Hydroponics experiments - Daves

Rick's Gardening and Hydroponics Diary

Perhaps it was the layoff from my job as a project manager installing networks and the Internet in schools Perhaps it was something laying dormant inside me. Maybe it is a good old-fashioned mid-life crisis. Whatever the reason, I woke up one morning and started a garden.

26th June, 2009

26th June 2009

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday I thought I would die in the heat. Today it was overcast and in it looked like we were going to get rain. There were in fact a few fat drops in the afternoon, but it did not come to much. Nevertheless, I hurried along a different part of the project. I had to hurry. I was unable to do all that I wanted. (There was work to do at work.)

A big part of this project involves rain harvesting. I have a main plan and a backup plan. The main plan is close, but not quite ready to launch. So I sped up the backup.

It consists of rather large rubbish bins with wheels. These are normally available used in the $100 plus range, but on Craigs list I found all I would need (okay, I bought WAYYY more than I would need) from a dealer in surplus at about 15% of that price, but I had to clean them. They had all served in the press department of a local newspaper, and were in various stages of gunky.

Backup rain harvesting system. Way cleaner than when I started working on them.

Early on I had purchased a scrub brush with a telescoping handle from Walmart. I loaded some dishwasher soap into each barrel, and hit is with the hose. I used dishwasher soap, not dish soap, because I needed to cut some grease but did not want to deal with too many suds or hand lotion.

When the barrels were as clean as I could get them in the time allotted, I tipped the surplus water out beneath my poor, thirsty orange tree.

Water from the washed waste bins was tipped out below the citrus, which likes deep watering, somewhat infrequently.

Water with detergent is a form of grey water, which is very much in vogue but not completely legal. However, from experience I know that this kind of water is actually likely to be beneficial to plants. When I first moved in, the basement plumbing was not quite ready. So I just set my clothes washing machine on the sidewalk shown in the first picture, and let the drain hose run to the yard. I used an old piece of PVC electrical conduit to lead it away from the machine, and shifted the pipe a few inches each day to water the whole yard over the course of a fortnight. (I learned about this trick years ago by reading Mother Earth News.) The sprinklers in the back have never worked properly (read--at all) since I have been here, so at that time the grass never looked better.

Eventually, my in-laws and wife made me hook it up downstairs where it belonged. One note—in the U.S., any electrical appliance operated out of doors should be fed its current from a Ground Fault Interrupted (GFI) outlet.

So will the water be safe? Yes and no. There will obviously be some residue of whatever the bin did in its former life. In this case, the bin worked in a printing plant that used primarily soy-based inks. I recall, however, that even before the advent of organic inks, fish and chips and boiled chickens always came wrapped in newsprint. So I am probably pretty safe. Remember, this is only the backup, in case the main rain harvest system has a failure, or the monsoons come before I have it ready. And I am not going to drink it (without boiling or filtering), I am going to use it to water my plants. I have some very clean IBCs and plastic barrels to use for potable rainwater, but there is an extra step that I need to build first. And where to put the barrels? That has everything to do with the shape of my roof. More about those things later.

28 June 2009

28th June 2009

I wasnt going to add anything today, but I needed a short break from my current project, a course I am writing about SQL Server 2008 administration. (Obsessively building a garden, teaching about databasesthere is a connection there probably). My break was inspired by a strange buzzing noise itturned out to be the alarm clock on my cellphone. I had set it on vibrate while I was attending a teacher training meeting the past two days. I had worked through the night (enjoying the quietude), and I guess the sun came up so my alarm crowed.

I skipped to the loo, and then heard my lawn sprinklers going off. I have been concerned that one of the heads may be missing, because there is a terrible amount of water on the street some mornings, but all was well.

Water on the street or sidewalk may indicate bad sprinkler aim, too much pressure, or too much watering time.

Then I heard the birds chirping and saw a hummingbird dart around. They seem to like my neighbors large tree, which overshadows the future home of grow boxes 8 and 9 (you can see part of its canopy in the entry for 25 June). That got me to pause and take a few breaths, which cleared my head. And I made a note in my DayTimer to set the sprinklers for one longer watering, pre-dawn, every other day. The new Bermuda looks durable enough to me, now.
Unexplained is what I call “the mystery of the Vincas”. We have a small planting spot near our driveway light that we water by hand, because I have not yet repaired that sprinkler circuit, which is for the drip system, and which never has worked properly.

The mystery of the Vincas. How is it that the ones closest to the lawn seem to be doing so much better?

The flowers nearest the yard are benefitting from overspray from the sprinklers. But hand-watering the others with our watering pot doesn’t seem to be helping them. Soil is the same. Flowers are the same. Water is the same, except the water pot water sits out a bit. (I leave it full so the missus can water on the spur of the moment without having to fill it first). The obvious answer is that I am not watering the farther Vincas as much as the sprinklers water the near ones.

But that does not explain our planterbox near the garage. It gets hardly any water at all, and the Vincas in it seem to be going great guns.

Planterbox with thriving Vincas—they get hardly any water but seem better off than those which do.

That last photo makes me want to scream back out and rake those leaves and store those two pavers somewhere else. Somehow I did not notice them when I was outside. I also see here but missed out there those little green weeds. These are actually an edible plant called Purslane, which some folks pronounce “Pussly” (or as Pedro told me “Verdolaga”, although I thought I heard him say “Verde Larga”, which when I looked it up I found to be an onion). He found some last week and I planted it in some unused squares in Growboxes 2 and 3. The one in Box 3 is doing the best. Need to look into why that is, since they all were found at the same time in the same place and have had the same care.

Transplanted purslane apparently off to a good start in Growbox 3.

Wildman Steve Brill gives this plant a pretty useful write-up in his entertaining page at http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/Plants.Folder/Purslane.html). He lists several other edible plants that I may be accidentally be growing soon as well!

The Latinists call it Portulaca oleracea (http://www.worldcrops.org/crops/Verdolaga.cfm).
This pot was filled about 6 weeks ago with an old bag of potting soil, so I do not know if these plants were stowaways from the manufacturer of the soil, or if this was promulgated blowing seeds or cat-spread seeds. I have it around here before…I cooked up a batch for some guests one time, and used Brill’s page to identify it. Apparently, another plant called spurge, that is not good for you, often shows up in the same places.

While I was out, I remembered that this was the day the wife wanted me to give the south bed a long watering. This bed faces the back way into our subdivision, which means I am responsible for keeping it groomed at my own expense, even though I can’t see it. It is on the wrong side of my fence.

I water the south bed, which is a de facto common area to the neighborhood, using a soaker hose fed by a water timer.


Because I can be easily distracted, I placed the soaker hose on a water timer I bought at Home Depot. Many times I have found myself becoming absorbed in a completely different task, and the timer has clicked off, preventing me from wasting a good deal of water. The Y-connector allows me to select the soaker hose, my front garden/utility hose, or both. I like both of these devices because they have connection “pigtails” which help soak up the shock from me pulling (or tripping over) a hose. They cost a few bucks more, but I think they will last longer than others I’ve used.

While I was out, I also took a survey of what is actually coming along in Growboxes 1, 2 and 3. Looks like miniature tomatoes. Got four yellow ones (yellow pear) and red ones (hybrid cherry tomatoes).

Red Cherry tomatoes in Growbox 1 after about five weeks. A little slow, but we got started late.

The yellow pear tomatoes in GrowBox 3. They are a bit stressed, but again it was 107 degrees yesterday (41.6 Centigrade).

The whole garden got off to a slow start this year. (Well, I guess in truth I got off to the slow start). Not ready to move on putting out shade cloth over Growboxes 1, 2, and 3 just yet, but I may be able to get the parts I need on Friday. This is exactly the situation the “bucket brigade” (Growbox 10-June 25) is designed to handle. I will see how far I can get on it this week. It is designed to support both twine trellises and seasonal shade.

What has my attention this very moment, however, are the thunderheads (flat topped, anvil shaped clouds that portend monsoon rains). The weathermen are hinting that rain could be coming next week, and I still have to get my rainharvest system up and running. I have become very keen on the weather forecasts. More on that another time.


30th June 2009

30th June 2009

Pedro came by today as we agreed, and he worked for me some in the garden. I felt guilty having another man sweat in my place, but at the same time, I had created a large problem for myself at work by paying a little too much attention to my garden last week. His English is somewhat better than my Spanish. Between the two of us we almost know what is going on. If I struggle to say what I mean to say in Spanish, he rephrases it correctly, and once I hear what I was working so hard to say strung together so effortlessly, I say it better next time.

One of our discussions was about the shadow of the house. Until noon, my backyard is fairly comfortable. After noon, it can be brutal. He asked what the word for shadow was, and for the first time I realized that in English the shadow of a house is shade, as is the shadow of a tree. People and cats also have shadows, but do not make much shade. Pedro said Spanish has only one word for shadow. I checked an online dictionary, and both shade and shadow point back to sombra.

Pedro knows something of the land. What I consider weeds, he knows to be familiar flowers or herbs. Today he plucked up one plant and told me it was “Trompillo”, and told me that if I left it alone, the round seed pouch would turn yellow, and that the juice of 10 berries would curdle a gallon of milk in about 20 minutes. He then described how to press the curds twice to get the water out, and then press it again with a towel, and then use a form and a weight for three hours, to shape it into a cheese.

Molly sniffs the Trompillo flowers
Molly sniffs the Trompillo flowers, a nightshade of the Solanum family, the berries of which can curdle milk to make cheese. Although the berries are edible, the plant itself is not.

He next picked up a another weed he had laid aside after he saw my interest, and said, “Borrajas”, the flowers of which his late father in Mexico, an herbalist of sorts, made into a tonic, of which he drank a little each morning and evening.

A few days ago I described purslane, or verdolaga. This morning Pedro came late, and I thought he was not going to show. But then he arrived, and brought to us a Tupperware container with a warm verdolaga stew he had made the night before from verdolaga he bought at one of the local Mexican food markets. It was delicious.

Verdolaga cooked into a soup or stew, seasoned gently with peppers.

The day he introduced me to verdolaga, he also had me pull up a strand of nutgrass from the flowerbed by my driveway lamp. He pointed to the nut, a tiny tuber dangling sideways from a rhizome. “Cocos,” he said. He invited me to eat it. It tasted good. By the books this means it would be yellow nutgrass. Purple nutgrass, which is statistically more likely, would have tasted bad. Melanie DeVore gives a pretty good description of nutgrass and its tubers on this page: http://www.andalusiafarm.org/DeVore_Nutgrass.htm

So basically, what I insist on calling weeds, which thrive here, Pedro recognizes as native plants with a value for food and pharmacology. In the meantime, I am struggling to produce my first tomatoes. I am getting the feeling that my big deal experiments in agriculture must be more than a little amusing to him.

Today he trimmed up the gravel near Growboxes 1 through 3, weed whacked beneath Growboxes 5, 7, and 10, and then together we lined the ground beneath them with Preen weedcloth, pinned into place with tiny wickets preparatory to covering it with bark mulch. We also put some composted grass into my western flowerbed, which I will turn in later.

None of which explains what happened next. More about that soon.

30-June 2009 Part 2

30th June 2009

The Big Green Surprise

Dave has warned me about not using the word “gr*ss” in a diary about hydroponics. We share the view that the value of these exciting technologies for food production is diminished by those who run afoul the law by growing illegal crops. However, I think he will be understanding if today I mention “gr*ss” a few times. I really can’t see any way around it.

We started early Tuesday and spent the morning scrambling to get work done before it got hot, and we almost made it. Along with many clean up chores, we put some composted grass (about 6-inches worth) onto my western flowerbed. I wanted to build up the vegetative matter and see if that ground can get fertile again.
Extra green matter added to west flower bed waiting to be turned in.


Pedro and I, but mostly Pedro, trimmed up the gravel near Growboxes 1 through 3, weed whacked beneath Growboxes 5, 7, and 10, and then lined the ground beneath them with Preen weedcloth, pinned into place with tiny wickets preparatory to covering it with bark mulch.

Growboxes with landscape fabric beneath (Box 5, 6, and 10)

Growboxes with landscape fabric beneath
The PVC pip is the start of the irrigation facility for Box 10, the “Bucket Brigade”

I had a ton of urgent day job work, and it was getting midday sun hot, and I was figuring we should call it a day. Pedro wanted to keep working, which I understand, but I did not have time to mix the “Mel’s mix” for the grow boxes. Since soil is everything, I wanted to be part of that process. And I saw no other project which we could make a dent in or finish.

Then the phone rang. A friend of my daughter, a landscaper, had put down some sod (that is what we call it here) for a client, who then changed his mind because he thought it would be too much grass to mow. He was an excellent client, so out it came, but now it was sitting in his Chevy pickup. (Ute, for you Kiwis), and he had an important appointment to get to. It would take too long for him to run out to the dump, pay the tipping fee, and then run home to clean up, so he made a few calls. The next thing you know, I’ve a delivery coming!

My thought was he would plop it all on my front lawn, and Pedro and I would spend the afternoon toting it around and stacking it. I took my wheelbarrows out front on the chance we could at least put the first lot into them before he left.

Youth and experience can often trump middle-age and a tendency to overanalyze things. Brandon had my first barrow filled and was trotting around to the back while I was still thinking about it. I filled up my lawn cart and followed as quickly as I could, and when I got there he was pointing and talking his best construction-grade Spanish, and Pedro was raking dirt and rocks out of the way. He off loaded his barrow, and I did the same, and both of us went to the truck for more. Four times.

While I moistened the raked dirt, Brandon and Pedro put down the turf. Brandon laid it close to edges and obstacles, and then went back with a knife to cut in odd bits and leave holes for my existing but never functional sprinkler heads.

Pedro did everything Brandon did, soaking it all in, because here was his chance to learn from a master. He had told me that he had grown many lawns from soil and seed, but had not had much time to learn “pallets”. And here he was with a master.

With the sod stacked in back and Pedro up to speed. Brandon told me to have Pedro fill up one of my many 55 gallon water barrels half way with water, and to roll it over the new turf once with the grain of the patches, and once against, and to water it all four times a day for ten minutes. And then he was off.

I got Pedro some ice water and went back to my writing. Pedro filled the barrel and started rolling after he got the last few rows put down. I filed my chapter with my editor, and he finished up just about the time the sun was heading westward. He got his full day. I saved my contract. I guess we both pretty much need to shout out a Thank You to Brandon.

Here is the result:

Ricks new lawn

Ricks new lawn. It happened suddenly.

The new lawn covers 400 Square feet. The flower bed behind it is my new vermiculture bed. The psychedelic white and green thing is a rain barrel. It looks better in its context.

The turf came to about 400 square feet. Street value: hard to tell—technically it was “used”. Install value: Probably $350. Smile on Wife’s face: Priceless.

And that is the rub. Standing in one place the missus can see the tranquility of this grass, the industry of the grow boxes (which for her are tinged with a fear of remaining unfinished), and then the industrial wasteland in the middle where I cut and drill and paint and store things. I also love the “gr*ss”…but it is making a mess out of my laboratory.

1st July 2009

1st July 2009

Rick’s Excellent Field Trip

The yard was in and watered. The chapter was finished. And my wife needed me to run across town and drop something off to her. Normally, we combine errands wherever possible to conserve petrol, and the task I had originally had waiting in the queue for that section could not happen because the guy I was supposed to meet had a family emergency. So how do you occupy a few hours? --FIELD TRIP!! (Guilt Free).

From the introductory statement on the top of this diary, you can see that I intend to do not only grow boxes, but also hydroponics, and eventually aquaponics. I am short of resources on hydroponics, and desperately wanted to touch base with the shops in the East Valley, to see what I could see, and to learn what is available and how to use it.

