The backyard garden is well into its summer growing season, the plants are going crazy, making me wish I had planted bush squash and beans instead of vines, and more compact growing tomatoes. With 3-4 months of grow time left I won’t even be able to navigate the area for the over-growth.

A couple of things stand out in my third trial garden, the first out of doors Aquaponics, the previous two trials were in the greenhouse where I produced some of the finest black aphids, mealy bugs, slugs, scale, and white flies in the state of CA!

The number one observation is that on certain plants an abundance of nitrates can produce excess foliage and leggy vines. The second is that the squash and tomato fruits are about half the size of those grown in the ground, this directly goes back to observation #1, a disproportionate amount of nitrogen to potassium and phosphate. Also, until I added calcium both the tomatoes and squash developed end rot.

I do put eggs shells in the worm buckets and in the Grow Beds, but that wasn’t enough. No more problems with end rot. Since this Aquaponic experiment also included Vermiponics, I was hoping that the nutrient regimen would be more balanced. I had observed prior to starting any of the trials, while wading through tons of YouTube type videos on Aquaponics, they all showed all of the plants with long spaces between internodes on tomato, peppers, and most of the other stalk plants that I observed in the videos.

The main reason for including  Vermiponics with the Aquaponics was to eliminate this problem, because along with that comes stunted fruit/veggies. I have kept at least one worm box with red wigglers for most of the last 40 years, sometimes seriously working with them and then much of the time just having a box to throw food scraps into. I am aware of the potential of worm castings, even for starting seeds and cuttings without being diluted. A look at the 27 worm buckets that were planted in pure worm casting shows the potential plants can have. I have spent many hours going through the latest studies I can find on Vermiculture today and as it is in any industry, there are two different approaches.

There is the marketing approach, how easy can we make it for marketing purposes and yet get away with using data from studies done with the proper care and feeding regimen. The second approach is what we need to do to produce the most desirable results. The marketing approach feeds off of the results from the second approach.

Raising earthworms is no different. The quality of the worm casting is in direct proportion to the quality of the feed they are given. Go easy on the newspaper. The safest is just black print, the colored print even though not on glossy paper is not considered safe by many, no copy paper. I knew from reading the Aquaponics forum information that there were nutrient deficiencies.  Calcium and iron are two others that come to mind.

My goal is to create a natural way to provide the necessary nutrients required for proper development. This first outdoor garden experiment was to incorporate the Vermiponics, hence the bucket garden. By the way there are only 27 buckets not 29 like I had been reporting. I discovered my error when I brought home 30 drip system stakes, (I usually loose at least one of whatever I am working with) but I had 3 left over. Hmmm, so I counted the buckets starting from left to right, I came up with 27, not willing to accept the fact that I had previously miscounted to 29 and publish it for all the world to see, I decided to count from right to left (think I saw this on the three stooges), still only 27!

Originally not having a clue what ratio of 5 gallon worm buckets to 600 gallon FT was required to produce the results I wanted, instead of one worm bucket why not a bunch, so that is how I derived at the 27 buckets for this  scientific study. That isn’t entirely true, I only had room for 27 buckets on the elevated rack my nephew and I had built! What actually makes this trial generate more questions then answers is that I have no idea what type and how much the worm buckets were contributing in nutrients, and even though I have been periodically adding food for the worms, I have no idea how many worms are left in each of the buckets.

Now that the plants roots fill the buckets it makes it impossible to actually see the worms to get any idea how many worms are left. I also have no idea how many worms were in the worm bedding material at the beginning of this trial. One thing is obvious by recent photos is that all of the plants are growing very fast and very large.

The goldfish, however many are left are about 3-4 inch body size now. There should be close to 200 still in the Bio-pond, but unless I drain the Bio-pond I really don’t know. I no longer have fish dying and the fish are coming up for food twice a day. Other observations have to do with the system itself. The loss of water, due to the drip (more like a pour) system for the buckets, the uptake of  the plants, three dogs drinking out of the Bio-pond, and the containers using coir and Perlite. I can find no leaks in the system, but I go through a lot of water, at least 25% per week. I understand there is a lot of transpiration from the plants, but can’t measure it.

Bioponics and drip systems do not do well together, they clog up on almost a daily basis, hence the pour system, each valve is wide open. Even using pre-filters, the filter cartridges would have to be cleaned frequently. I am working on a preliminary design for a filter that in theory will resolve this problem with very little help from the outside. Hope it works!

The concentrate from the proposed filter will go to the grow beds, while the filtered water will go through the slow sand filter to the worm buckets. The nutrients produced by the worms and their food will supply the nutrients for the plants. This will involve adding at least two additional vessels. After dividing up the worms and worm bedding from my original 4 worm boxes, I was left without backup worms should this worm bucket experiment fail. I brought in 2 more lbs of adult red wigglers and they are in two worm boxes chowing down on food. They receive veggie scraps and compost that is cooling down to the point where they can go in and scavenge the bacteria and fungi that were instrumental in the final stage of composting.

