Monthly Archives: July 2013

Weeds

WeedsWow! Take a look at my garden. This was on Sunday, July 14 – kind of embarrassing. I don’t have to neglect things for very long before the weeds start springing up. After a month they’ve pretty well taken over. And it’s not something that I can hide – it’s obvious to anyone who looks.

So I spent several hours that afternoon Bare Earthgrubbing in the dirt until it looked a lot better. Where I could, I dug deep in the dirt to get out the roots—but I know I didn’t get them all. Lots of weeds have very deep roots. Even if I could get all the roots, weed seeds are blowing into the garden all the time. Unless my garden is in a greenhouse, weed seeds are unavoidable.

WeedsBackThe third photo shows what the garden looked like a week later. Weeds are already popping back up again. Time to do some more work.

This got me to thinking about the renewed mind:

Romans 12:2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

Notice that there are two parts, two commandments from God in this verse. I need to renew my mind by acquiring right doctrine from God’s word. I also must refuse to conform to the thought patterns of this world (“world,” here, refers to everything surrounding us that’s in opposition to God).

Not being conformed is a lot like weeding. If I neglect God’s Word for a while my mind looks like the first picture. It isn’t pretty. My mind is unlike a garden, though, in that I can try to hide it. Most people – if I put on a good enough act – won’t even notice. It isn’t as obvious as an overgrown vegetable bed. I might even be able to fool myself. In fact, since my mind is the garden, I’ll probably fool myself into thinking that everything is okay. That’s why I try to read the Bible daily and to do a regular checkup, an inspection, to make sure my thoughts are aligned with His Word.

Of course, after I’ve done that work, new weeds will spring up again. It’s not avoidable – I can’t keep my mind in a greenhouse.

One of the toughest parts about weeding – something so common that it’s a comedic standard – is mistaking the desired plants for the weeds and vice versa. When I’m weeding, mind or garden, I must learn to distinguish between desirable thoughts (okra and sweet potatoes) and undesirable (weeds).

As I learn more from God’s Word, even after decades, I keep encountering thoughts that I imagined were fruitful. They’ve been there so long that I never realized their weed nature. Until “that which is perfect is come” I’ll continue to discover new weed species.

I won’t acquire a perfectly renewed mind before the return of Christ. But I can keep working on it.

Just a little food for thought.

Rick

Plugging Away

PlugsThe “lawn” in my front yard was sparse, scraggly, and neglected. In February I raked up the huge accumulation of leaves and discovered a desert landscape. This was in the dry season, of course. Mowing did little but raise a cloud of dust. The culprits, besides neglect, were the two large Oak trees growing close to the street. I’m certainly not getting rid of them; I love the shade and, when I return from work each afternoon, they help make my street look homier and more inviting. Shade, however, is not good for growing grass.

LabelI did a bit of research both online and at garden centers. A very knowledgeable Home Depot employee recommended a variety of St. Augustine that can tolerate shade – Palmetto. Unfortunately they had none in stock. The Lowe’s store down the street had one flat of plugs. When I left, they had none. This was on Saturday, June 29. I didn’t bother to buy a special plugging tool since each flat has only eighteen plugs. I used a trowel.

I watered the plugs once or twice by hand – “everybody knows” you should water new grass daily. I stopped because it’s been raining almost daily. After a week the grass was starting to look Pluggingpretty nice. Palmetto has darker green leaves than most other varieties of St. Augustine. It’s said that this allows it to absorb more energy from low-level light. After two weeks the plugs were starting to spread. I declared the experiment a success.

Last Saturday, July 13, I discovered that Home Depot had gotten a shipment – one pallet – of Palmetto plugs. I bought ten flats (180 plugs) for $47.90. This wasn’t enough to do my whole front yard (40 flats might) but, along with the rest of my weekend chores, I felt I wouldn’t have time to do more. Besides, St. Augustine grass spreads.

BrokenI also bought a plugging tool ($19.97) recommended by an employee (not the same one I’d spoken to earlier).

Making holes with the plugger was much quicker and easier than bending over to dig. For a while. I had to finish the last twenty holes with my trusty trowel. The fancy, high-tech plugging tool wasn’t  as durable as one might wish. The steel jaws were hinged to each other with flimsy, hollow aluminum rivets. These rivets didn’t last long. I returned the tool to Home Depot for a quick, cheerful refund.

I had thoroughly watered the plugs before planting them. The root balls were soggy wet. I had read that one should leave no air pockets when plugging-in grass so I carefully pressed the dirt around them with my fingers – and stomped on each one for good measure! I figured this couldn’t hurt since they Looking Goodare shipped piled up on a pallet. They were already squished when I brought them home.

