Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What is Brassica?

According to Botany.com brassica refers to the family of vegetables including bok choy, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, colza, Hanover Salad, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, and turnip.   Wikipedia.com refers to the brassica family of vegetables as descendants of wild cabbage. Who knew?

Until a couple of years ago, I had never eaten bok choy, kale, or kohlrabi. Perhaps the most surprising to me is kohlrabi.  It's a funny looking vegetable also known as a German turnip, but it's tasty if prepared well.

Kohlrabi Recipe:  One of my favorite ways to eat kohlrabi is breaded and baked.  You can use seasoned bread crumbs, Shake and Bake, or even fish fry breading.  Slice the kohlrabi and dip it in an egg bath. Bake it in the oven at 400 degrees until the kohlrabi turns a golden brown. When it's cooked like that, kohlrabi actually reminds me of fish. 

With kohlrabi, I can pretend I'm eating meat when I'm actually eating vegetables! 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Aquaponics System Update

Today I received the pond pump for the Do-It-Myself Aquaponics System that I am building.  Many people would call it a Do-It-Yourself System, but since I'm actually doing it myself I have changed up the name a little.  And, in the interest of full disclosure I should also add that I am receiving lots and lots of advice and guidance from my new Internet friends at the AquaponicsCommunity.com and Aquaponic Lynx LLC

I decided to got with Quiet One 4000 Pond Pump manufactured by Lifeguard Aquatics.  The pump is capable of 991 GPH and has the following features as posted on the Lifeguard Aquatics website:

  • ECO-SAV to generate more power with less electricity consumption
  • Internal recirculation prevents overheating and ejects obstructing debris
  • Corrosion resistant ceramic bearings
  • Cooling chambers to provide air-cooling during use
The 4000 has enough power to run an indexing valve if I decide to expland my system with more grow beds later, but it's still in the affordable category for my very non-commercial backyard gardening application.  And perhaps best of all, Aquaponic Lynx (known through the world as TCLynx on aquaponics discussion forums) has been using a similar pump for quite a while and has validated that the 4000 is capable of working well in conjunction with an indexing valve.  She likes them so much in fact that she decided to represent the company and sell the pumps on her aquaponics website.  I felt more comfortable buying a brand and model that someone else has actually used. That's one of the advantages of dealing with someone you at least know a little about versus taking your chances with a random online product purchase.

I also got some gravel guards to protect the stand pipes for the system.  I've ordered some Uniseals as well, but those haven't arrived yet.

Build an Aquaponic System

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why Plant a Vegetable Garden?

You may be wondering why I planted a vegetable garden and why I think it's important enough to write an entire blog about it.  Or, you may be considering planting your own garden to begin growing food.  You are and I are not alone in our desires to begin growing our own food.  There are many others just like us who are already doing it.

A recent article titled Calling All Gardeners published at MayoClinic.com cited a survey by the National Gardening Association about why people choose to plant a vegetable garden.

The survey found the following reasons:
  • 58 percent desire better tasting food
  • 54 percent want to save money on food bills
  • 51 percent want better quality food
  • 48 percent want to grow food they know is safe
The main reason I started doing it was to save money, but after a while I realized there are many other reasons to continue doing it.  It's an afforable hobby and gardening is good exercise.  It's fulfilling to walk out your back door and return with lunch a few minutes later.  The food I grow myself is fresher than most store bought food I buy and it tastes good too.  Perhaps even more important to me though now after I've been gardening for a few years -- I know the types of fertilizers that have (or have not) been applied to my vegetables and in what amounts.  I also know where the seeds came from.  Conduct a Google search for "GMO seeds" sometime and read some of the articles about why this may or may not interest you as well.

I am not yet growing enough food to stop buying some vegetables from the grocery store, but I am growing more and more each year.  I can't predict exactly how much more I will be growing in two or three more years, but I suspect it will be lots more than I am growing today.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hydroponic Troughs for Soiless Gardening

Sunday evening we were walking around in Home Depot shopping for a trellis to support some cucumber plants we're growing.  As we walked down one of the aisles, my wife pointed out a crude, but interesting, amateur hydroponic set-up on display.