My first stop was Home Grown Hydroponics, (605 E Broadway Rd
Tempe, AZ 85282-1404) Heather met me there, and I asked her to give me about 20 minutes just to wander around and get the feel of the place. After I composed my questions, she spent the next hour leading me about, answering my rapid fire questions as I explored, in parallel, three different methods of starting and growing plants. She also provided a lot of good advice about running my hydroponics out of doors, which is my intent. Her answers did not miss a beat, and I sense that she got interested in hydroponics after a youth spent growing plants in soil, which, as you can see from my pages, is where I am at right now. Our hour was a high-yield, pupil-guided learning encounter (do I sound like I miss my classroom?) and I am really grateful for it.

I left Home Grown with a big brick of coconut coir, a starter kit of General Hydroponics chemicals, a measuring flask and an eyedropper, and a few feet of tubing and two bulkhead connectors. I intend to use these to poke my toe into the hydroponic solution. I have found an excellent author who learned to formulate her own chemicals while attending University of Portland. She fed herself in school by raising hydroponic salads. I intend to copy her system while I am learning the ropes, and Heather gave me the information I needed to get started.

Heather also gave me the missing piece to achieve my second stop of the day, which was so cool that I want to write about it a different time.

My third and final stop was at Sea of Green (1301 E. University Rd, #134, Tempe, AZ, 85282) where I happened to stumble on a six-pot system that had been traded in for something bigger, which they sold me for a song, complete with the previous owner’s stash of pumps, tubes, and air stones.

set of six water culture systems - hydroponics

A lucky find during my first foray into local hydroponics shops yielded grow medium and also a used set of six water culture systems. Extra bits and pieces will set me up for many experiments.

Heck of a bargain, especially for someone like me, who likes to think with his hands. I now have twiddle stock.

A general comment on both of these places—they proved very hard to find. At least one of them had moved away from the location given in the phone directory. Both of them are in Tempe, which is near Arizona State University. They both seemed very legitimate, and one of them had a note to the effect that they could not answer questions or proffer advice to individuals using hydroponics for illicit purposes.

Both shops seemed to focus on one or two forms of hydroponics-grow pots and boxes. In both cases the staff was knowledgible and friendly. Both had excellent selections of chemicals, and both seemed to favor selling prepared systems from kits of materials rather than making up systems from things you can find on Craigslist and FreeCycle. That is probably good business, because it allows them to stand behind what they sell. I hope to be a good customer. And you can bet I will be asking them lots of questions.


Shopping Trip

I use CraigsList a lot to try and find materials for my project. Two reasons:

1-I don’t want to spend a lot of money.
2-I want whatever I do to be reproducible by others.

So I check into the list regularly, and when I find something I think will be really useful, I try to organize a route that will take me past several stops in one morning or afternoon.

My little pickup has seen a lot of miles in this pursuit. Today was particularly a good trip.

Hydroponic - Shopping Trip

Recent shopping trip set me up with pipes for my planned hydroponics system, some grow boxes which I may re-purpose, and a big parachute to use to make shade cloth.

The box has a parachute in it from a top-secret Vietnam Era reconnaissance drone. A friend gave it to me for free after hauling it around the country for 15 years. I have one thing to check regarding monolithic domes, and if that doesn’t work, I think I will cut it up into sizes and shapes appropriate to shade my grow boxes. My friend Steve has through his wife access to an industrial strength sewing machine used in quilting. My wife has a small serger, but I would love her to help because it will increase her investment in the project. I think Steve’s machine would be more fun though, because it is laser guided and has a control panel like a motorcycle.

The three grow boxes were a fair purchase in terms of price paid for wood versus retail price of the wood, but I am not sure I like their construction. They are sturdy, but I am using Square Foot Gardening. which uses landscape fabric over the ground. (http://www.squarefootgardening.com)

Mittleider beds and boxes are open to earth as well. These boxes don’t use real soil components like Mel does, rather inert materials with hydroponic-style chemicals added (http://foodforeveryone.org/)

But this fellow used plywood for his bottoms, and holed it for drainage.

grow Boxes for Hydroponics

The purchased grow boxes are well framed, but the plywood bottoms don’t align with my chosen system of box gardening. I think I have another use for them.

Were they elevated on frames so one could work them while seated, I could understand this, but I think he had them on the ground. The more I look at these, the more I think they are going end up being the platforms for the grow media in one of my aquaponics systems.

The pipes are the crown jewels. Four-inch PVC like this is UV rated, thick-walled, and now I have plenty to practice with. Got them all for $25 bucks and some extra mileage on the truck.

A note about the pipes: I’m following Dave’s plans because he has worked it out so that the same pipe bed can be adjusted as either a Nutrient Film Transfer (NFT) or a flood and drain system. As this is a learning environment, I like that flexibility. I figure if I am going to experience building one of those, the pipes are the first step, so now I’m set, I reckon.

Storing the pipes is another matter. I am finding that visible organization helps those around me understand what I am doing, or at least have confidence that this ark is going somewhere. Right now, my family tends to look at me like that guy on Close Encounters of the Third Kind who starts carving mountains out of his mashed potatoes. It is hard for anyone besides me to see the finished project in its rightful order, as it exists in my mind. More about that later.

4th July 2009

4th July 2009

Jobsite Cleanliness

On the 4th of July I intend to take a break and re-order my stuff on the screened porch, which I have commandeered. That was a good plan, because someone dear to me would be inside cooking and prepping all afternoon for a family barbecue, and I needed to be seen doing my share of work.

First thing though, many of my neighbors converged on a local park for a little annual flag raising ceremony. We have the Boy Scouts post the colors, find a few grizzled veterans among us to talk about their glory days, then eat pancakes and sausage. One parent read a letter from his son in Afghanistan. Then the younglings take a few rounds about the playground on their bicycles all decorated in red, white, and blue, while a boombox plays “Stars and Stripes Forever”. And then we clean up and go home. A good time is usually had by all. And it is pretty short, so if not, no matter.

The annual neighborhood 4th of July bicycle parade.
The annual neighborhood 4th of July bicycle parade.

Now back to the screen porch. The family has noticed that my materials storage and craft areas seem to have displaced the public area. I used to always requrie my crews to clean up as they went along, which of course I am slow to do myself.
Although I am slow to practice this preachment, I actually learned years ago that orderliness on the jobsite is probably the second most important thing you can do. Years ago I was learning to repair CB radios at a small shop in my hometown on the coast of Washnington. I loved electronics, and the chance to learn while doing was the coolest thing I could think of. Unfortunately, I was paid by the piece. The owner had his way of storing things, and it suited him. But my income was dependant on finding and fixing, and looking for bits did not help me earn or learn.

So I cleaned up shop. I took three days, and put everything in a place, and labeled the place. Boy, I took flak for it (because, of course, the boss could not find anything for awhile afterwards). But arguably my storage system was at least partially logical, while his had been somewhat random.

The big trick was not to be two picky on the first pass. We had three drawers full of miscellaneous nuts and screws and washers. I sorted them into big, medium, and small. Now if he or anybody wanted a screw, first step was to find the right size, and poke around until you found the right thread and approximate length. Then find a nut that fit, and not to forget to use a washer. After I cleaned up, you only had to look in one place for each of these things. It was there. And when you cleaned up between radios or at the end of the day, re-storing the unused parts was a snap. The same applied for everything from hand tools to antenna connectors, and particularly electronic components, which in that day used lots of colored painted bands to describe their values.

If I had insisted on sorting all the nuts and bolts in the junk box by size, length, and threads per inch, I would still be there.

I darn near got fired for wasting three days meddling in his mess. Thereafter, I was able to cut my time per unit by half or more. In fact, I made up the three days before the end of the following week. I started to have time to learn tricks and shortcuts which increased my productivity even more. Soon, the boss took me off piecework and gave me a fixed wage per hour. Shortly, the field service agent from a major two-way radio manufacturer came by and hired me on the spot. I moved into a job that offered, in fact paid me, to get technical training. (In case there is any question, that was a real step up.)

So this Independence day I decided to free myself (and my family, who technically share in ownership and are therefore stakeholders) and clean up my crap. I am glad I made up my mind to do this early on, because around noon the Sam and Molly (the puppies) tore into something and made such a mess that I would have had to do it anyway.

Sadly, best laid plans of mice and men aft go astray. To clean the patio in any serious way required moving some material to the garage. Then appeard the issue of where to put it out there, which occasioned assembling a set of shelves. Which worked fine and now there is a lot more room to be had both on that patio and also in the garage. But I got nowhere as done as I need to be. Sigh.


5th July 2009

5th July 2009

05 July 2009
Begin with the end in mind

As part of keeping my project manager muscles limber, I prepared a drawing to serve as a project plan. I circulated this among stakeholders to see if I was on track, and based on their feedback, I formed a rough schedule of tasks. Not much value to assign to each task for % of completion billing, since I was doing all the work, and the budget was flexible. This is a learning exercise, and the first pass will be the most costly. I can drive cost out as I learn more about each step, but the first time through I want things to work (as much as possible).

The soil-based portion of the garden project includes grow boxes, vermiculture, and rain harvesting.

This is a very ambitious layout, and I am happy with the way things are going. However, there is not a word on the drawing about hydroponics, which you can gather is an important part of my plans. Storing incoming material for Phase 2 (Hydroponics) is a critical matter while I am executing Phase 1 (soil-based). I have not told anyone much yet about Phase 3 (Aquaponics)!

I probably should have been more detailed in my planning documents to account for that but this is a hobby that I am learning as I go along, and I did not want to create too many change orders. J

By the way, the main rain harvest system shown here is listed as 600 gallons (300 gallons each). The totes, I have discovered, are actually 1000 liter IBCs, so I will probably update that to 2000 liters (500 gallons) in a revision.

17th July 2009

17th July 2009

The Monsoon, the Haboobs, and the Raincatchers

In the old days, Phoenix really did have a dry heat. These days, the summer months in Phoenix can be muggy, and evaporative coolers can fail to relieve the high heat. In summer is the monsoon, a period in which we receive up to a third of our 8-inch average annual rainfall. Officials used to count down to the monsoon by waiting for five consecutive days with a certain dew point. Now they just look at the calendar, which says it all kicks of on June 15th and goes to September 30th. The focus today is on safety, not forecasting.

Safety? Yep. When it rains it pours. The valley is not prepared for rain. Most of the older roads have washes—low spots that are expected to flood during heavy rains. You are not supposed to drive through a wash if it is flowing. Many do, and a few are swept away. The cost of rescue grew so high they passed a law called—I am not making this up—“the stupid motorists law”. If you enter a flooded wash and you find yourself floating downstream, the authorities will still fetch you out if they can, but you will pay thousands for the privilege. Sadly, several people die each year as their cars flood, or start to roll, or get pinned against trees or debris. Other times, they are washed off their car rooftops where they waited for help. All of this within a few yards of sand and cactus.

Another monsoon problem: Haboobs. The same jet streams that bring torrential rains can set up haboobs, which are dust devils on steroids. These kick up a brown wall of particulates that can last for hours. I’ve seen the sky darken rapidly and the streetlights go on. In the decreased visibility, people follow the taillights in front of them, but those folks don’t know where they are going, either. Fender benders abound. Best bet is to find a place far from the freeway, say a fast food restaurant, and settle down. You can meet some interesting people, the kind who were also smart enough to let nature have its way for a bit.

Both the monsoon and the haboobs can raise havoc with home gardens. It is not just the whipping winds. The water can overwhelm drains, flooding streets and yards. Because these two phenomena occur during the hottest part of the year, whatever shade screens or shelters you threw up to save your precious veggies may end up at your neighbors, hopefully without smashing something along the way.

Rain harvest in the desert
With this rain comes the opportunity for rain harvest. It is a neat idea, and no one much does it, because around here, once you fill your rain barrel and then empty it, it is likely to stay that way for a long time. My personal gambit is that if people could save enough water to last awhile, more people would save some. Utility or irrigation water would be free during several weeks in the year, reducing the demand on the municipal water system.

So you hook up your downspout to a barrel, and then you are set, right?

Not so fast.The problem is, during several dry months between storms, your roofs and gutters accumulate lots of nasty things--bird droppings, dropped birds, leaves and branches, and whatever the odd owl left behind. Let this wash into your storage tank and you may create an unhappy brew. The cure is to avoid the initial ick with a “first flush diverter”. There are several designs. I am building one right now. More about that next time.

19th July 2009

19th July 2009

Rain harvest system ready for test!

I’ve been waiting for a long time for this. So much to do, and all of it high priority. But without water there is no growing, so with generous help from my son Kyle, he went to work on a grow box project while I got these barrels hooked up.

First, I painted up two of my blue plastic water barrels using these instructions:


Water barrels painted for rain harvest system

For fun I told my friends on Facebook that I had made “His n’ Her” water barrels. At least one of them did not see the romance. Go figure. I had the Missus paint one of them so she could share in the project. (Read: Not throw me and the lot of it out on the curb come trash day).

I also built the little wooden platform for them to rest on. This kind of barrel does not like to sit on the ground.

After the stand was painted, I installed the barrels and did the initial plumbing. I think I could handle a gully washer now. I need to have some weather so I can take a test.

Here is what they look like installed.

My rain harvest system.

The two barrels, of which only one is connected just now, are the “first flush diverter”, so named because they catch and isolate the rainwater that has scrubbed down your roof. The little hose bib lets water air out so the barrel can fill. When the barrel is full, you close the tap. The water backs up and runs down to the large cisterns on the right. (I’ve covered them with old sheets to protect them from the sun.)

So far, we’ve had no rain of consequence, so I was very glad to get the system installed.

20th July 2009

19th July 2009

Front yard clean up

Finally, my string trimmer has come home. Then it got stolen.

The fellow who dropped it off in front of my house in an obscure area where the parcel post man also drops things off did not count on someone nicking it, and neither did I. We live in a safe neighborhood, and the thief would have had to come right up to the front of my house to even see it. I had left the weed whacker in this fellows care because I could not find anyone to service it properly. His business has him calling on shops all over the Phoenix valley, and he took it to a known good repair facility that was just a bit out of my way. They fixed it as a favor to him for the price of the parts, and then he passed those savings on to me.

Used the new string trimmer to clean up the front a bit.

Fortunately, another shop he knew of had a demo unit that they kept around just to show people how easily it started. They sold it to him for a reduced price, and asked me to pay half. He was good enough to go to this effort for me, too bad to have it all ruined at the end. So I’ve paid him for the parts on the first, and also the half of the demo, plus a few bucks more because I think in his embarrassment he is not telling me the full numbers.

25th June 2009

25th July 2009

Yesterday's adventure was one of the most taxing yet. The northern portion of my backyard was a clutter of old bicycles, lawn equipment that did not work when I inherited it, and wild grass. Not too many weeds. Heat got to them. Here is a photo of what I started with. It looks junky. Very junky.

The problem with most backyard gardening (and hydroponics, and aquaponics) projects is that while they are under construction they look, well.cluttered.

And the south portion of the yard was full of half-completed projects.

New Growboxes 5, 6, and 7. Note use of angle gussets in addition to corner screws, because I am compulsive over-engineerer.

So I rolled up my sleeves and risked heat stroke, and dove in. I did not think I could accomplish all I had to, but it came out okay.

First, I raked some rocks away from a little depression in my front yard. This was left over from an attempt to plant roses some years ago, when we discovered that below the decorative gravel our soil was made of iron. The roses never made it to planting. The hole stayed. But recently I asked the neighbor if I could fill the depression and put in two grow boxes. She was agreeable. Boxes 8 and 9 will go here.

