We’ve got more bugs…good bugs!

After we found the cabbage worms eating our greens a couple of weeks ago, we ordered some beneficial insects from GardeningZone.com.  Now we have ladybugs patrolling the plants for aphids, mealy bugs, cabbage worms, and other leaf-eating bugs.  They’re on a search-and-destroy mission, and they are enjoying themselves.

Our camera is not taking clear close-up photos, so here is a photo of a ladybug grabbing a meal (courtesy of fatalii.net).

Ladybug – Courtesy of Fatalli.net

We also placed green lacewing eggs around the plants in small paper bags.  As soon as they hatch, those little Aphid Lions will feast on all of the soft-bodied pests and eggs they can find.

Aphid Lion (Lacewing Larva) – photo by Rik Littlefield, 2008

After that little creature eats its share of pests, it will eventually turn into this…

Green Lacewing – photo courtesy of Wikipedia

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Beauty and the Beasts

The world is filled with opposites…good and bad…life and death…plants and bugs.

We do our best to embrace nature, love it for what it is, enjoy its beauty, and accept what we can’t change.  But when it comes to our auquaponic system, we try to control every aspect of our small ecosystem as much as possible.  If the pH of the water is not within a certain range, we add crushed coral to raise the pH or remove some of the water and replace it with fresh water to lower the pH.  If the solid wastes begin to build up too much, we add Gammarus to clean it up.  If the water temperature gets too low, we heat it up.

This has given us healthy plants, rapid growth, beautiful flowers, and delicious vegetables.

Unfortunately, when you have a lot of healthy plants, the bugs always seem to find them.  Our aquaponic system is no different.  At first we noticed that some leaves were getting holes in them, and then we discovered that there were some worms, beetles, and snails invading our system like it was an All-You-Can buffet.  BEASTS!!!

We tried to pick them off the leaves, squash them, and cover them in food-grade Diatomaceous Earth (aka, DE, diatomite, kieselguhr), but there were so many bugs infesting the greens that we felt it was better to pull out the most damaged plants and feed them to the fish and chickens…along with all of those bugs.

Are these flea beetles?

The Tilapia are hiding, as usual, but they ate all of this within a day.

“Hey, whatchya got there?”

“It’s mine!”   “No, it’s mine!”

Live and let live, unless you’re an evil bug.

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Our Babies are Growing Up and Movin’ Out

Our chicks have really grown up since the last time we posted about them a month ago.  Here are a few of the Ameraucanas when they were three weeks old.  They were so cute back then.

They were about twice as big as this white Silkie, even though they were the same age, and the feathers on one of the Ameraucanas began changing from a dark brown to white.

A couple weeks later, she had even more white feathers coming out.

Isn’t she adorable?

They’ve also started to fly.  Every time we took the screen off the top of the brooder, some of the chicks would fly up to see what we were doing.  This chick was usually the first one to check on us…and then she would often poop on the slow pokes that were still in the brooder. Naughty girl…

Not only are they extremely curious, they love to eat.  In fact, it seems like they’re always eating…or they’re pecking and scratching at the ground, looking for something to eat.  They especially like their grits.  Well, it’s really crushed stone, but they act like it’s chocolate-covered worms.

They’re usually pushing, shoving, and walking over each other during feeding time, but, for just a moment, they were well behaved for this photo as they munched on their grits.

A couple of weeks ago, we started taking them outside.  The two larger Silkies really enjoyed taking walks through the strawberry patch.  They were a little cautious at first, but then they realized there were delicious bugs and worms all over the place.  I think we enjoyed watching them eat the bugs more than they enjoyed eating them.  I’ll show you why in our next post.

All of the chicks have outgrown their brooder, so they’ve moved into their new homes in the backyard.

The Ameraucanas are living in a new coop that was built by a local business, the Backyard Coop Company.  The coop and run were a little expensive, but they’re made to last a long time and are large enough for a dozen or so chickens…not that we’ll ever have that many, but our small flock will definitely have plenty of room to stretch their wings when they need to.

The Silkies have their own place.  They’re enjoying their new Ware Manufacturing Chick-N-Hutch and Pen from Tractor Supply Company.  We always prefer to buy locally-made products, but this was made in China and was significantly less expensive than the Ameraucanas’ green mansion.  Unfortunately, we got what we paid for.  It is a very poor quality coop and run that should only be used as a temporary shelter.  Maybe it would be a good hospital coop for a sick or injured chicken, but I absolutely would NOT recommend this to anyone looking for a permanent home for their chickens.

