water and they are very resilient.  The frost damage will go away on it's own with time.  If I really wanted to, I could clip the damaged ends to speed up the process.

We enjoy aloe vera as an ornamental plant.  We certainly haven't used the plant to its' full capacity, but it's handy for healing minor cuts and sunburns. 

A few years ago, my sister's family visited for a week and we took them to the National Seashore near Merrit Island.  After a day at the beach my brother-in-law developed a medium intensity sunburn.  He used his pocket knife to cut off a small piece of the aloe plant and squeezed the juice onto his arms and shoulders and rubbed it into his skin.  He said it worked very well for reducing the pain and irritation. 

We might need a bigger pot pretty soon. What do you think?

Roasted Radishes Fresh From the Garden

We harvested a bunch of radishes today.  They seem to be one of the veggies we can grow with nearly unlimited success. 

They're quick too.  If you plant radishes today, you'll likely be eating some of them in less than 6 weeks.

Tonight for supper we weren't in the mood for a salad.  I happen to have a recipe for roasted radishes, so guess what I prepared.  Who says fresh has to be hard?  (Not me.)

Roasted Radish Recipe
  • Wash and trim the radishes. If they are big, then slice them in half.
  • Place them in an oven proof dish with a rim.
  • Sprinkle them with thyme.
  • Add a teaspoon and a half of butter on top of the radishes.  You should use more butter if you are roasting a large bunch of them.  
  • Place them in an oven that is pre-heated to 400 degrees.
  • Roast them for 15-20 minutes.
  • Enjoy!
What an easy side dish.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Slow Food vs. Fast Food

I think it's safe to say that everyone understands what is meant by the terms "fast food".  If you're reading this blog, there's a good chance that you've seen the documentary film Supersize Me.  In the movie, Morgan Spurlock vowed to eat at McDonald's every day for a month and he documented the experience on film.  If you haven't seen the movie, you can watch it on Mr. Spurlock's website via Hulu.  The movie establishes that "fast food" can have some devastating effects for some people when taken to extremes.

So how about the opposite of "fast food"?  Yes - "slow food".


Slow Food is an idea, a way of living and a way of eating. It is a global, grassroots movement with thousands of members around the world that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment.
It's a movement. It's a state of mind. It's a culture.

The Slow Food USA website has a tool that allows visitors to search for Slow Food events in their own state and city.  I used the tool tonight to find out about a public forum sponsored by a local library to discuss how to eat slow food to improve your own health and improve your family, community, and planet at the same time.

Pretty heavy stuff isn't it?

I grew up in a rural community and the closest drive thru restaurant was 15 miles away.  The closest "brand name" restaurant was 25 miles away.  Besides the distance...eating fast food wasn't a part of my family culture. And why would it be?  In the summer time, we had all the food we wanted to eat growing in the family garden plot.  And in the winter, vegetables and potatoes was as close as the "cellar" where canned vegetables, jellies, and jams were preserved or stored until we wanted to eat them.

The current family culture is very different.  As families have relocated closer to cities for their work, fast food restaurants are as close as the corner shopping center.  Some of them will even deliver their offerings direct to your front door.

It's really a matter of convenience.  With two parents that work and less "space" in the backyard, the family vegetable garden is one of those cultural elements that has declined.  It's inconvenient to have a family garden in 2011.  But as Morgan Spurlock demonstrated in his documentary film and promotes via their website, it's vitally important that we begin to move back in that direction.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Homemade Hydroponic Bubbler System

If you've ever thought about purchasing a hydroponic system for gardening, but were scared off by the high prices for commercial versions, you might want to consider building your own "bubbler" version.  With a little effort, a little money, and a little patience it's pretty simple to build on on the cheap.

Things you'll need:
  • plastic container with lid
  • plastic tubing
  • air stone
  • air pump
  • nutrient
  • net pots

I purchased a basic container used for storage for $10 at my local Lowes store.  I am using the 18 liter size, but I think a 10 liter size would also work.  A smaller container will make it a little easier to move it once it's filled with water if you need too.

