Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Tilapia Are Here!

Wow... Much has happened in a year and a half.  When I ran into some health problems (I can't believe I'm now old enough to say that!), I had to abandon this blog for a year.  Although I had marginal success with my gardening last year, the tomato plants were champs.  We grew fresh tomatoes through October!  They were in a perfect sunspot and flourished.  However, the overgrowth of weeds and limited growth of peppers, celery, broccoli, beans, cumbers, spinach, and lettuce was highly frustrating.   Keeping the weeds out in a healthy planting bed I had carefully built proved nearly impossible with the time I had to dedicate. 

Okay, so fast forward to late July 2012 and things are very different.  I have moved into a mountainous community nearly an hour outside of Atlanta.  In the spirit of starting anew and a determination to succeed in homestead farming, I purchased 20 Tilapia fingerlings from a local guy as a first step.  I went out of my way to protect these fish and to make sure they were okay throughout the move in process. 

Taking care of Tilapia -

So far, I still don't know much about these fish.  In fact, I didn't even realize there were different kinds of Tilapia!  So I don't know what kind I currently have.  They look to be silver with small black stripes (and notorious big lips).  But here is what I do know now;   The most important thing you need to do when you get these fish is to get them comfortable. 

1) Water temperature - Make sure the water is a normal room temperature for the Spring, Summer and Fall weather.  You'll have to bring them inside in the Winter because, unlike cold-water trout, these are warm water fish!     Btw, I found that keeping the container in the shade can make a big difference in the overall temperature.  Keep the container in full sun (at least 6 hours of sun) if possible. 

2) Feeding - Feeding the fish twice a day; at dawn and at dusk, just as you would regular fish with regular store-bought fish food.  Try to give them some outside exposure as they are interested in small insects and mosquito larvae.  So, natural forces will also feed them.  From what I can tell, they immediately eat what they want of the feed and leave the rest for later or it goes to waste.  So, sit back and observe them eat and you will get a better feel of how much to give them.  Also, you'll notice that there are fish that eat, and grow, a lot faster than the other fish. 

3) Oxigenate - I am planning on establishing an aquaponics cycle of watering using the water from the fish tank.  The flow of the water back into the tank oxigenates the water (simply splashing into the water).  But until the system is established, its very important to keep enough oxigen in the water.  Schooling fish use a lot of oxygen and some can end up not getting enough, so buy a cheap $15 air pump at the pet store and put it in the tank.  It's amazing that fish in water require so much air!

4) Shade - It's pretty neat to see these little guys school.  They take food as a school, they hide as a school and they play as a school.  It's like they choose the largest fish and them immitate everything he does!  It's almost cute to see them all huddle together in one clump of the tank.  They seem to like places to hide whether this be a plant in the container or some sort of swim toy for them.  I don't know what creates in them excitement when no one is around the tank.  It could have something to do with them NOT having some sort of enclosure in the tank, but one day, when no one was near the fish, one of them just leapt out and was floundering on the floor.  Thank goodness, I actually saw this happen! 

5) Regulation - Tilapia are not indiginous to most areas of the U.S.  They can dominate a region if allowed.  For this reason, wildlife management has set into place certain restrictions if these fish are owned.  Although Tilapia will likely die in the Winter months if they were to invade a northern waterway, if they survived, it could be a problem.  it is important to keep the fish in a meshed, covered, indoor or greenhouse area.  The thinking is that a predatory bird could discover the tank, take a fish or two and then drop them accidentally into the nearby waters.  Even unruly children could discover the fish and want to set them "free".  It's hard to regulate, but the spirit of regulation is prevention.  So, keep them secured!

6) Tough - People elect to raise Tilapia because they are so tough and prolific.  Within 9 months, these fingerlings will be ready to reproduce and ready to eat!  Although I have outlined some basics of caring for them as outlined above, don't worry too much about them.  They require more care as babies, but they can withstand quite a bit.  Try to be consistent, but outside of that, have a little faith.  :)  

Now that I've gotten the fish squared away, I'll blog again when I've gotten the first Aquaponics station running.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

It's Mid-April: What Else Do I Plant?

