It is the time of year when we can FINALLY enjoy the fruits of our labor! The peas are coming into maturity and are at a stage when they can be picked for fresh eating. Peas, locally know as alberjon, are frost tolerant and are able to complete most of their life cycle before the irrigation water runs out.
It is important to look for the peas that are just right. The ones shown above are too young yet but will be a perfect size in just a few days. Alberjon can be picked almost every day for a couple of weeks to get the peas that are ready. When picking alberjon, it is important to hold the stem of the legume where it is attached to the plant and to pick the legume off without damaging the plant. Once the legume of the pea starts to turn a dull green yellow color and starts to look more defined and hardened compared to the younger ones, then that legume is pasado, or past its prime, and should be left for seed or dry peas. You will know the difference between peas that are ready and those that are past by the taste: ones that are ready are sweet and ones that are past taste more starchy. Allowing the crop to mature will make more dry peas that can also make an excellent split pea soup that is made by running the dry peas through the course setting on a grain mill. The pea is split in the mill and the separated seed hull breaks off and can be winnowed away with a fan or the wind.
This is the “after” picture of today’s activity. The picture above shows our chicken house that has been cleaned of all the old manure that had been mixed with sawdust from the last time we cleaned out the coop. We then used a high pressure stream from the garden hose to clean off the walls, windows, and laying boxes. Then we put about 8 wheelbarrows full of fresh sawdust in the coop and the yard. Finally, we dusted our chickens with diatomaceous earth (DE) to control lice. We had some extra DE and just threw it into some crevices and corners of the coop where lice might be present.
We found lice on our chickens a few months back and this was our chance to treat the problem. We also heard that a pile of ashes in the coop or burning some sage can also control lice populations in the coop. I think lice might create problems with sores on the chickens, loss of feathers, and they are probably not as comfortable if lice are present. There can also be a problem with lice getting on people or other livestock. A little bit of management can help create balance in the system and hopefully improve the health of the animals. It is not too difficult a job, but it is dusty and dirty so we use a garden hose mister to control the dust while wearing a dust mask along with long sleeves, pants, and closed boots or shoes.
We clean out the coop once or twice a year and by the time we get to emptying out the coop of manure and sawdust, we have about 10 wheelbarrows full of material that we pile next to the compost operation as seen in the foreground of the picture above. The beginnings of the compost pile is the pile of weeds in the background and is from the compost activity we talked about in our last post. One time we just watered the chicken manure/sawdust pile without adding it to anything and the temperature went up to over 165 degrees Fahrenheit in just a couple of days indicating the high nitrogen content of the manure in the sawdust. We now inter-space layers of manure/sawdust with the layers of biomass from the field as explained in the last post and moisten each layer that is applied to have a less intense composting process. We apply ample water to wet the layers of the pile thinking of a moisture content level that would be consistent with a wrung-out sponge.
A clean chicken coop is a joy for everyone involved. The chickens seem relieved to have their house cleaned and upon entering the coop we are greeted by a fresh smell of earth and sawdust. The chickens will continue to create manure as part of their life-process and we will be cleaning the coop again within the coming year to make benefit of the chickens’ waste products and the expense we incur toward chicken feed. One of the best parts of having chickens, besides getting eggs, is that nothing goes to waste…
Today we gathered at Sol Feliz to get started on our composting process for this season. First we cut down all the alfalfa and other biomass in the South field of Sol Feliz. We have been irrigating this field and allowing it to grow and flower for the purpose of cutting it down, gathering it up and composting it. The picture below shows what the field looked like before we started and the picture above shows it all mowed and us starting to gather it up.
We started the process of composting by layering the biomass with layers of chicken manure and sawdust (see the next post). It looks like we have plenty of biomass to combine with our available chicken manure/sawdust mixture but we were only able to make a dent in the process today and will have to leave the field with a small compost pile and several big piles of alfalfa biomass. We will revisit and complete the process later…
I checked on the Grow Dome yesterday to see how the system was running. It was not as dramatic as the loss of fish, but I entered the Grow Dome and found about half of our plants dried up and water was not flowing out of the system while the pump was making a sound of being clogged or bogged down. A little investigation revealed that the intake filter was not seated properly (and not robust enough if it was) and all kinds of floating debris had clogged the pump, the hoses, and biological filter. The first job was to take the intake and filter apparatuses apart and clean everything.After everything was cleaned, we redesigned the intake, pictured above. We found a one-gallon bucket with multiple holes in the sides and bottom. We got an old pair of panty hose and stretched it over the bucket and then hung the bucket inside a filter screen bag that is sold for people who paint using a sprayer. This design works really well. It allows access to the pump without having to allow the surrounding water into the system. The bucket hangs conveniently from the handle by hooks anchored in the crossbar of the water tank. As an extra biological benefit, we also put a pumice stone from our aerator into the bucket so that oxygenated water is sucked into the system for use in the biological filter and then into the hydroponic trays.
