Wednesday, September 10, 2008

End of Summer Update

Well, I've shut down my two garden buckets for the winter. It was winding down anyway, and then we had a ton of rain from a TS that exacerbated my one tilted bucket. So, it made sense to shut down and prepare for a re-tooling for next Spring. This winter, I'll be building a level platform for three buckets to sit upon. And I think I'm going to try to run PVC pipe across the top of each bucket in a grid pattern to drip water down, rather than dumping all the water into one end of the bucket. This new approach will allow me to drain from the bottom, rather than the top, which should completely avoid any of my over-spilling issues that I had this year. More pipe = more costs, yes, but I think the effort will be worth it. I also plan to design in such a way as to be able to easily add more bucket capacity, should I want to or need to. Here are some more flowery shots from the pond area.
Great blue lobellia

Swamp sunflower

Tall tickseed

Bullfrog (thanks web4deb)

Thursday, August 7, 2008


Just a quick update to share some flower photos. This is a great blue lobellia and a cardinal flower (also a lobellia) in the wetland bucket. The fish are all doing well and enjoying the now twice daily feeding. They are getting big, and the plants are loving it, too. For next time, I will definitely start the fish out on twice daily feeding to ensure adequate nutrients for the plants. We've had a ton of tomatoes come in, the peppers are starting to ripen, the basil is growing, and the flowers are really getting big. I'll definitely post again when they bloom. Water is still crystal clear. The new pump is awesome!

So, there was a comment to see the whole setup, so this is it. The pond is in the foreground tapering to the waterfall which is centered in a raised bed of native plants in soil. In the background in the fenced in area are the two veggie buckets. Those are shown in greater detail in the next two photos. I uploaded the big images, so you can click on these to see everything in better detail.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

3 Important Lessons Learned & Documenting a Mid-Season Major Fix

Now that summer is in full swing, I have a pond full of fish (if only they were tilapia...), and the pond has had a few months to carve out its own little environmental niche in my backyard, I can share 3 important lessons that I've learned.

Lesson 1: Don't buy a pump with "pre-filters" or a "clean-water" pump. Buy a pump that can handle solids.

So, I started off with the Dynatec 1350 Pond Pump, because I wasn't really sure how many gallons my pond had, and I didn't want to get too much pump. After about a month, it became clear that I needed a stronger pump, so I got the Dynatec 1500 Pond Pump. It was the same size, which made swapping out the old for the new very easy, but had a little more power. Though I was impressed at first, I started having the problems with flow, and it turned out that the little sponge "pre-filter" was getting covered in algae and basically choking the pump. I could fix it easily by putting on a clean filter or cleaning the filter that was on there, but it started to become a hassle. I also noticed that if I just tried to clean the filter, sometimes I'd only get a day or two before it got clogged again.

So, I decided to upgrade the pump, and I went with a Little Giant K-3000 pump. It's bigger and a lot more powerful, but the nice thing is that it can handle solids up to 3/4" or so. Plus, the water in the pond is moving like crazy now, and I think that it finally might actually be turning the water over 1-2 times per hour like it's supposed to.
Here is the Little Giant. It was bigger, and ended up taking up a bunch more space. I took out the big green filter that comes with the skimmer and just put the leaf netting right in front of the pump. It's basically the first thing that anything coming into the skimmer sees. One benefit I've noticed with the increased flow is that the algae is getting sucked into the skimmer and is collecting on the leaf netting. Simple - pull the netting out, shake it a bit, and algae is gone!

That brings me to ...

Lesson 2: Gravel slows the water down a lot, so you need more outflow capacity than inflow capacity, because the water will be moving slower going out than it is going in.

Sure, this is something that makes sense and that I thought about before I put the system together, but I definitely underestimated how it all would work. The upshot is that when I attached the new, more powerful pump, all of my buckets were overflowing! I tried for a while to find the right setting for the ball valves, but I just couldn't find the sweet spot. In the end, I settled on extra drainage from one of the buckets using garden hose siphons. This brings me to...

Lesson 3: Make sure your buckets are level! And even if they start off level, they may settle. They may settle a lot!

Sometimes in the morning, I'd go out and check on things, and I'd notice that the water level was way down in the pond. Sure enough, I'd see some water trickling over one side of a bucket. Since those things weigh around a ton with gravel and water, there's no way of jacking it up to fix that, so the only thing you can do is turn down the in-flow to lower the water level. This only works so long until you don't have enough flow to keep the plants happy.