Future home for Grow Boxes 8 and 9, which will be 2 x 4 feet each.

While I was out front I mowed the lawn. I recently re-seeded some bare spots with Bermuda grass, which is heat tolerant and much used here for summer lawns. Unfortunately, the extra water and the bagged manure and topsoil gave strength to opportunistic grasses such as nut grass, which one cannot kill by cutting or pulling, rather it spreads. There is a trick to fixing this, but it requires the invading grass to be much higher than the desired. Sadly, my invitation to grow long was translated as an invitation to go to seed, so I cut down the lot and will try again later. In the middle of the afternoon, a “freelance laborer of Hispanic descent” whom I know knocked on my door looking for work, and I invited him to trim my trees. The results are not quite as good as I want my house to work (my string trimmer is in the shop), but will go a long way towards keeping peace with my neighbors.

With the grass mowed and the trees trimmed, the neighbors will be less inclined to anger when they hear my early morning construction sessions out back.

Here is a different view of the organic lawn ornament in the right center of the previous picture.

Felix Domesticus “Mooch”, generic, rescued from the cold 6 years ago as a shivering kitten pressing his nose against our window. He now weighs 20 lbs. (about 1.428 stone.)

Back to the back. After clearing away the debris, by which I mean I piled it up somewhere else, I raked off the area. Then I positioned my new grow boxes.


Much more businesslike. I left the growboxes unfilled for now so that I could get wife approval before taking a step that would be hard to undo.

Then I positioned my “bucket brigade”, officially known as Grow Box 10.

Growbox 10 is an experiment to support larger plants and will use a shade cloth to protect plants from the Arizona sun.

About this time I heard the distinctive whirr of a Walker, and I ran to get some grass clippings. More about this later.

I also assembled a second chicken hutch from a kit and placed it across from the first. Material for the run between the two I placed there, with some two-by-fours on the ground to mark its dimensions. Officially, this is a “quail incubation facility” because I intend to use broody laying hens to hatch out quail eggs, which have been domesticated into reproductive helplessness.

“Quail incubator” will use broody hens to hatch quail eggs, which quail leave about carelessly. Water barrels are for the birds and the grow boxes.

All of this took me from 6:00 am to past noon, and the sun was making me crazy, even though I hydrated carefully. So I took a cold shower and a nap, returning to my official duties (as a curriculum writer) late in the afternoon. Please do not tell my boss.

The stew I had set into the crockpot during a morning break smelled up the house quite nicely, and after the wife got home from school and told me about her day, I showed her. (I did not add grow mix to the boxes, as there is a chance she may have an opinion about theie placement.)

"Wow," she said.

25th July 2009

25th July 2009

I feel as if it has been forever since I have updated this, but in truth it is the illusion caused by a busy week. Someone I have known for years and worked for a lot pass away, and that took its time, as did my feelings. They say you can mourn for 12 months, or not mourn and mourn for 12 years. I did manage to crank out at least a little work on the SQL course. Then yesterday, departed friends memory perched near, I woke just after dawn and made a major upgrade to my rain harvest facility. Afterwards, I cleaned the ABS cement off my hands and went over to Phoenix for his funeral.

Rain Harvest 102
A little bit more about rain harvesting. The concept is that a roof occupies a lot of area, and is supposed to be watertight. This means that a small amount of rain multiplied by the area of the roof can add up to a lot of water. In fact, 30 millimeters of rainfall (about an inch) falling on a 300 mm square surface (about 1 square foot) will deliver over 2 liters (about one-half gallon) of water. So an inch of rain on a 10 x 10 foot roof will fill up 100 2-liter soda pop beverage bottles.

You can work this back to what your roof could do for you by looking at your roof line and noticing where the water goes. It rains so infrequently here in Mesa that I only have one gutter. It runs along the west-facing roof, which because of the screened porch makes a fairly big area, 1600 square feet.

I used SmartDraw to annotate the photo. There are three rainfall catchment zones on my roof. The largest is westward facing, and that is where I have concentrated my rain harvest setup.

Water also leaves the roof from Zone B and a Zone C, but without a gutter. I may improve on one or both of these opportunities later, but for now I use the two portable ran barrels (okay, wheeled rubbish bins) described earlier to serve these areas.

More pipes
Remember the two first flush diverter barrels and the two 1000 liter totes? They are plumbed now, and I have tested one of them with good success. The other needs more rainfall, but that should be coming.

Here are the first flush diverters:

Cutline for Figures: My His n’ Her rain barrels are now connected. I like to think they are happier that way. I know that I am.

A first flush diverter has the job of catching all of the water mixes with whatever was on your roof, and holding it separate from the main storage tanks. This means there is less to do to keep the main tanks serviceable. You can allow this rain to run-to-waste, or you can try to catch it. But a 1600 square foot area can collect a lot of debris, so you need a large tank to catch it, hence the barrel. Some systems I have seen just fill the main tank from a T at the top of the drain pipe. The drainpipe fills and the rest goes to storage. Later you water your shrubs a few times from the drainpipe. That might work fine in a place where there is frequent rainfall, hence cleaner roofs. That is not what happens here. So I needed more storage, and the His n’ Her barrels were my solution.

That valve you see in the middle allows me to use both barrels or just one of them. If I am in a hurry to catch water, and the roof is not horrid, I can use just one barrel. If it has been a long time since rain, I can use both. Also, if I am pokey about getting the water out of the first barrel, and then another rain comes by, I can open the valve and use the second barrel as the first flush diverter. Simple, eh?

The other big news item are the rubber coupling near the barrel tops. Water weighs about eight and a third pounds per U.S. Gallon. Imperial Gallons (UK and Commonwealth countries pre-metric) are larger. An imperial gallon weighs ten pounds. (Folks who think the metric system is confusing can get really fussed when they learn that gallons aren’t the same, world around.)

So a 55 gallon drum filled with water and bird-poo solution weighs about 450 pounds. My sod is newly placed, my soil is compacted, so my barrel should not sink if filled, right? Nope. When the heavy barrel sits on mud, it is on its way to China. Or at least I lose control of it. That is why I mounted the barrels on the pretty white grid.

Molly examines the load connecting mechanism between the two rain barrels.

The grid gives me half a chance to keep the barrels in line with each other, as both must sink together. But the grid cannot tie both loads together perfectly, and the water levels in the barrels will fluctuate over time. The flexible couplings allow me to adjust the plumbing as things change.

More important, the barrels together represent together about 1000 pounds of dead weight, and that is my roof up there. If for some reason one of the barrels tips over, I can see no reason to let them take my gutter (at the least) along with. So another reason for the flexible couplings is to form a breakaway if something goes wrong.

The Big Tanks Fill

The system works! The first flush diverter filled, and the overflow went into the big tanks.

The first water capture of about 120 gallons from a short rainfall.

It was four in the morning and I was struggling to finish a chapter on SQL Advanced Services when the sky grumbled, and through the window well I could see someone popping off a photo strobe. After shutting down my computer and pulling out its plug, I ran outside in time to see fat wet drops in the streetlight and smell…well you can’t describe the smell of rain in the dessert. It is a special thing that grows on you. Often it is laced the unique twang of the creosote bush, a few of which still grow nearby.

So I ran to my diverters, and the one that was hooked up was heavy. A few bubbles were forming by the air release Water was gurgling in the bypass to the main tanks, and I thought I could see something down in the bottom. The main tank did not tip easy. It was getting water inside. So far so good!

I placed the portable gathering buckets at strategic positions where they could block my front door and make it hard to take the garbage cans out of the side yard. Then I went back to writing.

What happened next was pretty cool and some parts of it were pretty stupid, and there was even some disappointment with a backup system. But, by and large, things are off to a great start.

27 July 2009

27th July 2009

I left off last time saying I would describe my first experience with rain harvesting. I merged smoothly into my second experience with rain harvesting, and the two experiences were far apart and eye opening.

From the rain footprint map a bit up the blog, you will see that I have marked two points where I have runoff with no gutters. For this I obtained and cleaned (sort of) four industrial strength garbage cans. Two have wheels, two are free standing, which it turns out is a plus and a minus.

Now, the wheeled cans were supposed to be brilliant re-purposing of technology. Filled with water, they weigh over 300 pounds. But the strong casters underneath make them a snap to roll about. I locked them in place with a simple chock, and up they filled. The one I was most excited about was off the front porch, as it was much cleaner water, the roof having flushed itself nicely by the time I got them in place.

Appropriate technology and good project management do not allow you to push rocks uphill. So I waited until both my wife’s and son’s cars were out of the driveway, and gently scooted my precious water on its trip out back along the shortest, easiest path. Ooops.
Bump in the sidewalk derailed some of my first harvest.

Turns out that 300 pounds of water in a top heavy container on wheels means you have to be real careful about pushing it.

My neighbors got to see it too.

Cutline for Figures: More water—my own personal gully washer.


My barrel pump turned out to be a bit of a disappointment as well. It pumps, not too fast, and after buying enough hardware to adapt the strange barb fitting on its output to a garden hose, I found that one can pump forever just to get the thing to prime, and then one can push water through a garden hose, barely, but don’t expect it to go uphill. In other words, don’t think of filling up storage barrels with it if the barrels are on a rack in your back yard, as mine are. Grrr.

Cutline for Figure: Water storage barrels racked and waiting for charging--still.

Finally I just put what I could into the bottom barrel, put the top bung in loosely, and figured I’d let the heat of the sun make steam and condense to clean up the inside of the barrel, and eventually evaporate.

31st July 09

31st July 2009

I have been whining about the need to test my rain harvest system. I guess whoever is at the Whine Desk heard me and ordered up a test sequence. But I suppose to them it was apparent that the weaker link was not rain harvest but rather harvest disposition. To wit I wrote the following just now (MCAS Camp Kathy is my tongue in cheek way of describing my domicile.)

MCAS Camp Kathy is experiencing a water emergency. All use of Mesa city water has been curtailed for 36 hours starting at 1430 Hrs. Wednesday 29 July 2009 and continuing until approximately 1800 hours Thursday 30 July 2009.Â
Emergency alternative water is available.
1) Â Potable (drinking) water remains available from the water cooler. Retain your glass as it cannot be washed during the water outage and likely will not be washed until early 02 August 2009 as there is a backlog of dirty dishes.
2) Â Water to flush toilets is available and has been deployed in buckets. This is rain harvest water and may be discolored as the cleanest has been reserved for other uses. (Our grey water is green.)
3)Â A temporary washstand for bathing and hand washing has been provisioned in the backyard. If bathing, wear your swimsuit. As the outage is of limited duration and was unsecheduled, no screening is provided. This water is cleaner rain harvest water and is soft water, but is not fit for drinking. Notify others when you intend to bathe so we can have cameras ready.
4)Â Water for laundry is not available until service is restored.
5) Â Utility water for general outdoor cleaning and irrigation is available at the water storage cisterns in the grow box area. Pressure is limited.
This water emergency was declared when a faulty water heater was replaced under warranty 29 July 2009 and a supply pipe concealed under the concrete slab beneath the water heater was found to be leaking. Repairs will involve using a small jackhammer to access the pipe. Individuals sensitive to noise should stay clear of these premises after 1300 hours on 30 July 2009 until the scheduled restoration at 1800 hours the same day

That is all.

Now, I thought that was well-stated. Apparently, no one else did. Here is my wash basin, mentioned in paragraph 3 above. I spent a couple of my youthful years bathing in facilities only slightly less accommodating. I used some of my cleaner rainwater to fill it. (I did not spill both of my portable rain barrels.)

Cutline: Molly inspects workmanship on my emergency washbasin

I am here to report that at 110 degrees, it is darn refreshing. The neighbors…not so much.

My missus thought it over, and just took the bucket inside and washed in the shower. The lady we bought the house from had a sit down place built in, and it held the bucket just fine.

My son was not so lucky. The His n’ Her first flush diversion barrels did not hold the best of the water to start with. That is their purpose. As explained in paragraph 2 this is the water I pumped into buckets and brought inside to use to flush the toilets.

Cutline for Figure: First flush diverter water provided water for flushing during recent water outage. The barrel pump works fine if you are trying to pump water downhill.

This does not explain why my son showered in it! He will be coming around any time now.

I guess I have to learn a bit about storing and distributing water as well as gathering it. The rain harvest was never supposed to provide domestic water, only water for plants, but I learned a lot when my hand was forced.

So the next day the plumber came back and tore up my garage floor, fixed the lines, pointed out the hole that had grown from where the builders had apparently used great strength to force the pipe upward through the floor, and I gave him $50 more to fix the second pipe, which looked just as bad but had not holed yet. Big bucks! Makes me wonder why I am fooling around writing books about computers.

1st August 2009 (Report From Down Under)

1st August 2009

My friend Robert gave me his take on my rain harvesting efforts. It seems that it is all the rage in Australia.

“We (in Aussie land) seem to be fixated on collecting rainwater here, to the point that every reasonalble gardening centre now sells rainwater tanks, some up to 10,000 litres or more! The ones I particularly like are approx 20 inches wide, 4 feet long and about 6 feet high; hold about 1500 liters or so. All made from molded plastic. There is also some clever gutter guard systems here, mainly designed to keep leaves and twigs out of the down pipes. We don't seem to have much problem with owl poo, though (the occasional possum seems to want to use the inside of roofs for their personal ablutions)”

They have a good need. According to Robert, who hails from Melbourne, which is the big bump on Australia’s south coast. “We have been on stage III water restrictions for 2 years now (limited watering of gardens, no hand washing of vehicles, try and limit water usage to approx 150 litres per day, etc),“ he said.

They don’t apparently do not always take as much care with their first flush diverters as I might like.

“…My mother-in-law has a rain diverter on one of her tanks, but the big 15,000 litre one just takes everything in. Perhaps because we have a bit more rain on average than you do, or at least we used to. After she had the 15K tank installed, it filled up in about 2 hours, from what I reckon is about 200 sq m of roof line. With all the rain tanks installed in Australia, I think Australians have developed a taste for pigeon poop. (Even though most of the tanks in the city area are for the exclusive use of gardens.)”

Robert closed his report by noting that one of the big reasons for buying his tank will be to support his wife Heather’s flower garden in the face of water restrictions.

Strange that, Australia is in a drought, but I remember having occasional water restrictions in Aberdeen, Washington. Aberdeen can have up to 100 inches of rain annually, and that would be a wettish year but nothing to write home about.

I suppose this guided my thinking in creating my rain harvester, which started off being a rain bucket that then took on a life of its own. I don’t want the authorities telling me I can’t grow food because there is not enough water. I suppose now the issue will be whether or not they will tax rain water.

2nd August 2009 City Farming in Western Canada

2nd August 2009

I follow the website CityFarmer.info, which is an information product of a neat little not-for-profit operated in Vancouver, BC. They offer some good technology articles about exactly what I am trying to do here.

Since 1978, City Farmer has taught Vancouver residents how to grow food, compost, and take care of their gardens in an environmentally friendly manner. They monitor news media, shoot videoblogs to promote their demonstration garden projects, and also visit other urban gardening projects. British Columbia seems to be making strides in this area. A resolution in 2006 advocated the creation of 2,010 small garden plots by 1 January 2010 as a legacy for the 2010 Olympics to be hosted in Vancouver.

A recent emphasis in Urban gardening seems to be on the use of derelict and under utilized spaces to make small gardens either for the community, or to try and take charge of one’s own food supply. If you have control of the land, then it is an urban gardening. If you sneak in a cherry tomato plant amongst the landscaping, then it is guerilla gardening.

University of British Columbia seems to be leading out with a number of initiatives for sustainability. One is called Green Skins, a project of the School of Architecture at University of British Columbia. Basically, buildings are a framework for plants, which protect the buildings and control storm water runoff.

