The Great Soay Road Trip

My awesome friend Andrea is switching her ruminant herd over from dairy goats to fiber sheep and discovered that there was a really cool Neolithic sheep breed, Soay Sheep, still in existence and available from a farm a few hours away. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, she and I road tripped to the farm to pick up the nucleus of her new herd. Let me tell you, the rural Piedmont is really pretty during a wet summer, if direly humid. We sadly couldn’t find the Tank Museum we passed signs for but that’s okay because it gave us lots of time to visit the farm the evening before pick-up to sort out sheep and pick which ones were going home with us.

When we arrived, we first got to meet the owner’s majestic floofs (AKA Samoyed dogs). They were a lovely pink thanks to the marvelous red dirt of North Carolina.

3 white Samoyed dogs on a lawn

Then we got to meet the rams.

Four small dark brown rams with tightly curled horns clustered in a fenced corner

The boys were separated out so we could see how they looked and to make it easier to catch out the ram we were taking home. The ram we ended up taking home, Ferrington, is in the far left corner. He’s a bit smaller than the other rams, but not by much. These are small sheep in general, smaller than Greta. When it came time to snag them for travel, the adolescent lambs were light enough to pick up and carry to the truck, so 20-30 pounds I’d guess.

The lambs were pretty sure we were horrible sheep eaters.

a tight group of dark brown lambs all facing the same direction and looking over their shoulders at the same thing

the flock of lambs moving in the same direction out of a corner away from a person

3 lambs less tightly cluster and facing the camera.

Since the sheep were pretty skittish around people, we had to be clever to get Ferrington separated out without the use of a dog. We moved the big boys over to the herd of adolescent lambs that had been penned in an adjacent enclosure. Then Andrea tried to give me sheepdog instructions to help move the sheep. I am not as smart as a sheepdog, it turns out. However, thanks to thumbs, I managed to slam the gate closed between two pens in order to prevent Ferrington from peeling off the lamb herd with the other rams. Boy was he surprised when he smacked into that gate! Bipedal superiority!

Here he is with a pair of lambs. He’s good at posing.

Ferrington and two Lambs facing the camera

Ferrington. A dark brown ram with almost black chest and head and pale tan patches around his eyes. His horns wrap about 270 degrees around from their starting point and come in close to his jaw.

Ferrington. Same as above but with head turned to the left for a fine profile.

The next day we loaded sheep in the car for the ride home. We took home Ferrington, two ewe lambs, and two wethers (neutered males). They were bedded down with food and water in the back of the truck and pretty much just chilled for the five hour ride. No complaining, even on the one or two occasions where we had to hit the brakes hard. Apparently goats are much worse in the car. Andrea claims it’s because of the free preaching and bluegrass cd we picked up at a truck stop. They also liked Willie Nelson.

Lambs and Ram lying in the back of an SUV

lamb extremely close up to the camera with lambs laying down in the background.
My hands weren’t interesting to check out, but my camera was to this lamb.

The sheep were delivered safely and introduced to the goat herd with little incident. The goats are a bit horrified by them, but they’ll get over it. The resident sheep are very happy to have other sheep around.

Here you can see relative sizes of Soay sheep and dairy goats of various heritage.

a bunch of dairy goats of various sizes around the small Soay sheep

A very successful trip!

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This summer’s garden

This summer’s garden is ridiculous. It helps that we’ve had a shitton of rain compared to the last few years especially, but I think it might be a bit more than that.

Last year’s early spring garden looked like this:

View of garden from porch showing two triangular raised beds on the left, a stone path in the middle, and a triangular bed of raspberries on the right with 3 large turquoise pots around it

For this year, I kept the two triangle beds on the left but got rid of the raspberries bed on the right. They mostly just shaded out everything until they died back mid-summer and then the squirrels at all the berries anyway. I added the surviving canes to the blackberry patch in the woods out back. I don’t know if they’ll do anything long term, but I hate to just dump still-living plants. After digging out the old, old wood that made up that bed, I filled up everything with new soil. I also acquired a bunch of heirloom apple trees that I’m espaliering against the fence. I think one of them will end up not getting enough sun, but that’s okay. The other major change was rather than using wood scraps and large pots as a way to keep Greta from charging the fence and fence-fighting neighborhood dogs, I actually set up a dog exclusion fence. I picked up a bunch of no-dig fence panels from Lowe’s. They were super easy to install and I really like the look. Early spring garden looked like this:

Garden Left, Early Spring. Two triangular beds with a stone path between, young plants, azaleas and whiskey barrel pots on the perimeter

Garden Right, Early Spring. Square garden bed with young plants and two turquoise pots at opposite corners. 2 sides wood fence, 2 sides metal fence.

Greta walks up the stone garden path between to metal-fenced garden sections.

The metal fence panels on the garden left didn’t quite fit the space I needed them to so the opening on this side is filled with a potted pineapple. The leaves on that fucker are pointy as hell and I don’t recommend running into it. So far Greta hasn’t tried it. The fence is also keeping her from jumping up on the whiskey barrel pots that have my heirloom figs in them. They made it through the winter well and are putting out some great growth now. I ran into a similar problem on the garden right and moved the large turquoise pots to fill there. Thankfully those seem to stymie her in this configuration and she hasn’t tried to go over them yet. It helps that the azalea in the one is bigger. Also I’m getting better at getting her to go in the house when I hear people coming. Jerkdogs are fun.

