The Highways of the Mind

For us living in the Southern Hemisphere the approach of Spring is clearly evident.  From the geese that have suddenly gone into gang-rape mode to the morning sun which arrives just a minute or two earlier every day.  My Permaculture experiments have proceeded unabated, mostly concentrated at my little cottage on a wine farm in Paarl.  Travelling back last weekend to the now-deserted Knysna house (the Child Bride being in the UK until November and Brat Deluxe in hist first year at University in Cape Town) I was pleasanty surprised to find that the absence of humans had certainly been good for the garden.

This Winter has certainly been one of the wettest in recent years and my very deeply mulched beds and compost heaps had benefited by the regular downpours turning the plentiful organic material into dark rich compost.Image

Meanwhile at my new home in Paarl, the chickens that are now part of my daily life, have revolutionised the way I look at gardening.  Aquaponics first opened my eyes to sustainable living but adding three simple egg-laying hens to the mix has suddenly made the process so much easier.  Their constant digging and rooting for insects in the mulched beds have aerated and turned over the soil.  Their droppings and littler from their coop has fertilised the soil in way that would have cost a load of money using dangerous and unsustaniable chemical fertlisers.

This Winter I experimented with green manure.  This is basically planting a crop in Winter that just covers the soil and is then trimmed down to soil level as Spring arrives.  Nitrogen fixing plants are used and after the plant is cut, the roots rot under the ground providing important elements to the soil and also opening deep channels deep into the soil.  The leaves also provide a handy snack for the chooks.

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On the Aquaponic front I brought a couple of Tilapia and all my Comet Goldfish broodstock to the Paarl Cottage and come Spring I’ll put together a small AP system just to keep my hand in.

As soon as I start my Spring plantings I will have to confine the chickens to a smaller area around their coop as they can cause real damage to new seedlings.  I built a simple fence out of bamboo and will work on a gate this week.  They are going to have to start getting used to a smaller range area but it’s that or a ruined garden.  This is what the fence looks like.  I will probably plant gooseberries and tomatoes up against it.

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I leave you with this quote from Henry David Thoreau whose book, Walden I have kept on my bedside table for years;

The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels.  How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”

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Later.

Synaptoman

 

 

 

 

 

Chickens Revisited – The Holistic Gardener

A phrase I have read on numerous forums regarding chickens goes as follows, “If I had known how easy and fun it was to keep chickens, I would have done it years ago.”

This is spot on. Chickens, especially a small flock of hens only, are clean, quiet, cheap, productive and a load of fun to have around. Today I’d like to discuss where they fit into my self-sustainability plans.

This has been a long and really interesting journey and probably started with my first interest in Aquaponics almost 5 years ago. I found the concept of a closed-loop food production system intriguing but questioned the blinkered approach of the purists in this industry. Aquaponics, despite being a really cool way to produce food still seemed overly reliant on technology, power and it was also expensive to build and maintain. Also, over time, minute nutrient deficiencies developed and had to be supplemented by artificial inputs.

At this time I really started researching a more holistic approach to home food production and delved into composting, mulching, permaculture, worms, food forests and heirloom seeds. It was only after my chickens had joined the mix that I started getting a really comfortable feeling that, at last, my system was complete.

It was not the first time that I had incorporated chickens. A client, for whom I built a commercial system, suspended his chickens directly over his Tilapia ponds, a practice I subsequently strongly disagreed with. Keeping my own chickens now has enforced this view even more. Not only was it extremely unhealthy and potentially fatal, but also particularly cruel to the chickens, even if they only spent short periods of time over the tanks.

Here is a short description, in point form, of what I believe is an extremely productive, environmentally friendly, sustainable method of producing food on a micro to commercial scale.

  • Extensive soil preparation and conditioning.
  • Zero Till thereafter.
  • Extra deep mulching.
  • Composting, with and without worms.
  • Design using permaculture principles.
  • Chicken kept for litter (mulching), eggs and meat.
  • Aquaponic system used to produce fish and supply nutrients for seedlings and out-of-season vegetables in a greenhouse.
  • Use of heirloom seeds only.
  • Zero pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
  • Companion planting.

I don’t think I have all the answers, but nature itself is teaching me some valuable lessons. When you do something right, you are rewarded with a cheap, bountiful harvest. When you fight against nature, your results are disappointing and expensive.

Cheers

Synaptoman

Chickens Revisited – Let’s start at the beginning

In a previous post (Aquaponics-101-chicken-sht-and-swimming-pools), I documented an integrated chicken, fish and vegetable system which drew plenty of comment and scepticism. It entailed housing chickens above a Tilapia tank. Their droppings fell into the tank and were greedily eaten by the fish. The fish poop on the other hand provided valuable nutrients for Aquaponic vegetables in a closed loop system. While I was never comfortable with the hygienic elements of this system, the client, to the best of my knowledge, is still using it and hasn’t killed or poisoned anyone yet.

