Setting Up A Freshwater Aquarium

Today I am getting some fish for our new aquarium. I have had many aquariums and a pond in the past, all with goldfish and some koi in the pond. I like goldfish and koi. Many people think that goldfish are dirty and a lot of work. They are no work at all if the tank is set up properly and you have all the ingredients for a balanced eco system.
In the past I put the fancy-tailed goldfish, together with a plecostamus, in the tanks. This has always worked well for me. The plecostamus (called pleco) keeps the tank and everything in it shiny clean, eating all the algae, everywhere.

I had this arrangement for years and never once had to clean algae from the walls of an aquarium. They were always squeaky clean. I am planning on that arrangement for this one. The key to keeping both together successfully is water temperature. It needs to be above 70F to keep the pleco happy and below 75F to keep the goldfish happy. So I am going to need a heater set to about 72F-73F, since we turn the heat off at night here. The goldfish are happy in much cooler temps and would be fine alone. The pleco would suffer in the cold water at night. Finding a heater that does not have a preset temperature of 78F is going to be difficult. All the new ones are preset. I will have to find an older heater second hand. It is cheaper that way, anyway.

I got this aquarium together with the light, filter and a heater (which did not work) in exchange for soap and brown sugar body scrub. I also aquired a much larger tank, canopy, light, large filter and a few small tanks in the same trade. I am planning on using these as mini greenhouses in the garden. Unfortunately, I don't have room for the larger aquarium anywhere in the house. Its 3' long! I might keep it in the basement in case I put in a small pond outside and need a place to overwinter a few goldfish. I have done that in the past and it worked very well. For now it is staying empty and out of the way.
Since we live in the country, we are on a well, therefore no chlorine or chlorimines. It would be a shame to have this advantage and not have an aquarium and pond! If you are on city water, you will have to add dechlor to every drop that you put in the aquarium or pond. You might get away with letting it set out overnight if your city only adds chlorine, but if chlorimines are added, you will have to use declor to get rid of them. Chlorimines are a blend of chlorine and ammonia, specifically made so that it will not evaporate. Most large cities are adding it to their water now.

This is the tank that I have set up. I put natural large and porous gravel in the bottom, along with some polished amethist and some raw amethist.

I have quite a bit of it from the little span of time we spent in Thunder Bay, near a large amethist mine. Raw amethist can be found just laying around on the ground. I have a bucket of small pieces like these and a small bag of the polished ones.

I chose this particular gravel for it porosity. The more surface area you have, the greater amount of symbiotic bacteria you will grow. We want this bacteria in the tank and filter. It would grow even better if this porous gravel were in a filter or waterfall where the aerated water is flowing over it. This is the reason lava rock is popular in aquariums, because of the porosity and effectiveness in growing a good bacteria culture. I know it seems as though I am obsessed about cultures lately with the buttermilk and cheese and wine making. Maybe I am. (Is there anything wrong with that?)

There are two different bacteria that we want growing in our tank and filter. Nitrosomous and Nitrobacter. One takes in the ammonia from the fish wastes and spits out nitrites. The second takes in the nitrites and spits out nitrates, which the live plants absorb and need to grow. (Its nitrogen, You know...the "n" in npk... the first number in 10-10-10.) Hence the need for live plants. Without them the nitrates will build up in the water and you will have to do small water changes.

The bacteria will grow on all the surfaces in the tank and in the filter. You will get the largest number in the filter where the water is more oxygenated as it flows over the filter media. You want as many surfaces as possible. This is the reason poly fil type stuff makes good filter media for an aquarium. It is about as multi-surfaced as you can get. This is good for an aquarium but not so good for a pond. A pond will quickly overwhelm something as tiny as poly fil. Unless you want to be cleaning the filter media every couple of days you will need to use something not quite so small. Lava rock works well for this, as do nylon dish and bath scrubbies. (There is no need to BUY filter media!) It cannot be organic, however, or it will decay. Plastic and nylon are excellent.

Set it up properly and balanced and you won't have to do a thing, except add water as it evaporates and feed the fish, and maybe keep the cat from fishing in it. (Use a lid!)

This has been going on all afternoon.

The colourful background is just plastic wallpaper that tapes onto the outside of the back of the tank. How easy is that! They sell it by the roll at aquarium stores. It makes the whole thing so beautiful and its cheap too! The plants in there now are plastic but I will be adding real plants.

