Paul Nickerson

Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

Constructing the Grow Beds: Cutting and Washing

In Aquaponics on December 29, 2010 at 12:58 am

330gal Tote Fish Tank

After exploring a number of different possibilities, it was decided that our best bet was to use 330 gallon, food grade totes to construct the entire system. One tote, after cutting an access hatch, will be used to house the Tilapia. The second tote was cut into thirds, and the ends used as grow beds, each about 14 inches deep. After marking the tote with a pencil and straight edge, it can easily be cut with a saws-all.

As the totes previous contained food product, I cleaned them with a natural dish-soap from ‘Seventh Generation.’ Although connecting a hose directly to the hot water heater proved very effective, I do not advise washing totes outdoors in December.

Grow Beds in Basement

While washing one section of the tote, water froze over the other areas, covering the dirt in a thin layer of ice. To wash the totes, it became necessary to spray hot water on a section of the ice, and quickly wash off all exposed dirt before the water froze once again. After a while of this game, I finally got both grow beds washed out, and set up in the basement.

A Good Head Start

In Aquaponics on December 23, 2010 at 8:38 pm

When starting up a new aquaponic system, it is important to realize that plants cannot be introduced in the same moment as the fish, as there will not be enough nutrients, nor bacteria present in the water to sustain them.

It is common practice to allow the system to run for a couple of weeks after introducing the fish, prior to planting. This allows for the nutrient levels to increase in the tank, and facilitates the growth of important bacteria needed to convert ammonia into nitrates.

My father has a large fish tank in our house, so we decided to get a head start on the system. Over the past few months, while building the system, we have been collecting water from washing his fish tank. This water is already rich in bacteria, and will give an extra boost when working to start up our aquaponics system. We have currently gathered 22 gallons of fish water, storing it in one gallon jugs. If you have a healthy fish tank available, it is a good idea to collect water during cleanings. Apart from jump-starting an aquaponics system, it can be used to water houseplants.

Sowing Seeds

In Aquaponics on December 15, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Although there are a number of ways to sow seeds in a an Aquaponics system, I just want to share with you all something interesting that has occurred in my InDorm system.

While planting my Strawberry Container grow bed, a number of Tomato seeds fell out of their packet and onto my desk. I cleaned up what I could, but apparently some fell into a pocket in my bag. I discovered them when I went to take pictures of my system.

Without the use of germination bags, or mini cubes, I just placed the three seeds on top of the growing bed. If they grew, great. If they didn’t, no big waste.

I left the system over the weekend, and while shooting my InDorm Aquaponics Update video, I noticed two of the seeds had germinated! Although I would not recommend this the most effective way to germinate seeds in an Aquaponics system, it does work!

Indorm Aquaponics System Update

In Aquaponics on December 15, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Hey all! I posted another video on You tube of the system! Check it out!

Brown Algae: Diatoms

In Aquaponics on December 11, 2010 at 7:29 pm

Brown Algae Under Scope

When checking over my “Indorm” aquaponic system, I noticed small colonies of Brown Algae forming on some of the rock sculptures in the fish tank. I fed my fish, and let the system sit over the weekend. (It is still in the greenhouse, which is locked up over the weekend.)

When I returned Monday morning, I found that the small colonies had grown to coat most of the stones, and glass surfaces of the tank. I responded by wrapping the last glass side of the tank with aluminum foil to limit the amount of light that would be able to enter the system. Upon further research, I found that the Brown Algae, diatoms, is a common resident of newly established tanks.

Unfortunately, one of the leading causes of Brown Algae, as opposed to Green Algae, is insufficient light, not too much light. Oops. Furthermore, Diatoms forms in the presence of high silicates and nitrates. New tanks typically leach silicates from the glass, creating a high ratio of silicon to phosphates.

Diatoms grow well in environments high in nitrates, that may result from over feeding, or a lack of proper filtration. As this relates to Aquaponics, it is important to remember that one of the keys to successfully growing plants, is to have a high concentration of nitrates, therefore, the formation of some diatomic brown algae can be expected.

Brown Algae can be very helpful in an aquaponics system due to that fact that a a pH lower than 7, they will utilize Ammonia and Nitrogen (as nitrates). However, in a pH higher than 7, Ammonia will form Ammonium hydroxide, which is toxic to the algae. If the Brown Algae seems to get out of control, it can be managed by regular cleanings of both the glass, and the objects within the tank. Also, the introduction of certain sucker-mouthed fish, such as plecostomus, will help to manage algae formation.

One of the key dangers of brown algae in an aquaponics system is that it can create blocks inside of the small irrigation hoses used to move water in and out of the grow bed.. As algae continues to form, the relationship between water input and output may become altered to a point where stagnant water will pool at the bottom of the grow-bed. This water can facilitate the growth of bacteria that may be harmful to the plants exposed root systems. Regular maintenance will ensure good flow, and allow fresh water to freely circulate within the grow bed.

