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Wednesday, April 20, 2011


This is the state of things a week or so ago - prior to me discovering that I had utility cables running only a few inches below the surface and wouldn't be able to dig down.

My mustard plant, while it was still planted inside.

The current state of the greenhouse. I made it short because the townhome covenants say structures have to be no higher than the brick wall at the end of the property. FWIW, my next door neighbor is going to have to remove the fancy storage shed you see in the pics - not a happy thing to learn after you've spent time and $$ putting something in...

The grow bed that is up and running. I used hydroton because I needed to get one bed working to host plants that were inside, since I moved my indoor growbed outside. So nice not having to deal with gravel on the planting layer!

A bed prepped with gravel in the bottom. Theory is this will help anchor plants that would tend to fall over in hydroton or shale aggregate. Besides, it displaces $$$ of the more expensive lighter stuff, and it is already pregnant with the happy bacteria that transform ammonia to nitrate.

I'm waiting to get expanded shale aggregate for the final beds - having a local business special order it from Bigelow Brook Farm and

A shot of my bell siphon, showing the 45 degree bend and my new sliced drain tube. I have a small hole at the base of my standpipe so any extra water can drain out when power goes out (like at night if I turn off the pump). The good thing is I won't have plants drowning in standing water. The bad thing is I always have a small dribble. This sliced drain tube takes the trickle down to the water surface (no noise) and still lets the siphon break. It ingests air into the flow, but keeps the noise of the full siphon action pretty low.

Here's a detail of the construction. Because my townhome covenants require me to keep this thing really short, the PVC sleeves allow me to temporarily raise the roof an additional 24 inches. It's also more forgiving than EMT couplers would be. I drilled through the PVC and EMT and connected them using a toggle bolt - looks kind of spiffy, I think. I should have painted the PVC to extend the life of these legs, but it won't be too hard to replace them. Let's pretend I am leaving them unpainted on purpose, to see how long it takes for them to become so brittle they don't work anymore... Since the PVC sleeves aren't load-bearing, I should be good for a long time.

I used 10 foot wide sheeting, so had to join the roof sheeting with a 5 foot wide side piece. I did this by connecting the two sheets and rolling them around EMT conduit, then screwing the conduit to the frame with 2-hole straps using self-tapping screws.

The 2-hole EMT straps can also be bent so they serve as clips - useful for fastening the plastic until I have my end walls built.

Finally, a shot of my rain barrel. We made this at a county workshop using 65 gallon pickle barrels. It would be relatively simple to update the greenhouse design to include rain gutters if the greenhouse wasn't close to another water source. I don't have solar panels (yet) but the pump and bubblers draw in the neighborhood of 120 watts. Seems it would be perfectly possible to power a system like I've got here off solar, particularly if you shut the pump off at night.

So, those are the pics. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Husband calls it "Impressive"

Alas, the camera is taking a break. But here's what I've done so far:
  • Purchased all required stock tanks
  • Installed wood frame at base of greenhouse
  • Placed cinder block bases, with 2x6s to support grow beds
  • Plumbed the siphons (and made extras for my Mom)
  • Moved all the gravel (~3" in base of each bed)
  • Added hydroton to two beds
  • Installed EMT 'hoops'
  • Installed 6 mil plastic sheeting 'roof'

The system is up and running with one solid growbed. One down, three more to go. Pictures coming soon!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Going Bananas?

Truly Tiny Banana Plant

I've heard of folks in warmer climates growing banana and papaya trees, but didn't think I could hope to do so here in Virginia.

But I happened across the GreenEarth website. He's got two dwarf banana varieties I could grow in my short greenhouse, and a third variety, California Gold, that should survive outside in the winters here (I'm in Zone 7a). Here's the description for the Truly Tiny Banana Plant, which I'm thinking of trying out:

Delightful small banana that has a beautiful form. Grows only to about 2 - 3 feet in height. Excellent houseplant. Great as a groundcover or as a container plant. Likes generally warm conditions, bright light, moist soil. Fast grower that quickly attains full size. A miniature version of the Dwarf Cavendish Banana. Grows only 24" tall. Great tasting bananas. Easy to grow, indoors or out! Zone 8-11. Great house or patio plant. approx. 6" to 8" plant.

Now that's sweet!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Miss Utility changes my plans

The reason my fish tank is full of petals...

The weather has been beautiful, and so I decided it was time to start digging the planned 18" hole for my sump.