This happened to one of my garden buckets, but it also happened to the wetland plant bucket quite frequently. There was nothing else for me to do but redo the wetland bucket, and that's what I worked on this weekend.
Here you can see all the hose siphons coming in. Due to the settling of the wetland bucket (just out of the picture at the top and the settling of one of the garden buckets (off to the left but not in the picture), siphons were the only way to keep the water from flowing over the sides of the buckets.

And now on to the weekend's project - empty the wetland bucket (while trying to ensure the survival of all the plants in it), add in extra drainage, level it, reposition, add back all the gravel, rebuild the waterfall to accommodate the extra drainage, and then enjoy!

First, I removed all the plants and put them in this big cooler. I put some gravel in the bottom and filled it with water, just like how it was in the bucket. Only difference is that the water wasn't moving. I put the cooler under a tree so that it would have good shade during the heat of the day.

Then, I removed all the gravel from the bucket. If you've ever wondered how much gravel a 110 gallon plastic tub from Tractor Supply holds, well, there it is! If I remember correctly, it's about 8-9 wheelbarrow loads.

After taking apart the waterfall and a good bit of the rock wall surrounding the bucket (needed to do that to get the bucket out), I added sand and gravel to the bit of ground that the bucket sits on to help get it level. I also had to redo the waterfall to accommodate a new, low drain pipe. Pictured below are all three drain pipes (looking down). The top one is not necessary, but that was where the old drainage was, and I already had a hole, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to put an emergency drainage pipe there just to plug the hole. Also, all of my pipe is 1.5" pipe, but I added in a 2" pipe (PVC white in the photo) to ensure that the darn bucket wouldn't overflow ever again, even if it went off-kilter.
So, after the fish-safe, aquarium epoxy set for 24 hours, I filled up the bucket to test for leaks and see how things looked. Everything seemed to be working well, so I added the gravel back. After the gravel went back in, the water level wouldn't get any higher than the top of the bottom drain pipe! WHAT?! Before, it was overflowing - that was the whole point of this exercise - if I add in more drainage, then it won't overflow. But now, all of a sudden, it didn't need it! Frustrating. The waterfall is supposed to have water flowing down it!
So, after much pondering, I took a hose clamp and tightened it down on the end of the outflow pictured above. It got pretty tight, but it definitely worked, and the water level came up high enough to start to flow out the PVC tube and then down the waterfall! Sure, most of the flow comes out of the bottom pipe, but there's good water coming down from above, and it all blends in nicely. The sound is stronger than ever, and the fish really seem to like it.
With the water flowing well, I added the wetland plants back in, and the project was finished!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

What the heck are these?!!

Found these little bugs on my squash this morning. What are they?

Veggies, Disease, and Mineral Deficiencies?

Well, it seemed about time for an update, so I thought I'd post some pics of the veggies. For the most part, things seem to be going very well. The squash has been productive and delicious, though the leaves are yellowing, get these splotches on them, and eventually wither and die.
I thought there was a serious mineral deficiency going on with this cucumber, but it turns out that it's some sort of white cucumber hybrid. Park Seed calls it "Cucumber Pearl", and they threw the seeds in with my last order. They taste good.

The peppers seem to be going OK. They were struggling for a while while their roots got long enough to stay in the water, but they seem to be doing well now.
The tomatoes are doing great! There are several large tomatoes on the vine, just waiting to turn red.
So, not knowing anything about minerals, mineral deficiencies, pests, or basically anything about hydroponic gardening, I thought I'd throw these photos out there in case someone who did know something about anything could respond! I've been adding 5ml iron and 30 ml of Potassium weekly, with an occassional blast of Kalkwasser to supplement calcium and help keep the pH up. I guess it's not enough for the squash, but seems to be OK for the other stuff. Again, I don't know.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

No tilapia this year

Well, I've given up on the tilapia. No word from Foster Pond and Lake, and another blogger sent me an email advising me that I'd never be able to find large tilapia this late that people would be willing to part with. So, we went to Petsmart and bought 30 goldfish. At $0.28/fish, the price was right! Obviously, we don't plan on eating them, so unfortunately, our system will not be a fully functional aquaponics system - more like a water garden/hydroponic veggie garden. Oh well, maybe next year...

Here are some photos. One thing that seems certain - yellow squash seem to like the set up, and so do tomatoes.
The residents - one koi, one comet, and 30 goldfish

Yellow squash raging

Tomatoes doing well

Flowers from a water plaintain, planted in the pond gravel

Monday, June 9, 2008

Still no tilapia!!!