The exhibit consisted of a black utility mixing tray about 10 inches deep and 3 feet long x 2 feet wide filled with water. Various plants were growing in net pots and inserted into holes cut out of a piece of styrofoam trimmed to fit into the utility tray. The holes were big enough for the roots to have contact with the water below, but small enough so the net pots would not fall completely through the piece of styrofoam into the water below.

I'm not exactly sure what they were using for nutrients in the water, but I suspect it was some liquid fertilizer that was on display nearby.  I don't have an exact hyperlink to the instructions they had on display with the exhibit, but it was similar to this document posted on the University of Florida IFAS Extension website.

Here's a description of water culture growing methods from the IFAS article:
In water culture, plants are grown with roots submerged in a nutrient solution, with the stem and upper parts of the plants held above the solution. With this system, the main considerations are: provision of a suitable container, suspension of the plants above the water, provision of a suitable nutrient solution, and proper aeration of the water solution.
I don't think the Home Depot display was using any type of aeration for the water, but an inexpensive aquarium air pump and air stones would likely work well.

I am not sure about the advisability of using styrofoam to suspend the plants, since I have no personal experience using it, so before you try to use these methods additional research needs to be performed.  I have been told that BlueBoard manufactured by DOW is often used in aquaponic systems, but again I cannot recommend for it or against it since I have no personal experience with it.

I may try some of these techiniques in the future.  Until then, if you decide to try it or you have personal knowledge of using this growing approach I'd enjoy hearing from you.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Grab a Hat

Today I want to discuss an often overlooked, but vitally important gardening tool - a wide brimmed hat.

My Barmah Hat
My hat of choice is an Australian style Barmah hat like the one in the picture above.  A baseball cap is better than no hat at all, but a wide brimmed hat offers much better protection from the sun.

I started losing my hair in college and it's so short these days that I decided to shave it all off completely. I use 55 SPF sunscreen, but before I spend more than a few minutes outside in the sun I grab my hat for added protection.

Even if you still have your hair, any exposed skin can sunburn pretty quickly during gardening season.  Ears, neck, face, lips, and even eyelids are at risk to too much sun exposure.  An occasional sunburn might not concern you, but it does build up over time. Repeated sun exposure and sun burn over a number of years begins to add up and can damage your skin causing wrinkles, age spots, or worse. 

Do yourself a favor....grab a hat the next time you head out to the garden.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Blackberry Update

The blackberries I planted a couple of weeks ago are not doing well.  The package said, "guaranteed to grow'".  Note to nursery stock providers - it's risky to guarantee that something will grow because there's a good chance your customer is going to end up disappointed.  I think there are just too many variables to offer a guarantee.

The instructions said "water once per week" and "do not fertilize until growth appears".  I watered twice a week because of the dry weather we have been having, but I didn't use any fertilizer.  The plants were potted in clay containers using standard potting soil.

The berries were definitely alive when we purchased them, but I have doubts that they are still living.  I'll give it another week before we try something else.  I am still hopeful the berries will grow.

Maybe I can find a more mature blackberry transplant to use.

Growing Cucumbers in a Container

We're growing cucumbers in an Earthbox container.  We have four plants that are getting closer and closer to blooming.  They've really grown a lot in the last two weeks as the weather has warmed up to the mid-70's consistently.

I've never used mulch covers before, but they work very well. They prevent
weeds and over watering in addition to holding in moisture that wicks upwards
 from the water resevoir.

The instructions recommend planting the cucumbers
toward the rear of the container.  This allows the vines
to spread forward over the front of the container. 
These pictures demonstrate the importance of placing your growing container on a level surface.  The peppers in the left hand side of the box are not growing as fast as those in the right side of the box.  When we planted the cucumber seeds the right hand side was lower than the left side, so the two right plants got more moisture and grew faster.  After a couple of weeks I figured this out and leveled the container a little better. Now the smaller plant is making up for lost time.