My circumstances having changed somewhat, I now find myself behind a computer terminal programming and my more agricultural pursuits have had to take place after work or over weekends. I also live alone in a small cottage on a wine farm and commute home to the Child Bride and Brat Deluxe in Knysna every 2nd weekend. This did not stop me immediately establishing a very productive little vegetable garden and recently my thoughts wandered back to chickens.

I am currently able to feed myself at least 3 days a week from my garden and the logic behind keeping chickens was to make myself even more self-sufficient. I have been a forum member of backyardchickens.com for a few years and I turned to this site for inspirations for a small chicken tractor (moveable coop) that could provide me with 3-4 eggs a day.

In my research I discovered that a laying hen produces an egg every 26 hours. I would thus need 4 hens and set about designing a coop to fit this bill. Ever on the lookout for integrated systems I also figured that 4 hens would also provide me with plenty of manure for my blossoming garden.

The coop would also have to be neat and well-constructed as I rent the cottage that I live in here in Paarl and try my best to keep my landlords happy. I wanted to design and build a piece of garden furniture and not some cobbled together creation of wood and wire.

This then is what I was aiming for, which I found at backyardchickens.com

The next couple of posts will document the build and my own interpretation of this design.

Enough for now

 

Synaptoman

Aquaponics 101 – Chicken sh#t and Swimming Pools

A typical day in the life of Synaptoman.  Thursday saw us finally introduce chickens to our commercial Aquaponic site.  Chickens are the missing link, that will provide the much-needed nutrients, reduce the feed bill for the Tilapia and yield eggs for consumption or sale.  We had a few choices. namely day-old chicks or fully grown fowls and broilers or laying hens.  We eventually settled for laying hens, but the obvious question arose.  How many chickens?

Before I answer this question, let me backtrack a bit and explain how chickens are going to fit into an Aquaponic setup.  For the squeamish just skip the next paragraph.

Tilapia eat anything (very much like prawns and crayfish) but being mostly vegetarian any substitute feed would have to be from a vegetable source.  Enter chicken dung.  Tilapia thrive on this readily available source of food and are grown worldwide below chickens, ducks and numerous other poultry.  The chicken dung in the water is also an excellent source of additional nutrients for the plants.  Our plan is thus to place chicken coops over one of our Tilapia ponds.

Well, back to how many chickens.  From a brilliant publication entitled, “THE VERTICAL FARM, Food Production of the Future” by the Columbia University Department of Environmental Health Sciences, (see their website here) I discovered that a laying hen poops 40 lbs per annum.  This is 18kg per year or about 50g per day.  In the pond we have 1500 fingerlings of say 25g each.  25g x 1500 fish = 38kg of fish.  If I want the “poop” component of their diet to be 1% of their body mass per day I then need 380g of poop.  Divide this by each hens contribution of 50g and we could use 380 / 50 = 8 hens.

I “chickened” out of this number and used 6 laying hens to try out the system.  What concerns me is not so much the chicken dung which I know will be eaten, but all the other debris, feathers, feed etc clogging up my system and fouling the water.  I am also concerned about dissolved oxygen (DO) levels.  This is what the chickens look like suspended above the Tilapia pond.

We have 40 free-range laying hens available so they’ll each have to do a few hours of toilet duty a week to keep things flowing.

I performed water quality tests this last week and the system is looking good, with the bacteria in the gravel growbeds maturing nicely and starting to do their job, ie converting Ammonia to Nitrites and then to Nitrates which can then be taken up by the plants. Here are the results of the water test.

The readings are;

Ammonia 0.1
Nitrites 0.3
Nitrates 50
pH 7.5 – 8.0

At the other commercial site I have decided to use a reject swimming pool of about 25000L as a sump and we spent the week digging a suitable hole. I met the pool guy at Simola and guided him down the torturous pass and up the other side with the pool on the back of a trailer. I had to drive ahead with my hazard lights on and warn oncoming motorists of a wide load. This road, in places, is hardly wide enough for two cars so a 3.6m wide swimming pool might just present a problem.

Here is a shot of the pool coming around a hairpin bend with a sheer drop off on the one side.

We eventually got the pool to the site and continued digging the hole. It’s hard work and we are now into a solid clay layer.

On Monday the pool will go in and we’ll start planting the poles for the growbeds.

Enough for now

Synaptoman

And a VERY Happy Birthday to my daughter, Janys in the UK.