This weekend, I paid a visit to Home Depot because they had a Gardening class at 1:00pm.  When I arrived with my two little girls, I was shocked to find the teacher ratio was 1:1!!  I was the only one there!  Needless to say, I took advantage of this and fired a barrage of questions at the instructor, whose name was Sandra.  Poor lady.  She never knew what she was in for.  How do you rotate your crops?  What are the best edibles to plant in the shade and which are best in full sun?  How do you maximize produce?  Can you plant on the same rows?  Which herbs are best within the garden?  Why...What...When...?   In the end, I had gathered quite a bit of information but I think I exhausted the woman.  Nonetheless, according to Sandra, here are some of my takeaways:

1)  For a heavy producing garden, plant heavily in the Peppers group.   Bell peppers, Jalapeno peppers and Banana peppers were my preferences.

2) For heavier produce, put all Tomatoes and Squash in full sun and add Eggplant to that mix. 

3) Watering for a garden has to be extremely regular because, like the human body adjusts to skipping breakfast, a plant will adjust to less water.  If you suddenly began watering again, you can actually drown the plant!  On the flip side, a plant which is regularly watered can more freely produce an abundance of fruit or vegetables. 

4) There are various kinds of Eco friendly bug sprays and rapid grow sprays which are a must in this climate.  Box beetles and leaf pests have grown in number in recent years and they can quickly kill a garden. 

5) I didn't get full answers on rotating crops, but what I did gather is that you don't want to plant things that give low produce like cabbage or Corn.  Some of these crops take months to produce little.  However, it is important to keep in mind that my options are going to be limited in Winter and "cold weather crops" are low producing anyway.  Cucumbers, Beans and Black Eyed Peas are the crops that keep on giving. 

6) Grass is as much of an asset in gardening as are my gardening beds.  The grass is the most rapid feeder to my compost pile.  Whereas leaves and wood breakdown after a while, grass breaks down and composts quickly.  One of the best things you can do is buy chickens and put them in the chicken tractor.  This actually helps your grass grow faster. 

7) Sandra introduced me to a couple of herbs which make a great addition to our herb collection (we have been pretty staple with having your standard Cilantro, Basil and Rosemary plants here and there).  Lemon Thyme has an excellent taste with a nice kick and Stevia is a conversation piece because of its sugar alternative press. 

Needless to say, I walked out of Home Depot with Tomato plants, Herbs, Squash, Peppers and Eggplant.  Christy, my wife, later picked up, among other things, a Blueberry Bush and a healthy Strawberry plant.

On a side note, I noticed yesterday that the frontrunner in my recent plantings is a surprise:  My Sunflowers just came shooting out of the ground!  Wow.  I don't know if this continues, but they are very quick.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Protein Sources: Fish, Chicken or Both?

During one of our conversations regarding Urban Homesteading, the topic arose regarding protein sources of food for our home.  At first, we were thinking about chickens, but we live in a relatively conservative neighborhood, so if it is to be chickens, it has to be low profile.  Then the conversation came up regarding fish.  I never thought in a million years I would be considering raising fish in my yard!  Having spent some time online looking into chickens and fish, I came up with some pros and cons of both.

1) Easy to maintain.
2) Hardy animals to stay outside.
3) With a "chicken tractor", they naturally aerate and fertilize the yard!
4) Regular egg production.
5) Entertaining for the kids.

1) It would require my building or buying this chicken tractor.  
2) Not readily accepted or embraced by the more conservative neighbors.
3) Can sometimes be loud.
4) Might attractive some larger predators to the yard (coyotes and hawks). 