The plastic tubing, air stone, and air pump can be purchased at a pet store or the local Wal-Mart for another $10 or so.

The nutrient is the key to any type of hydroponic system, so you'll likely want to spend most of your budget on quality hydroponic nutrients.  As a low cost budget alternative, I have been experimenting with fish emulsion and bone meal with good results.

I purchased the net pots at the local Worms Way store for less than $3. They come in a variety of sizes.  I chose the 3 inch posts for growing peppers.

Cutting the holes in the lid turned out to be the most difficult part of this project.  I don't have a lot of power tools, so I did it the hard way (with a butcher knife).  I do not recommend you do it that way.  It's very likely you could get injured.  If I make another one, I'll make a trip to Home Depot to purchase a hole saw to make cutting the holes easier and much, much safer.

Hydroponics is new to me and this is just a just for fun experiment, so I'm afraid I can't provide many tips or tricks regarding nutrients.  I started out using 5 tablespoons of fish emulsion, 5 tablespoons of bone meal, and 5 tablespoons of micro nutrients for hard water purchased from Worms Way. I'm sure it's overkill, but the growth of the peppers has been phenomenal.  I changed the water every 10 days for the first month and lately I've been changing it every 14 days or so.

The picture above is 3 weeks old at this point. The peppers are much bigger now and the roots are tremendous. I've been surprised with the growth. The roots are 6 inches long and getting longer.  Aerating the water seems to be working very well.

I've been doing some more research and reading on the web and have learned that once established, peppers will actually produce more fruit if the nitrogen source is reduced significantly.  Apparently, too much nitrogen creates more plant growth and less fruit production.  Based on what I've been reading lately, with less nitrogen and proper pollination conditions, the peppers should begin producing more fruit.

I've cut the nutrients back to 2 tablespoons of fish emulsion, 2 tablespoons of bone meal, and 2 tablespoons of micro nutrients.  This seems to be working.  The plants have been flowering like crazy since I've cut back, but I don't have any peppers yet.  Pollination where are you?

I'm open to suggestions if you have any to offer. I'm sure there are many others with more experience than I that can point out the error(s) of my experimental methodology.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How My Family's Garden Got Started?

As a member of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Farm, my family changed its eating habits based on what was in the harvest.  A major characteristic of a CSA Farm is taking the risk with the farmer, so when weather or pests impact our harvest the farm share is smaller.
I wanted to increase our vegetable diet even more and thought how great it would be to supplement with home grown veggies.  I started daydreaming about my parents' garden, which I hated because of the chores involved (weeding, breaking beans, shucking and silking corn, picking strawberries, digging potatoes, etc).
Knowing that soil is important, we started composting. I asked my research-loving husband to decide the best way for us to compost.  He decided that instead of traditional hot composting methods, we should buy a bag of worms and a Gusanito worm tower so the worms could do the worms for us in our laundry room. 
So after several months of "work", our worm-workers started creating wonderful looking black worm castings from our leftover kitchen scraps and news print that we feed to all our house plants and we decided that it was time to do a little experimental garden for us.  We chose a 4' x 6' above ground garden, purchased biodegradable ground covering, and started creating our garden bed with garden soil, worm castings, a bit of perlite to help retain moisture.
Our first attempt was squash because I had always heard that anyone can grow squash. Surprise! We had bad luck with squash, although after research we determined it was due to a pollination issue. Bees and butterflies where were you? 
Next we planted collard greens, and now I know that collard greens is a veggie that anyone can grow and it's very nutritious. Collards will be on our planting list forever now. As long as you avoid the ham hock or bacon, they can be cooked and sautéed in a variety of ways. 
Then came cantaloupes. Ours had to be the smallest ever grown in the world and they were really good, but we learned they need a lot of space to grow.  This year we are trying a new method to train the vines to grow on a lattice.  You will definitely see how that goes.
The broccoli from that first garden did grow, but we went out of town and it bolted before we could eat it.
Another lesson about gardens -- they take care each and every day -- so it is possible you nurture something almost to harvest, then do something stupid like go on vacation and it goes to waste.
We are in the middle of our second garden. Stay tuned on how that goes.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Aquaponics Gardening

Aquaponics creates a marriage of sorts between vegetable gardening and fish farming.  Like any healthy marriage, each one supports the other.  In an aquaponics system, fish provide a nitrogen source for vegetables and the vegetable grow beds filter water for the fish creating a mutually beneficial eco-system where both thrive. And like marriages, if one is neglected the other can suffer.