Some of the more noteworthy events during the past month were two escape attempts.  The first one occurred in the garage when the screen was not placed on the brooder correctly.  During one of our regular chicken checks, we found one of our girls on top of the screen sunbathing under the heat lamp.

She looked like she just woke up…and she wasn’t all that happy about it either.

When I checked on the chicks this morning, I found the brown Silkie in the process of escaping from her run.  At first I was just happy that I found her before one of our many local predators did, but then I wondered how she got out of the run.  It didn’t take long to figure out that the door to the pen was partially open just enough for the small Silkies, but not enough for the larger ones.  You can see her running away from the open door in this photo.

We got lucky this time, but we’re planning to put chicken wire over the top of the fenced-in area to keep out the bad guys just in case we have another lapse in security.  Until then, we need to start checking and double-checking all of the coop and run doors to make sure they’re locked up tight before we leave.

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First Harvest

Today we ate an amazing mixture of Mesclun and Lettuce from our aquaponic garden for the very first time, including Roxy, Pirat Butterhead, and Tin Tin Lettuce, and a High Mowing Mesclun Mix.  We also added some strawberries and flowers that were grown with our Tilapia water.  We never would have had such a wide variety of greens if we hadn’t grown them ourselves.  What a delicious lunch!

Here is the Lettuce and Mesclun right after we took it out of the system…

Here they are growing with all of the other veggies…

Here are some beans, peas, flowers, and other plants…and our Akita.

This bean plant has reached the top of the trellis and is searching for something else to climb…

Here are some bean, squash, and tomato plants that are growing near the fish tank…

We are very excited that the squash have added some color to the garden…

While the potatoes are not part of the system, we have been watering them with Tilapia water.  It’s time to cut the bottom out of a couple of buckets and add some more dirt…

Our aquaponic chickens have a new home in our backyard, so we’ll be adding another post with lots of photos very soon.

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Good Plants and Holey Plants

The garden is growing so quickly, so it’s time to post some more photos.

The pea plants are beginning to climb the trellis.

Many of the greens are almost ready to be harvested…

The bean plants are taking over.  It’s a jungle out there…

It won’t be long before this one begins producing some squash…

Isn’t this beautiful?

Look at those super-sized leaves…

This is so amazing…

This bean plant is climbing all the way to the top…

Here is another bean plant that has reached out to grab the trellis…

We are also growing potatoes in 5-gallon buckets and feeding them fish water every few days…

Here are some blueberry bushes and flowers in a raised bed garden next to our sidewalk…

….and lots of strawberries are on the other side of the sidewalk.  Unfortunately, we just learned that we have termites in our home, so it will be treated with Termidor on Monday.  We would prefer a green treatment, but we haven’t found any effective alternatives.  The worst part is that the exterminator said we won’t be able to grow any edible plants within five feet of our home for the next ten years, so all of these strawberries (and many others) will be transplanted this weekend.

We also have a holey plant.  This broccoli plant has been invaded by some type of worm, larvae, or caterpillar.  I squashed them all after this photo was taken, but there are probably more.  It’s surprising that we have only found them on the broccoli.  Do you know what these are?

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Slime and Scuds and Giant River Prawn…Oh My!

What is making our garden grow?

Slime!

Slime has been covering everything in the system…the bottom of the rafts, the bottom and sides of the grow bed, and the inside of the fish tank.  This slime is actually the nitrifying bacteria the system needs to convert the toxic ammonia from the fish to nitrites, and the nitrites to nitrates.  Then the plants use the nitrates to grow delicious fruits and vegetables.  This process is called the Nitrogen Cycle, which occurs in water and soil.

There is also a buildup of decaying material on the bottom of the grow bed and fish tank.  The brilliant white liner is now a brownish grayish yucky color.

This material is a combination of leaves and other plant material from our yard and from plants in the system, dead insects, fish excrement and uneaten fish food.  As all of these solids decay, they release excessive amounts of ammonia that could injure and kill the fish if it’s not removed or converted to something the plants can use.  We could add filters to the system to remove these solid wastes, but we’ve decided to use natural waste removers instead.