If you have live plants you will also need a light for them. They won't last very long without light. Most aquarium plants have to be replenished from time to time, especially if you have goldfish or koi, because the fish will eat them. Plants with thicker, larger leaves seem to last longer. One that I like is Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia). It is not sold as an aquarium plant and a lot of you will have it growing in your garden. It makes an excellent plant in the water, just bareroot and held in place with a rock. It grows and grows in an aqurium and the fish do not eat it. You can also use it to hide pot rims in the pond or cover a stream edge. Watercress is another good one, but the fish do eat it. You can too. It makes a good salad. I am considering buying a bunch of cut watercress at the grocery store, rooting the pieces and growing it out of the back of the aquarium. It will give the fish some healthy natural food to eat in addition to the commercial fish food I usually give them.

Since the aquarium is in front of a window I can grow plants out of it. There is no direct sunlight. The window is under the porch overhang of about 6', facing east. Direct sunlight would cause too much of an algae growth but this indirect light will be good for some houseplants. I don't know if it will be enough for watercress or not, but I will try it.

I set up the tank and started the filter about a week ago and left it empty of life. This gives the bacteria time to grow. I put in just a drop of ammonia at the beginning to get the bacteria started as it needs something to eat. If you do not have pure ammonia, you can always use a drop or two of pee. It is, after all, the reason you want the bacteria grow in the first place. They have been growing in there with the filter running for a week. Two weeks would be ideal but I am getting tired of looking at an empty tank. I bought these two little guys today.

They are very little right now but they will grow to two or three times their size in a year or so. These two plus a pleco will be about all the tank will safely hold. The rule for aquariums and ponds is this: one inch of fish, tail included, for every gallon of water. I might add one more goldfish with the pleco. If you have a better than average filter system and stronger pump than needed, you can get away with more, but not a lot more. In the long run the fish will suffer and become stressed and you will have to do constant water changes to keep the ammonia and nitrate levels down.

Stressed fish are sick fish, eventually. Goldfish and koi and shubunkins are all carp, so I am treating them all the same. Carp have a natural slime coat that protects them from disease and parasites that naturally live in the water. When they are stressed their slime coat lessens. Stress can be caused by anything, i.e. swings in water temperature or water that is too warm (above 75F), danger, poor water quality, moving into a new home or anything else causing an unhappy fish. Another thing that causes stress for carp is lack of sleep. Yes, they sleep at night but they have no eyelids. In their natural habitat it is dark at night and they don't need them. Turn the light off when you go to bed. Sometimes fish get parasites and diseases anyway, for no apparent reason but if they are healthy and happy you will see a lot less of it. A great deal of this can be prevented by using salt. I always reach for the salt before using any other remedy. Always use pure rock or aquarium salt (sodium chloride).

Freshwater aquariums benefit from being salted a small amount. It prevents parasites like ich, worms and other nasties and helps to keep a thick slime coat on the fish. It should be added gradually over a few days to get the fish and your lovely bacteria culture used to it. It may harm your plants. Some plants will tolerate a little and some will not.

To add only a small amount for general health, use 1/4 teaspoon per gallon of water, added gradually over a three day period. Dissolve the salt in some water from the tank in a glass before pouring it into the aquarium. If you have a lot of plants and still want to add some salt, use less. It will still benefit your goldfish.

Keeping goldfish is a rewarding and enjoyable hobby, or it should be. If you are finding your pond or aquarium to be a lot of work, perhaps you need to lessen the load somewhat or set it up differently. If it is not fun and interesting, why do it?

Fried Green Tomatoes

Frost! We had frost last night! It took most of our tomato plants and left us with many, many, many green tomatoes. They will ripen off the vine, most of them anyway. The ripe San Marzano and Ailsa Craig tomatoes will be used for seed, since we will be growing them again next year.

We had so many green tomatoes that we decided to fry a few of them.

First I sliced up some green tomatoes and some zucchini. I used San Marzano and Ailsa Craig tomatoes. I think the Ailsa Craigs were juicier and just better for this particular purpose.

I mixed up some cornmeal and flour, about half and half, added salt, pepper and onion powder. In another bowl I mixed a couple of eggs with some water and beat them until they 
were foamy.