Admittedly, this explanation of aquaponics is perhaps a little over-simplified but accurate nonetheless.  The mechanics of making it all fit together and maintaining it properly is where it becomes more complicated.

Aquaponics has been around for several decades, but for some reason the practice and art seems to be more prevalent in Australia than in the United States, but that is changing.

I don't have first hand experience with aquaponics, but my future plans include building a small system for experimentation and personal consumption.  Depending on the climate, various types of fish are used in aquaponics.  While tilapia might thrive in Florida, they would likely stuggle in Michigan.  Similarly, perch might do well in Wisconsin, but poorly in Texas.  Catfish do seem to be used successfuly in most climates, although in warmer climates like Florida a bigger (and deeper) water resevoir may be required to keep from overheating the fish tank.

For more in depth discussions of aquaponics, Aquaponics Gardening provides a knowledge base that can help guide you in the right direction. For aquaponics supplies, has some basic systems that should do well for home use.  And, "to kick it up a notch" as Emeril Lagasse is fond of saying, check out  If you are anything like me, you'll be amazed at the possibilities.

One of these systems will probably make it onto my Christmas Wish List next year.  Someone with more mechanical and electrical knowledge than I have could make something similar with recycled parts, but I prefer turn key systems with instructions

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Upside Down Tomato Planters

I've spent the last couple of weeks exploring ideas to maximize food production with a minimum of space.  Upside down hanging planters seem like a good idea, but I don't have any first hand knowledge of their effectiveness.  I'm looking forward to trying them out though.  I'll get my chance pretty soon, because I broke down and ordered the "tree version" of the most popular commercial brand name upside down tomato planter.

I'm sure I could have made one from a two gallon or five gallon plastic bucket, but $49.99 for the commercial version looked pretty good in the A.M. Leonard Gardener's Edge catalog.  The tree is a free standing metal hanger product that allows the hanger and plants to be suspended independently.  This eliminates the need to anchor the hanger onto anything.

After reading some of the mixed reviews at, I developed a slight case of buyer's remorse but I'll be able to test this impulse purchase out pretty soon.  Who knows, maybe it really does work as advertised?  I really hope so. Here's the version I purchased:  Hanging Tomato Tree  I plan to try egg plant instead of tomatoes though. does have one review from someone who re-used the product for four growing seasons before needing a replacement.  I hope it works that well for me. 

Gardener's Supply Company has a similar product.  The bag portion of the container seems a little more durable than the plastic bag design in the competitor's version.

Hybrid or Non-Hybrid, GMO or Heirloom?

We started our vegetable gardening last season with seed supplies purchased at Lowes and Home Depot without regard to whether they were genetically modified, treated with chemicals, or a hybrid variety.  This year we did purchase a few transplants from Lowes to use in my deep water culture hydroponic experiment, but most of the actual seeds we planted were certified organic varieties.  Next year I plan to focus on heirloom seeds and organic heirlooms if I can find them.

If you're like me, some of these terms might be new to you.  I'm not an expert, but I can use the Google search engine tools quite well.  Here are a few items I found that you might find interesting:

Hybrid:  Most seeds available for sale today are hybrid varieties that are resistant to disease and drought tolerant.

According to, "Hybrid seeds are produced by companies through careful pollination of two specific varieties. Normally, this highly selective plant breeding is done to bring together two traits in each of the chosen varieties so that the resulting seed has both of the traits."

If you live in an area prone to drought, heat, pests, etc. hybrid seeds might offer an advantage over non-hybrid varieties.  Typically, hybrid seed varieties do not lend themselves to seed saving programs. 