From Trash to Grow Bed

In Propagation on December 8, 2010 at 11:15 pm

Stemming from my last discussion on condiment cups, I thought I would share with you all another object that I have found very useful for germinating seeds. At work each morning, one of the girls I work with prepares up to five container of strawberries for parfaits. Typically, the plastic strawberry containers are recycled; however, I have collected (not hoarded) a small stack of them to use as germination trays.

Germination Greenhouse

Having cut the lid away, I placed a shallow layer of small stones along the bottom of the container. This allows for good drainage, and keeps dirt from falling through the large hole at the bottom edges. Next, I filled the tray 3/4 full with highly nutrient potting soil. Gently press the soil evenly with your fingers. If the soil remains higher in the middle than on the edges, the depths of the seeds will vary.

I find it easiest to wet the soil prior to planting. This keeps the seeds from being disturbed during initial watering.  Finally, plant the seeds according to their prescribed depth.

To create a humid environment, cut the lid and rim off of another container. When the second container is turn upside down it can be placed over the soil, resting just between the soil and the inside edge of the main growing bed. This will help to keep the soil moist and will create a wonderful environment for germination. I placed my container on a plate, allowing me to water it from the bottom. As you can see in the picture, the seeds have already begun to germinate. I planted about 12 tomato, broccoli, and cabbage seeds on December 3rd. The broccoli had all sprouted by December 6th, the tomatoes the 7th, and the cabbage began sprouting today!

Another method is to leave the original lid attached to the container, and simply use it to close the system; however, you will quickly need to remove it, because it will hinder the growth of the new seedlings.

Condiment Seedlings

In Propagation on December 8, 2010 at 2:08 am

Recycling seems to be one of the most common talking points of Envi Sci students. In regard to cycling, I have found a great way to reuse the plastic condiment containers from the restaurants on campus.

I am a collector (not a hoarder!), and as a result, I have gathered a small stack of black, lidded, condiment containers. After having been thoroughly washed out, without soap, I have found a way to put them to good use.

After poking three small holes in the bottom of the containers, I filled them about three-quarters full with highly nutrient potting medium. Using the tip of your finger, gently press the media flat along the top, creating a nice, level growing area.


Depending on the seeds, you will need to determine how deep they should be planted. I planted cucumber seeds in my containers, so it was easiest to use a pencil to make a small hole in the soil. I then placed the seeds into the holes, and covered them over.

Next, water the soil thoroughly, and cover it with the clear lid. This will maintain a highly humid environment, perfect for germination. Place the containers in an area where they will receive the light necessary for germination.

Final Germination Container

Once the seeds have germinated, remove the lids. Leaving the lids in place will restrict growth and will not allow for sufficient air circulation for the seedlings. Once true leaves have formed, the plants can be transplanted outdoors, into larger pots for container gardening, or into your aquaponics system.

Strawberry Update

In Aquaponics on December 8, 2010 at 1:13 am

Strawberry (Bottom Right)

I previously posted that I was having a problem with the strawberries. When I originally introduced the plant into the system, the leaves began to die off. I reduced the plants exposure to water by elevating it in the system. I also removed the dying leaves, in hope that new growth would form from the main body of the plant.

Newest Growth At Base Of Strawberry

After a couple of weeks, the health of the plant seemed to improve. I slowly worked to introduce the plant to a normal water cycle. A few weeks ago, I successfully replanted the strawberry plant in the grow bed. Here are some pictures of the result! In the second picture of the base of the plant, you can only see four of the newest leaves. There are two more sets of three leaves that are slowly opening up. They should be fully exposed in the next couple days!

Air Plants

In Propagation on December 4, 2010 at 2:55 am

Air Plants, Tillandsia, are very interesting plants that are perfect for dorm rooms. Air plants survive with little care, and can be used as unique ornaments, as they can be place, or even hung, anywhere.

The most unique aspect of Air plants is that they do not grow in any sort of media. Moreover, they do not need any care other than a thorough watering about twice a month.

Mother Plant with Pup


As the plant grows, it will begin to form a second, small plant off to one side, called a ‘pup.’ You can either choose to keep the pup attached to the mother plant, or you can separate it to form a new, independent plant. Pups will typically form just over a month after flowering. As the Pup grows, the lowest leaves of the plant will appear to dry out. These can easily be removed.


Pup Removed from Mother

If you will to separate the pup from the mother, this can easily be done by gently grabbing the base of the two plants, and twisting them apart. You should not separate the pup from the mother plant until it is approximately 1/2 the size of the mother plant. This will ensure that it will be mature enough to survive on its own.


Swamp Rot

In Propagation on December 3, 2010 at 11:04 am

I was recently given an aloe plant from a woman teaching Earth Sciences in a Virginia high school. I potted the plant in a large pot filled with Cactus & Succulent Soil Mix. As shown in the pictures, I then covered the top layer of soil with small stone.

Apart from simply adding a nice decor, the stones serve a very practical purpose. When watering certain succulents, it is common that water pools around the base of the plant, causing rot. This rot can be fatal to the plant if it persists.

This ‘swamp rot’ can easily be avoided by adding a layer of stones. This allows the water to drain rapidly past the base of the plant, keeping the it dry, and removing the threat of rot.

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