(For us- the best are likely Trout or Tilapia)
1) Quiet and low key
2) Entertaining for the kids
3) This sets me up for a Hydroponics/Greenhouse add-on (will explain later).
4) Rapid growth and reproduction. 

1) Requires temperature monitoring and controls (cold for Trout and warm for Tilapia).
2) Plumbing and water filtering mechanisms are required (not my strenghs).
3) Possibility of "fish kill" where entire school dies because they can be temperamental.
4) Trout have omnivorous diet (plant and smaller fish). 
5) Will likely require a greenhouse to protect from various climates and predators (Raccoons are known to invade).  This affects lot planning.
6) Painfully regular feedings.

I've chewed on this for a while, but I think the answer is really a combination of both.  This way we don't have to go overboard with a lot of chickens (I think Cobb County only allows for 6 anyway) or a lot of fish.  You don't have to read much to see that too many fish in a tank can stress them out.  This applies more to Trout than Tilapia as Tilapia typically swim in tight schools. 

**Use what you have. I have a lot of spare wood from a piece of the deck we had to rip out and I will likely use that for the chicken tractor.  Also, it is a little unusual, but we moved into a house with a broken jacuzzi.  So, we will likely try to put our trout there.  I now wish I hadn't drilled holes in the bottom to make it a storage unit!!  I'll have to plug those now... Also, when in a general conversation with my neighbor, he happened to have a fish pond and pump he was about to throw away!  So, yay, I have two containers for both fish!!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Alternative Energy: First, Find out What You Use Part 1

This morning, I was doing research on the web about how to "get off the grid" or how to work towards, not only using alternative energy, but how to sell some of my own energy back to the utility company (making my usage meter move in reverse)!   To me, this is an awesome concept because it wasn't possible several years ago.  Anyhow, I don't know much at all about electricity (just ask my wife about the time I installed a light and virtually shut down all the electricity in our house because of my wiring), but I can follow common sense thinking (most of the time). 
Before pursuing solar or wind alternatives,  it is first necessary to figure out how much power your house is using and, in turn, figure out what each appliance uses.  It never crossed my mind to do this and I certainly wasn't excited about the prices of the meters you can buy for this, like the $249.99 Cent-O-Meter at  Granted, it does some pretty cool stuff like giving you over-usage alerts and allows you to set your own perameters, but I would rather save my money for the solar panels.  There's also a $25 Killl A Watt product I'm thinking about purchasing:, but the purpose of this blog is to demonstrate the most cost efficient ways to improve living standards without getting nickel-and-dimed to death. 
So, the FREE way to do this is to plug in each appliance, go outside, look at your meter and see exactly what is getting used.  A pretty good online tool for this is the "Electric Meter Calculator" in the middle of the page of  This might take me a while, so I will go through this exercise and report back with my findings in Part 2. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Prepping the Raised Bed

It's been a couple of weeks since my last blog, but I have been preparing my garden and learning a lot in the process.  One of the key points of my last blog was to not underestimate the importance of GOOD DIRT.  But another pointer I picked up was the notion of raised beds.  Initally, I thought a raised bed was just a wooden boxed filled with dirt, but I learned that it also refers to creating raised rows for your garden.  Raised rows are great for a number of reasons;

1) It allows roots to grow freely in establishing a flexible underground root system.
2) It allows for healthy drainage. 
3) It allows fresh dirt or compost to be added from the sides rather than trying to add on top of the plants.
4) It allows for walkways in between each planted area.
5) It is a lot more deliberate for the planning process.
6) It allows more flexibility to rearrange or split plants once they are large enough. 
7) For carrots, potatos or turnips, it allows for larger vegetables. 
8) Weeding for this type of garden is easier as well. 

