Closing the Loop on Aquaponics

December 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

By Kyle Brookens

As discussed in the Aquaponics blog post, the system is far from completely closed, but it is possible to make the system a little bit tighter by just focusing on fish food. Tilapia mostly feed on algae, plankton, some insects, and duckweed. They also require vitamins and trace minerals in order to grow healthy in a short period of time. Believe it or not, tilapia can even eat vegetable scraps if they are blended up to a decent size. Live insects provide a great source of protein and fat, which fish do need some of both. Common insects that they eat are earthworms, crickets, snails, slugs, flies, moths, beetles, and caterpillars. Red wigglers are great because they provide an excellent source of vitamins, not to mention that tilapia love to eat them. If they have to, they will even eat scraps of meat, but I would not recommend feeding tilapia meat products (Woods). Tilapia can be fed myriad foods, and some of them are a great supplement for your fish because they are so easy to raise and produce high yields. Both red wigglers and duckweed serve as excellent forms of supplemental fish feed.

Duckweed is a great supplemental food for tilapia because this plant is naturally part of their diet, and it is extremely easy to cultivate. All you need is a stock tank full of PH neutral, de-chlorinated water, a small culture of duckweed, sunlight, space, and a source of fertilizer. Yields of duckweed can start at “a few hundred kilograms per hectare/year,” but quickly escalate “to 10 tonnes/ha/year” (Leng et. al.). Its growth “resembles the exponential growth of unicellular algae,” where its mass may double in less than a day (Leng et. al.). Duckweed usually grows like a blanket on the surface of ponds that have large amounts of decaying organic matter in them. The decaying organic matter serves as a source of fertilizer. Regardless, Duckweed can be found in a wide variety of climactic zones and can go dormant if the temperatures get too low. Duckweed prefers a PH between 6.5 – 7.5. The plant prefers temperatures between 50 – 80, just as most plants do. The leaf itself has very little fiber, up to 43% protein, 5% fats, and “highly digestible dry matter” (Leng et. al.). As with any plant, duckweed needs a source of fertilizer. Manure from livestock, food processing wastes, sewage sludge, compost, and vermicompost are all great sources of fertilizer, it is just important to make sure that the solids do not float. It is also important to not over fertilize; too much fertilization will burn and kill the plant. Duckweed may also need a mineral supplement such as sea salt. If duckweed does not sound amazing enough already, it also contains many essential amino acids that resemble animal protein (Leng et. al). For this reason, duckweed may be used as a feed for many different kinds of livestock, such as pig, duck, chicken, and cows. While growing duckweed, it is important to maintain a density of about 1kg/square meter. This is important to inhibit algae from taking over. Duckweed may be frozen or dried for later use. Although this plant is amazing, it cannot be relied upon to supply the entire diet of the tilapia in an aquaponics system, and for this reason, vermicompost is a great addition to help close the loop.

As described in the Vermicompost blog post, worms are extremely useful consumers of food waste that produce rich, healthy worm castings. In closing the loop of the aquaponics system, the earthworm castings could be used as an excellent supply of fertilizer for the duckweed operation. All the organic food, stems, cardboard, and paper waste that is generated by the garden will help feed the worms, which will help feed the plants and duckweed, which will help feed the fish. Furthermore, as the worms reproduce, the population will need to be controlled, and what better way than to add a few worms to the diet of the fish. Red wigglers may also be added to the grow beds of the system to help serve as yet another bio-filter (in conjunction with the plants and bacteria). Red wigglers have a high content of protein and vitamins, just as the duckweed, but the worms provide different kinds of nutrients (Woods). Red wigglers should only be used as a supplement to duckweed, for tilapia only require about 35% protein in their diet. Plus, the younger the fish, the more protein they need, and the older the fish, the less protein they need. With this in mind, it might be a good idea to chop up the worms a little bit before they are fed to the fish when they are young. It is also a good idea to feed tilapia red wrigglers in moderation.

All things considered, both duckweed and red wigglers can help close the aquaponic system, but it is also important to know that both duckweed and red wigglers cannot be relied upon to completely feed your fish. In order to make sure that both your fish and plants are healthy, you should only feed them duckweed and worms as a supplement. Both of these organisms combined do not supply all of the required minerals and nutrients that the fish and plants need, and that is why they should just be treated as supplements in your aquaponics system. Unless you are an expert in fish and plant nutrition, it is wise to feed your fish mostly a diet composed of scientifically balanced food pellets. With this said, feel free to experiment with your fish if you are not planing on selling your produce for profit. There is a lot to learn in the aquaponics cycle, and it would be ideal to completely close the loop (including a pump run by renewable sources of energy). It can be done, but it will require a lot of research, resources, time, money, and experimentation to get such a system dialed and running smoothly.