Within a day the leaves were springing erect and looking quite healthy. It’s now a week later and, once the grass dries, I’ll get to mow!

God bless,

Rick

Chloramine and Me

Tap WaterHere in the U.S. we’re used to the idea of turning on the faucet and having unlimited quantities of clean, safe drinking water available at all times. We should definitely count our blessings. In some parts of the world people have to walk for miles each day to fetch water, water that we probably wouldn’t consider safe to drink. But it’s what they have.

Even in the United States our tap water isn’t completely pure. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rules regulating contaminants in water. Testing and compliance however is almost completely in the hands of our local utilities. If you have any concerns about your local water supply it is up to you to check up on it. If your local water utility exceeds the EPA guidelines for contaminants it is only required to inform you, by mail, within thirty days after they discover the problem. If they don’t test very often, who knows how long that might take. According to the EPA,

In 2001, one out of every four community water systems did not conduct testing or report the results for all of the monitoring required to verify the safety of their drinking water.

There are many resources on the web that discuss the various contaminants in drinking water and their possible effects on human health. I won’t go into that here. I want to concentrate on what we might find in our tap water that will have an effect on our ability to raise food.

The only water contaminants that I’m seriously concerned about in my garden are chlorine, Cl2, and sodium, Na. The EPA allows utilities to add a maximum of 4 ppm of chlorine to drinking water as a disinfectant. Now, I have no problem with that. The alternative to adding chlorine is to allow unchecked bacterial growth in the water mains. This could lead to bad results!

There are two problems with chlorine once it reaches my garden.

First, it will continue to do what it’s designed to do – kill microbes. Why is this a problem? My compost piles, the bacteria in my aquaponics water, and the microbes in my soil are major parts of my garden’s ecology. This ecology is necessary to grow high quality food.

Secondly, it is poisonous to my fish.

Back in the old days we had a simple fix for this problem. To prepare tap water for adding to an aquarium or our turtle pond my mom would fill up a suitably sized container with tap water and let it sit, uncovered, for two days. Virtually all of the chlorine in the water would simply evaporate into the air. Then it could be added without any worries about killing our aquatic creatures.

When I first started my tabletop aquaponics unit this is what I did. And boy did I have trouble. It turns out that elemental chlorine is no longer the preferred disinfectant in Pinellas county. These days the water utility is using chloramine as the disinfectant. Chloramine, a chlorine compound, is not as effective a disinfectant as straight chlorine. It is, however, more stable. It ensures that the water is delivered to all households still containing enough residual chlorine to protect from bacterial growth. It also does not react as easily with chemicals in the pipes. The EPA found that chlorine on its way to my house could form some very interesting molecules—carcinogens.

As an interesting aside, chloramine is formed by first chlorinating the water and then adding ammonia. Your mom was right when she warned you not to mix ammonia and bleach!

Once again, the problem with chloramine is that it does what it’s supposed to do. It remains stable. If you fill a bucket with tap water and let it sit for two days the chloramine does not evaporate. It is still present, ready to kill any fish or microbes it touches.

Sodium ThiosulphateAfter learning this I surfed aquarium websites to discover a solution. Many aquarists use a chemical called sodium thiosulphate  to neutralize chlorine and chloramine. I began to do likewise.

Warning: on a couple of aquarium forums I found references to using chloramine to help prevent or cure diseases of freshwater fish. The writers were confusing chloramine with chloramine T, a very different molecule that acts as both a mild disinfectant and as a sulfa drug. This may be used (with approval) for treating diseases. Normal chloramine isn’t good for fish.

Once I moved into my house, however, I began to have my doubts. Is this chemical an acceptable one for organic gardening? What about the fact that it neutralizes the chlorine by turning it into sodium chloride – salt? Sodium, it turns out, was something I was adding to the water. Salt isn’t good for plants.

I wasn’t the only person wondering about this. Shortly thereafter received Friendly Aquaponics newsletter #125 talking about the neutralization of chloramine. I did a little research and, by the time I had received newsletter #126 I’d found the same answer that Suzanne came up with. It was reassuring to have her validate my research.

As I go to press 🙂 newsletters 125 and 126 are not yet available online. The bottom line, however, is that vitamin C, ascorbic acid, neutralizes chlorine (including chloramine) . And ascorbic acid is on the list of chemicals that may be used with organic fruits and vegetables .

Since I’m only concerned with my backyard, that’s good enough for me. If I were trying to get organic certification I would do a lot more research!