I don't we'll get enough cucumbers to make pickles, but we'll how it goes. I might need to add another box or two next season if the cucumbers turn out well.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

How to Build a Solar Panel

I am a regular reader of 3x5 Aquaponics blog.  A recent post featured a video about building a solar panel.  I enjoyed it so much, I thought I'd share it here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Certified Organic Bibb Lettuce

Bibb Lettuce
The bibb lettuce seeds we planted this year in our above ground garden have been very prolific.  We grew this lettuce from USDA certified organic seeds purchased at Home Depot. We've had multiple harvests, salad lunches, and salad dinners from the same seeds. 

Here in Florida, lettuce grows best during the cooler months.  The warm days with temperatures in the upper 70's coupled with cooler nights with temperatures in the upper 40's have helped our lettuce a lot this year.

Aloe Vera Plant

Our aloe plant is about to bloom.
We've been growing aloe vera in containers and pots for many years, but this one is blooming.  Until this year, I had no idea that these succulents would bloom at all.  After this picture was taken, a second bloom formed on the same plant.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Backyard Hydroponic Peppers

A few pictures of the peppers growing my homemade hydroponic bubbler I made from an inexpensive 18 gallon storage container, an air stone, a cheap aquarium air pump, with some fish emulsion for nutrient.

Bell Peppers

Cubanelle Peppers

Guess how many pepper plants are in this picture? All are currently fruiting.
There are a total of six plants in the picture including bell, Cubanelle, poblano, and hot chili.

I made the bubbler as an experiment and have less than $30 invested in the entire project.  A commercial version can run upwards of $90 or more.  I'm unsure whether the commercial version works 3 times better because I don't own one, but my homemade version is working pretty well so far. 

I need to fine tune the nutrients more and my results would likely be even better.

If you look closely at the picture, you'll probably notice that I had to add some small stakes to support the plants.  Windy days were wreaking havoc on the plants and these bamboo sticks I had in the garage are doing the trick.

Here's another idea for a homemade backyard hydroponics system that I'm going to try later this year. I've seen a wicking system idea that is similar, but I want to continue experimenting with cheap and easy hydroponics.  "Even a blind hog finds an acorn every once in awhile."

Friday, March 11, 2011

Pomegranate Tree 5 1/2 Weeks Later

I planted a pomegranate tree on February 5th.  Here's a picture of the tree shortly after planting:

And here it is 5 weeks later:

I've been watering the tree 3 or 4 times a week and dousing it with some fish emulsion water leftover from my experimental deep water hydroponics system when I change out the water.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How to Harvest Worm Castings

Many gardeners use compost piles to dispose of yard clippings, leaves, and other types of yard refuse. Traditionally, this has been done via "hot composting" methods by combining "greens" and "browns" to create decomposition. Other gardeners use red wigglers to help with the process. It's a little faster process by getting the worms to do some of the dirty work.

I don't have a hot compost pile yet, but I've been composting my kitchen scraps, newspapers, cardboard, coffee grounds, and smaller amounts of leaves with worms for the past two years with nice results. We use the resulting worm castings as a soil amendment in our garden, potted plants, and flower beds.

Here's a video with a cheap and easy tip for reducing the time it takes to harvest the worm castings and separate the red wigglers.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Growing Blackberries

While we continue to transform and, in some instances, completely replace our urban landscaping with edible food bearing plants, trees, and bushes it isn't surprising that we ended up planting two blackberry bushes this weekend. Besides being practical, relatively easy to grow, and of high personal sentimental value to me, it was inevitable that we'd eventually plant some blackberries.

As a child, I remember my grandmother giving me a plastic container and sending me out behind the hog barn to pick some blackberries from the massive bushes that had been there for decades.  It was fun and besides that, I got to eat all the free fruit I wanted while I worked.  Turning in a heaping bowl of blackberries also guaranteed that a blackberry cobbler and a bowl of vanilla ice cream would make an appearance as an after dinner desert.

According to Garden.org:
"Blackberries are among the easiest fruits to grow at home. Cultivated varieties have larger berries than the wild types. They'll start to bear the second year after planting and continue for about 15 years. Trained properly, four plants, each with a 3-by-3-foot growing area, can supply enough berries for a family of four. Where winters are not too severe, the new thornless varieties do well."
We've been looking for blackberry plants for several weeks from a local nursery source without any luck.  While walking around in Lowes on Sunday I ran into an assortment of berry bushes as I was leaving to include raspberry, blueberry and blackberries. Finally!