Works Cited

Leng, R A, J H Stambolie, and R. Bell. “Duckweed – a potential high-protein feed resource for domestic animals and fish.” Livestock research for Rual Development. Oct. 1995. <;. Retrieved 12 Dec. 2012.


Woods, Jonathan. “The Urban Aquaculture Manual.” Web of Creation Chapter 4. 2 Mar. 2009. <;. Retrieved 12 Dec. 2012.


Fakhoorian, Tamra. Duckweed Gardening. “Duckweed Growing Tips and Tricks.” 7 Mar. 2012. <;. Retrieved 12 Dec. 2012.


The Joy of Vermicomposting

December 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

 By Kyle Brookens

Vermicomposting or vermiculture is a composting technique that uses earthworms, typically red wigglers, to convert primary vegetable food waste into rich, organic fertilizer. There are several benefits to composting with worms, and constructing a worm bin is so simple, anyone can do it. Vermicompost is so valuable that some people farm earthworm castings and sell thirty pound bags for about twenty dollars each! It is astonishing to know that some people make a living off of collecting other peoples food waste just by feeding it to a bunch of worms. Well, technically the worms do not eat all the food scraps, but instead, fungi, algae, bacteria, and the plethora of micro-organisms that mainly feed on the food scraps are what the worm eats. Furthermore, worms can compost only so many food scraps at once. For every pound of food scraps, the worm bin needs at least one pound of worms for one week. It is a one to one ratio. If a worm bin is full of 10 pounds of worms, the worms need 10 pounds of food scraps every week. Worms also need a moist environment that is out of direct sunlight. If their environment is too dry, they will shrivel and die, but on the other side, if their environment is saturated with standing water, they will suffocate and die. For worms, their skin is the equivalent to our lungs. Think about the environment that your lungs prefer, and try to mimic that if you wish to have happy, healthy worms. Just like your lungs, the worm bin needs to be out of direct sunlight, so they don’t fry. It’s no wonder why worm composting is so beneficial and easy; they really don’t require much, but they sure do give back a whole lot.

Vermicomposting is beneficial in several ways. As stated before, it is a rich, organic fertilizer. The worms convert primary food waste into nutrients to produce more food. Vermicompost is great as a fertilizer because it naturally releases nutrients slowly. This way the plants have more time to obtain all the nutrients, instead of loosing some through run-off. Plants can more easily absorb the nutrients because the fertilizer is natural and not foreign. Along with an excellent fertilizer, earthworm castings are enriched with the beneficial bacteria and micro-organisms that reside in earthworms. They are beneficial because they help the plants in the garden develop a resistance to disease and pests. Plants that are fed healthy earthworm casting nutrients are generally more healthy and therefore do not require the use of pesticides. Believe it or not, earthworm castings also contain plant growth hormones that encourage germination, improve root and shoot growth, and increase yields. “Vermicompost is a colloid and holds up to nine times its own weight in water,” which could be very useful in dry climates that do not receive very much rainfall (DoItYourself Staff). The final product is great because a little bit goes a long way. Besides these benefits, the finished product smells and looks like rich earth, not rotten food like most other composts.

Making a worm bin is inexpensive and easy. The first step is to obtain the bin itself. The size of the bin depends on the amount of food waste you would like to compost every week. A 20 gallon bin works just fine for a small family household. If you would like to keep the worm bin indoors or like to collect the worm tea, make sure to grab 2 bins (one for the worms, and one for the juices to drain into). Take one of the bins and drill several small holes (1/8 – 1/4” drill bit works just fine) in the bottom, along the sides, and in the lid. Lay a piece of cardboard in the bottom of the bin, and tear up or shred enough newspaper or unbleached paper to form a decent bed. Usually about 1/2 – 2/3 of the container should be full of paper. Leave the paper fluffed, and not compressed. Sprinkle the newspaper with a little water, just enough to get it moist. Place some primary food scraps (scraps that are made while preparing meals) on the newspaper. Add a little bit of garden soil to jump start the decomposition process with some micro-organisms and fungi. The soil also gives the worms some grit for their gizzards. Another layer of damp newspaper, food scraps, and damp newspaper again never hurts. Place about one pound of worms in the bin after letting the bin sit for about a week. Banana peals and coffee grounds are excellent initial food scraps that are easily decomposed and digested. Cover the bin and place it in an area that does not receive direct sunlight. If you would like to keep the bin inside, it is important to have the worm bin resting within another worm bin of the same size, so the juices do not leak everywhere. Plus, those juices are nutritious for your plants. Check the bin everyday for dampness and the rate of decomposition for the first two weeks to get a feel for how much water and food scraps your worms need. Wow, Vermicomposting sure is inexpensive, beneficial, and easy.