Because of the success of the plants in the greenhouse with very little help from worms, the fish alone provided enough nutrients to produce delicious tomatoes, and large wonderful sweet potatoes. Not to mention some very hot chili plants, Caribbean reds and Bhut Jolokias, that are really pretty to look at! Not to mention the greens, kale, herbs, Swiss chard, lettuce, spinach, a couple of orphaned euphorbia cacti, and zygo cacti that had no where to go. The leafy veggies do very well of course, but not immediately, it takes time, as has been emphasized many times in this forum, for the system to mature. However, it is always difficult for me to be patient; I live in a society of instant.

It has to be noted that the tomato plants inside the green house suffer from long internodes and small tomatoes also. There are some red wigglers in the Grow Beds, but not enough to clean up the sediment from the fish. To be able to evaluate how to what extent the worms are a benefit to the system, controls have to be in place. It would be necessary to separate the worms to be able to monitor their population. There has to be a way to monitor the nutrient uptake by the plants. The unknowns would include the concentrating of nutrients because of the uptake of water by the plants and evaporation. Using an API nitrate test kit is way to general in its readings. Not to mention how to be consistent in shaking the bottle of regent and the vial.

My objective was to combine readily available natural self perpetuating methods of providing nutrients in a consistent and sufficient manor to produce the crops that are actually nutritionally beneficial to the folks that need them, which lettuce isn’t.  So far that has eluded me. Outside of adding specific additional nutrients I do not know how to arrive at my goal.  It has been mentioned that within the feed the fish receive are additional minerals that benefit the fish. However, if Aquaponics is going to work for the folks that do not have, they can not be buying prepared fish food. It’s fine for us to do that, unless we are trying to be self-sustaining.

Daddy, is the basement floor supposed to covered with water?

Having just adjusted and modified the Tilapia filter system, I did not have to wonder whether the washing machine or the well system was leaking. Nope, I was confident that whatever water spill awaited me it was one caused by my DIY improvement.

Sure enough, the hose routing water from the fish tank to the bio-filter had slipped out and was now directing water onto the floor. Yes, the basement is finished; however, we use carpet sparingly. My daughter and I contained the spill using every available towel in the house: bath towels, beach towels, face towels, tea towels all spread out to create a sponge quilt.

The fish tank was nearly empty with perhaps ¼ inch of water gathered at one end. I expected to see fish laying on one side, dead or gasping for air but I could not find a single fish. I looked across the basement floor, under towels, under appliances, and in the bio-filter but I could not locate a Tilapia. I did not think it possible for the cats or dogs to eat all the fish but the fish were tiny.

So much for the great Tilapia experiment, how embarrassing. Having contained the water and placed fans throughout the basement, I focused my efforts on packing up the fish accessories. Recall the 2.5 lb weight borrowed to anchor the fake air stone? I hope so because it played a vital role in the fish lives. The weight and air stone lash up elevated a portion of the weight above the tank bottom creating a gap approximately ½ inch high and four inches across. Water had pooled around the weight and hiding in that small crevice were all of the fish!

So, fortune had smiled and pointed to one advantage of raising micro-Tilapia. I prepared for the worse thinking that I could not do much more to stress the fish except perhaps add a bass to their tank. Amazingly, the fish survived the basement flooding experience as well as the process to restore their environment. All went well for a couple of weeks until a few fish became lethargic.

I was exchanging water everyday and micro-tilapia seemed to have plenty of water but lethargy quickly progressed to a more permanent state, death. Six fish went down the utility sink over the course of two days. At this point I determined the DIY system was simply too cumbersome to maintain and it was time for an aquarium tank. I bought a 20-gallon tank and transferred all the fish to their new, store-bought home. I did not think colored aquarium water was necessary.

Heck, the one-mile stretch from our house to the closest paved road is covered by blue granite gravel and it is free! Admittedly, the gravel was not beautiful but it was there to support Tilapia. Again, for a few weeks all went well. I exchanged approximately 1/3 of the tank water daily and even used a suction hose to clean old fish food and fish poop from between the gravel pieces. There seemed to be a lot of debris in the water though.

For their part, the Tilapia were very entertaining. Every time a person passed their tank, they jumped to life, swam to the surface, and swirled for food. Who could be so stingy as to ignore their meal dance? I know not to over feed fish and only provided two meals a day. What I did not know was so was everyone else in the house. OOPS the saga continues!

Written years ago by a good friend of mine from New Mexico, Rich.

Irish eyes are always smiling but

  • “In the eyes of the world, you are only as good as your last success”

so never forget


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