Remember how sodium thiosulfate neutralizes the chlorine? It turns into a chloride, specifically sodium chloride, salt. There is a form of vitamin C called sodium ascorbate. Don’t use this—it also converts the chlorine into salt. The sodium-type chlorine neutralizers are popular because they work almost instantly—and salt has no effect on the pH of the water. A small amount of salt in the water doesn’t harm most fish—it may be beneficial for certain species. Remember, though, that salt isn’t good for any plants commonly grown for food.

Ascorbic acid works similarly in that it converts the chlorine into a chloride. The chloride in this case, however, is hydrogen chloride. Another name for hydrogen chloride dissolved in water is hydrochloric acid. What? Are you nuts, Rick? You’re worried about a little salt so you decide to poison your fish and plants with hydrochloric acid?

I agree that HCl isn’t a recommended additive for aquaponic water. It can, however, be easily neutralized in one of two ways. The fast way is to stir a calcium carbonate slurry into the water. Calcium carbonate, in the form of crushed oyster shell or crushed coral, is an approved substance for organic farming. In fact, I add it to my tabletop aquaponics unit to buffer the pH. The Friendlies use it for the same purpose. This converts the HCl to calcium chloride, carbon dioxide, and water.

The second way to get rid of the HCl is to wait. Almost all of it will evaporate in two days—just like chlorine.

How much ascorbic acid do I need to add to my water? That depends upon how many parts per million of chlorine it contains. Pinellas county aims to deliver 2 ppm to my faucet, but my tap water has a very strong chlorine smell. I like to play it safe and assume I’m getting 4 ppm. At that concentration I need to add 1 g of ascorbic acid to every 25 gallons of water. If I overdose on ascorbic acid it won’t really matter. Heat, sunlight, and oxygen (air) destroy it very quickly. Since I let the water sit in order to evaporate the HCl, the ascorbic acid will degrade at the same time.

MixingAscorbic acid can be purchased in bulk from many online retailers. A 1 pound bottle contains about 454 grams, which would be enough to treat 11,350 gallons of water. At $20 per pound, it will cost me $0.0018 per gallon. Maybe I should buy a smaller bottle.

The method I use for dosing with vitamin C is to dissolve a quarter teaspoon (about 1.25 g) in 6 tablespoons of water (3 ounces). Then I use one tablespoon of the solution in a five-gallon bucket of water. I store any unused portion in a glass bottle in the refrigerator. That way it doesn’t degrade so quickly.

God bless you all,

Rick

Tabletop Aquaponics

Both of my regular readers have wondered why this blog is called “The Working Fish.” Wonder no more! All will be revealed.

I have always, as you might have gathered, been interested in gardening. When I was but a young lad I began vegetable gardening—ostensibly to help feed my large family. In truth, I just love getting my hands in the dirt. Another of my lifelong hobbies is reading. I saw no reason not to combine the two and read everything I could get my hands on about gardening. There are so many different techniques to try!

One of my first gardening experiments was to emulate a technique that the Indians taught the Pilgrims—burying fish under hills of corn. It makes sense—fish is very high in protein which is high in nitrogen of which corn requires a lot to grow well. Providentially, one neighbor was an avid flounder fisherman who would often share his excess catch. Sometimes his gift would literally fill a bushel basket.

Even a good Roman Catholic family – a family of ten – could eat only so many fish. My dad gave me permission to experiment with the surplus. I carefully dug holes in our rocky soil to plant each fish before mounding up a hill of earth. I buried the seeds at the exact depth specified on the packet and watered them thoroughly. My excitement was palpable. I had never shot a deer with my bow and arrows but I could live like an Indian just the same!

The next morning I rushed out to inspect my handiwork. I was chagrined to discover a garden full of craters—one in place of each of the carefully prepared hills. During the night the neighborhood cats had descended to dig up the banquet I had so thoughtfully prepared. That afternoon, after school, I replanted my corn – without fish. The New England Indians must not have had house cats. Perhaps the squaws sat up all night guarding their fields?

As a teenager I continued to read and experiment. A favorite author (and not too distant neighbor) was Ruth Stout. Her book, Gardening Without Work, was one of my favorites and I became a fan of sheet composting. This gave me more time for reading. I plowed through Plowman’s Folly, had a good time with Living the Good Life, longed for more land while reading Five Acres and Independence, and spent  forever with Farmers of Forty Centuries.

In later years (I’m skipping over a lot) I successfully experimented with the ideas in The Self-Sufficient Gardener  and The New Square Foot Gardening. I learned from experience that every technique has its advantages and disadvantages. After moving into an apartment I had to do my gardening on borrowed land – I was using both the raised bed/sheet composting and square foot styles, depending on the crop. Are you getting the idea that this is something of an obsession with me?