When the castings are ready to harvest you will need to sift through them. Hand sifting a small bin does not take much time. All you need is a small panel of hardware cloth with 1/8” holes, 4 pieces of 1 x 4, and a container to shake the castings into. Cut a 2′ x 2′ panel of the hardware cloth. Take the 4 2′ pieces of 1 x 4 and nail them together to make a frame. Nail the hardware cloth to one side. Now you can begin sifting the castings into the container. Put the worms back in the bin and give them a fresh supply of cardboard, newspaper, and food scraps. The final product will look like small, dark pellets, and they are very easily spread in the garden, or in container pots.

Vermicomposting is a great way to reduce your waste and improve the health of your garden at the same time. Everyone benefits. The worms are happy because they get fed lots of tasty food. You are happy because you don’t need to have your garbage picked up weekly anymore, and because you get great tasting, high yielding produce without high costs. Lastly, your plants are happy because they are getting fed organic nutrients that they can easily absorb. Among other things, you are doing the world a great favor by recycling your food waste and reducing your carbon footprint by eating fresh produce that comes from your windowsill or backyard. Even more importantly, the produce that you grow at home will taste better than anything you can buy at the store. Ultimately, there really is no reason to not start vermicomposting at home today.

DoItYourself Staff. “7 Benefits of Vermicomposting.” 1999. <>. Retrieved 3 Dec. 2012.

Jeanroy, Amy. “How To Make Your Own Worm Bin.” 2008. <>. Retrieved 5 December 2012.

Gonzalez, Ruth. “Black Gold. . . And It Ain’t Oil!.” Tailgate Market Fan Club. 29 Jan. 2012. <>. Retrieved 5 December 2012.

Aquaponics at The WSCU Pinnacles Greenhouse

December 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

By Kyle Brookens

Aquaponics is a closed-loop system that generates an abundance of produce, and it seems to twinkle with an inspiring aesthetic. The system is not perfectly closed-loop, for there are many start-up inputs, and you must have a continuous supply of fish food. As far as raw materials and resources go, aquaponics requires the following: grow beds (wood and EPDM pond liner, or plastic), screws, pipe brackets, the tools to build the system, a fish tank (glass, wood and pond liner, or plastic), a magnetic submersible pump, PVC pipe, a heater with a thermostat (depending on location), PVC fittings, bulk head fittings, fish food, fish feeder (not entirely necessary), Hydroton clay pellets or lime-free gravel, an API master freshwater test kit, a de-chlorinater, air stones, PH up and/or PH down (if you have too high/too low PH readings), seeds, fish (tilapia, coy, goldfish, or trout) nitrosomonas (bacteria), nitrospira (bacteria), some red worms, water, property, and electricity. As you might infer from the list of materials and resources, the system is far from a perfect closed-loop operation, and it is also far from simple. Regardless, aquaponics mimics natural processes and is an excellent demonstration tool for education. Aquaponics also has major implications in regions where water is scarce. Besides that, Aquaponics is a new and fun way to grow your own food.

There are a few different types of aquaponic systems and each have their pros and cons. There are commercial lilly pad farms, flood and drain (ebb and flow) Constant Height One Pump (CHOP), Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), Constant Height in Fish Tank (CHIFT), Pump In Sump Tank (PIST), two pump, Barrel, and IBC tote bed systems to name a few (Dusty Szymanski). I am only familiar with flood and drain and CHOP systems, for I believe that these systems work well on the scale that I am working with. CHOP systems are great because they allow the water in the fish tank remain at the same height. This system is ideal for both plants and fish, because it does not lower the level of water in the fish tank and it allows the grow beds to flood and drain with the use of a bell siphon. The bell siphon allows the grow beds to fill to the height that you desire, then as soon as the water starts to flow into the pipe, the bell siphon creates a vacuum, and therefore, drains the bed completely. The fish tank remains at a constant level in this system because it requires the use of a sump tank. The grow beds will drain into the sump tank and the pump will continuously pump the water from that tank into the fish tank. This system is also great because it prevents your pump from being clogged with fish emulsion. On the downside, it is more beneficial for your bacteria and your plants to have the pump on the bottom of the fish tank so all the ammonium resting at the floor of the fish tank gets cycled without doubts. This is where a flood and drain system trumps the CHOP system, but not by much. The Western State Colorado University’s Pinnacles Greenhouse has a flood and drain system. It is exactly the same as a CHOP system, except there is no sump tank and the grow beds drain directly into the fish tank. The pump rests on the bottom of the fish tank and less materials are used because the sump tank is excluded. The simplicity of a flood and drain system is also a benefit, but as I stated before, there really is no perfect aquaponics system, each has pros and cons.