I put the slices into the egg, then into the cornmeal-flour mix. Some people (hubby included) like to "double dip" for frying. "Double dipping" is putting the wet veggie into the the egg and flour twice - egg, flour, egg, flour. I don't like to do this as it fills the eggs bowl with dried stuff and just makes a big mess.
Turn the slices over and fill the holes with the dry mix. Put them into the hot oil in the pan.

Fry the battered tomatoes and zucchini in the oil until they are a golden brown. Fry them as long as possible to cook the vegetables until tender.

Mmmmm! Fried green tomatoes and fried zucchini!
Let them cool a bit before you try to eat them. They will be very hot!! You can pick them up right off the plate and eat them with your fingers, or you can be fancy and eat them with a fork on their own little plate. You can also serve them as a side dish with dinner.

Growing Grapes

I have learned a lot in the past year about grape culture. I read everything I could get my hands on about growing grapes as soon as we came to the Okanagan for the winter  and I have learned a lot more with experience this year.

The above is a picture of what our grapes look like now. It's about 500m of wine grapes growing on a fence in a straight line, more or less. Approximately 1/4 of them are dark purple, the rest are green. Some are specifically for making wine and jelly, and some are seedless for eating. The dark purple ones make fantastic grape jelly!

When we arrived here in the fall, the grapes were one big mess! 500m of a 10' x 10' ball, all the way down with many side shoots and lateral shoots from the ground and all over the trunks. It had been ignored all season and for years.

Grapes are pruned in the winter when they are completely dormant. The next February I cut them all back to just 2-3 large trunks each. That is all that a grape root can handle. You really only need one main trunk that divides into two horizontal pieces (called cordons) tied to a wire about waist high, but because single trunks sometimes die, it's safer to keep two or even possibly three.

Early Spring Growth
The winter pruning also consist of leaving just two buds at each growth spot along the cordon. These will produce the next year's long stems. The long stems are tied to the high wire as they reach it and trained to grow along it. Only the tendrils are tied to the wire. You can choke and damage that vine if you tie the main stem. I like to use tin ties for this because I can undo them and move them around as I check the grapes. 

It's important to plant your grapes on a fence going north and south. This way you can remove leaves to give them the morning sun fully but keep the west side shaded. 

The hot afternoon/evening sun will burn the grapes making them not as good for making wine and jelly. The grapes form near the buds on the cordon so they are shaded by the top vines and leaves growing on the above wire, (see pictures).

East Side of Grape Vines
Only two clusters of grapes are allowed to remain on each stem. More than that will make smaller grapes. I continually remove any others growing higher on the vine. Once the grapes form, I remove any leaves on the east side that grow to shade the grapes. 

All green growth below the waist high wire, with the cordons growing on it, will get rubbed off or cut off as the season progresses. Nothing should be growing below the grapes. In the spring and early summer this is almost a daily job.

Every morning in the spring, I walk along the grapes removing low sprouts, removing leaves shading the grapes on the east, arranging the grape clusters to hang freely as they grow, pulling the few weeds too close to the grape trunks to be sprayed with weed killer. The new strong vinegar weed killer works very well! As the long clusters develop, the few small grapes growing at the tip will be removed. This will encourage large grapes on the cluster and ensure that they all ripen at the same time. 

I love puttering along the grapes in the early morning. It's a quiet and stress relieving activity that I look forward to.

Growing Brugmansias

I have a fascination with brugmansias ("brugs" to those gardeners who grow them.) They have the most beautiful and spell-binding flowers. They are also very easy to grow indoors or outdoors in the summer.

I got mine as cuttings in the mail. I traded someone for them in Sept of last year. Cuttings root very easily in water but only if the water is warm. If you let the water get cold, they will not root. It is important to keep the cuttings in a place that stays fairly warm most of the time. Unfortunately, in mid winter or late fall, that can be difficult for some people. You can always use a heating pad on low, with a few towels folded on it for warmth under the water. After a few short days in warm water the cuttings will develop pre-root thingies (its an industry term) on the part in the water. They should look like this:

After these have developed you can safely plant your cutting in slightly damp potting soil. Keep the cutting fairly warm and only slightly damp. Too much water will cause it to rot and too dry will kill it. Brugs do not like to dry out at all, so just keep it constantly slightly moist. I have not had a problem with mine. When they look a little wilted, I water them. I usually end up watering them about the same as my other houseplants, after they have started growing.

I keep mine in the kitchen by the south patio door. I empty the day old coffee into their various pots every morning and dump the coffee grounds into their pots. They seem to like it.