Non-Hybrid:  There are definitely advantages and dis-advantages to non-hybrid seeds.

According to, "Seed varieties are being bred for many, many reasons. Typically for disease and pest resistance, look, transportability and other commercial criteria. Nutritional content is simply not one of the primary or typical criteria of the 'hybridization' movement."

Many people feel that non-hybrid seeds provide more nutrition and are lower cost.  With non-hybrid seeds, saving seeds from season to season is possible. 

GMO:  GMO is an acronym which stands for Genetically Modified Organisms.  

According to a GMO discovery guide published via, "GMO's [are] most commonly used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption using the latest molecular biology techniques. These plants have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content."

I'll leave it up to you to decide whether you like or dislike the idea of your vegetables being resistant to herbicides.  While it may unavoidable for most corporate growers, backyard vegetable gardens can and do flourish without the use of herbicides and insecticides.

Heirloom:  Many people feel that heirloom vegetables are unbeatable for taste and freshness. 

According to, "Heirlooms are always open-pollinated varieties.  This means that if the seeds produced from the plant are properly saved, they will produce the same variety year after year.   This cannot be done with hybrids, which are a cross between two separate varieties, as the seed produced from those plants will either be sterile, or start to revert back to the parent plants." 

Heirloom seeds might be a little more difficult to grow for inexperienced gardeners, but with some research, understanding, and minimal gardening experience those challenges can be overcome. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Plant a Modern Victory Garden

Wessels Living History Farm in York, Nebraska has website with a section on the Victory Gardens of the 1940s.  During World War II, food rationing occurred for things like butter, sugar, and cheese. The government encouraged urbanites to plant their own vegetable gardens - affectionately known as Victory Gardens. From
The US Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 20 million victory gardens were planted. Fruit and vegetables harvested in these home and community plots was estimated to be 9-10 million tons, an amount equal to all commercial production of fresh vegetables. So, the program made a difference.
I can't help but see the similarities between now and then.  So I guess it really is true..."the more things change, the more they stay the same".

In my state the Governor recently announced the 2011 budget, which contains cuts to many social programs for the homeless and disadvantaged.  There's a big "to do" in the local media the past couple of days over these and other cuts.  I would imagine that similar proposals are being floated by governors in States throughout the country.  I suspect Mayors and County Commissions are making plans as well to cut budgets where ever possible.

Certainly, some of the social service providers will feel the cuts deeply as they shuffle and re-shuffle their local activities based on these reductions in aid from the tax payers.  I feel for them.  I do.  There are people that depend on these types of programs.  Without delving into the politics of it all and re-hashing many of the same issues and arguments beaten and re-beaten with the proverbial dead horse by the political candidates and pundits on the cable and radio talk shows, I'll pose the obvious question:

Why not take a page from the 1940s and start a new movement toward Victory?

For Kelly Holthus and others, 'it was a great moral thing'.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I've Got Worms!

I've been vermicomposting (composting with help from red wigglers) for 2 years.  Vermicastings are not only a valuble soil amendment for your lawn, flower beds, and shrubs, but they are also helpful in the garden. Now that the main gardening season is winding down here in Florida, I am gearing up to prepare an additional above ground bed and to improve the soil my existing beds.

I started with 1 lb of eisenia foetida red worms and they've multiplied into more than 7 lbs of worms.  Actually, I'd probably have a whole lot more at this point, but I've sold about 8 -9 lbs to friends, family, and others interested in composting with worms. 

Worm castings really won't work effectively as the primary bedding material for gardening, but in my experience they will help improve growth and vitality when mixed in with other materials.  There's tons of university research available online that will help explain the science behind the vermicast, so I won't attempt to go into the details.  I'll leave that to the experts with Ph d in their titles who have actually done scientific studies.  My research is purely based on my own personal seat-of-the-pants use of the castings for the past two years. 