With any aquaponics system, it is important to know a few key pieces of information. First, it is important to make sure that the grow bed to fish tank ratio is at least 1:1. If this is not possible, it is better to have a system that has a greater grow bed to fish tank ratio. The more plants there are, the more filtered the water will be for the fish, because there is more surface area for bacteria to grow and more plants will absorb more nitrate. The bottom line is that the fish need to be happy. It would be better to add seaweed fertilizer for your plants than to have your fish choking on nutrient rich water (this would only be necessary when the plants are fruiting anyways). It is also important to add water to the system sometimes, for it will loose some water via transpiration, evaporation, and photosynthesis. How much water the system needs just depends on the season and how much water is being used by the plants and fish. The pump is an extremely important piece of the aquaponic puzzle because it keeps everything in motion. The pump is so important that it is recommended to have at least one back-up pump, just in case it fails. As a rule of thumb, one cubic foot of grow bed space equals seven and a half gallons of water. If the fish tank size is 300 gallons, the grow beds need to hold 40 cubic feet of water (300 gallons/7.5 gallons=40 cubic feet). This is a simple way to calculate the 1:1 ratio, for the grow beds should be about 1 foot deep. The amount of fish required by the system also depends on the amount of water in the fish tank. On average, the system should have one pound of mature fish per 5-10 gallons of water. A mature tilapia fish weighs about 1.5 pounds. In this case, a 300 gallon fish tank has a maximum carrying capacity of about 30-60 tilapia (5-10 gallons of water for each fish/300 gallons = 30-60 fish) . In terms of pounds of fish produced, a 300 gallon tank in about 9-12 months will render 45 – 90 pounds. All things considered, it would be best to shoot  for the mean of the two and stock the tank with 45- 50 fish and produce about 70 pounds.

When cycling begins and when the system is up and running, there are five things to test once every week: PH, nitrite, nitrate, ammonia, and temperature. When starting the system from scratch (cycling) it is important to test the water every day. This is where the API master freshwater test kit and the fish tank heater come in handy. Fish prefer the water to maintain a PH of 6.5 – 8, the plants prefer 5 – 7, and the bacteria and worms prefer 6 – 8. Overall, the system is running well if the PH is between 6.8 – 7. It does not have to be perfect, but the goal is to maintain that PH level. If there is ever a problem with the PH level, add the hydroponic PH up or down, as needed and directed (whenever adjusting PH, do it slowly, at .2-.5/day). Blue tilapia prefer temperatures between 75 – 80 degrees Fahrenheit, plants prefer about the same temperatures, and the bacteria prefer temperatures between 77 – 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures around the low 80’s will keep everyone happy. If the system is too rich in nitrites (NO2), than something is usually wrong with the nitrospira bacteria. If the system is too rich in nitrates (NO3), than the plants are not absorbing enough nutrients, or the plant density is too low. If the ammonium (NH3) levels are high, than something is wrong with the nitrosomonas bacteria, or the water temperature is a little too high. There is no perfect solution to these problems, but for the bacteria issues, it is worth purchasing some Cycle, Stress-zyme, Bacta-Pur, or proline nitrifying bacteria, or getting a sample from another mature aquaponic system. Nitrates are nearly harmless to the fish, but ammonia is quite toxic and nitrite is very toxic if the levels are too high. A rule of thumb is to have high nitrate concentrations and low (below .5) ammonia and nitrite concentrations. Table one shows the maximum long-term amounts of ammonia levels that is considered safe at a given temperature and PH ( If the ammonia levels exceed the levels in this chart, the aquaponics systems needs a flush. A flush requires that 1/3 or more of the water must be pumped out and replaced with fresh de-chlorinated water. If the nitrite concentrations are too high, flush the system, consider adding non-iodized salt, and stop feeding the fish until the nitrite level gets below 1. It is also a good idea to aerate the water with air stones and air pumps as much as possible, because nitrite is the equivalent of carbon monoxide to humans.

