Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Sunday, May 1st, 2011:  The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 

Lots to update this week.  I'd been away for two weeks except for a very quick visit last weekend that didn’t really allow me much time to look at everything closely.
The Good:
On the Good side of things, almost all the plants are doing great.  The video all the way at the bottom of this update shows all the plants.  The watermelon bed, which hosts two watermelon plants, has growth all over the place.  The bed itself is not even visible anymore.  The plants have made their way onto the fish tank cover and the floor and there are more watermelons coming out.  On the other hand, the watermelons themselves appear to grow quickly at first but then the growth rate tapers off.  None of the watermelons are ready and the largest ones do not appear to be growing much anymore if at all.  Maybe this is normal, I really don’t know.  I'll have to read up on watermelon plants.

On the Bad side, the watermelon plants are suffering from some sort of infestation.  I noticed this started last week, but I wasn’t here long enough to even think about what to do about it.  There is some sort of white/tan-colored, very small bug sticking to the leaves.  They do not move unless you disturb them.  They do not appear to eat the leaves.  By that, I mean they do not leave behind leaves with holes in them.  They do leave behind a black, very ugly looking film.  Maybe they suck nutrients out of the leaves without leaving holes, but what do I know?  The strange thing is, the leaves don't look unhealthy, other than having that sludgy film on them.
Here are the bugs and the film left on the leaves:
Upper Right Corner:  White/Tan colored bugs visible.  Almost Everywhere Else:  Black film left behind by bugs. 
Click on the image for a better view.

In any case, for lack of any better ideas, I sprayed the plants down with a molasses solution (just a 1-liter spray bottle of water with about ¼ cup molasses and a squirt of dish soap mixed in).  Some bugs are repelled by sweat smells so maybe this will work.  While spraying the leaves, I noticed the black film they left behind washed off pretty easily, so if the molasses doesn’t work, maybe a good spraying with the hose will get them and their trash on their way!
Almost all the plants planted last week seem to be doing well, with the exception of a single yellow-tomato plant in the gravel bed, which appears to be rotting at the base.  This is what ultimately afflicted all the tomato plants that had grown in that bed previously, so that’s disappointing.  I’ll keep an eye on the other tomato plants in that bed and watch out for the same symptoms. 

The tomato plants in the raft bed are doin’ great.  I wish I had taken pictures of the roots.  That will have to wait ‘till next time.  I filled the rest of that raft bed (raft bed 1) with other tomato plant types: cherry, roma, and more yellow tomatoes.  If they all flourish, that’s going to be one hell of a bed! 
Yellow Tomato Plants.  I planted other tomato plants in the rest of this raft (not shown). 
Background:  Half-barrel cemetary from original design.  I still might get some use out of those, so there they sit until needed. 

In raft bed two, I planted new lettuces (shown in video).  I bought the starters at the store.  In raft bed three, the mustard plants are goin’ crazy, as can be seen here:

Worms:  When I first learned about aquaponics, one of the key components presented was worms that would grow (and must grow) in the gravel grow beds.  Worms play a key role in decomposing fish and plant waste that accumulates in the gravel grow beds.  Worms both take advantage of this material and release the minerals therein for plant use, and also keep the gravel beds free from clogging.

What I never saw discussed anywhere was which kind of worms to use or where to get them.  Little did I know that mattered!  The first time I tried adding worms, I just dug around in the ground until I found some and placed them in my gravel grow beds.  A few weeks later, hoping to find worms slithering all over my beds, I was highly disappointed to find not one!  The ones I’d added died or escaped.
As it turns out, not all worms are equal – far from it!  The type of worm that is best suited for decomposing waste and is used the world over for composting, is Eisenia fetida.  That’s the scientific name for California red crawlers.  Or in Europe, Eisenia hortensis.  They thrive in rich organic matter, can tolerate high temperatures, and can withstand the flood portion of the flood and drain cycle without a hitch.  These are the worms used in composting systems, vermiculture, vermicomposting, and it’s what those guys I first read about doing gravel-bed aquaponics use.  However, it seems that in some places these worms will just crawl out of the ground and into your grow beds all by themselves.  Maybe that’s how it works in Australia, which is where most of the aquaponics stuff I first read about takes place, but not here!  In most places you will probably need to find someone that harvests these worms and buy them.  That’s what I did. 
And here they are:

They burry themselves in the soil, so you have to disturb the surface in order to get any kind of a
picture of them, of which this one is, I just realized, quite lousy.

I set up what is in effect an “inoculating nest” on top of each bed today.  The nest is just a small plastic plant container (with those big drain holes on the bottom resting on the gravel bed) filled with worms and the material (worm compost) they come in, and covered with another plant container upside down (with the holes up, providing air).  I am hoping they will make their way into the cool, dark, moist, oxygen rich, and waste-rich beds underneath.  If they don’t, I will be incredibly disappointed to say the least.  I thought I learned something here, so don’t let me down, my red, wiggly, friends.
This is a great site with just about all the information you could possibly ever want on red composting worms:  Red Worm Composting. The worms make great home composting systems too of course.  I set up two this weekend – one for the house and one for the farm. 

My swirl filter has gone anaerobic, no doubt about it.  This gunk floating on top, pictured in the last update, reeks.

It does not appear to be affecting anything (yet).  From the swirl filter, water drains to the sump, where it is heavily aerated.  I think the nasty gases produced by anaerobic minerilization get fairly well vented out in the sump.  They certainly do not appear to be harming anything at this point.  Anyway, I have a plan to tackle this but haven’t had the time to implement it yet.  Basically, a better designed solids-capturing system that can be cleaned regularly I think will do the trick.  The current swirl filter is just not easy to clean, so things that collect overstay their welcome and go anaerobic.  I do think this waste can go into a nice vermicomposting system later on – something else to research. 

This week's video update:


  1. Hey Farmer!

    It's been a long time since I stopped by, and all I can say is WOW! What an amazing job you are doing here. I am truly impressed.

    Thanks for keeping this blog going, I hope to follow in your footsteps in the not too distant future.


  2. Glad to be of help, Ready! It's been a lot of fun too and very educational. I am finding that although fish work great, it would be even better if a system could be made to work using only worms. That would lower system complexity tremendously as well as require less energy. All that aeration and pumping to keep fish happy is expensive. It still makes sense for personal home-use, but I doubt these systems could be commercialized in most places. Someone needs to come up with a recirculating, worm-based system.

  3. Hi Patrick,

    So glad I came across your blog. I love all the information and pictures. I live in Puriscal and was wondering if you allow visits or if you do tours for anyone wanting an up close look at the process of ap. With the exception of one last task for the municipalidad I will be building an earthbag house very soon and I also want to incorporate ap in my plans to do some growing. I'll be using an actual tilapia pond for source but I would love to see an actual working system before trying to shift my ideas about ap from concepts to reality.

    By the way, you can purchase the red wigglers in town (Puriscal) at a place (with birds painted on it) diagonal to the old church or I would be happy to gift you with a handful from my vermicompost.