Well, it's been at least a month now since I expected to have tilapia in the pond, and we still don't have any. At least now I know why. The nice folks at Foster Lake and Pond Management get their tilapia from a supplier in southern NC. That guy had an equipment failure this spring and moved his tilapia from the nice, protected shelter of his indoor operation into an outdoor pond on his property. That was great until a hungry otter came in and ate ALL of the fish! Of course, the farmer didn't tell Foster Lake and Pond, but tried to find an alternate supply to meet his delivery. He could not, and that screwed FLP, which, in turn, screws us. FLP was trying to find an alternate supplier late last week, but they haven't called, and I'm beginning to wonder if it is even worth it at this point. We're seriously considering just getting some cheap fish - the cheapest we can find - to stock the pond with for the veggies, so at least we'll know how the veggie part of the aquaponics system works. I must say, though, that the veggies seem to be doing OK despite only two fish. Photo of the main bucket is from June 1. We harvested a yellow squash yesterday.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mid-May Update

I thought I should update how things are going, since it's been about a month. First, we still don't have any tilapia. The word from Foster Lake and Pond Management is that they don't have their tilapia in yet, 'cause of the colder weather this spring. They were confident that they would be in soon, and they'll be larger than usual, so there should still be enough time to grow them out to plate size before it gets too cold this spring.

Sometime soon after my April post, we had a torrential rain that eroded out the mound that the upper bog was sitting on, 'causing it to slant. It was not level enough to use, so I had to empty out all the gravel and re-level. I decided at that point to just run the outflow directly into the pipe that spills back into the pond instead of filtering it through the second bog. Everything's working great now, but I lost all my plants in the upper bog.

As you can see from the photos below, though, we bought some tomato, pepper, and squash seedlings, and they seem to be doing OK. Note also that the lower bog lettuce is coming in, and some tomatoes from seed are also coming in. I think that they aren't getting quite enough nutrients from the two fish that are living in the pond (oh yeah, one of the koi died mysteriously. he was always a little sickly from day 1).

soybeans, lettuce, small tomatoes are original. squash, large tomatoes from seedling

what you don't see clearly here in the upper bog are the little cucumber seedlings coming up from an extra packet of cucumber seeds we had in the house. there are some little pepper seedlings hanging on, as well.

trying their hardest to poop enough for all the plants!

The plants in the pond are doing amazingly well. Considering that they were dormant and kind of runty looking, they have truly gone through a miraculous transformation. Below, you can see what one month meant to a bog arum. And, we were fortunate enough to get one of our iris versicolor's to bloom. For a larger version of that photo, click here.

Next update after the tilapia go in. It will be interesting to see what happens, as the pond system is in a nice equilibrium right now. The water is crystal clear. Many of the plants are yellowing, so I believe they need more nutrients (and soon!), but for now, everything appears to be surviving. I anticipate that once the fish are in, the yellowing will stop and the growing will increase. Stay tuned!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Pond costs

I thought I would share just how much this pond cost, not including time and labor or electricity for running the pond pump (~100 watts/24 hours a day), just so you can get an idea of the amount of effort and money required for set up. I'll also estimate yearly operating costs.

- Landscaping (plants, dirt, etc.): $1756 (48% of the cost)
*$1366 of that was for rocks/gravel - all delivered
- Pond/bog construction (liner, skimmer, plumbing, electrical, bog tubs, caulk, etc.): $1353 (37% of the cost)
- Pumps/filters: $276 (7% of the cost)
*I bought a backup pump and replacement filters, in addition to current one)
- Fish, fish food, meters, nutrient additives: $307 (8% of the cost)

Grand total: $3692

Annually, you'll need to buy new fish, fish food, nutrients, some plumbing/caulk for leak fixes, filters. I imagine that will be no more than $500, but I'll keep track and document after one year has passed.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Aquaponics Happening!

Well, everything is finally done! The only thing that remains is to pick up my tilapia the first week of May. The pond is running, the bogs are running, the native plant section is planted and mulched, and the plants in the pond seem to be getting used to their new home. The two garden bogs are already showing signs of seedlings, less than one week after putting the seeds in! The native plant bog is looking great, and one of the dwarf crested irises is blooming! The only species that I'd like to add are some pitcher plants, but the only ones that I can find so far (Lowe's) aren't the native varieties found in NC.