A good resource for aquaponics is Sylvia Bernstein’s Aquaponic Gardening book (about $20 USD).

Maximum Ammonia Levels (ppm) Based on Water Temperature
PH 68F 77F
6.5 15.4 11.1
7 5 3.6
7.5 1.6 1.2
8 0.5 0.4
8.5 0.2 0.1

Informative Mutual Relationships

December 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

 By Kyle Brookens

Just like the mutual closed-loop system found in aquaponics between fish, bacteria, and plants, and just like certain species of mycelium assist plants in gathering nutrients, the plants themselves have similar mutual relationships. Specific relationships between different species of plants may improve the growth of one or both and provide protection for one or both. It is like having a personal body guard, both benefit from the relationship; The body guard gets payed and the individual being protected will feel safe in almost any situation. With plants it works the same way, all you need to know is who the enemies are, who the body guard is, and who needs protection. Indeed, even in the plant world there are enemies, some plants will just never get along with other plants, and most plants will never get along with some insects. For this reason, it is quite useful to know who you want to plant next to who, and who might be a good addition to the garden. When two plants exhibit mutually beneficial relationships, where both plants benefit from the relationship, the plants are referred to as companions. When certain plants help improve the growth or provide protection of another plant, they are termed allies. Lastly, when certain plants should not be commingled and grown next to one-another, they are considered enemies.

Companion planting does not only benefit the plants, but benefits the grower by producing greater, better tasting, more nutritious yields. The companions of cabbage are beets, celery, chard, cucumber, lettuce, onion, potato, and spinach. The companions of carrots include beans, lettuce, onion, peas, peppers, radish, and tomatoes. Chard does well when planted next to beans, cabbage, or onions. Cucumbers are paired well with beans, cabbage, corn, peas, radish, or tomatoes. Lettuce, strangely enough, does well with strawberry as a companion, or beets, cabbage, carrots, onions, and radish. Onions tend to grow well with beets, cabbage, carrots, chard, lettuce, peppers, strawberries, and tomatoes. Parsley does well around asparagus, corn, and tomatoes. Peas love beans, carrot, corn, cucumber, radish, and turnips. Peppers do well next to carrots, eggplants, onion, and tomato. Potatoes may be found in good company with beans, cabbage, corn, eggplant, and peas. Radish does well when paired with beans, carrots, cucumber, lettuce, melon, or peas. Spinach is quite picky, and has only two companions of cabbage and strawberries. Squash should be planted amongst corn, Mellon, and pumpkin. Strawberries should be paired with beans, lettuce, onion, spinach, and thyme. Tomatoes grow well and will have an enhanced flavor if planted with borage, asparagus, carrot, celery, cucumber, onion, parsley, and pepper. Most companions will enhance the growth of both plants and enhance the flavor of the produce (Weinmann). From my experience, both sage and small mints tend to do well when planted together. Companion relationships between plants is very useful knowledge to have when growing a diverse, healthy garden, but knowing who the allies are is equally important to ward off pests and parasites .

It is useful to know that the allies of a plant might be more beneficial, because they may help deter pests and parasites. The ally of beets is garlic. Garlic does not deter any pests, but it does improve the growth and flavor of beets. Catnip, hyssop, mint, rosemary, and sage deter the cabbage moth from the cabbage family. Both chamomile and garlic improve growth, flavor, and health of cabbage plants. For carrots, Rosemary helps deter carrot fly and chives enhance growth and flavor. In general, Marigolds deter beetles and nematodes, Oregano deters all pests, and Nasturtiums deter aphids, beetles, and bugs. Nasturtiums also improve growth and flavor of Cucumber. Chives and Garlic both deter aphids, which are both allies of lettuce. Chamomile, summer savory, and sow thistle enhance the growth, health, and flavor of onions. Pig-weed actually draws nutrients from the subsoil and makes those nutrients available to onion. Mint improves the health and flavor of peas. If horseradish is planted at the corners of a potato patch, the potatoes will be well protected from insect infestation. Both Chervil and nasturtiums help radish grow and enhance their flavor. When strawberries are planted next to borage, the strawberries will have a resistance to insects and disease. If thyme is planted along the boarder of the strawberry patch, worms will be deterred. To ward off flies and mosquitoes from tomatoes and to enhance the flavor of the tomato fruit, plant basil next to them. Borage improves the health and flavor of tomato while preventing a tomato worm infestation (Weinmann). These relationships represent few of the many allies that have formed between various plants. Although the enemies of certain plants might be obvious at this point, it is still useful to know which plants just don’t get along.