Across the water (that would be the Straits of Georgia) at Vancouver Island University, Malaspina college has YouTubed some interesting videos on Aquaponics, which I have found quite inspiring. You’ll find lots of artifacts of two or three future aquaponics projects cluttering my backyard.

Here are some links:

Barrelponics at VIU:

UBC Green Skin

City Farmer

2nd August 2009 Crop Update

2nd August 2009

The last two weeks of July were unkind to any cropping. The only things really sprouting are the Purslane, some of which we put into the grow boxes to fill up the spots other plants had given up on. Irritatingly, the one that is doing the best is a volunteer that happened to pop up near the Vincas in the south flower bed.

Cutline for Figure: Volunteer purslane going strong.

One eggplant that snuffled along under my best care seems to be thriving now that I am not paying it much attention. And in the time it took to take this picture, a purslane volunteer has popped up as well.

Cutline for Figure:Â Eggplant coming to life and purslane volunteering.

The newspaper they pass around a few times a week (the regular weekly having gone out of business and morphing into a freebie) says it is the hottest July in 110 years (since they have been keeping records). We got one real storm, and are behind in our annual 8 inches. The jet flow is keeping the moisture to the south in Mexico, but enough of it seeps northward to keep the nights hot. All the concrete that has sprouted in the Phoenix area likely contributes a heat island effect.

The common factor on these growth stories here is that these spots are shaded. The heat dictates shade covers, but there are some mumblings from the troops that suggest I should invest my efforts in cleaning up the yard and patio more than stringing up shelter just in time to take it down. Got great plans, though.

3rd August 2009

3rd August 2009

About Hardware Shops

Here in the U.S. we are blessed with two major hardware stores, Home Depot and Lowe’s. These are supermarkets for building, with everything from wood, to plumbing supplies, to electrical bits, to gardening supplies, to bricks, and bug sprays. At one time, the clerks (often called Associates) were very knowledgible, often being retired or disabled tradesmen who could advise you as well as help you find things.

Then management changed, and suddenly the clerks were sometimes little more than…clerks. If you did not know what you wanted--and sometimes where it was stocked—you were just out of luck.

That has apparently been set right. I find the help at these mega markets to be much more helpful recently. And the prices are generally fair.

That said, these are not really my favorite place to shop for pieces, especially if I am not exactly sure what I am looking for. For this I find nothing beats a local Ace or True Value hardware store. When you find the right one, you will recognize it, because the clerk will know where everything is and how most of it is used, or can find out with a quick question to a more experienced associate who is usually in the back cutting pipe or bits of glass or making window screens to order.

When I need help, that is where I go. I have had good luck for years doing this. My current favorite is Kings Ace Hardware (2842 N Power Rd, Mesa, AZ 85215, 480.218.6070). Gary King is the proprietor, and if I can describe what I want to do, he can figure out how to do it. I am working on a floating ball-type valve for my first flush diverter, because I think it can do a better job of keeping the poo-ish water from the main cistern. When I first mentioned this to him, he grabbed the pieces out his bins and built one for me on the spot. (I may someday ask him for the right PVC pieces to make a potato cannon.)

Gary had an interesting career in mining before he opened his shop, and in fact was the inventor of some of the multi-axle trucks that are now carrying heavy loads with a gentle road load footprint on the tarmac. He is really clever.

If you do find yourself having to go to the big store because it’s late at night and you need to get an early start in the morning, it is usually possible to scare up a supervisor who may really know what is doing. That is how I got my cistern cross-connected. I had to put a bulkhead connector on the end of a two-inch ABS end cap, so I could mount a hose bib to it. It was quite hard to explain to the shelf stockers at the big orange stores what I meant by “hose bib” and “end cap”, because they usually are not pieces that go together.

The cross-connect keeps the two 1000-liter totes at the same level—if I want them to. Retaining the native valves gives some flexibility.

They finally rousted up someone from the back who was working on cleaning up a spill, and he helped me get most of my parts. The bulkhead connector had him stumped, however.

Sam samples water from rain harvest cisterns.

I finally remembered that Gary had once gotten one for me out of his “replacement parts for evaporative coolers” section. That is where we found them. Sometimes these fellows have supervisory responsibilities; hence, they can be grouchy when you pull them off task. Once they see that you have thought through your purchase and are onto something novel and worthy of their experience, they usually sweeten right up.

24th August 2009

24th August 2009

Update on Front Boxes

Well, I got busy and mounted the grow box out front. Big rub is that the Home Owner’s Association will want to approve of it. I left it unpainted and did not fill it with soil mix in case they do not see it as being as much a thing of beauty as I do. The original reference to this is on 25 June 2009.

My front Grow Box awaiting approval.

I suppose that I could have painted it, but then the question would arise, which color? The color of my house, or that of my neighbor’s. They are cool with the box. So far, I rake a few leaves for them as it is harder for them to do it than it is for me.

Front Grow Box as seen from neighbor’s drive

The HOA paperwork will be turned in soon, and then we will see if the box can stay.


Mowed Some More

I got up a bit late this morning (by which I mean about after 0600) Â so I mowed the yard back and front for exercise. Ran out of petrol on the middle of the back, but it was enough to make it look better than when I started.

I needed the grass clippings for my vermiculture bed, which I had loaded with lots of chopped up vegetable bits left over from preparing Sunday dinner. Needed the grass to cover them so they could decompose in peace. Still no vermi’s in there. Too hot for the suppliers to ship them to me, and even my local source for red wrigglers lost a crop the morning he was going to sell them to me. I am in contact with some experts about getting the right worms for the job. More about domestic worms later.


First Instrumentation

When I started all of this madness I was a 300 pound weakling, pretty much literally. Freshly laid-off from my job as a project manager, I felt that one thing I needed to do for a host of reasons was to trim down and tough-up, or at least have the appearance of it. I have lost about 60 pounds not, via the IsaGenix products, which work quite well. Did it since the first of the year and July, when I took a break because of the heat. In order to have something physical to do, I started out here in the yard, and now my arms are properly tanned and my hands sufficiently scuffed and nicked, so that few would suspect I actually eek out a between-job living writing courses on computers and networking.

And as long as I am a geek of sorts, I decided I was at some point going to instrument, perhaps automate, the goings-on in the back yard. While in a thrift shop locating a pair of used trousers skinner than my current pair, found my first instrument. It is as a simple analog three-gauge weather station, and I paid for it the princely sum of $1.48, which is just about one Euro.

The Official Station Barometer.

The thermometer is reasonably accurate (yep—over a hundred degrees as this picture was taken), and the hygrometer (Humidty indicator is….well I don’t know.) The barometer was totally whacked, however. It was way off the scale. I found a set screw in the back, and tweaked it to match an existing barometer we had gotten when we closed up the missus’s grandparents house after they passed.

Here is an article on calibrating a hygrometer which I may follow someday.


For now, Mesa Falcon Field Airport is a few miles from here and they have all sorts of weather instruments, and government workers, and a twirly beacon, and fire extinguishers and everything. ATIS there is on 118.25 MHz. And there is always the Internet.

Later on when I compared the barometer to the Internet, it was spot on.

It was so much fun setting out the Official Station Barometer, that I went ahead and mounted up the grands’ unit in the family room. I called it the “Second Official Station Barometer, Indoors Watch.

Second Official Station Barometer, Indoors Watch.


Fixing The Gutter

I got busy this past week and worked on my gutter some. There was a problem in that some of the rainwater was sliding down behind the gutter. This water fell to the ground and was great for the long flowerbed, but bad for the rain catcher. A little bit of caulk may have fixed it up.

A little caulk to improve the efficiency of the rain harvest system.


What’s up in the South Yard?

Made some great progress in the South Yard (former dog run).

The new grow boxes, all seven of them

We got the soil mixed and moved the boxes on them.

Mixing grow media on tarp. Peat Moss bag covers hole in tarp.

When they mixed up the grow mix, the first step was to break up the 3.8 Cu Foot bale Sphagnum of peat moss to make it expand and become about 8 Cu Feet. Next the, vermiculate, two 4 Cu foot bags, then composted materials from as many brands as possible. I would have pulled the tarp one way and then the other a few times, rolling the materials together. Pedro wanted to use a shovel.

We distributed the soil to the grow boxes using a series of orange buckets.

We moved the grow mix into the grow boxes in orange buckets.

Then we topped up the boxes using a guide to set level. I made the guide out of a piece of wood and marked the 6-inch line and also the 8-inch line. Anywhere between them was acceptable depth.

A simple guide aided in leveling the spoil in boxes
A simple guide aided in leveling the spoil in boxes.


We then fabricated the grids and laid them in. Long ago I created a template for drilling them. Using bolts, nuts, and washers, we assembled them. Then we laid the grids over the top of each box, trued them up and centered them, then made marks for cutting. After cutting, they dropped right into the boxes, with a little bit of slack in case they expanded in heavy moisture.


Grids made from redwood lathe and held together with bolts and nuts will form a guide for planting.

Forming the electrical conduit into a support for the trellises is an art form. More about that much later.



All this activity startled the local fauna, mainly lizards.

This one came to check us out. He was just a cadet, but the CO lizard was hiding just out of camera range.


6th September 2009

6th September 2009

About Grow Box 10

Early on I was excited about a “bucket brigade” style planter system. I wanted this so that I could have a convenient frame on shiehc to mount a trellis, and a place to plant deeper root crops, such as jicama. Sadly, many of the buckets split across the bottom for no apparent reason. The split buckets are a problem, because a self-watering system that discards its water will drain the reservoir, threatening everything. The survivors were put to storing the gravel I obtained from an aquaponics system.

The revised plan is to repurpose the frame for the bucket brigade, which was pretty sturdily built, line it with plastic, put rocks and irrigation in the bottom, a layer of sand, and then garden soil. Been reading up on the self-watering technology from a book lent me by the trumpet player in the brass quintet I play tuba in. Also have another friend who is teaching me speed reading who has built similar gardens. He is briefing me on his system in a few days.

So we will start with this box, minus the buckets:

Grow Box 10, the bucket brigade, will be repurposed as a self-watering garden box.




Then we will do it up something like this:

The revised bucket brigade will become a self-watering grow box. (Drawing made with SmartDraw 2009.)


The bits are all on hand, except for the rock, sand, and float valve. The soil will be the soil I removed from my older grow boxes, recharged with some fresh compost. The wooden frame will be used to support trellis materials. And, taking advantage of a lesson learned this hot summer, it can be used to support a shade cloth as well.

New Yard to Come

I was able to free up about 500 more square feet of yard space by cleaning up and compressing my work area.

Here is what I started with. Yes, it makes the heart faint.

What a mess! Repairing the workbench in the center of the yard opened up some room for more yard to come.

Here is what I ended up with:

New cleared area for yard formed by fixing a workbench and compressing the work area.

After an old workbench was repaired and placed, my friend raked the area clean. The mountain-shaped outline on the fence was a pile of dirt that was generated in an earlier project. Spread out evenly, the dirt will be the foundation of a new yard, which I will start from seed just to see if I can do it. More dirt is to come from a different area on the north of the station. If you are a fan of Javanese culture you can read a lot into the idea of a chair left outstanding in a field. But please don’t. I just wanted a place to sit.

The missus and the daughter-in-law were seen plotting recently in this area. Something about their arm motions indicates that, in their agenda, even more of my lab workspace must soon be surrendered to gr*ss.


Fixing the Gardening Bench

Years ago I obtained a kit from Home Depot for a workbench. When I built it, I spaced the boards on the top surface to accommodate working with potting soils and flower pots. Over the years, the bottom shelf rotted away (it was particle board). Then some of the top boards got punky. Then it got shaky. After about 20 years of living outdoors behind three residences, it was time to throw it out.

This old garden bench has followed us in two states and three residences.

But I needed it. The work surface has come in handy, and the shelf would be welcome to get some pottery off of the concrete and out from underfoot.

So I fixed it up.

First, those nasty nails from the bottom had to go. I had dreams simply shaving them off using one of those miracle vibrating multi-tools that have been advertised on TV recently. No such luck. The $39.00 version offered by my local Harbor Freight did not seem to dent them. (I had some good luck with it on other projects, however.) So I broke got out my trusty Vise Grips and just unscrewed them.

Removing old screws from workbench with Vise Grips.

Next I cut a piece of scrap plywood I cheap bought off Craig’s List to replace the missing lower shelf. However, before I installed it I notched the corners to accommodate 2 x 4s, using a small scrap of 2x4 as a guide and truing the lines with an adjustable square.

Marking notches on the replacement shelf.

The new shelf stabilized the old bench a lot, but then I inserted short 2x4s to reinforce the existing legs.

Rebuild plan for old garden workbench. (Drawing made with SmartDraw 2009.)

The notches allowed the new reinforcing 2x4s to directly tie together the top frame and the shelf frame without pinning the shelf between the reinforcing member and the shelf. This avoids the instability that could be caused by the shelf compressing over time.

For the new top, I cut some to fit 2x4s and a 2x6 that I had on hand, and used them to replace the bad boards. I secured them with 2-1/2-inch deck screws. Deck screws are better than sheetrock screws (bugle-pointed grabbers) for this purpose, because they are powder-coated and will not leave rust stains as they deteriorate.

Replacement top made of available 2x4s and a 2x6, secured with deck screws.

I finally toted the whole assembly back into a work area behind the grow boxes which was cluttered with flowerpots and other pottery items that were here when we came and which we accumulated over the years.


Restored workbench in position.

The backyard fauna observed the entire proceedings, as usual.

Local lizard eyes the activities in the station habitat.


Second Water Emergency

For the second time since we began to harvest rainwater, we experienced a water outage from the City of Mesa, this one due to an accounting error (sadly it was ours, not theirs). Never the less, we once again had to depend on our own water for bathing and flushing. This time I used one of the RBWs to gather bathing water from a neighbor whose house I help keep an eye on. (RBW = Rain Barrel, Wheeled). Unfortunately, I broke the wheel on the darn thing as I was negotiating a flagstone path. Did not tip it over, though. I am learning.


Toilet Valve Experience

I really do not welcome plumbing failures, but I had a great opportunity to work with a valve I may need to use later on.

As you may recall, after the farm enters the hydroponics phase, the plan is engage in Aquaponics. (In aquaponics, effluent from fish is used to feed plants in a grow bed, and plants in the grow bed clean the water for the fish.)
Good management dictates that one knows what one is doing before one starts doing it. (This is something I really wished for when I was project managing. The pace was so brisk that I had to depend on my crews to be my eyes and ears, and I like my eyes and ears better).

As indicated in the headline section at the top of this diary, a barrelponics project is proposed as part of the Aquaponics phase or this project. A key to barrelponics is the flush valve that rushes water from a reservoir down to the grow bed. This oxygenates the water for the fish and spreads it out over the grow bed surface.

Schematic for Barrelponics system.


This is all explained rather well in the following links. This is the first site I found that laid out the system, and one of the impetuses to begin the entire backyard farm project:

Barrelponics by Travis Hughey in Erie, CO.

Update to above:

Another update to above:


So why mention this? I recently got some experience with flush valve assemblies when our downstairs toilet unexpectedly malfunctioned. The valve broke from its mounting, launching itself against the tank lid so firmly that it lifted it out of place. I had to obtain a new one and install it, and I was on a tight timeline. I am proud to say I did it in 20 minutes, start to finish, and the hardest thing about it was deciphering the instructions.


21st September 2009

21st September 2009

Introducing Skanky Tank

“Skanky-Tank” is a beat up IBC obtained from a local plumbing firm.