Here's a picture of African Violet plant that we purchased from Lowe's for a dollar. It was an $8 plant marked down because it was basically dead. Worm castings have revitalized the plant into its' present condition.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What Growing Organically Really Means

In the supermarket, food labeled certified organic does cost more.  It's also missing most of the things that make food brighter in color and bigger in size.  The skin on organic tomatoes, bananas, apples, etc. might not be as smooth as it is on non-organically grown produce of similar variety.  If supermarket items are labeled organic, it's supposedly been grown and processed according to USDA approved methods.

Outside of the grocery store, organic can mean different things to different people. What's organic to me may not be organic to someone else. I see the term "organic" used incorrectly in blogs, websites, newspapers, and social media, so I thought it might be beneficial to offer a little insight about what can be called "organic".  As you'll see in a minute, any use of the term organic to market products must adhere to very strict guidelines and regulations.

See below from the USDA Consumer Brochure, USDA National Organic Program:
“What is organic food? Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.  Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.  Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.  Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards.  Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.”
I didn't post this information to start an argument, or anything like that, but I do think it's beneficial to understand that using the term "organic" implies a set of conditions that are difficult to adhere to - including an inspection of the production methods and production site - for certification.

And for those who want to read more about "organic" as defined by the USDA, here are some links to a lot more reading for you if you are interested:

The final national organic standards rule was published in the Federal Register on December 21, 2000. The law was activated April 21, 2001. The rule, along with detailed fact sheets and other background information, is available on the National Organic Program's website,

Full regulatory text: Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (e-CFR):

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Gardening Guide for City and Country Folk

I remember my grandfather looking at the Farmers Almanac and I have bought copies for my dad and uncles, but they never caught by attention.  A bit too much black and white and not enough pictures (this says a lot about the kind of magazines I read).  Well on a recent trip to the store (yes the store we are not fanatics we are only trying to source closer to home) I look in my cart and what do I see but someone has slipped a farmer’s almanac into it.  I look at my husband who has a guilty grin.

Much to my surprise 30 years later I find that the Farmer’s Almanac is quite interesting.  We got the gardening guide issue.  It said it was for City and Country Folk so I believe we are all included in that. What I enjoyed seeing was the companion planting guide, giving information on how certain plants and insects are beneficial or not so beneficial to one another.  Of course I loved the recipes especially the section devoted to the radish since we should have an abundant supply of those soon.  I see radish top soup on our menu soon.
I also learned what a jujube was and I don’t mean what you find in the candy store.

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You Can't Eat an iPad

Do you need a reason to grow your own food?   Commodity prices have been rising for years and it appears that rising food costs are gaining more and more speed.

According to food inflation will be on the rise during 2011.  Here's an excerpt from a past article in late 2010:
"Food inflation will “accelerate” during the final months of 2010 and into the first six months of 2011, especially for meat, cereal and dairy products..."
CNBC also had a segment recently along those same lines of thought. 
Manufacturing companies have become more and more efficient. They're doing more with less and making more profits as a result.  Service companies are implementing technology applications that make them more efficient. They are servicing more people with the same or less effort and probility has improved.  Car repair shops have gotten to the point that without the aid of microchips and software programs, it's nearly impossible to diagnose causes and effects.

One need look no further than the myriad of news articles or stock prices to see plenty of other examples.

While businesses have reduced costs and improved profits, commodities such as vegetables, grains, and fruits have continued to rise.  Candy bars and cookies have become smaller, but gone up in price.  Carbonated beverages have nearly doubled in price over the past decade. I recall my mom buying 4 loaves of bread for $1 and 5 loaves for $1 when it was on sale.  Now a trip to the grocery store's bread aisle creates a certain "pucker factor" at times with the price of 1 loaf of premium bread brands selling for $2 or more. Bananas, fresh fruits, nuts, and milk are other examples.

We can apply business principles to food production and slow down rising food costs a little, but we may not always like the side effects accompanying that approach.  If you're interested in some examples of those side effects, you may want to rent the movie Food Inc. sometime.

CNBC guest in the video link I posted above explained his point of view about how good the business environment has become in a reference to falling iPad prices.  In an opposing view about the shifting economics, another guest summed up the situation we all are faced with in a simple, but blunt example: 

"the unfortunate reality is I can't eat an I Pad".

How right he is. 