While we were at it, we redesigned our biological filter. We had to disconnect everything and dismantle it. We took all the pumice and pea-gravel filter media and dumped it into a plastic tray. We used high pressure from a hose to clean out all the gunk from the filter media pads. We put the filter media pads back in place but with a different order. As before, we put the coarse- and medium-density filter pads on the bottom of the bucket. Then we put the mixture of pumice and pea-gravel that was cleaned using a colander and high-pressure water spray and replaced it on top of the medium-density filter pad, the second layer in the bucket. All in all we have about 4 inches of pumice and pea-gravel. Since some pumice can float, we sandwiched the pumice/pea-gravel with another pad of medium-density filter. We used some extra pieces of filter pad to stick in the outlet holes to prevent any detritus from entering our outlet tubes and hydroponic trays.
We still have some plants that survived this episode and we planted some more seeds in those little fiberglass-like plugs to put in the system in a couple of weeks. We are also looking to obtain some starter plants, wash off the soil from the root zone, and place them in this system once it is up and running… All in all we feel good about the learning experience we are engaged in and feel fortunate that we have the opportunity (and funding) to develop this system and share with you our progress…
Today three of us met to hoe weeds at the Parr Field Garden Project. Our crop plants are bigger now so the job is easier with less danger of accidentally weeding our crops. Nevertheless, it seems like every weeding episode has its share of collateral damage. There are some areas where crops are not present and we do not know if that was due to germination issues, mortality after emergence due to lack of adequate moisture, or we are starting to see evidence of animal damage to our irrigation system and garden plot in general. It appears as if we have at least three prairie dog holes in the immediate vicinity of our garden. I am not sure how we will deal with these critters, hopefully we don’t lose too much. In 2011 we lost almost an acre of crops to neighboring fields infested with prairie dogs.
The picture above shows the field after most of the weeds are eliminated. I tell the students that we are not here to take out 100% of the weeds, we just want to make sure our crops are not suffering direct competition with weeds and to give them the upper hand. Indeed, when we come back in several days, we will find all the weeds we missed! Some of our chile plants are thriving, others not so well… We did not have our irrigation system up and running correctly until several days after we transplanted so many of our plants succumbed to the shock of being transplanted and not having enough soil moisture to survive the transition.
The three sisters aspect of our garden continues, with the three representatives thriving. In a few weeks time, it will be difficult to see the soil underneath all the greenery! That is assuming all of these crops can survive the influence of our prairie dog neighbors. We also found the chains and locks were cut on the gates which means that people (and their dogs) will now have access to the field and the garden and that can have unpredictable and undesirable consequences…
Exactly one week after my last irrigation last Thursday, I was given the water again. The Mayordomo warned me that the water is running low and I replied that I am thankful that we even have water, last year at this time our acequias were dry. The water pressure in the ditch was low, took a long time to get to my house, and the water traveled really slowly down all the rows.
We have been sharing water (repartiendo agua) with the North Side Acequia which means that when we have water, we have an extra 1/3 of volume than when we are not sharing. They likewise get 2/3 of extra water volume when it is their turn. The water volumes balance out in that the North Side gets ALL the water for 1/3 of the week and the South side (and Randall Ditch) get all the water for 2/3 of the week. Well, the Mayordomo from the North side called our Mayordomo and informed him that this coming Monday the water sharing agreement will end and we will just allow 2/3 of the water to come to our side until the water runs out while the North side will take their 1/3 from here on out. This means that come next week, we will have 1/3 less volume of water in our ditch in addition to what just naturally diminishes over time. I will not be able to irrigate with such a low volume of water. I may be able to use a sprinkler pump to get the water out of the ditch and to some of my trees, but I would have to say that this is it, the irrigation season is over…
Now it will be time to be especially hopeful for rain and to cultivate the soil around the plants using a hoe to aerate the soil environment and support the plants. As my father-in-law says “Es mas importante escardar y arrimar la tierra que regar.” (It is more important to cultivate your soil and pile earth around your plants than it is to irrigate).