I am half-crazy about these 1000 liter (300 gallon) totes. I have four of them.
They are really called Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBCs). Price for a good used one is generally in the $125 area (food grade). Skanky Tank lived a hard life, and I got it, minus the lid, for about $50. The plumbers used this tank in a grey water application that captured the outlet from a bathroom sink and an ice machine sump well. When the tank got full, they fitted it with a spray nozzle, picked it up with a forklift, and ran it around the parking lot to keep down the dust.

As the water inside evaporated, the powered hand cleaners deposited a layer of guck all over the inside. Not quite sure how I am going to clean that out, and I am not certain I would ever want to store drinking water in it. Instead, I am looking at something like this:

Intermediate bulk storage container modified for use in aquaponics.

You can find more about this method of aquaponics at these links:

Basic system by John Stivers: (Likely the IBC pioneer)

Important advances by mattholzmann

Some other improvements by chevydmax04

Most of the improvements seem to center around cutting one IBC into the grow bed and the fish tank while preserving stability (which is a function of the horizontal bands, and which half they stay with), while maximizing the tank size.

I am hoping that I can get the fish swimming in the late autumn / early spring. Summer is the peak growing time for Nile Tilapia. The Barrelponics system is intriquing as well, and probably would be more fun to watch. Here at the station, there are plans to build three types of aquaponics system prototypes. We’ll settle on one for the final build. Right now, IBCs seem to me to offer the best solution in term of durability, cost per gallon, and footprint.

There are already commercial aquaponics “patio”products available, which I will avoid until I learn the ropes by building some. Some of these are very attractive, but I am not convinced that the ratios of “grow media-to-water” and “fish-to-water” are correct.


Official City Composters Installed

Official City of Mesa compost barrels.

I installed these Official City of Mesa compost barrels about a month ago. Basically, they are retired black garbage bins (blue bins are for recycling, black for garbage, and green for yard waste around here) which are cut off about 1/3 of the way up from the ground to remove the wheels, and then perforated with ¾-inch holes. They drop these off for an unspecified term for only a $5.00 deposit each.

They are a convenient way to keep lawn clippings and vegetable scraps out of the waste stream. You need to turn the compost, however, and for that I invested in an official Harbor Freight manure fork.

Cutline for Figures: Composters with the official station manure fork.

The stirring action is best accomplished by turning the pile, that is, forking it from one place to another. If one container was empty, I could transfer the contents of one to the other. That seems a waste of space, especially as the material composts it takes up even less volume. I could just tip over the container and pitch the stuff back in, but that seems kind of backwards. I am thinking of getting a tumbling composter to process and reduce green materials in the “hot phase” of initial decomposition, and then dumping the material into these composters for the longer term “second phase” of decomposition. Minus the heat, I could probably put some worms in, too.

Water on Citrus

Remember the poor tree? It just was not getting enough water, had not borne fruit in a long time, and there were numerous dead branches. We did not want to loose the tree, and as other elements of the backyard project took shape the tree gradually increased in priority. Based on advice from a friend, we excavated material away from the trunk and created a ring around the tree at the diameter of the outer foliage. This used up some left over dirt and it also made watering greatly more efficient.

Watering our tree in a moat.

The effect has been dramatic. The soil appears much moister and seems to let water go deeper.


Cutline for Figures: Water in a moat appears to have created an improved soil beneath the citrus tree.

The branches themselves have responded quickly. There is significant growth of new tender leaves.

Cutline for Figure:
New growth on the end of branches, some of which were dead looking.

What is this thing?

So what might this be?

Self-watering garden emitter.

This photo is the underground portion of the self watering garden I described last time. My friend Dwain has made several of these systems at the houses of his children, and he had this emitter on hand to show me as I build mine.

The magic of a self-watering garden is that the soil becomes a support and mulch for the plants, and actually remains fairly dry. This suppresses weed growth naturally. The moist film between plant roots and the soil takes place underground as the required water is wicked upward into the root zone from the emitters beneath. Evaporation takes less of the water, most is lost through transpiration. The biggest benefit may be that if the reservoir is large enough, the plants should be able to get by with less daily care.

Some advocates of self-watered gardens say that they compete with hydroponics in terms of efficiency, including the rapid growth that is gained by working with liquids for plant nourishment.

According to my friend, a layer of sand wicks the water up from the emitter to the bottom of the soil. The emitter has the task of loading the sand with water.



We have not had any rain to speak of in the time we were supposed to be having it. It is the driest monsoon on record. Here is the fallout from my front yard view, looking over my neighbor’s house:

Nonsoon monsoon clouds without rain.

On a proper monsoon day, these clouds should form up mid-morning, then grow during the day into thunderstorms that cool us down, then go away until tomorrow. This year, the clouds have just hung out and taunted us.

One fallout of this is that it has been so darned hot that I cannot get most suppliers to ship me worms. (However, when I talked to the guys in the fishing department down at WalMart, they get worms in all the time.) Oh, for the days when you could just look in the back of Popular Science and choose between dozens of worm vendors.


Worm Letters

That said, it is not like I have not been trying…I have contacted half a dozen vendors by e-mail and one by phone. I was once on the verge of driving 30 miles at 6 am to bring home two thousand, and the grower called me at 5 am to tell me they had all died during the night.

It turns out there is more to worms than dirt. Some species are communal, that is they huddle in colonies like spaghetti. Others prefer to be solitary, munching in silence and travelling alone. Some worms eat in the mid-soil, safely buried. Others venture up to dine near the surface. Some worms stay put, choosing to bloom where they are planted. Others migrate at the drop of a hat for reasons unexplained. If you have ever been working on top of building and found a worm on the roof, it does not have to be because a bird sneezed while enroute to the nest. There are apparently some species that actually climb that high.

I have three areas set out for vermiculture, plus a portable group of worm hotels that failed miserably in the heat. I built them between March and May. It is now almost October. I am anxious to get started.

Vermiculture bed layout plan.

When I was soliciting worm sellers, I sent out a version of this letter:


Your excellent website is really interesting to me, and I want to know more.

I am developing a small backyard farm here in Arizona, and now that my grow boxes are in, the next step is hydroponics, then aquaponics, and of course vermiculture.

I tried an experiment with three little worm hotels made from orange buckets. I aged the ingredients and then added some worms. It all ended sadly and very quickly, and I think it had to do with some faulty information about heat tolerance in bedding from a well-meaning but poorly informed website. Fortunately, it was a small quantity of worms.

I also dug a vermiculture flowerbed, and there I have three feet or so deep of well-aged materials, which fronts against two feet deep of planting soil. I must top up weekly as it is decomposing nicely. I have not yet populated it with worms, mainly because of the experience with the buckets. There is a small chance that local worms have migrated to it, as I saw a few when I was digging it.

I also have an older compost bin that has been around for years. It is about a cubic meter in volume, is lined with straw, and we just threw in grass clippings and food scraps to keep the stuff out of the waste stream. It was poorly designed and is hard to turn (chicken wire liner has migrated into the middle, snaring implements). The bin has to go, but it is too hard to move, so I was thinking of populating it with worms and letting them finish the composting, then recovering the worms and the soil when I finally empty it out and cart it to the dump.

I also have about 30 feet of unused flowerbed that I have mulched heavily several times.

Here is my plan:
1- The hotels with red wrigglers will go into the bathroom where we have a few square feet of tile that is unused just now. These I want to populate with red wrigglers, about a third of a pound each, for starters. My wife will not love this.
2- The old compost bin could probably use European nightcrawlers. They will be big so I can find them when it is time to empty it out. It will be hard to fork, so I hope they can rise for fresher foods.
3- I could use red wrigglers in the vermiculture bed. I don't much fork it, and they can digest from the top down. They have lots of material laid in for them.
4- The flowerbed gets Alabama jumpers.

Am I on the right track?

Do you have any suggestions?


R. Lehtinen


I hope that some vendors will come around soon.

On a positive note, the more I whine to my friends about my difficulties getting worms, the more invitations I am accumulating to go fishing—once I get the vermiculture going.

22nd September 2009

22nd September 2009

I woke up early this morning and went out with Sam the dog to do some irrigation. I engaged the sprinklers for the front, and moved then turned on the small sprinkler I use in the back. (I used city water. There is some water left in the rain harvest cisterns, but I want to keep a reserve and I may have to demonstrate it sometime.) Between the time I got out the back door and got the sprinklers running, a slight breeze came up and spread the mist like a fog.

And then I understood. It was not hot out. Finally, after a couple months of triple digit oppression, I could stand still and not perspire. As I soaked up the cool, I looked over the station. I finally roped my young son into helping me finish installing the conduit that holds the trellises over the grow boxes in my south garden. Today I may finesse the nylon netting into place.

Yesterday I created a comprehensive assessment, and identified and prioritized seven things to do next that would move the project further and also fix some deficiencies. The young man who may help took careful notes in his sketchbook. He has plenty of carpentry experience, and once I showed him my ideas, he showed me his, and I liked his thinking. If we can come to terms, it will help a lot.

Why Hydroponics?

I have had an interesting correspondence with Jean Schanen, who has a backyard farm in Bremerton, Washington (on Bloomington Avenue, no less). They are able to grow produce all year around, and have met their own needs, supply their neighbors, and tend a weekly table at a farmers market. Currently they are founding a grocery for locally grown produce (called FreshLocal, 540 4th Street, Bremerton, WA) in order to build up a market for local goods produced in their area. Then they intend to create a school to help others do the same things they have done.
You can see more about them at their web page:
One of Jean’s questions for me was why I was dabbling in hydroponics. She mentioned that in her part of the country, the only ones who did that were growing illegal crops such as gr*ss. I put some thought into my answer, and I will reproduce it in essence here:
Hi, Jean:

Thank you for prompt and cheery response.

How excellent that you have a rain harvesting system. I grew up in Aberdeen, Washington, and it was amazing that we could have almost 90 inches of rain a year, and still face even/odd day water restrictions. It is related to the size of the culinary water system, of course, and not the scarcity of water. Were people to use grey water and harvested rain, the problem would resolve quickly, I imagine.

About hydroponics, the answer for me is that the desert is difficult for cultivation. Without irrigation, things wither. The growing season is limited not so much by sunlight as by heat. Things bolt into seed instead of maturing into vegetables, or else they simply die. A plant dealer who services Home Depot starts pulling the good stuff in May.

Shade can help. It lengthens the season, but it does not stretch it indefinitely. I intend to use some shade over my south growing beds next spring to see. Also, the bucket brigade -> self-watering garden is designed from the start to accommodate a shade cloth.

Given a choice between rich wonderful worm laden soil and hydro, soil is the obvious choice. But the ground here is often hard and gravel like, over a layer of caliche (hardpan). I have excavated a vermiculture bed, and it takes a pick. If I want any produce in this difficult land, hydroponics needs to play a part for now.

There is another reason. My hydroponics dealer provides equipment and supplies to the McMurdo Ice Station in Antartica. He has some unique techniques that I can learn about by purchasing a system, which I have done. I have several other systems in various stages of construction, and before it is over, I intend to know a great deal about hydroponics as a useful alternative or adjunct to properly rebuilding soil and “setting down roots”.

Hydroponics also offers a good chance to see what actually makes plants grow. There are no soil organisms, so plants are encouraged by controlling the solution. As I understand it, most commercial agriculture depends on three to six chemicals to replenish a field. Most hydroponics proponents depend upon up to 13. I do not argue that it would be far more wholesome to let nature enrich the soil to the point that the plants could choose from a smorgasbord of minerals, but I have not gotten there yet. Hopefully, my interest in vermiculture will point me in this direction.

All that said, these problems all stem from living on an unirrigated lot. For years we lived in a part of town that was treated to flood irrigation twice monthly in summer and once monthly in winter. That was much more conducive to agriculture. My wife’s great grandfather, whose house we occupied after he passed, raised most of his own food. There the problem was weeds and the rush of water, which seemed to wash away any mulch or soil building activities.”

Jean also asked about my qualifications as a course writer, creator of assessment items, and instructor, and I gave her a paragraph of resume material. Then I closed with a comment directed towards her love of the critters that live in soil. There are not that many noxious bugs in that neck of the woods, something I was grateful for when I lived up there.

“Of yes, those soil critters. Not so good. When they took out the orchard across the road, all the scorpions migrated over to the homes on our side of the street. And our spiders often have hourglasses or fiddles on them.”


Rick Lehtinen


Worm Update
After last week’s whine about not being able to get worms, one of the dealers I have been corresponding with, “The Worm Dude”, responded to my inquiries. He assured me that in some beds, a mix of worms is okay. The surface eaters tackle the top dressing of freshly tossed out vegetable peels and stalks. The burrowers go deep. They do not have that much to do with each other, but depending on conditions, one or the other will grow dominant.

There are five or six species of worms popular in commercial cultivation. Unfortunately, you really have to use their Latin names, because various breeders market different breeds under the same name. There are two composting worms, both of which are called red worms, and the smaller of the two, Eisenia Fetida, is currently the darling.

There are three kinds of popular night crawlers, European, Canadian, and African. European is the fish hunter as it is active on the hook. The African tolerates heat but not cold. Canadians are said to be bit lethargic, though I have never met one I did not like. But night crawlers tend to be blind as bats, so they hook their backsides in their holes and stretch their topsides out to forage, which is why they get so big. Apparently if they unhook, they can get lost.

There are also some mid-size worms, such as the Alabama Jumper.

Sadly, each of these is known by many names, and one man’s jumper is another man’s slug. So I am closer to getting worms, but farther away. However, the Worm Dude is a breath of fresh air. We are discussing whether or not I can air condition my garage on the chance that I can set up some worm bins in there, since I am pretty sure the missus will draw the line somewhere between worms and the basement, which is finished and represents a goodly part of our living space, especially in summertime.

I see now that I have two roles for worms. Three beds / heaps need them. It seems that once you put worms in the ground, they disappear. But I also am interested in getting castings (worm poo). For this you use a bin. In a worm bin, you take a chance on loosing a colony, which literally stinks, but you also get to capture the castings, which is the organic output needed to supplement soil. As I have all those grow boxes and they depend on soil replenishment, and compost is hard to generate here, worms could be important to me. You also get to capture the progeny, so soon you have lots of worms.

What have I become?


Lowering the Waste Stream

Came across an interesting website put up by a guy named Sustainable Dave. He challenged himself to not throw anything out for one whole year. Instead, he collected his trash in the basement. To keep from overflowing his basement, he got good at purchasing things that did not have excessive packaging, reusing bags and boxes, and repurposing. By careful discipline, he was able to greatly reduce his waste footprint. An important part of this process was the kitchen waste, which he composted using a worm bin. I find that I am able to get rid of a lot of material around here by composting.

You can learn more about Sustainable Dave at this URL:



Roof Tape – I did it during a thunderstorm

Okay, so the caulk fixed most of the water that crept behind the rain gutter, but I still was concerned that all of the rainwater might not be making it to my cisterns. How to shore up the “last mile” so the water clears the roof and makes it over the drip edge? I used something I call “gutter tape”.

I found my first roll at Harbor Freight. It was in the discount section, and to see if it would work, I bought one roll. It was cheap enough that I should have taken it all, but who can explain a passing frugality? Gutter tape is essentially an aluminum tape with a stick backing that looks and feels like tar. You put it over weak spots in your gutter, or over flashings that aren’t sealing correctly, and it provides a reflective outer surface over a squishy, sticky, water hating adhesive. Perfect IMHO for patching up a mobile home roof, sealing that tricky part beneath a leaking evaporative cooler (swamp cooler), or repairing a leaky or rusting gutter.