You can buy a few packs of seed for $20 or less, prepare a simple garden in your backyard, and grow the equivalent of 100's or even 1,000s of dollars in produce for the basic cost of very little more than elbow grease and lots of perspiration.

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Monday, February 7, 2011

Throwing Out the Baby (Lettuce) with the Bath

Well in walks my co-gardener (my husband) with news that the lettuce is rotting in the garden.  Since I am in charge of harvesting I sensed a bit of agitation in his voice.   My first thought was Lesson 2: If you plant more in your garden than you can eat, make sure it is something that you can store, pickle, freeze, etc. or plan ahead and stagger your planting so things will ripen over a period of time. 
I had planned on eating salads for the next couple of weeks with this lettuce ripening at different times; he planted it in staggered intervals just for this reason.  I walked out to look at the rotting lettuce thinking I had totally let my husband down and all I see is pretty green young lettuce leaves with a few of what I call sacrificial leaves nearest the ground that were browning a little.
Thinking my bifocals were failing me I asked him where the rotting lettuce was and he replied, “Look at those leaves. They aren’t green.”
Well here is where I come up with my Lesson 3:  Remember fresh vegetables’ appearance is not always perfect - you will have brown leaves occasionally.  You have to pluck out the brown lettuce leaves once in a while, or a cucumber with a worm whole, or a collard leaf with a caterpillar bite, and sometimes you have to accept that your green pepper might not be the size of the ones in the grocery store because you chose not to add the Miracle Grow to your vegetables.  But, just because your veggies aren’t shiny (waxed) and huge like those in the grocery store, don’t automatically reject them.  We have successfully had a wonderful salad for the past two days from the lettuce that my husband thought I had let rot in the garden.
This backyard garden is a work in progress and we are learning a lot in the process, but I highly recommend everyone doing something.  Whether it’s planting a few herbs in a herb box , buying an Earthbox, creating a container garden, or buying a Topsy Turvy; doing anything is better than doing nothing and then complaining about it.

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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Grow Your Own Lunch Salad

Here is a picture of our pre-Superbowl lunchtime meal.  Ultimately, I should be able to grow everything in the picture (sans the mushrooms) in my own backyard garden.  The bib lettuce in the photo was harvested literally a minute or two before we ate it.  Talk about fresh! 

There's a certain satisfaction that accompanies growing your own lunch.  Even though it was only lettuce today, the time is coming when I'll be able to harvest the rest in my urban setting.

I've got bell peppers, poblano peppers, red bell peppers, and jalapeno peppers growing on my backporch and carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli, growing in my above ground gardening beds.  Soon I'll be growing Asian varieties of eggplant from suspended planters to take advantage of the small foot print vertical growing provides. 

It's a lot of fun and I get excited just writing about it.

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Growing Fuyu Persimmon

Last night while waiting in line at the drive-in movie theatre we noticed a persimmon tree nearby.  I've seen persimmon trees grow to more than 25 feet tall and to a span of 25 or 30 feet. This one had been tightly pruned and although it was obviously an older tree it was not more than 4 feet wide and roughly 5 - 6 feet tall. 

It's my understanding that the normal fruiting period for persimmon ranges from Septemeber - December, but this tree had quite a lot of fruit remaining, although I couldn't be sure it's still edible.  The fuyu variety is commercially grown and highly popular.When I'm back in the area of the drive-in theatre, I'll take a picture.

I think a fuyu persimmon might make a good container gardening candidate.  They are very hardy trees in the wild, and based on my research  at the California Rare Fruit Growers website they require only moderate amounts of water and fertilizer.  They do need a well drained soil because over watering or water logging the roots can cause root rot.

The University of Florida IFAS Extension has an article containing persimmon recipes and nutrition information.

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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Fertilizers, Pesticides, and Chemicals in Food

I try to limit the use of synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals in my backyard garden.  I don't do it because I have any special insight or scientific knowledge. I can't say for certain that I am any more or any less healthy because of it. But since I didn't worry about it for the past 43 years, I figure that being more careful in the future makes good sense.