Most plants tend to do well together, which is why the companion and ally list seem to drag on forever; nonetheless, some plants have natural rivalries. The enemies of beats are pole beans and beats (when planted too close together). As with any plant, if they are planted too close together, they will be competing and ultimately stunt each-others growth. The enemies of cabbage are kohlrabi and tomato. Carrots should never be planted next to dill, for it retarded the growth of the carrots. Peas do not do well when planted with garlic and onion. Never plant radishes next to hyssop. Onions are stunted by peas. Potatoes should never be planted near tomatoes, for they are attached by the same blight. Sage tends to injure cucumber and inhibit its growth. Strawberries hate cabbage. Both corn and tomatoes are attacked by the same worm, and therefore, should not be planted together. Mature dill and kohlrabi inhibit tomato growth. As far as the list of plants discussed here goes, these are about all the negative relationships found between plants.

With this information at hand, anyone from professional agriculturalists to hobby gardeners may realize greater yields, better tasting food, and less damage caused by insects. Granted, some of these relationships may not be ideal (such as herbs that may take over the garden), but if we carefully maintain those relationships, nothing should get in the way of companion planting. This list is by no means complete or exhaustive, but rather, a start to understanding the relationships between different plants that we grow for food. The greater the diversity in any system, the more resilient and productive it will become. Mono-culture should be termed as an outdated form of agriculture, so permaculture may rise and dominate the way people produce food from now on. Nothing has ever stood alone and thrived; every living organism is social out of necessity, so why not capitalize on mutualistic relationships and help each other out? Nobody can argue with a win-win situation.

Weinmann, Todd. “Companion Planting.” Cass County Extension Horticulturist & Master Gardener Coordinator. 15 Sept. 2010. <>. Retrieved 6 Dec. 2012.

The Pinnacles Greenhouse Irrigation System

December 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

By Kyle Brookens

The irrigation system in the Pinnacles Greenhouse has a relatively simple design. The permanent beds are irrigated with 1/2” drip tape, the holes in the cinder-blocks are irrigated with .5gal/hr drip emitters, the tables are irrigated with seven small adjustable sprinklers that spray 180 degrees, the hanging pots are irrigated with .5 – 1gal/hr drip emitters, and the trees are irrigated with a 1/4” drip ring. There is potential to incorporate the shelves in the left corner of the greenhouse because a plugged 1/2” black polyethylene supply tube is tied into the 1” PVC underground supply. For each zone (permanent beds = 1, table = 2, hanging pots = 3, and trees = 4) a 1/2” valve was installed on the supply line to control the flow of the incoming water. This was installed because the drip emitters do not require as much pressure as the small sprinklers.

Starting from the hose bib, we installed a 4-way split. Currently, only two of the splits seem necessary, but the other two may come in handy in the future. One occupied connection goes to the garden hose for hand watering. The other occupied connection supplies the entire irrigation system. The water must be turned on at all times for the system to work properly. A short 5/8 hose connects to the timer which has four different program times. As of right now, we are only utilizing two of those (one 2 min run-time in the morning and one 2 min run-time in the evening). In the summer it might be convenient to have the other two programs run during the day for a short time to increase humidity and lower the air temperature. From the timer, a 5/8 hose connects to the basic 155 mesh Y filter. The 125 psi pressure gauge comes next, then the 22 psi pressure reducer, and followed by the 30 psi pressure gauge. A bib and adapter connects the 5/8 potable water hose to the hose bib assembly. The hose then connects underground at a depth of 5-6 inches to the 1” PVC supply line. The supply line has 3 T’s and 8 elbows that distribute the water to the 4 working zones and 1 expandable zone in the left corner. In areas where the pipe will experience heavy foot traffic, we housed the 1” PVC in 1 1/2” steal pipe to prevent damage occurring to the underground pipes. At each zone the 1” PVC converts to the 1/2” polyethylene black pipe, usually underground. Each PVC connection was primed and glued and each 1/2” tube connection was taped and/or secured with a hose clamp.

The irrigation system is about as simple as we could possibly make it. We utilized materials that we obtained for free and made the system very easy to understand. There is a downfall to the simplicity of the system: the timer runs off of a rechargeable 9 volt battery. We purchased a back-up 9-volt battery and the appropriate charger. The best way to ensure that the timer never fails is to swap the battery with a freshly charged battery before a long holiday (such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring break), and to swap the battery before it runs completely dry. Other than this small obstacle, the system is completely automated, and therefore, it allows the greenhouse operator to spend more time tending to the plants, soil, and aquaponics system. The attached jpg file is a useful diagram of the entire irrigation system as of 11/27/12.