Turns out there are utility cables buried I want my sump to be. I was able to dig the sump a few inches down without interfering with the utility lines, which should be enough, if not as much as I hoped for.

Since I can't go down deep, I've decided to ditch the sunken walkway idea and go upward instead.

The fish were in the 100 gallon tank I intend to use as the sump. In order to move the tank, I drained all but 2-3 inches of water out into the 150 gallon tank. In the process I was able to see all the fish. In addition to the minnows, there are still a surprisingly large number of blue gill and redear.

One of the blue gills looks much larger than any of the fish I plopped in the drink on March 18. I've never seen the blue gill or redear eat food I've tossed in the tank, so either they've not needed food, have slurped old food/insects/leaves off the bottom when I wasn't looking, or they've been snapping up minnows at their leisure.

Since the permanent structure can only be 5'2" tall, I plan to make it so the roof can be easily and securely elevated when needed. When I get it done, I'll be posting pictures of the greenhouse with the roof in both the raised and lowered positions.

In the mean time, it's just been lovely to be able to be outside in my yard during this time of year - something I've never before bothered doing in the 14 prior springs I've spent in this house.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fish Habitat

Minnows and Bream in a "Honey Hole"

Fish like little places to hide. You see comments all the time about how they like having side-ways flower pots or 4" PVC pipe bends to hide in.

I've noticed that my betta, which lives in one of those Anchor Hocking planter/fishbowls as seen in my November post on plumbing options loves to hang out in the roots.

I've also noticed that the minnows and bream I have in my backyard hug the bottom and sides of the tank.

Contemplating the joy my betta appears to derive from hiding in the roots and inspired by the Honey Hole Tree/Schrub design, I'm thinking of creating some kind of fish cover that would fit in a Rubbermaid stock tank. The Honey Hole designs are lovely weighted things sized for ponds of an acre of so--too large for my tanks. I've contacted them to see if I would be infringing on their intellectual property to make something out of trash can lid, tubing, and a rock...

The bad thing about fish cover would be if a fish decided it felt ill and swam into the cover to die. The good thing is I could 'inspect' under the cover if my water chemistry started going whack. But I think the fish will be a lot happier if they can have cover of some sort. Of course, they would also likely be happier if I could arrange for the weather to get warm and stay warm, but that I can't control.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Minnows are All Right

Fathead Minnow

I wanted to snap a picture of my progress with the greenhouse, but the camera needs batteries. So we'll talk minnows instead.

The fathead minnow is a cool little fish. They are great for live bait, and they're hardy. An eHow article on fathead minnows explains:

"It can tolerate low oxygen levels, muddy water and a wide range of pH levels, even those inhospitable to other fish. Due to its hardiness and ease of breeding, the fathead minnow is the preferred fish for toxicity testing under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines."

Most of the minnows I bought last month are still with us. It's fun to see them zipping around the tank, schooling together.

The bluegill and redear that have survived are a stolid bunch. They are slow and stealthy, hiding in the recesses of the tank. I wish the tank was lighter, because it's quite hard to see these larger fishes, lurking as they do in the depths of the tank.

Sunday the low was a nippy 29 degrees F. But as I look at the forecast and averages from here out, it looks like freezing temperatures have departed the pattern until next fall. I'm excited to see how the fish do as it starts to be consistently warmer!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Final Greenhouse Design

Construction starts today, so I thought I'd share the final design I'm going with.

Because I am constrained to have the structure less than 5'2" above my patio, I'll be digging a sunken aisle down the middle of the greenhouse, between the growbeds. I had wanted to have a 300 gallon fish tank, but I'm willing to settle for a 150 gallon (600 liter) stock tank for the fish with a 100 gallon (400 liter) stock tank for the sump. The smaller tank will allow me to have an aisle through the entire greenhouse, which should be simpler than having the center blocked by the tank. The plan is to raise blue gills and redears, with a catfish or two.

The little green circles are planned vertical towers I will be making out of 4" PVC sewer/drain pipe - you can buy these at Aquaponicsource. I'm going to try my hand at making them myself, since I think I'll break even making 6 of them.

The large green oblongs are the 50 gallon rubbermaid stock tanks. The two overlapping the fish tank will just drain into the fish tank. The fish tank will have a drain near the top that will be plumbed to drain into the sump. The vertical towers and the two grow beds overlapping the sump will all drain directly into the sump. So this will be a hybrid CHOP/CHOP-2 design.

Today I'll probably won't get more than the foundation in, but the die is cast...