Of course, the local Harbor Freight stopped carrying it. And the aluminum tape the clerks kept directing me to did not have a tar backing. So I started looking around at Home Depot, and found some in the roofing section. They had two brands, one made in Chicago and one in New Jersey, and I flipped a coin about which to take, as they appeared identical. The instructions were written by someone who had been there and done it, because it came with words like “cut off a workable length”. This was their way of saying that you should not try to pull the roll down the entire length of what you were working on because you could not control it and it would stick to itself and you and you’d end up getting tied up in an aluminum foil and tar knot, which is exactly what I did.

So on the second roll, I followed the instructions more precisely, and it seems to have worked out rather well.

Cutline for Figure: Gutter tape applied to run water to gutter instead of behind drip edge flashing. Sam is standing point to protect my ladder from pedestrians. Almost as good as traffic cones.

I wanted to save the SKUs from both Home Depot and Harbor Freight, but they were stuck on the plastic overwrap. Just check the roofing departments.

I got excited about putting on the tape because it looked like the dry spell may end, and I wanted to seal up the roof when it was dry, not after a storm. Clouds were forming in the East and heading my way. Occasionally a flash of lightening and a thunder rumble occurred in the distance.

Cutline for Figure: Gutter tape applied over corner to finish the edge. Previous repairs to gutter are visible. And from up here, it looks like my house needs painting.

My friend Bob from Oz, who gave the report on Australian water rationing a few weeks ago, is an instructor for apprentices in Melborne. He is also a lecturer on ladder safety. He told me that the folks from the ambulance service expected to see an increase each Monday of a long weekend, because that was the day the tradespersons would be frantically finishing projects in their own homes and for friends and neighbors, and in the rush, accidents happened.

Which I suppose explains why I was on a ladder working with aluminum foils as a thunderstorm was bearing down. Well, I finished. But it was close. You don’t want to know. And after just enough rain to verify my work and smoke out a potential trouble spot in my rain diverter, the heavens closed and we have not had a drop since.


A picture is worth más que mil palabras

One of the big project manager things we emphasized at my previous job was that one can communicate a lot with a picture. This is doubly so when there is a chance that the workers can misunderstand instructions. When I was getting ready to finish up the south grow bins, I needed to describe how to lay things out, how to lay the construction paper, to make sure and rake it clean first, etc. Here is what I came up with:

Plan prepared to show how to lay out the south grow yard.

I want to wait until I have some greenery growing before I show you another picture of the south grow yard, but it looks like the instructions did the trick.


Guilty Pleasure: The Colony (Discovery Channel)

If you have not watched it, you may have to look for reruns of this Discovery Channel Series. A small group of 10 people are left in an abandoned factory after a simulated national catastrophe, where they scavenge and improvise and jury rig and fight off marauders. Somehow, they fashion vehicles out of junk, filter water, make electricity from solar cells, and eventually make an escape to a set of coordinates they receive as a response to daily signals they send out on a home made spark gap transmitter.

The series seems to alternate between the psychology of spending two months with a group of strangers in a yucky situation, and the forced innovation of building something from nothing.


I am really interested in the improvisation part. I know there is not a real correlation between the series participants and my backyard, after all I have food and hot showers, but some of the other items really are kind of familiar to me. Sadly, they have used some of what I thought were my best ideas. I guess I will have to make up some more.


I notice that they seem to have discovered cases and cases of Harbor Freight tools. So have I. Also, the colonists are all pretty well educated or extremely talented. The show makes it look as if some skills with computers are actually useful in real life. I wish life would mirror art!

An article about the show’s own professor is found here. He may be my new hero:

Here is a review from a geek zine about Colony which describes some of the technology well. Perhaps you coul add it to that article in the 28 September 09 update.


4th October 2009

4th October 2009

Online Guide to Local Harvests

There is a neat service that connects local producers with local people who eat. And the website map feature shows not just producers, but farmers markets, co-ops, and other foodie friendly features.


Directory with map, various providers

Veggie Trader
Swap your homegrown produce on Veggie Trader
You may notice that with home produce, sometimes when it rains, it pours. (I would not personally know anything about this, yet!) There is an exchange opening for those who have too much of one thing who would like to swap it for something else. There does not seem to be many entries for my neck of the woods, but you may find yourself a consumer for your extra zucchini. There are certain restrictions—apparently none of the traded produce can be used in products for sale.
This is probably a good thing. Only recently has there been some activity to deal with the citrus we have around here, which in season can be almost overwhelming.

Pumps versus Gravity

Here is a schematic of my rain harvest system:

Schematic of rain harvest system in use at this station.

Early on I pumped the water out of my rainwater diversion barrel using a barrel pump. You hold the pump head with your left hand and crank with your right, and if you are lucky, water moves.

That is not the most efficient way to water a lawn. So I experimented with my own version of a water tower. I pumped the water into a barrel held aloft by a frame, and then allowed the water to run out into first a sprinkler and then a soaker hose.


A hand operated barrel pump feeds a barrel in a frame. White stake in top bung held the hose in the barrel while pumping.

The hose soaker hose produced uniform distribution of water.

Soaker hose fed from a “water tower” distributes water throughout its length.

The hose was routed over the grass and had the potential of providing uniform distribution of water throughout the yard. Although this system seemed to water the grass well enough, and used very little water over a long period, say overnight, there were three drawbacks.

1) You have to pump the pump.

2) The diversion barrel is not always full. It is first in, first out (FIFO) because the water is the dirtiest in the system and it turns foul if stored too long. It is not meant to be a cistern.

3) You have to set up the water after every rainfall. It also means that you have to lay out the soaker hose after each rainfall, because you need to mow more often than you will have rainfall. I may leave it up and paint it.

That said, this system would work well to water the grow boxes.

Cistern output tied to a jumper hose, which connects it to a soaker hose in either the growboxes or the yard,

The cisterns on the other hand are built close to the ground, and provide more or less water pressure, depending upon how much water is in them. This means that without a water tower, they may have a hard time watering either the lawn or the growboxes.

The gravity distribution system is shown in the following diagram:

Gravity distribution system for water from first flush diverter.

Enter the Pumps

To efficiently (read: no hand pumping) move the contents of the diversion tank into the water tower, and to make the output of the cisterns of more uniform pressure, I obtained a 12-volt transfer pump from Harbor Freight. To power it, I used a jump start battery pack.

Battery powers small transfer pump to fill water tower, or to drive sprinklers.

This system provides enough pressure to operate a lawn sprinkler from either the cisterns or the diversion barrels. I have also used it to route water across the yard to water the citrus.

Pump distribution for harvested rainwater can feed sprinklers or transfer water.

This system works pretty well, and in a low rainfall climate could probably do the job. The barrel pump (also from Harbor Freight) provides redundancy in case events do not allow the presence of electricity to charge the battery for the pump.

There are needs for tweaks:

  • This power system is adequate for emergency use, but the jump starter is a resource meant for the car and it must be stored charged to be useful in its intended role.
  • The inlet hose must be strong stuff to avoid it collapsing and choking off the water supply.
  • The pump is meant for short duty (minutes) and probably isn’t the best for use driving a sprinkler.


Coupled with the water tower this makes an acceptable first revision of the rain harvest water distribution system. Revision 2 will address these deficiencies.



I am looking at composters, as I have a need to feed my grow boxes. I poked around the web a bit and found some interesting videos. The first is about building a tumbler. The second is an amazing gardening organization in California that evaluates several different kinds.

Cute couple builds a compost tumbler

My heros





Rotten Eggs
I have not raised chickens in years, but at one time I had quite a flock. People would drive to our house to peer at our assortment. (We had at least 15 breeds.) Poking around for some updated information lead me to this link. It seems that someone else experienced the same problem I once did. Here is the comment I posted:


11th October 2009

11th October 2009

You may have noticed that there is a canoe standing in my yard. I know it does not belong there. Finally, I did something about it. The precipitating event that pushed it higher in priority was the need to spread soil for gr*ss.

To get at the soil, I needed to move some things that were stored on it (such as canoes) in other places. I had no other places. So we built up some shelves that I had envisioned for some time now, put the canoe up top, and added a load of pipe and things that have been plugging up the works.

Wood cut for the new storage rack

A friend of mine cut the wood one night after work. We cut the wood so that the canoe was stored on the top shelf, it could not be seen from over the fence. Another friend did the assembly, using a mixture of deck screws and some flathead screws. We put it together using eight Simpson Strong-Tie part number RTC24, and modified the instructions that I found here:


Lots more ideas for using Strong-Ties are available here:


The results came out quite serviceable. The bottom shelf will eventually accommodate some more stuff.

This storage system made from Simpson Strong-Ties accommodates the station’s pipes and conduit, and a canoe.

All put together, I hope it goes a long way to eliminate up some clutter. And oh yes, my family is looking forward to the gr*ss.


Earthquake Protection

While I was poking around on the Strong-Tie site to find the correct part number for this entry, I found this neat section about using Strong-Ties for beefing up buildings for earthquake protection. It seems they built a seven-story wooden condominium on a big shaker table in Japan, and then shook it at almost twice the velocity as some of the California earthquakes. It held up well. This is a big step from back in the old days when we used to tie our water heaters to the wall with “holy iron” plumbers tape to try and keep them upright during a temblor. Lots of films and videos here:


Lunch Time!

While we were working on the shelves (and as I am a bit under the weather recently, I did not do the lion’s share of the work) I noticed that my verdolaga was getting a bit tired looking. Time for a harvest!

I cut it at the trunk near the ground, because I was told that that way it would grow back. Then I rinsed it twice. Then chopped it into short pieces. I started with just stems, but in the second batch I did leaves and stems. Then I fried up some onions and some garlic in olive oil, tipped that onto a plate, then added the verdolaga to the seasoned oil that remained in the fry pan. Add a half cup of water and cover, to let it boil a bit and soften the stalks. (Next time I would use some chicken stock instead of just water.) Then I added back the onions, tossed in a few chopped Roma tomatoes, some sea salt, some dried basil, and rubbed three or four dried chili peppers between my hands over the pan to crumble them in as spice. I then served it up in two big bowls, and we took a lunch break.

Verdolaga for lunch.

This is significant, because the goal here at the station is to grow and give away 500 pounds of edibles between two July Fourths. So far, I have not gotten too far. But after the lunch, I am allowing my self two pounds of verdalaga to start the list. I figure it is no harm calling it give away food if I invite someone over for a feed.


Citrus Surprise

As I posted earlier, when I started watering the citrus after digging up the moat, it started to sprout a lot of green leaves. I have not seen any blossoms, so it probably won’t have anything for us this year. But the softened ground below it is yielding a new crop of verdolaga.

Verdolaga volunteering beneath the citrus. Will make up a pot for the family.

Kind of a silly that most of my produce so far is a weed, but hey, it is absolutely fresh.


Legal Greywater

Distressed about the missing monsoon this year, I have begun to look again at greywater. Greywater is used household water that is not contaminated with sewage (which would be blackwater). There are many good ideas out there:



One resource that is really special to me is published by our own Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). The law is clear and simple, and yes, residences can use their own greywater for watering landscapes.





The Worms Have Arrived

Finally, I’ve got worms! Picked up this batch from CanyonLand Worms, a local worm farmer, two weeks ago.


Two pounds, about 2000 of them. I put one batch into the fancy green house, and the others got a bed in the inexpensive Home Depot tub.

Worms moved in, still cleaning up a bit.

So far, hard to say which works best. The tub needs more tending. It can dry out and needs to be periodically misted with a squirt bottle. The fancy worm house seem to be working well, although the worms tried to escape the first night. (They settled down after I introduced some food to the coconut coir and peat moss I am using for bedding.)

Each day I check them out, probably causing them way too much excitement, but I want to know how they are doing. I will probably go to every other day once I feel I understand more about it. First rule of thumb—go slow. The worms won’t die of dehydration if give them half as much water as you think they need, but you can drown them immediately.

Another good idea—give them some time to rest and settle into new bedding. After a day or two you can start introducing food. And I am not sure they are as crazy about coffee grounds as some authors say they are. Add them in small batches. It is food, not bedding.

The hidden world of my worm farm. No idea what is sprouting in there.

Now I have a quandary. I really want to speed up the composting in my vermiculture bed and in my old compost cube. One way to do that is to put some worms in. But my worms are currently under assignment to make more worms, and maybe some castings. If I pull them out and put them in those other areas, they won’t be doing what I hired them for. It seems that I may need more worms.



We were looking up some brown rice in a local emergency preparedness store, and found this neat little sprouter.

The station’s new sprouter.

You soak two tablespoons of the alfalfa seeds one night. (Lucerne, for you Kiwi’s, although there it pronounced “loose-end”.) Then spread them out in one of the two trays. A couple of times each day you rinse them gently in the sink.

Sprouts, day one.

After two days or so, they start to sprout.

Sprouts, Day 3.

On the third day, you repeat the process with the second tray. Then you put the top tray with sprouts above the bottom tray with the new seeds, so you can rinse them both together.

The top tray continues to grow while the bottom one is getting started.

Sprouts, almost ready.

The next day or so, it is time to start adding sprouts to your sandwiches.

Sprouts are good to go.

After a while you will be a good judge of when to start a new tray, and just how much seed to put in. (Two tablespoons seems to make a lot of sprouts.) So far, the little sprouter is thing is working great, and I want to get a second one for bean sprouts.

I intend to count sprouts in my “scorecard” of food to give away, although it will take a lot to make a pound.


Hydro Begins

Some time ago I purchased a used set of six grow pots. Dave, my Aquaponics buddy, gave me some used Hydroton (little clay balls that captivate microbes used by plants). I finally got the things fired up.

First I rinsed the hydroton to remove the dust. I then let is soak, a little too long it turns out, as some of the coating came off a few of the balls. A few hours will do.

First batch of Hydroton (clay balls).


I then put the balls into the baskets of my pots. I did it in the water they were soaking in, though there is now good reason to, other than that the baskets make good containers in which to let them dry out a bit.

Hydroton sorted into the grow baskets.

Next, I mixed up the grow solution, carefully following the manufacturer’s instructions, as Dave (my hydroponics buddy, who runs this site) recommends. I picked a “mild” blend, since this is a test batch.

Mixing the growing solution.

It turns out that it takes about three gallons and bit to fill each pot high enough so that the baskets dangle in the water. I carefully rinsed the potting soil from some starts I obtained at a local Home Depot. The soil will release chemicals into the solution that could pollute it or lock up minerals.

Rinsing the kale.

In went the plants into the balls, and the balls into the mix. But first, I dropped into each pot an airstone. These are little porous devices that bubble out air from a small aquarium air pump connected to them by a small tube. The bubbling oxygenates the solution, and also may help it creep up through the hydroton to reach the roots.

Airstone oxygenates the grow solution in the grow pot.

One tip: The airstone should be weighty. This is the advantage of going to a proper hydroponics shop. The ones you obtain in pet shops may not stay put at the bottom of the pot. Although I must admit the folks at the local PetSmart were the ones who helped me figure this out.

Also, leaving the protective plastic on the airstone as you push on the tiny, skinny, slippery little air tube will protect it from the oils in your fingers, and possibly from harsh language.

Leaving airstone in protective packaging while inserting it into the air hose may keep it clean of perspiration and oils.

I added power to the little pumps, and sat back to watch.

The first hydroponics test set-up at the station.


So far, the kale is going fine, and the lettuce is showing the effects of sun stress. But it bounces back at night.

This is actually the same thing I am seeing with the lettuce I planted in my grow boxes from the same batch. The stuff in the shadows is doing much better than the stuff in the sun. Even though it is mid-October, we still have temperatures in the 80s. It just feels cool.


About the Gr*ss

Early one morning, I looked out into the back yard and saw that the lawn was covered with irrigation water. Then it occurred to me that I had not lived in an irrigated lot for the past six years.