Species List:
In the pond:
- iris versicolor (blue water iris)
- pellandra virginica (bog arum)
- lubellia syphilitica (great blue lobellia)
- sauronus sp. (lizard's tail)
- pontederia cordata (pickerel rush)
- acorus calamus (sweet flag)
- alisma subcordata (water plantain)

In the pond bog:
- chamaelirium luterm (fairywand)
- lobellia cardinalis (cardinal flower)
- hydrophyllum virginiaum (eastern waterleaf)
- iris cristata (dwarf crested iris)
- iris bericaulis (zigzag iris)

In the native perennial garden surrounding the pond:
- oenothera fruticosa (southern sundrops)
- callicarpa americana (american beauty berry)
- peristemon smalli (small's beardstongue)
- symphotichum oblongifolium (eastern aromatic aster)
- muhlenbergia capillaris (hairgrass)
- coreopsis triptens (tall tickseed)
- silene virginica (fire-pink)
- helianthus augustifolius (swamp sunflower)
- rudbeckia fulgida (orange coneflower)
- stokesia laevis (stokes'-aster)
- heuchera americana (american alumroot)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Waterfall and First Bog Rough Draft

So, as you can see, it's starting to take shape! We had some nice slabs of slate lying around the yard, so I gathered up what wasn't being used, and am now using it for the waterfall. It makes a nice path for the water, since it's so smooth and natural looking. After I finish up this web design gig that I'm doing, I'll have enough money to get another load of rocks to finish up the landscaping and pretty it up. Note that the pond is only about half full at this point. Still need a couple of big rain events to finish it up. I've attached the garden hose to my rain barrel on the porch, so I'm using the water from my roof to fill the pond.

Here's a side profile of the design. You can see the 110-gallon bucket "bog" on the right. There's a PVC inlet on the right. This is where the pond water will come in. The PVC pipe has a bunch of holes drilled in it starting about half way down. The theory is that the water will fill in the PVC pipe (which keeps out the gravel), then pour out through the holes to fill up the rest of the bog. The outlet for the bog is contained in the PVC pipe on the left, which also has holes drilled in the bottom half. The water rises up to a point just below the surface, where it exits via another pipe, that is drilled through the bog wall.

If you look carefully, you can see the mistake hole on the right side of the PVC. My first try, the pipe was tilted up so that it almost came to the top of the PVC. This turned out to be too high to drain the water out before the water reached the surface of the bog and spilled over the side. No harm done - redrill - and recaulk (using aquarium-safe silicone).

Next step will be to install a two-way switch (ball valves and a T), so that I can direct the water flow through the supplemental 2 grow beds during the summer when there are more fish in the pond. Then, I'll probably try and set up the other two grow beds, fill in with gravel, and connect to the bog pictured above. Then, I'll need a little dirt to fill around the bog above. The plan is to put dirt all the way around, then carve in some steps for some above-ground planters. Then, when the rocks are in, rock all around and tidy up.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Pond Installed!!

Well, the pond itself is installed! A lot of things came together last weekend (1/11-1/13): the underlay/liner was delivered, rocks were delivered the previous Wednesday, and I found a guy who could get me a load of gravel to suit that day. So, Friday, after everything arrived, I figured I had all the ingredients, so I might as well cook!
Rocks (rounded river, large flat) and gravel for pond

After putting in the underlay, Liz helped me stretch out the liner and stuff it into all the cracks. I think we probably could have done a better job of smoothing out all the wrinkles, but given that this was our first real attempt at this, I think we did OK. Also complicating the installation was the fact that the water table was up above the bottom of the pond, so the pond bottom at its deepest part was actually more like quicksand. Once rocks were put in, the bottom sort of bulged out, but I figure it won't make too much of a difference once the water is in and pushing down on everything.
Liner in place (EPDM, Firestone Pond Guard, fish safe)

Rounded river rocks in place to hold in/hide liner

After some work getting everything into the skimmer and running the plug through some makeshift conduit to the outlet, I covered everything up and put out the big flat rock on the top level of the pond. It was at this point that I realized that we vastly UNDER estimated our need for rock. We ended up using 2 tons of rocks just for inside the pond and the pond lip. We easily need another ton around the top outside, and then at least a ton for the water. It's a bummer, as we'll have to pay for shipping twice. The lesson here is BUY MORE ROCK THAN YOU THINK YOU COULD CONCEIVABLY USE!! We actually did that, but since we had nothing to compare it to, we did a poor job of estimating.

After the rocks were up, I cut away the excess liner. By the way, it looks like we ordered way too big of a liner, but as it turns out, you can only order it in multiples of 5. We ordered 25' X 25'. But after cutting around the pond, there were many sections that we less than 5' wide, so we did not over order. It's definitely better to over order than to not have enough to go all the way up.

After some rain and snow this weekend, the pond is filling up nicely! I resolved to not use any groundwater to fill it, given North Carolina's drought situation, so I hooked up one end of a hose to our overflow for our rain barrel, so the pond gets filled with rainwater/melt-water from half the roof of our house.

Unfortunately, I must have put a little too much on my back, and it gave out unexpectedly last week without notice. As soon as it gets better, I have to set up the grow bed/bog and waterfall, as the pond will soon be full enough to begin running the pump.