Irrigation in GH

Unwanted Visitors in the Garden

October 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

By Kyle Brookens

Patel, the farmer from India, showed me that someone had been cutting the cabbage with a knife (well, from what I could decipher). The language barrier between Patel and I is impossible to ignore, but I can usually get a good understanding of what he is trying to communicate to me; it just takes a lot of time. Yesterday, October 1, 2012, Patel interrupted me when I was clipping the tops of the Basil in the hoop-house. He relentlessly sought to take the scissors from my hands even though I just wanted to continue my work. He is a hard man to ignore, so I inevitably gave up my scissors. He opened and closed them a few times, inspected them, and turned to me with a disapproving look in his eyes. He said nothing that I could understand except for the word “scissors.” I could only nod, smile, and say “good.” Patel turned his back to me and motioned that I follow him, so I did. He took me to the front of the hoop house, pointed, and gestured at the table, repeating “no scissors.” He talked for a few minutes in the Hindi languages of either Indo-Aryan or the Dravidian, then motioned me to follow again, saying “come.” I could not resist, because I really wanted to understand what he wanted me to know, or what I did wrong.

He brought me to the cabbage patch, began to speak rapidly, and glared at me with another what-the-hell kind of look. He said another word that I could understand, and that word was “knife.” Judging by how he was speaking with his words and body, and by how the cabbage looked, I believe he thought that I or some other college student had been taking scissors and knives to the cabbage, and leaving about half of the bulb to set in the sun. The cabbage plants were actually half eaten by deer who could not surprisingly get though the most unpractical fence I have ever seen. The fence seems to exist just so people who walk or drive by don’t have to see the ‘dirty hippies’ working in the garden. The fascist structure of the institution gave us a great looking fence that had no practical use. They forgot to run the fence all the way to the building, and because of this, the deer can continue to come and go as they please.  If you ask me, the fence, as it is this very moment, is nothing more than a huge waste of $4,000 that originally came from the student body. Since students like myself find this appalling, we will finish the job,and literally bridge the gap. In doing so, Patel will be relieved, and the deer will be excluded from consuming our hard earned produce.

Aside from the deer in the Chipeta quad, I also had an encounter with aphids on the Thai Hot peppers and the spilanthes plant today on October 2, 2012. They must have hitched a ride with Mark Waltimire when he provided me with the starts in the middle of September. This was quite an irritating find, but it was good that I found them sooner rather than later. Fortunately, yet unfortunately, these same pests infested my pepper plants at home early September, so I had some experience getting rid of them. I began to kill each bug individually for about a week, but once I realized that the procedure was inefficient and ineffective, I blasted my plants with a jet of water. Aphids went flying everywhere as I happily grinned. I know ladybugs are a natural predator, but I preferred saving myself the cost. I waited another week and checked to see if any aphids had survived. Just as I expected, many aphids survived my blast of furry. My nest step was creating a homemade insecticide.

I harvested a handful of Thai Hot peppers and blended them with a cup of water to begin the process of creating a spicy insecticide. I used cheese cloth to strain all the large chunks of pepper, and used 4 tablespoons of the extracted pepper juice, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of vinegar and, 2 teaspoons of soap, in a 32 oz spray bottle. I filled the remaining space with water to dilute the high concentration of insecticide. I doused the pepper plants with the spray bottle, waited 2 days, and sprayed them again. I then waited a week. At this point, all the flowers on my peppers had died and fallen off, but so did the aphids. I considered this a success. Kyle 1, aphids 0. Based on my past experience with aphids, I instantly blasted the peppers and spilanthes plants with a jet of water, made another batch of my insecticide, and doused the plants. Although I had successfully removed the aphids from my peppers, I found a colony of aphids attacking my Basil plants just 2 days ago, and you guessed it, they received the same treatment. I also harvested the Basil and made some pesto to eliminate a large portion of their food source. This way, they had little to no places to hide.

All in all, the score is tied- deer, 1; aphids, 0; Kyle 1. If the aphids happen to prevail I will bring out the big guns (a.k.a. project carnivorous ladybug). As far as the deer go, we will finish building the fence, and hire Patel to ward them away with a knife and a pair of scissors in his hand.