The primary downside of this kind of garden is the prep work it requires, not to mention a huge amount of dirt.  Fortunately, I found some fresh dirt around other parts of my yard where I had piled leaves and grass clippings in years past.  What a sigh of relief when I knew that bags of mulch can be costly (I saw what looked to be an 80 pound bag for $10 at Home Depot, but it doesn't take much dirt to make 80 pounds.)  Also, I was very thankful to have had wood chips dumped in my driveway twice in the last 5 years.  It's surprising how fast those chips go to mulch!  What great dirt, too!  You can call around to various tree services for free wood chips or at least cheap wood chips since these guys need a place to dump them.  Usually, when they are in your area, they will call you. 

Planning the garden wasn't that hard, but I messed up on one thing that I hope turns out okay.  For some reason, as I was constructing the raised beds, the dirt piles rose higher and higher (I was adding more dirt to each progressive row without noticing).  So, when I was deciding what to plant in each row, I put my "root" plants; turnip and carrots on the highest rows so they would have more room to grow underground.  Only after I had planted these rows did I realize that bush beans in the rows following might well block the sun to these plants for a couple hours a day since these bean plants grow fairly high and are East of the others.  Oh well.  Live and learn.  The other question I had to ask myself was, why did I plant an entire row of Jalapeno plants?  Don't get me wrong; I love Jalapenos as does my family, but an entire row?  I guess my thinking was that each planting required a lot of space in between.  Right or wrong, we decided to plant Bell Peppers in the same row and we will just separate the plants as they demand. 

Elsewhere in the yard, against the fence (so they can climb), we planted cucumber.  While I was building up the bed, I then noticed we have watermelon growing here!  It never took last year and it must have gathered strength over the winter.   Additionally, we are digging another 15x8 garden area for other plants.  We planted a blue berry bush near our pool which, I learned after placing it, I had not checked to see if it had been "cross-pollinated" so that it is fruit bearing.  Hmmm.  I put plant supporters on the wild blackberries that are growing along the fence.  The muscadine vines that are streaming up in the back still never seem to produce, but again, maybe I'll get lucky.  I just clear the way for them and encourage growth.  Honeysuckle is plentiful in along the South side of our property as well (flowers are edible).  We will be planting Foxglove and Sunflowers in the front (both are edible); tomatoes and squash against the house.  It's worth noting that my wife liked the squash near the house because their huge flowers attract bumble bees.  She would go out to water the plants in the mornings and would find 2 to 3 bees in each flower and they appeared to be sleeping!!

Check you later...


Friday, March 11, 2011

Landscape Planning Continues

Progress has been slow over the last few days because I have not had a lot of extra time.  We have had multiple meetings to launch (still not working, but check it out in several weeks!) and the stock market is tanking, too.  But I did accomplish a few things:

1. I finished with a list of the edible flower plants which we can plan in our front yard.  As a result, this weekend I have a fair amount of digging to do in order to extend the flower beds (you can see from the pictures of my yard that "flower beds" is a bit of a misnomer).

2. I connected with one of my clients in Georgia who has had quite a lot of experience farming and we talked about some of his wins and losses in gardening.  He agreed that water is important, but he said that one of the biggest mistakes his neighbors' make when they have little success is they underestimate the importance of good soil.  My client said that he will mix together good soil, manure, wood chips and sand.  Additionally, every few years, he would haul in some chicken farm manure. 

 "Don't underestimate the importance of good soil!"

3. This same client gave me a list of things I should be preparing to plant if I were to do what he does.  These are:  Bush Beans, Peppers, Okra, Squash, Eggplant, Carrots, Cucumbers and Tomatoes.

4. I called the drum container distributor and apparently they have raised the costs of their barrels (remember, I was going to use them to make rain barrels).  Instead of $15 each, the barrels will cost $25 each.  Darn!  So, now with the other materials I need to make the barrels, it will likely cost about $10 for the drain cover and $15 -$20 for the faucet set bringing my total anticipated costs to $55 per rain barrel.  If those faucets are any more expensive than this cost, I might as well buy the $100 "designer" rain barrels at Home Depot.   I think I've already resigned myself to that for the front yard, especially knowing that these barrels allow for an overflow back into the down spouts when the barrels are full.  For now, I'll continue to keep an eye out on Craig's list for some lower priced barrels. 