We did not create blog-posting updates for all the trial and error we experienced over that last month or so in trying to get this aquaponic system going. We have had about three failures and learning experiences about getting the mechanics working. Our goal was to pump the water out of the tank that has fish in it, run it through the mechanical/biological filter seen in the bucket at left, run the water through the two hydroponic trays that contain the plants, and finally drop the water back into the tank. The nutrients from the fish waste are supposed to provide for the plants once they are processed through bacteria in the biological filter.
The challenging part in getting this system going was design of our mechanical/biological filter. We did a little research and found out we could build our own filter out of a 5 gallon bucket, some hose and fittings, and filter media like pumice, sand, gravel, charcoal, or commercially obtained sheets of pond-filter-media. Our main problem was getting the outflow of the filter of sufficient volume to accommodate the volume of water that was entering the filter. We had to balance the gallons per hour of the two pumps we tried as well as the total diameter of the outflows which are different sized polytubes as seen on the far left of the photo. To summarize, we had to reduce our pump size from 550 gallons per hour to 160 gallons per hour and we had to increase our outflow from five 1/4″ polytubes to an additional 3/4″ polytube. The 3/4″ tube meant that, for now, we had to lose the topmost planting hole in the hydroponic tray. The fact that we lost almost 50 fish a couple of weeks ago will also compromise the capacity of this system. But for right now we have about 10 gold fish and 2 bottom feeders so hopefully this will be sufficient to at least ascertain the potential of this system for future fine-tuning. We did not populate our hydroponic trays to capacity to account for the potential deficit of nutrients from a smaller fish population and just plugged some holes that we can use in the future. It is likely that some of these plants will not survive the transition and we will have even less plants surviving in the system by the time we get more fish. We are hopeful to receive another donation of blue gill fish from the NM Department of Fish and Game sometime in August.
To elaborate on the design of our filter system, we used the 5-gallon bucket pictured above. We bought three bulkheads and drilled holes in the bucket, one on the bottom (inflow from water tank) and two on the top (output to hydroponic trays). We ended up using 1/2″ inner diameter polytube for the inflow and 3/4″ inner diameter polytube for the outflow. We got these materials from the local hardware store in the drip irrigation section. We put in five 1/4″ polytubes from the 3/4″ line using drip irrigation fittings. We had to finally just ‘T’ in to the 3/4″ line and put it in one of our holes that was intended for a plant (see below). Our biggest problem in all this was accommodating the outflow from the filter. I didn’t want to drill all kinds of holes in the tray lid, so that limited my options. I always try to remember the old Permaculture saying as I go along: “The least change for the greatest benefit.”
We used internet-bought pond media and made a couple of layers on the bottom of the bucket. This media is like a swamp-cooler filter or a heater filter and something like that could also be used. We bought a couple of sheets of coarse and medium density and figured we would use it over and over for different applications over the years. Given the semi-modular character of the system, we can switch out bucket filters of different materials and do water quality tests with the in- and out-flows to find out about the best filter media. We cut the media into circles with a serrated knife and packed it into the bottom of the bucket. Then we covered the three media layers in about a two inch layer of pumice and covered that with about an inch of pea gravel. Eventually we might incorporate our biochar as a layer and/or a layer of sand. We may even get in another bucket to make a dual-filtration kind of system. But our priority was to get this up-and-running so we could try it out and tweak it. Another Permaculture saying comes to mind: “Make as many mistakes as you can, as fast as possible.”
The two pictures above show how the plants are suspended from the lid of the hydroponic tray so that their roots can penetrate into the flowing water underneath. The tomato plant on top was kept alive by floating on a raft in our water tank and is now held up by a rubber grommet that was purchased for this purpose online. We now buy these things locally at EarthGoods. The little fiberglass-like plug in the photo above contains a watermelon plant. The fiberglass plug has a hole in it where we deposited the seed and watered it as if it were a seedling start. We had to be sure to keep the plug almost saturated in water to keep the growth of the roots going. The roots have to be 2-3″ long to reach the water and we are not sure if all of them are going to make it. Stay posted for future developments; this is one of the most innovative projects we are involved in and learning about right now…