As an interesting side-note, Spilanthes plant leaves, stems, roots, flowers, and tinctures are consumed for the following reasons:

  • saliva inducer
  • coffee replacement (because it is a stimulant)
  • toothache reliever
  • gum builder
  • anti-bacterial
  • anti-viral
  • anti-fungal
  • immune stimulant
  • improve blood circulation

The Greenhouse Contradiction Trumped by the Climate Battery

September 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

By Kyle Brookens

Living in Gunnison, Colorado while at the same time attempting to live sustainable lives presents an immediate contradiction due to the way the infrastructure of our society functions. Buildings must be heated with fossil fuels, the growing season is short, properties in town have no acreage, the climate is essentially a desert, and nearly everything the town needs to survive on derives from the interstate, highway, and aircraft systems. Masanobu Fukuoka plainly and realistically states that a “community that cannot manage to produce its own food will not last long” (116). As of right now, Gunnison is far from producing the amount of food and resources it consumes. In order for this community to last a long time and become sustainable, sacrifices must be made. Most of us come to this valley to enjoy the largely unpolluted rivers, lakes, mountains, and fields that surround Gunnison. I am lead to believe that we must sacrifice some of our wants and desires in order to have the privilege of enjoying our local surroundings to the fullest. “Pure natural farming . . . is the no-stroke school. It goes nowhere and seeks no victory. Putting “doing nothing” into practice is the one thing the farmer should strive to accomplish” (119). The latter of Fukuoka’s argument makes it clear that many of our desires and wants to be happy people in Gunnison requires that sacrifice is inherent: “When it is understood that one loses joy and happiness in the attempt to possess them, the essence of natural farming will be realized” (119). While we are in the moment of our sources of enjoyment and happiness, I feel it is important to revisit these words from Fukuoka. If our bodies are not nourished locally, it will be impossible to possess joy or happiness. If we want to live sustainable, happy lives in Gunnison, our priorities must revolve around localizing our sustenance.

The Western State Colorado University Pinnacles Greenhouse exists as a wonderful pilot program, and will help show how the Gunnison valley may begin to completely localize its food production without sacrificing too much. The greenhouse has the potential to run year round, and if the Renewable Energy Fund localizes the University’s renewable energy production in the next few years, the greenhouse could become carbon neutral. The climate battery that Ian, Joey, Kerriann and I installed in the greenhouse is a simple, yet effective way to make the structure more efficient. A climate battery is composed of 2 6” PVC stacks that have a 45 degree elbow at the top end with a fan attached. The stacks are placed near the north wall of the greenhouse and they nearly reach the ceiling. When the thermostat reads that the greenhouse is too hot, the fans kick on and suck the hot air down the PVC stack into a network of 4” corrugated pipe with sediment sock which is buried at least 20” deep. Approximately 90 feet of the 4” pipe rests 20” below the floor of the greenhouse. There are 4 vents that force out cool air when the fans are on. The hot air gets stored in the thermal mass of the ground while the cool air gets forced out of the vents to help lower the temperature of the greenhouse and circulate the air that tends to get stagnant. At night and especially during the winter, the heat stored in the ground from the climate battery will help keep the greenhouse warm, and help conserve the natural gas the heater will burn. Below is a rough sketch of the Western State Colorado University Pinnacles Greenhouse climate battery lay-out:

Running the greenhouse year round in Gunnison, Colorado is no doubt an energy intensive process, but the climate battery helps lower the demand of fossil fuels and the cost to operate it. Not only will current students benefit from learning how to construct a climate battery, but students and all interested folks that have yet to visit the Western State Colorado University campus will benefit from seeing the greenhouse in full operation. The small greenhouse provides a sanctuary for students like myself to learn and grow along side the plants. As Fukuoka said in “The One-Straw Revolution,” “Ultimately, it is not the growing technique which is the most important factor, but rather the state of mind of the farmer” (46). The greenhouse has allowed me to connect to this place, open my mind to myriad possibilities, and connect to a massive variety of different social groups that I would have not been exposed to otherwise. The relationship that the greenhouse has with Sodexo is one major connection that has cracked open a steel door that was bolted and locked shut from top to bottom just one year ago. Anyone working closely with the greenhouse has already began to learn how much food Sodexo really needs to supply the student population. We are talking about many, many acres of land to completely supply that population, but supplying all the herbs is a SMART goal that will continue to open that door a little more. This new opportunity is just one of many examples of how the Pinnacles greenhouse has become a profound source of an educational and social networking hub on Western’s campus. The most important aspect of the Pinnacles greenhouse “is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings”(Fukuoka 119). The hope is that the Gunnison and Crested Butte communities will find inspiration in what the students at WSCU have accomplished, and therefore, help increase the size and the momentum of the local food snowball.

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