5. With an acute eye out on how to transform my home, I have to be very open-minded.  Because I had already built a large pen in the back for compost, it is easy to resume my previous compost pile habits of taking out leftovers.  Now, I am thinking of all the things that we waste.  But, oddly enough, I am even beginning to think about an outhouse!  Crazy idea, but think how much we truly due waste in good soil down the toilet!  I know... it sounds radical, but I just need to chew on this a little more...

6. Yesterday, I found out that my two rose bushes are edible as are the Gladiolus plants my wife laid out in front of our white picket fence.  I could care less last year, but as a new urban homesteader, I am ecstatic!
7. I'm not sure if it is worth mentioning, but I also found a link about how to make a light bulb out of water and a little Clorox!  Maybe I can use this in my outhouse!  :)  

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Way too cool. I have edible plants!!

After blogging yesterday, I continued researching the WATER issue.  I went to my county's (Cobb County) website and learned that, not only are rain barrels permitted, but they are encouraged.  In fact, Cobb County has videos on their site which teach you how to make your own inexpensive rain barrel!!  There is a drum recycler and drum container outfit about 20 miles away who sells large 55 gallon drums for (so they say) $15 each.  So, it looks like I can build 4 rain barrels myself, hopefully for less that $40 each.  I am planning on making that trip midweek.
Okay, that said, and getting to the meat of this blog post, I also found on some gardening calendars that the first two weeks in March is the best time to be planning out upcoming raised beds and planting areas.  But being a true "dummy" when it comes to gardening, I thought that the best thing to do first would be to figure out WHAT I wanted to plant.  Since I want my homestead to be a quasi-food source & quasi-wilderness survival training ground (for my family), I decided to use Google to find out which plants/flowers are edible.  Btw, it's worth noting that my wife is an interior designer and sensitive to the aura that is created around our home, so I can't just begin planting gardens in the front yard with no regard for our neighbors.  The Home Owners Association can be difficult, but my greater concern is being considerate of my wife.  So, my thought process was, why not plant a nice looking "edible flower garden" in the front yard and I can create the larger vegetable gardens in the back yard?   My wife would be thrilled about my sudden interest in making our front yard beatiful with annuals and perrenials!   With this goal in mind, I quickly found link that listed out flowers that can be eaten...  What a great source! 

Since I don't know the names of flowers, I had to Google each name to see if I liked the looks of them.  This would help me to figure out how I would keep the yard looking nice aesthetically while achieving my food goals at the same time.   and then cut and paste the picture to an Excel spread sheet.  Also on that spreadsheet was when to plant, how to plant and how to eat the plant (for future reference).  To my surprise, I found that I have at least 4 plants that are edible due to blossom in several months:

1. Day Lilies - Wow, I'm glad I didn't chunk these when we moved them a couple of years ago!  They are really easy to maintain.  Actually, I don't do anything for them.  They just keep coming back.
2. I had not considered the Crabapple tree as a source for sowing produce, but I will. 
3. We have a small patch of Pansies that come back every year.  They're edible!! 
4. Our backyard fence has a stretch of about 15 yards of Honeysuckle.  It turns out you can eat the whole flower, not just the teeny tiny bit of honey portion . 

No question I will value these plants much more as I move forward.  I'm even looking forward to "harvesting" the Day Lillies and Pansies!  Also, on the list were several nice looking, well presenting plants that should add a lot of color to the front yard.  I just have to figure out what goes where especially when some plants need full sun and others shade. 
A very interesting addition to the planting list is the raised beds I have to build for Clover and Dandelions.  Surprising, but very nutritious members of the edible world.  I'll just have to be sure those dandelions don't get too mature....
Well, I have to go.  Still a lot of planning, thinking and preparing for late March with this new obsession.  I'll check back later.