After a couple of weeks you should have some leaves sprouting. Put the cutting in a sunny area throughout the winter. It doesn't have to be a south window, just an area that gets some sun. The goal is to keep it alive until you can put it outside in the spring, after all danger of frost has passed.

After they have started actively growing, feed them weekly with a very mild fertilizer solution.

I kept the growing new plants in the kitchen all winter long. By the time spring came along they were this size. Your brugmansia will triple in size outdoors in the summertime.

When all danger of frost has completely passed, they can go outside. Up here in the north, they do best in full sun. Down in the southern states in the extreme heat, they do best in a fairly shady area. Half shade is ideal.

When they are actively growing they need a lot of fertilizer. They are heavy feeders. I almost think it is impossible to overfeed them. I use time release fertilizer in the spring and apply it liberally into the soil and the planting hole where my brugs are going.

They will grow at an alarming rate with good light, lots of fertilizer and enough water. They don't like to dry out completely and will wilt readily if they need water, and they need a lot of it. If given the right conditions, you will be rewarded with the most fantastic blooms you have ever seen. I started my cuttings in September 2008. I got my first bloom in October 2009. This is it.

If you live in the great white north, as I do, you will need to do one of two things with your brugmansias in the fall. You can either dig them up, plant into very large pots and bring indoors to be grown as houseplants; or you can dig up the root ball, put it into a pot or plastic bag, water and keep in the cold cellar, cold, unfrozen and dormant until the following spring.

When spring arrives and all danger of frost is past, it can be planted back outdoors again. You will need to harden it off and put it outside gradually.

If you start your cuttings now, perhaps you can get blooms by next fall too. If mine continue to grow indoors. I will have some cuttings to trade soon. If you are interested in a cutting from the pink one pictured above, please send me an email.

This is what I am hoping for from my mature brugmansias next summer. These photos are not mine. These magnificent plants belong to someone else, but there is hope for mine next year!

Berries and Small Fruits

When I tell folks that I am starting a berry and small fruit field, they always assume I am talking about strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. While I am planning on adding those three standards, there is so much more out there!

I want interesting pie making material. We don't eat much jam but the guys do consume an amazing amount of pie!

One thing I am growing a lot of this year are ground cherries, also called "cape gooseberries". I grew ground cherries last year and they were delicious! I am planting a lot more of them this year.
 I have planted chichiquelites, also called garden huckleberries (solanum nigrum). Mine are about an inch tall right now. I have read that they grow into very large and spreading shrubs that are covered with berries. Sounds good to me! They are said to taste like small, very tart blueberries needing a lot of sugar. I can add more sugar for pies.

A new and interesting berry is the blue honeysuckle berry, or perhaps this is a very old berry that is making a comeback. One variety of this is called a "Haskap" and grow mainly in the western provinces. It looks like a large oval blueberry and it taste similar to a blueberry, although perhaps not as sweet, or so I have read.
 In addition to the ones above, I have also collected seed for:

Red Elderberries
Choke Cherries
High Bush Cranberries (viburnam)
Sweet Low Blueberries
Red and Black currents

I have red raspberries and a large patch of wild black raspberries. I am looking for green gooseberries to add, as well.

Another good berry for drying and jam making is the goji berry. I planted goji berries last spring and grew my own plants.
They are overwintering outside under the snow and are said to be very hardy. We will see when spring comes.I know growing these things from seed will take a few years. I will also actively search out cuttings to root and, perhaps, actually purchase plants from a nursery if they are available.

I will be purchasing strawberries this spring but not everbearing. We grew everbearing strawberries for the past couple of years. While they reproduced at an amazing rate, they did not grow a noticeable crop of large berries at any one time. It could have been the cold wet summer, but I have read that the everbearing type produce smaller berries and not all at once, so I am planting regular ones this year, and lots of them. I will probably pick them elsewhere this year, giving our new plants the summer to establish themselves.

I have planted most of these berry and shrub seeds that I have collected. I planted all of the different types in small trays, covered with plastic. Some I put upstairs in the very warm growing room. Those that I know require winter stratification were planted in trays, covered and put outside on the front porch under the potting bench. Some extra seeds was put into the freezer for storage.

I am still researching hardy berries for drying and pies. I am certain there are more of them out there. Many of these are old heirlooms not grown anymore. We are responsible for the seed we have lost. I want to keep a repository for all the old varieties.