Tabletop1Then, if memory serves, I ran across an article, “Food Storage Program for Paleo Dieters” by Cathy Cuthbert on Lew Rockwell’s webpage (which I read every day). This article mentioned a type of gardening I’d never heard of before – aquaponics – and contained a link to the webpage of Friendly Aquaponics. I clicked. I ordered the microsystem plans. Within weeks I had one of their tabletop systems up and running in my apartment.

Friendly Aquaponics doesn’t sell kits—they sell instructions. My tabletop unit includes a Rubbermaid tote from Walmart; a mud tub and a waterfall pump from Home Depot; and an air pump from PetsMart. The mosquitofish were 12 for a dollar at a local pet store.

Fish1I learned a lot—especially what not to do. Some lessons were: Feeder goldfish are not as tough as they look; chloramine in tap water doesn’t simply evaporate like chlorine; it’s tough to fit adequate grow lights on a tiny table in a tiny apartment. But, who cares? I knew I’d be out of there in a few months!

My intention was to gain a little experience with the tabletop unit in preparation for buying a house in 2011. Then, with my own yard, I would be able to put in a larger system and do some serious experimentation. Unfortunately the house and yard I Tabletop2was looking for exactly matched the sort that investors were buying as rental properties. It took me till this year to a) find a suitable property and b) not get outbid by a cash investor. So here we are.

As you can see from the pictures my tabletop unit moved to the new house with me and is now sitting on my patio. The fish and basil plants seem quite happy in their new home. I will finally, on this long holiday weekend, be able to start assembling my microsystem from a pile of painted lumber.

I have now come full circle and will, once again, be fertilizing my vegetables with fish.

Check back for updates,

Rick

 

Needed: Pickup Truck

WarpedIt’s raining today, off and on. I mowed the lawn between showers and did some weeding in the rain. Time to work on this blog.

It’s great fun moving into a new house and trying to get caught up on all of the repairs; even little ones can take up a lot of time and mental energy. One critical repair was to replace a fence section that was badly warped and pulling loose. My neighbor was making pointed comments about it falling into her yard.

June first seemed like a good day to purchase materials. I knew I wouldn’t have time to fix the fence right away but I needed some pressure-treated lumber, as well. I wanted it to age for a couple of weeks before I painted it. More on that, below.

During the month of May I had been contemplating the pros and cons of getting a pickup truck. Obviously, I needed one now that I was a landowner—should I buy an old beater or a newer, more reliable one?  Yet, June had arrived and I still had no method of transporting large objects.

TruckIt suddenly occurred to me on that Saturday morning that trucks could be rented for very little money. Duh! A little online research revealed that my local Home Depot rents trucks—time to go shopping.

The Home Depot rental was a bit pricey—and definite overkill.  It’s a flatbed with stake sides that fold down in case my load was really oversize. It has a cargo capacity of 3500 pounds – rather more than I would need. Still…the convenience! I could have driven to U-Haul and gotten a light truck for about twenty dollars a day. The Home Depot truck cost nineteen dollars for seventy-five minutes. A full twenty-four hours costs sixty-nine dollars. But 75 minutes would be plenty of time–I live less than two miles from the store. Why rent for a whole day if I didn’t need to?

That afternoon I stopped off at their rental area and placed my name on the waiting list. The trucks are in high demand on Saturday. Then I went to do my shopping.

FenceIt’s quite a time savings if you do things the right order. My first stop was in lumber where I tracked down an employee and set them to work cutting up sheets of half-inch plywood to my required sizes. While he was doing that I wandered off and got the rest of my supplies. Then back to lumber to pick up everything else. Time to check out.

While I was in line I got a call on my cell phone—my truck was ready. Did I mention convenient? Not only was the truck parked right next to the contractor loading area, they didn’t start charging until my purchases were actually on board. And there was a Home Depot employee to help me load.

PaintI’m convinced—I don’t need to buy a pickup. Even if I rent a truck every single weekend of the year it’s still cheaper than paying the insurance on old beater. I’m also saving the purchase price. And the cost and headaches of repairs. This experience has gotten me thinking. Maybe I should buy a sports car for my daily driver. I can always rent any other vehicle I might need. Hmm…

Unfortunately, the new fence panel had to sit for two weeks until my twenty-year-old son was free to come over and help me install it. He graciously did the heavy lifting and allowed me to have the fun of playing with the power tools. That was on Saturday, the fifteenth.

PaintedThe pressure-treated lumber and the plywood got a coat of primer that same weekend. Normally (or so I’ve been told) pressure-treated wood is supposed to age for a while before being painted.  The primer that I purchased is supposed to stick to most anything. We’ll see how it does on pressure-treated wood. The lumber will become an aquaponics trough. I’ll get to that in a future post.