Gammarus, also known as scuds, are a freshwater, shrimp-like, amphipod crustacean that eat decaying organic matter.  Here’s a YouTube video (not ours) that shows what they look like and how they swim.  This video makes them appear to be giants, but they are actually less than an inch (14 to 21 mm) long.

We first bought two orders of live Gammarus from Carolina Biological Supply, but there were very few Gammarus in the order and most of those died before we could put them in the grow bed.  At first we were a little disappointed, but then we realized it was just a $41.29 learning experience.

So we placed another order with an Ebay seller and received about 150 Gammarus, including mating pairs and newborns.  These scuds seem to be doing very well so far, and they only cost $19.99 including shipping.  If we ever need any more, we now have a source.

Before transferring them to the grow bed, we’re letting them reproduce for a month or so and then we’ll place about half of the larger population in the system.  That way we still have some available if the first group dies after the transfer.  But first we had to make them a home.

Actually, it was an easy process.  We just cut off the top of a 2-liter plastic bottle and poured them in.  Then we partially filled the rest of the bottle with water from the grow bed.  The scuds came with a small plant (Hornwort, I believe) that they like to hide in during the day.  We added an air line so they have plenty of oxygen and we’ve been feeding them a couple of pellets of fish food every other day.  That’s it.  They’re as happy as a bug in a rug, and they look like one too.

The Gammarus are very small and have been difficult to photograph with our camera.  Here’s a photo with a mating pair near the bottom left.

Our other sanitation engineers are Macrobrachium Rosenbergii, also known as Giant River Prawn.  Here’s a short YouTube video of one of these “beautiful” creatures (not ours).

We bought them for a number of reasons.  First, they can grow up to 12″ (about 30 cm) in length and they will taste great with some Tilapia tacos and salad.  Second, they’ll help keep the bottom of the grow bed clean, because they eat almost anything that will fit in their mouth, including dead mosquito fish and pieces of plants that sink to the bottom of the grow bed.

Here are some of the juvenile Prawn that we bought from Craig Upstrom at Aquaculture of Texas.

Before we released them, we let the bag float in the water so the temperature inside the bag equalized with the water in the grow bed.

The system now has Tilapia, Mosquito Fish, Scuds, Prawn, and Nitrifying Bacteria working to create the most delicious and nutritious vegetables and fruits for our family and friends.

Now we can just sit back and watch nature go to work…or can we?

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Vacuuming The Garden

Have you ever vacuumed your garden?

Neither have we…until today.

It would have sounded like a crazy idea until we hired a stump-removal service to grind up some stumps near our house, including the remains of a very large Crape Myrtle.  It’s been an eyesore for years and we were ready to get rid of it.

When the guys arrived, we asked them some questions about their stump-removal process and then we pointed out the stumps we wanted removed.  While discussing the Crape Myrtle, the supervisor recommended that we cover our bay window with a sheet of plywood so it didn’t get damaged by flying debris.  When I asked him if any of the dirt or wood chips would get on the rafts in the growbed, he assured me that they would be flying away from the growbed so there was no need to cover the rafts.

Wrong!  Wrong!  Wrong!  Why did I listen to him?

This is what one of the rafts looked like last week…

And this is what it looked like after the stump was gone…

After all of the hard work that has gone into this system to make everything perfect for the fish and plants, I was a little perturbed.  Not at the workers…at myself.  I should have watched as they worked near the growbed or covered the rafts with a bed sheet or piece of plastic before they started grinding.

Actually, I don’t really mind that the top of the raft had dirt on it.  That can be cleaned.  I am more concerned about all the dirt and other unknown objects that are now in the water.

After giving it some thought, I got a brilliant idea…vacuum the top of the raft.

It actually worked…a little.  We got a little too close to a couple of seedlings and vacuumed off a few leaves; otherwise, the rafts are a little cleaner than they were.

Now we’ve decided to transfer the net pots to another raft so we can remove this one and wash it.  If there is dirt at the bottom of the growbed, we’ll try to remove that as well.

On the bright side, there were no known chemicals in the soil and we now have the opportunity to see what happens when dirt gets into the system.  I suppose you can’t keep dirt out of an outdoor aquaponic system even under the best of circumstances, so this may not be an issue at all.  We’ll see.

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