I'm not an expert on pesticides, but I subscribe to the general view that less is more.  I am guessing that if I did a poll of my friends and family, nearly 100% of them would agree with me.

I recently ran across a link to some public comments being accepted regarding regulations that address the amounts of pesticides allowed in the food we purchase.  I encourage you to read it also.  It appears that some groups of people want to obtain waivers to decrease testing of pesticides in the foods we purchase.

Have you ever wondered who regulates these types of things?  Have you wondered who determines how much pesticide is too much?  Me too.  Please read this article from Purdue University that explains some of the in's and out's of the process. 

The article explains that 1% of the food grown domestically and imported from other countries is tested for presence of 268 known pesticides. Have you ever wondered about what's in the other 99% of the food supply?

It sounds like my desire to grow my own food is definitely on the right track.

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Pomegranate Trees for Edible Landscaping

Pomegranate Transplant
We have several groupings of shrubs and hedges in our yard landscaping that were installed by the builder when our home was constructed. The hedges are fine, but do require quite a bit of maintenance. There's something about an untrimmed hedges and shrubs that aggravate me. It's one of my pet peeves.

As my interest in sustainable living has increased during the past few months, I've been exploring several options for replacing the shrubs and hedges with some edible landscaping. 

My yard is small, so a large tree won't really work well.  I live in Florida, so there already plenty of orange, grapefruit, nectarines, and lemon trees to go around.  I ruled out apples, pears, and peaches due to the climate. 

I explored the possibilities of the lychee tree after seeing some videos from Bill Mee in South Florida who has a whole grove of them. 

This tree is roughly 3 years old
Lychees are evergreen trees that are native to China. An evergreen appleals to me for landscaping, since the trees would have green foliage year round.  I recently made a trip to Jene's Tropicals in St. Petersburg to learn more about them.

While there, I discovered the pomegranate tree.  Jene's had a grafted Vietnamese Pomegranate that produces a pink fruit and a Wonderful Pomegranate that produces the more traditional red colored fruit that I am more familar with.  For no other real reason, except that I think red will look better as part of our landscaping than pink, we purchased a 3 year old tree in a 3 gallon container and planted it in our backyard the next daytoward the rear of our property line.

It's my understanding that the tree can be pruned to 6 - 7 feet tall and still produce quite a bit of fruit, if done correctly. Or, left to it's own devices the tree is capable of growing to 18 - 20 feet.  I'm not quite sure how I would harvest a 20 foot tree with my modest step ladder, so my plan is keep things tamed down with some careful periodic pruning.

I've since learned that pomegranate trees are frequently and successfully grown in containers reaching a natural height of 8 - 9 feet (or maybe a little more).  Containers would have been a nice option for us, since it also includes the possibility of relocating the tree later if needed. 

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Growing Fruit Trees in Containers

When I was younger I remember my grandmother growing an orange tree in a 5 gallon bucket.  She enjoyed it as a houseplant, but I'm sure it never yielded any fruit.  We were in rural Missouri mind orange trees were a novelty to me.  Now I live in Florida and it's difficult to drive anywhere in rural areas of Central Florida without seeing an orange grove at some point during the trip.

I was searching around on the Internet for ideas to grow food in my backyard and I kept running into references to growing fruit trees in containers.  The University of Florida IFAS Extension has a detailed article explaining some of the in's and out's.

Besides the obvious advantage of being portable, using containers to grow trees is also advantageous if you have poor soil conditions or unfavorable conditions during certains times of the year. They can be strategically pruned to keep the trees a more manageable size. In smaller backyards, using containers is a viable method to have several types of fruit trees within a small area.

According to the IFAS Extension website,  most commercial potting soil is suitable, but a favorite soil recipe includes "a mixture of 1 part sand, 1 part peat and 1 part bark, perlite or vermiculite will also serve quite well".

Part of my future gardening plans include growing blackberries and this container method sounds like something I should try.

I am unsure whether it has a lot of information on fruit trees specifically, but I found a book by Stella Otto titled The Backyard Orchardist that looks promising for backyard growers.

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