Black plastic in the back yard.

And then I remembered what we had worked so hard on the day before.

To make sure the soil is weed free, I needed to cook it some weeks under black plastic sheeting (Visqueen).

After raking and adding some manure (this time I tried sterilized Topper rather than bagged manure, which seems to be an invitation for weeds).

Spread earth with manure and fertilizer.

Then we spread out a great lot of plastic, weighting it with some available bricks and rocks.

Plastic goes down to solarize the soil and kill the weeds hiding in the manure (we hope).

Although I appreciate the cool green feeling of walking on the gr*ss, it all seems like a terrible waste of effort. You could be growing crops, after all. Still, kids and dogs enter the equation, so this is an argument I must be prepared to lose. I have a good Plan B, however. More about that later.


Front Yard Gone A Rye

A good friend of mine who saw I was feeling poorly came to do me a great favor a week or so ago. He mowed my lawn as low as it could go, then raked it off. (I carefully collected the cuttings for my compost heaps). Then trimmed it and swept those trimmings onto the yard, and then mowed it once more to collect them. Then he used a hand spreader and dispensed pounds and pounds of fine quality winter lawn seed (Rye for winter, Bermuda for summer).

He avoided the use of manures, as in his opinion, that is just an invitation to buy some “weed and feed” in a few months. I watered and watered, nursing along my sprinklers after an attempt to replace a solenoid did not fire them up again. Then one day…Poof!--little alfalfa sprouts started growing out of my lawn. A few days later, it was turning bright green.


The Home Owners Association should love this. They have elected to conserve water and cost by not overseeding any of the common areas this year.

The New Box 8 and 9

Box 8 and 9, first mentioned long ago, is now installed, painted, and planted. Here is the document I attached to the form and submitted.

Front grow box proposal as submitted to the Home Owners Association.


The Home Owners Association had quite a row over whether to allow me to install it. And then debate continued into the night about what I must plant there.

In the end I get low plants (not corn), and I have to paint it, although my original proposal was for bare wood to match the gravel.

‘Nuff said. It was in and done within 24 hours of the meeting.


31st October 2009

31st October 2009

A spell of hot weather has come to our autumn, and I needed to shade some tender plants. A man who sells an innovative hydroponics system and bean bag chairs had given me some of the big bags that polystyrene pellets come in, and I cut them down and made some shade cloth out of them. These I tied onto some PVC pipes I bought the day before, and pushed them onto some little pieces of 1/2-inch rebar I drove into the soil on either side of the grow box. Then I bent the pipes over.

Cutline for figure: PVC placed over piece of ½-inch rebar driven into ground forms fastening for hoop house hoop.

This forms a tiny hoop house on which I fastened the bag panels to make shade

Cutline for Figure: Basic hoop house for shade.

I made a lot of these. And because I got the sun angle wrong, I had to patch with other materials on hand.

Cutline for Figure: Hoop houses augmented by whatever was on hand.

I attached the bag fabric to the hoops by first wrapping it around the pipe where I wanted to attach it, and then poking it through with a Phillips (cross head) screwdriver.

Cutline for Figure:
Attach covering to hoop by first making a hole with a screwdriver.

Then I tied them off using some available network data cabling scraps.

Cutline for Figure: Tie off fabric to hoop using some scrap telecoms wire.

Now that I have some experience with these materials, I will likely adapt the system to make a shelter against the cold as well. Here is a prototype:

Cutline for Figure: Prototype cold shelter built on hoop house frame.

It is strange that here in Arizona we garden mainly in the autumn and spring. With shade and luck one may be able to grow stuff in the summer, but it has to be something really heat tolerant. That means yard-long beans and Armenian cucumbers. Even okra, normally sun-loving, can burn up on you. And this year the heat seem unrelenting. It got up to 96 degrees on the 4th of November. A new record, I believe.


Basic Hydro Expanded

I was able to add a few plants to my basic grow pot system. All are doing well, although they needed a bit of a shade screen as well. Added three tomatoes and some sage.

Cutline for Figure:Â Basic hydro system expanded to accommodate three tomatoes and a sage.

Cutline for Figure: This sage is happy so far in the grow pot. I’ve tied it off to a stake in the hydroton using the jacket from some scrap network cable.


Planting Peas by Laser Light
I got myself in a bit of a pickle when some pea seeds I had been soaking needed planting, but the sun had already gone down. I remedied the problem by using some low-cost, high-tech solutions.

First, I obtained a 500w halogen floodlight on special at Home Depot for about $6.00. I could have spent $20, and got a tripod unit, but I felt like being frugal. The floodlight kept me from tripping as I moved about in the dark, and also gave me a good way to see how deep I was planting. Next, I borrowed a little “laser tool guide” my friend Steve bought at Harbor Freight for less than $5.00. Since the soil is several inches below the top of my growbox, I could not just stretch a string for a guide.


Cutline for Figure: Inexpensive laser tool guide as an aid to nighttime planting.

I set to tool guide on one edge of the grow box, and measured of an equivalent distance on the opposite side at which to aim the beam. At first I tried to observe the beam on the soil, but the little laser did not always illuminate it well.

Cutline for Figure: Peas planted by laser light made straight rows on a dark night.

Then I realized that I really did not need to see the beam on the soil. As long as I had my finger in the correct path when I poked in the seed, it would have a bright red glow to it. Not bad for an $11.00 solution, I reckon.


Food Grid and Smart Gardening

I keep promising to publish my paper on food continuity. The PC is willing, but the writer is weak. However, the model I will propose patterns itself after high reliability systems we deal with daily (after all, we should not always have to re-invent the wheel). The following document calls out some of the potential weaknesses in the rush to develop a “smart grid” to distribute power, which is in many ways parallel to the approach we have been taking regarding food distribution over the past few decades. When the paper is finished, it will take these weaknesses into account so that we can move closer to an uninterruptable food supply.

Is the Smart Grid a dumb idea?


Advanced Hydroponics System Needs New Home

I am getting closer to installing my advanced hydroponics system. Here is my grow platform, which is just finishing up being used as a workbench for my most recent group of grow boxes. (I’ve not shown them to you yet.) You may recognize these tables from earlier in the blog. I did not think they would make good grow boxes in Arizona, but I knew they would come in useful for something. A friend used his nail gun to add some legs, and now they are quite functional.

Cutline for Figure: The grow tables for the advanced hydroponics system is currently serving as a workbench for a new series of grow boxes.

This hydroponics system is extremely adaptable to hot weather. Because of its design, the fluid remains cool to the touch, so “boiling the roots” seems not to be an issue. As a variation, you can mount the sleeve in rain gutter and suspend it on a framework of some kind. My system will be a hybrid of these approaches, in that I will build it on one of these tables.

Cutline for Figure: Advanced hydroponics system use a special grow sleeve laid directly on earth or supported by rain gutter.

I have seen nothing else like this new system. The distinguishing feature is the lack of pipes or channels. which have a big weakness. They tend to tip over when they grow heavy with foliage, dumping the plant, spilling the solution, and in general messing up everything. This new system avoids all of that by confining the grow solution to special sleeve that flows the nutrient to where it is needed, without allowing a lot of evaporation. And the sleeve sits on a grade, not up in the air.

My example for this system is at the inventors. Here are some photos:

Cutline for Figure: This system gets down to earth. Here, each grow channel (there are two per system) sits on a piece of styrofoam laid on gently sloping ground. My system mirrors this, except that it is set on a platform.

Cutline for Figure: Star hangs out in the shade beneath one of the “channels-on-a-frame” versions of this system. In this configuration, the grow sleeve lays in rain gutter supported by a frame.

The folks at the Salt River Project (this area’s big irrigation system and one of two major companies supplying electrical power to the valley) came to see the system, and took this photo collage:

Cutline for figure:
Collage of photos supplied by Salt River Project shows various aspects of the Hydroponics Test Garden.

This system was developed by Russ Antkowiak. His company, ACI Hydroponics, is located at 2125 S. Priest #302, Tempe, AZ 85281. (1-800-633-2137)

The write up provided by Russ to the Salt River Project people goes like this:
“The outdoor hydroponic test garden features around 500 plants flourishing on a piece of asphalt in the middle of the desert, with no protection from the elements. No water hits the ground or is wasted, and the set-up has minimal water and energy requirements. There are 12 mini gardens each with a 6-Watt aquarium-type pump, so the whole operation uses about the as much electricity as one 60-Watt light bulb running for 2-3 hours/day.”

Now, here is the amazing thing. In spite of how amazing this garden was, how much it thrived in the bleak asphalt parking lot behind Russ’s old location, and how much a system like this could mean for hot, starving, arid portions of the world—his landlord did not like it. Out it went. It was disassembled two days after the photos above were taken, and Russ had to move his operations. Russ is looking for a new home for his test garden. Any ideas?

Front grow box update

The front herb garden is doing surprisingly well. I think that most of the seeds planted have sprouted, but sharp-eyed folks tell me that they all have.

Cutline for Figure: Front Herb garden sprouting. The catnip is in an easy-to-get-to-location so they don’t root up everything trying to find it.


Here is a listing of what we planted:


Spinach (Teton)

Onion (Bunch)

Radish (Sparkler



Spinach (Bloomingdale)





Radish (French Breakfast)





The radishes are doing very well in both gardens, and I am thinning them little by little and eating them as sprouts. The spinach is getting along too.


Hoseology 101
While I was watering the herb garden, I noticed that my front hose had spring a leak. No big problem, I suppose, as I am trying to keep that portion of the lawn watered anyway. But it is an uncontrolled resource, which is not allowable in Project Management, in which the goal is to keep variables and surprises (hence costs) to a minimum and well-controlled.

Cutline for Figure: Leaky hose needs fixing.

I actually have the technology to fix this. In fact, this is a recycled hose that has been with my family for almost a long time (do I sound like I keep a lot of junk)? Here is how I fixed it last time, and I have the parts on hand to fix this current leak as well. I repaired it once five years ago, and the fix is still in service.

Cutline for Figure: Hose repair with swivel fitting has worked well for years.

So what is keeping me so occupied that I have not taken the time to fix a leak? I am pretty excited about it, and intend to tell you about it soon.


Green Numbers:
Finding the Green in Green

Via Heather Clancy and Joe McKendrick at SmartPlanet.com, I found this page that puts some of the stories behind the numbers of the green movement. The article has profiles of stimulation activities in four cities. A lot of what is going on is make-work involving weatherization, traffic light upgrades to promote energy efficiency, and lots of job training for hoped for employment opportunities. One interesting sidebar asks the question: What is a green job? The workers mounting solar panels or pumping in insulation are definitely green…but what about the accountant that calculates their payroll?



Rick’s Blogger Disclosure
Because I live in the USA, I have need to conform to a new ruling of our Federal Trade Commision (FTC) regarding potential relationships between bloggers and business organizations. I cannot rave on about something with which I have a financial relationship without telling you. Also, I cannot report my outstanding success with something without also telling you what the “normal results” are. Safe Harbor statements such as “these results are not typical” no longer suffice.

Rest assured that if there are promotional considerations offered or accepted as part of this blog, I will tell you about them. Hasn’t happened yet. Not yet sure how to compare my own results with established norms for a given technology, because much of my facility is experimental. I can state unequivocally, however, that rain harvest systems do not work well at all if there is no precipitation.

There is one item I need to mention. I illustrate my blog, and almost everything else I do, with SmartDraw. The company earned my loyalty years ago by helping me out of a jamb, and I have tried to keep in contact with them over the years. I could go on and on about them, but suffice it to say it is my preferred drawing tool, even though I can do a good job with the product of their big competitor. They provide me with current copies of their software in return for writing the odd article about them. There is no compensation related to the contents of this blog.


Rick’s Scorecard

I have not finalized the format, but if one is pursuing a goal, one needs to use metrics. So here is my first table of how much food I’ve grown and given so far:

Rick’s Scorecard, 31 October 2009


Food Item


15 October 2009

Batch of cooked verdolaga, shared with a friend.

2 pounds



2 pounds

The Missus has been pouting a bit that I insist on taking the food away, or having someone over to feed in order to count the food for use in the total. Seems she wants to count what we eat ourselves. That would not be fair, to my reckoning, although I admit that if we did, we would not have always dust and vacuum first. Still, the purpose is to learn to grow more than we need ourselves, and to learn while doing so, and to spread around that knowledge. The 500 pounds is a goal to help us stretch. And the company is nice.



27th December 2009

27th December 2009

It Looks Like Food Is Back In Fashion

When the hard times started, lots of pundits made noises like “we ain’t seen nothing yet”. Almost a year later, and we’ve seen plenty. Foreclosures, bankruptcies, a potential pandemic, it has been a year to rue. But there have been good things. I spent more time out of doors with my hands on tools and in soils than I have ever before. I know more about doing things than ever, and I was pretty confident before I started. And I know a lot more about getting things done. So thank you, 2009, you have been good to me.

But maybe the pundits were right. There have been unprecedented transfers of wealth and unheralded spending. Sometimes, the pendulum swings back at you. For instance, farmers have severely culled their flocks to cut expenses and face reduced demand. Now, as the country crawls out from under its rock, that capacity will have to be replaced. That may lead to shortages. I have already seen two stock-pickers advise investors to look for plays in agriculture. That may increase demand, and that will increase prices. We could be in for interesting times indeed. I’ve had plenty of people tell me my interest in the backyard is maniacal, but no one has told me it is fundamentally a bad idea.

Aaron Levitt, who writes for the website Investopedia .com, posted “Get Ready for the Agricultural Boom” on 04 December. Here is an excerpt:

“Each week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases several different reports on various different crops and agricultural commodities. From recent reports we learn that the number of eggs set in incubators and the number of hatched broiler chickens placed is decreasing. Wheat and corn have seen prices collapse, and are currently trading under their cost of production. This means that the cost to plant, harvest and then transport the staple to market is more than it will bring in when sold.

A similar story is occurring in the cattle and milk markets, with prices significantly below their highs. With the general public's inaccurate perception about the swine flu epidemic, pork has also seen its prices plummet as demand for the other white meat has fallen. Each is saying the same thing: the Ag complex is in pretty bad short-term shape.

Starting domestically, farmers have begun to cull their herds and decrease the number of acreage they plant for crops like wheat and corn. Analysts predict that domestic supply will shrink enough to cause a bottleneck once the economy improves.

The demand for food on a global scale is also increasing exponentially. A rapidly growing emerging market population, especially in the BRIC* nations, is placing stress on global food production. Analysts estimate that food production will need to rise about 70% over the next 40 years, requiring roughly $44 billion a year in costs to reach that amount. Currently, only about $8 billion is spent on agriculture improvements. “

*BRIC means Brazil, Russia, India, China. One market theory is that Brazil and Russia will move towards supremacy in raw materials while India and China will dominate in manufactured goods and services.

Of course, the article is about investment, and was designed to show that those who develop stakes in these industries may have a chance for long term gain. My own interest is less about money and more about survival. The phrase “What will I feed my family?” comes to mind. Sadly, if significant capital is arranged to capture growth based on scarcity of a commodity (food), then it may serve the interests of those who control that capital to insure the success of their investment, and perhaps to increase its value.

That puts me and my loved ones on the wrong side of big money. Wealth has power, and thus the means to do get things done without putting its hands in the soil. There is always the law. We have already seen exploratory regulation which would impose burdens on the small farmer in the name of being able to trace the source and destination of materials such as fertilizer and chemicals and produce. We have seen governments exercise the right to cull or outlaw flocks in the name of curbing the spread of disease. And there is always the power to control farming and gardening via rationing of water and fuels, or stifle innovation by limiting emissions of carbons or other products of combustion or fermentation. (Compost heaps produce greenhouse gasses.)