Most of the online sources sell the 2 year old berry plants for about $5, but require a $50 minimum order.  At Lowes, I picked up 2 of them for less than $10. What a deal. I only wish they were the thornless varierty, but you know what they say about beggars and choosers.

We decided to plant them in two large clay pots that Old Tyme Pottery had marked down to clearance levels.  Eventually they will become root bound in the pots and require some root pruning or re-potting, but hopefully we'll be set with the current containers for 3 or 4 years.

Front of package

Instructions for planting on the back
The instructions explain that once a week watering is required and that fertilizers shouldn't be used until new growth become visible. Easy peasy!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

When to pick a carrot?

We have watched the tops of the carrots grow bigger and fuller for the past several weeks. They seem to be liking the warmer 70+ degree daytime temperatures. We dream about the day we'll be able to eat the beautiful orange vegetables cozy in their bed of soil in the above ground garden.

Every day I wonder, "Is today the day? How will I know when it's time?"

I asked my husband this question and he looked down at them and said, "Not yet." Truth be told, he really doesn't know anymore than I do on this topic.

I convinced him to pull a single carrot to check their readiness.  Alas, it wasn't time yet, but we did get excited by the two-inch baby carrot that told us that soon we will have our very own home grown carrots to enjoy. The little carrot was good, although not very sweet. I am afraid that the heat of Florida might prohibit us harvesting a sweet carrot, but the carrot definitely had more flavor than the last bunch of carrots I bought from the grocery store.

But still...I pose the question, "How will we know when it is time to harvest?"  So I did what every other self-respecting human being does when they need information - I headed to Google Search.

Here is what I found from About.com. The tops of the carrots will show at the soil line and then you can gauge when the diameter is right for your variety. If the diameter looks good, then the length should be fine. So basically you handle carrots much as we handled our radishes.

This answer leads to another question for me, "What variety did we plant?"  I guess that would be a good thing to chronicle in our blog, so we have a history or diary of our processes. Oh well, there's always "next time".

Central Florida Aquaponics Tour - March 5, 2011

I can't think of a better way to spend a Saturday than touring a whole bunch of backyard gardens. We started in Winter Park and ended in Brooksville (I drove about 350 miles round trip). The tour was organized by some very gracious folks that belong to the Florida Group on AquaponicsCommunity.com hosted on Ning.

Commercial style raft aquaponics, growing directly in media beds, homemade PVC, Zip Grow tower strips, and high tech hydroponic stacks were some of the various aquaponic styles being used by our hosts.

Here's a slide show featuring pictues I took along the way. I hope you enjoy it.

Build an Aquaponic System

Friday, March 4, 2011

Upside Down Eggplant

Here's my first eggplant growing in the upside down planter I purchased.  It's growing well.  Today I noticed the first blooms.
Egg plant growing upside down
If you look closely you'll see a little condensation on the outside of the canvas grow bag.

Picture of My Backyard Garden's Progress

I decided to snap some photos tonight to show the progress my backyard garden has made in just a few short weeks. 

First Bell Pepper
I've been experimenting with homemade hydroponics for a couple of months.  The picture above is about 5 days of growth from the day it was first visible.  I'm growing 6 different pepper plants including poblano, bell, banana, and jalepeno in an 18 gallon Rough Tote container with an air stone to aerate the water.  I'm using fish emulsion, bone meal, and some a small amount of liquid micro nutrient developed for hydroponics. I change the water every 10 - 14 days.

Herb Close-up
Three Herb Types
I'll confess that I don't know enough about herbs to know the difference in the three types growing in the clay pot above.  They were planted about 10 days ago and are making good progress.

Second Bell Pepper Close-Up
I didn't see this bell pepper for a few days, but found this pleasant surprise tonight.  There are lots and lots of blooms on the other plants.  If luck remains on my side, there should be plenty of other peppers to photograph very soon.

Cucumbers in our Earth Box
We're growing 4 cucumbers in our first Earth Box.  I had trouble getting the box level at first, so the plants suffered. If the box is not level, water won't wick upwards properly to enrich the plants.