It is not that any of these measures will be turned against the backyard farmer, but they exist, and could be. What protections have we? Our surest recourse may be to instill the culture of food self-sufficiency while we still can. If most people regularly raise some portion of their own food, and everybody could do more so, then the attractiveness of cornering this market would fall off dramatically.

Here is the link to the Investopedia story:
And Jean with FreshLocal up in Washington state pointed out this Bloomberg link to me on food inflation. It is very comprehensive and somewhat scary:

Finally (and I am not making this up), here is a story from AFP (Agence France-Presse) that cites a New Zealand book that concludes that it is time to put down the family pets because they contribute to creation of greenhouse gasses.)


Ooops! Geo-thermal may not be a renewable resource after all
A recent New York Times article cited two closures of geothermal projects in different parts of the world. In both cases, the reason given was that boring deep into the earth and injecting water to make steam may be a trigger for earthquakes.
The AltaRock project, near Anderson Springs, CA (about 100 miles north of San Francisco) was shuttered due to technical difficulties and concerns for earthquakes.
The concern stemmed from experience gained near Basel, Switzerland, where a project was also closed this week after a study was published indicating that the dollar value of the energy created from the projects was far exceeded by the likely damage caused by associated earthquakes.
Now, if there are rat-smellers in the audience, it is an interesting coincidence that these stories broke at the same time there is a major meeting in environmental meeting Copenhagen.Â
What if they held an earthquake and no one was around to hear it?
If there is was little possibility of property damage, could geothermal power still be a reliable, renewable source of power? Could the answer be to site geo-thermal generation facilities in remote areas with low population and stable ground formations?. Or perhaps position the power plants in areas where Mother Nature has already done the drilling already, such as the geysers at Yellowstone, in Wyoming, or near Rotorua, New Zealand?
Maybe not. It seems that geysers can be fragile. According to Te Ara, the New Zealand Government’s on-line encyclopedia published by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, using geyser water for heating may damage the geyser itself:
In the 19th century there were five major geyser fields in the North Island: Rotomahana, Whakarewarewa, Ōrākei Kōrako, Wairākei and Taupō Spa. The Rotomahana geyser field was destroyed by the 1886 eruption of Mt Tarawera, and most of the remaining geysers have been damaged or affected by human activity, especially withdrawing steam or hot water for heating. Whakarewarewa is now the only major remaining geyser field.
Which reminds me of the time the Queen came to visit. Like Old Faithful, there are geysers there that erupt with astonishing precision. In order to put on a really good show for HRH, the local constabulary (one of my friends who told the story was an officer) was tasked with helping to prime the pump. In the hour leading up to her Majesty’s arrival, they tipped in a box or so of soap powder. The results were said to be royally spectacular.

Eco Shells In Your Future?
Not every day do you see one of these. My buddy Dave has a little lot in Hawaii and needs a shelter. Something bulletproof, that can take care of itself during longs periods while he is away on the on the mainland. I suggested an Eco Shell I or Eco Shell II. I came across these while discussing domed architecture with my friend Rick Crandall.
Image: Monolithic EcoShell in Indonesia
Eco Shell home in New Ngelepen, Java, Indonesia
The magic of the Eco Shell is that it is shaped like a dome and made of concrete. This makes it very durable, low maintenance, and inexpensive. The thinking for a developing country is that if the homes are strong and reliable, less time needs to be spent caring for them and more can be spent growing food.Â
These domes are formed by inflating an airform, and covering it with sprayed insulating foam and then sprayed concrete. In the case of Eco Shells, the airform is then carefully removed and set up for the next dome. In the case of larger domed structures, called monolithic domes, the airform stays put and forms part of the final structure.
Rick lives in a dome himself:
Image: Le Chateau de Lumiere
Le Chateau de Lumiere, the Crandall Residence near Mesa, Arizona.
As an architect specializing in domes, Rick has installations in place all over the world. He is a nice guy, besides. Advantages besides durability usually include drastically reduced heating and air conditioning expenses, so the structure offers low costs of operation. You also get great acoustic insulation if you live in a noisy area—good for sound stages and popular for churches and schools.
Domes and Eco Shells shown here are well-explained on the web at these sites:
David South, the head guru at the Monolithic Dome Institute in Italy, Texas, offers classes in dome construction:
Rick’s website for dome projects he’s completed:
So what have durable, cost-efficient structures got to do with urban farming? I will tell you in a few weeks.

We Got Rain!
Finally, after a monsoon that didn’t and the hottest July on record, we got some rain. I put 1700 liters into storage with my rain harvest facility, the biggest load I have ever taken. In the winter time, I estimate this could keep my south grow yard going for about ten weeks.
27DEC09-1700 liters.jpg
Largest rain capture ever-1700 liters (500 gallons)
There are 55 more gallons in my first flush diverter, which I intend to use to water my newly reseeded back yard between Christmas and New Years.
It came all at once, and the harvester worked perfectly, except for one little operator error where I left the air bleed on the diverter open and spilled some water. But with such little rain for such a long time, the roof probably needed the wash anyway.

New Rain Harvest System Coming On Line
My newest system did not fare so well. The gutter had pulled away from the fascia and a lot of water dripped behind it and onto the ground. As soon as it was all dry I screwed it into place and sealed it with caulk. The next day I painted the caulk to match.
Here is the plan involving the new harvester. Notice that my neighbor’s roof drains onto my tool shed. Eventually, my shed roof rotted out. I value the storage and needed to get it fixed. My neighbors were not interested in putting a gutter on their house to protect my roof, so I figured I would turn the situation to my advantage.
Rainfall Footprint-Neighbor_2-JPEG.jpg
Surface area map of the new rain harvest system.
It is an elaborate system for a fairly small footprint, but I needed the roof anyway. Normally the water would have just run off and gone to waste.
System Construction
The son of a friend is an excellent framer, and he popped up a new roof in the time it would have taken me to think about it.
Anthony Building shed roof.jpg
Anthony replaced the roof on my shed to make a secondary rain harvester
After it was framed, on when some roofing materials and a gutter.
New shed roof 1.jpg
New shed roof with gutter for rain harvest.
When the gutter got away after a few months of being baked, I went back and did the repair described above.
Rain harvest gutter.jpg
Gutter with new caulk and paint
The gutter will output to my secondary rain harvest system. Right now it is being tested by routing to the first flush diverter (a 55-gallon barrel). The storage system is not built yet, because the roof was the highest priority, and the resource (the framer) had limited availability. I will use 55-gallon drums for the rest of it, and may even build in a ball-type valve and a screen filter. In the meantime the diverter will water my potager.

Potager Update
Grow Box 11, officially a kitchen herb garden, is doing well. We have already taken minor thinnings to use in salads. Something (we think human) came by and nicked the tops off of the cilantro.
Gro Box 11 (Potager) 24DEC09.jpg
Grow Box 11 (The Potager), is coming along nicely in its shaded, HOA-approved spot.
The potager is a tiny version of the much more famous Potager_du_roi (fr: Kitchen Garden of the King), near the Palace of Versailles, which produced fresh vegetables and fruits for the table of the court of Louis XIV.
There is a small concern for this box. Our cable TV drop, which carries the Internet, runs very close to it. Recently the cable has been tested and found wanting. They will replace it, and we need to see if they will do so without disturbing the garden.

Harvest Time!
Actually, in Arizona it is always harvest time. It is always planting time, as well. That is one reason the first growing system I adopted at this station was Square Foot Gardening. I have tried others, but this seems to work the best.


You can pick leaves off of many plants or eat the thinning. Here, some spinach is moving from plant to stir fry.
Kat picks spinach.jpg
Kathy puts dinner under construction

Fried Greens and Kale
We have had several delicious meals featuring our garden produce, particularly the Collard Greens and Kale. But I kind of hate throwing away the stems that grow into the leaves. If you don’t, you will next time. They boil up hard and woody. But there is one old southern way to cook these things that makes them palatable and filling. I watched my mom do this many times (she was a southern beauty from Alabama), but never got around to doing it myself until we raised these crops.
First, rinse the leaves well. Sand hides in them. You are neither a chicken or an earthworm, so you don’t need to eat it. Shake them dry, or pat them dry in a towel if you are feeling dainty.
Put a tablespoon of olive oil into a pan and heat it up (use high). I like the EVOO that includes spices. While the oil is warming, pop in some crushed garlic, sliced onion, or both, to further season the oil.
Slice the leaves from the stalks. Slice the collard leaves into strips about half an inch wide. Cut the kale into one-inch squares. Slice the stalks into quarter inch pieces. Think of it as tiny celery.
When the oil is hot, pop in the sliced leaves and stalks. Swirl them around until they are coated and glisten, but have not begun to turn colors much. Then add half a cup of water or stock, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until up the water is almost gone and the leaves are caramelized. Throw in a handful of chopped nuts, or dried cranberries, or sun-dried tomatoes, or whatever you won’t feel too guilty about later on. When the water is all gone, take the pan from the heat. Serve warm.
A bowl of this sticks to your ribs in a way that a salad just never will.

New Weather Info Source
As you may recall from just a few months ago when it was hot, I obtained some thermometers and placed them placed them so as to get some idea of what was actually going on with the temperature here at the station, as opposed to the weather station at Phoenix Sky Harbor, which is thirteen miles to the west and across a river. I have since located a great resource.
The Weather Underground (www.wunderground.com) lists weather data by postal code (just pop it into the search box without worrying about the region/city stuff). Then scroll down to the bottom of the page. You should find a list of a lot of small weather stations, including private backyard stations that report their data Weather Underground. There will be links to each of them, and those links have maps. I was able to pin down several that were within two miles of the station, likely close enough.

7th February 2010

7th February 2010

Three bin composter in place
One of the biggest projects undertaken to date has been my three-bin composter system. I suspect there is a better way to do this, but a three bin composter is so traditional I felt that I needed to build one to get experience with it before I move on. I took the time to do it well, at least I think so.

Pallet walls for three-bin composter are given legs to support them in the soil.
I mounted legs on each of three salvage palettes I found in my travels or as part of the aquaponics system I purchased from my friend Dave. I then repaired each of the palettes by replacing missing boards with slats harvested from less sound palettes and some of the lumber I purchased in bulk from Home Depot almost a year ago.
Because the composter can be seen when one enters the backyard, I painted it. Then a friend made clean the area in which I was going to build it, and dug holes in the ground with a post hole digger to accommodate the legs.

Holes to accommodate legs will be filled part with dirt, and then capped with concrete. Shims beneath pallet hold it level and leaning board stabilizes it.
After a couple of test fittings, in which we fudged the holes to make them fit, we dropped each pallet into its holes. We trued them up by measuring from a common point (the fence) to each pallet, and across the front. Then we leveled them front to back, and plumbed them vertically, by using 2x4 scraps as shims and more 2x4s to stabilize them.

Pallet can be made level and plumb my measuring and using a level. Shims can hold it in place until legs are buried.
When they were set up, we packed some dirt in the holes to hold them that way, and then filled the rest of the hole with about half a sack of post concrete (QuickCrete ready mix). The result was pretty nice, except for the last one in which I carelessly measured from the previous bin, not the fence. This one came out crooked, but I learned a lot trying to accommodate it.
Our bins needed bottoms. Standard pallets in the U.S are 40 inches wide and 4 feet long. In order to mount the legs, we stood them up on end, meaning each pallet is 40 inches from front to back and 4 feet high. To divide the three bins into the space allotted, I made two bins of equal size and the third of bit smaller. This meant that the bottom of each bin was not a standard pallets size. I wanted to leave room for error ventilation beneath each bin. I chose to use palettes for this, mostly to use up some material. To make them fit, I needed to modify the palettes. Fortunately, I found an easy way to do this.

Cutting down width of pallet by inserting a new edge 2x4 and then cutting off the slats.
The trick is to a new 2 x 4 into the space between the pallet top and bottom, and position it so that the outer edge of the 2 x 4 forms the new edge of the pallet. Just nail it in place, then cut off the slots so that they are even with the 2 x 4 outer edge.
Sadly, inserting the new 2 x 4 is easier said than done. The practical way to do this is to make a line and then cut all of the slots to length. Then insert the 2 x 4. This also gives you a chance to test fit the modified palette before you nail yourself into a corner.

One of my walls was closer to its neighbor in the back than the front. I had no idea how to fix this until I realized I could just skew the new 2 x 4. This worked quite well.
Once the bins had bottoms, I trimmed some scrap lumber to cover the pallet so as to contain the composting materials.
With the sides and bottom is in place, I cut a scrap piece of plywood to fit across the back. Before mounting the pallet in the dirt, we had installed a 4 foot 2 x 6 across each back edge. This gave me a convenient lip to mount the plywood to.
A similar arrangement was used to create the fronts. We isolated the front palate edge with a narrow strip of wood, then mounted over it a wider strip, oath of which were 4 feet long, the height of the bin wall. Some of these strips were centered on the pallet, but the ones on either corner were offset so that the resulting notch faced inward. Next, I cut up almost all of my 0.75 x 10" boards so that they would fit inside the notches, and put a hole in each for easy access and removal.

Removable front panels allow easy access to compost for turning and transport.
Next we painted again anything that had somehow escaped us in the first pass, mounted the front boards, and pitched in all of the leaves, and gr*ss, and coffee grounds that had occupied so many bags and tarps and containers around the station.

The result looks kind of cool, and it is certainly a convenient place to store rotting grass. gr*ss. Whether or not it composts fast or slow is yet to be determined. Still, the project is finished, it took much longer than I would have expected, but it used up a lot of the clutter which has been haunting us.

Domes for the world (Help for Haiti)
I have mentioned previously my friend, architect Rick Crandall, who has his office here in Mesa. Rick is a designer with many talents, but somewhere along the line he became thoroughly associated with the use of monolithic domes. I have been meaning to write something about the use of domes in urban agriculture, and I promise to do so soon. In the meantime, the Haitian earthquake has created a sudden demand for easily constructed, highly durable replacement residences to shelter earthquake victims, and help them get on with their lives.
Rick has previously constructed a village in central Java in a town called New Ngelepen, which was destroyed by an earthquake and landslide in May of 2006. I would suggest that those aid groups that wish to help the Haitians to rebuild, consider taking advantage of Rick’s experience and technology.
Here are some pictures of the New Ngelepen project:

New Ngelepen, in Central Java, offers homes with electricity and running pure water for drinking.

The Javanese village of New Ngelepen was rebuilt using 72 residences, and six shower/bathroom/laundry complexes, and because the project came in under budget, a mosque, school, and other community buildings were added.
Here is a video:
One advantage of the eco-shell construction, is that the airform is reusable. It is set, inflated using a simple blower, then covered with the minimal rebar and then Shotcrete. After the concrete hardens, the underlying airform is deflated and removed, and positioned to start the next home while the interior of the current home is finished. Local personnel can be trained to operate the equipment by themselves, as occurred in the reconstruction of New Ngelepen, meaning that trained crews are available for future construction.
If any organization wishes to contact Rick regarding alternative housing, his e-mail is:
The Domes for the World site is found at:

Follow Me On Twitter
There is much to do and much to describe most days here at the station, but the time to write it up is limited and growing scarcer. As a way to jog my own memory s well as give a more frequent report, I signed us up for Twitter. Here you can catch updates in 144 character “tweets” at the following address:


Portrait of the Artist as a (sort of) Young Man

I was photographing something for this diary when I noticed this shadow. I think it is not a bad portrait for a backyard farmer.

Shadow portrait of the Backyard Farmer.


Rick Lehtinen

Plumbers & Plumbing Supplies in the UK