I got my shit together in a serious way this year with seed starting. I had a spreadsheet of what I bought and when to start it and actually followed it! I had really good sprouting success with almost everything I tried. In these early pictures you can see summer squash, zucchini, mini butternut squash, three kinds of cucumbers, celery, basil, tomatoes, tomatillos, and mystery peppers. I kept the seeds from a pepper I really liked and decided to give them a go. No idea what they’re going to turn out like because I’m sure they’re cross-pollinated by like 5 different kinds of pepper. It’ll be an eating adventure.

So those pictures were from mid-May. Here’s mid-June.

Garden Left, Early Summer. Same as above but with plants grown 3 feet tall.

Garden Right, Early Summer. Square garden bed bordered by black metal fencing filled with plants between 3 and 5 feet tall

The tomatoes and tomatillos are five feet tall. The squash has grown over and through the metal fencing. The cucumber has grown over its trellis and over and through the wood fencing. I’ve found cucumbers basically embedded between the slats in the fence that can’t be removed. Everything is growing marvelously well. Well, except the artichokes. They’ve done fuck all and I’m okay with that. I didn’t plan on the plants being this huge. I’ve never seen them this huge. I think it’s the combo of rain and new fancy soil. Maybe it was also my awesome compost? It can’t just be the source of more mystery squashes. (so many squashes.) I haven’t even hardly been putting aquarium water in the garden because it’s been raining so much. I did finally figure out a soaker hose system for the different beds using a modular system from Gardeners.com. Super simple to set up and while they say you’re supposed to use it with a hose to get the right amount of pressure, I’m having just fine results using a 55 gal barrel up elevated about 2-3 feet above the garden.

I don’t have pictures of mid July yet but I should take them. Things are going really well. The tomatoes have started getting ripe and the squirrels haven’t quite twigged to them yet. Either they can’t spot them in the giant mass of plants, or don’t realize they’re ripe because they’re not traditional reds. They’re a purple plum tomato and look a bit odd. I’ve pickled many a cucumber into dills and bread & butter pickles. The peppers are just starting to fruit now and I started the pole beans late as I wanted them to start way after the bush beans from the front yard. (so many beans.)

So all told, it’s doing fantastic.

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Complete Battlestar Revamp

My oldest large fish tank is the Battlestar Aquaria. When we moved into our current home, I decided to go with a soil substrate covered in a clay gravel and have pretty much stuck with that for the last 8 or so years. There was a revamp when the tank got broken by flooring installers about 6 years ago, but I just moved everything to a new tank.

My plants grew pretty well, but the clay gravel was proving to be a giant pain in the ass. The reason I got it from a friend was because it was constantly degrading and creating tons and tons of fine silt. Not a huge problem in a heavily planted 125, I thought. However, I’ve had to replace the axle in my Eheim canister filter multiple times – not a cheap or easy prospect since the only way to obtain the part is mail order and it turns out to work best if you replace the rotor at the same time. I finally gave up after the murk killed a Rena canister as well.

Here are before shots. This is murkier than it generally was because after the Rena died I just ran a powerhead until I revamped the tank. No point in killing my rehabbed Eheims again.

landscape of a large aquarium with wood stumps, plants, and tropical fish

Oblique angle of the same aquarium as above

I was also growing watercress and cherry tomatoes as emergent plants out of the top of the tank. Removing the watercress added a lot of silt that the roots had collected back into the water with no filter to draw it out. The cherry tomato had for some reason decided to drop a lot of roots shortly before undertaking this project. I did end up cutting the plant back significantly though, just to make it easier to move.

That big stump in the middle there has been the happy home of yo-yo loaches and bristlenose ancistrus for years. The ancistrus have been removing a lot of wood over that time as well so while it was a giant pain in the ass to pull out of the tank, it was better than it could have been. I also had a better idea of where all the hidey holes in it where compared to last time I had to move it. I did not get stabbed in the finger by a loach’s eye-knives this time.

Moving tanks is a good time to get a fish headcount, especially in a heavily planted tank. I was thrilled to discover I still had a few kuhli loaches left (one brown, one striped) but saddened to realize I only had a grand total of five corydoras catfish left (three bronze, two skunk). I probably won’t fill the cory or loach shoals out because I’m still pretty well stocked on bottom dwelling fish (six or seven bristlenose ancistrus and a bunch of Botia genus loaches) but still a bit sad. The bronze cories are original to the tank when I bought it and probably all over 10 years old.

I knew when I was planning this revamp that I was going for a soil base again, but this time capped with sand. I also wanted to have a bunch of wood to add hiding places and food for the ancistrus. Thankfully I have a creek that runs behind my house through a forest so I was able to find well weathered logs with lots of hidey holes and crevasses easily. So many other fishkeepers get so freaked out by using natural substances, preferring wood that’s been specially baked for aquarium use and shipped from across the world. It seems really wasteful to me if you have access to other sources. I did also make sure to use logs that weren’t in the water itself so that it wasn’t being used by native wildlife. Did displace a few spiders though. :( The soil was cheap garden soil from a local big box store. I had bought it for garden use before so I knew that it was fine soil with a tendency towards being clay-y. This is actually perfect for aquarium use. Too much wood in the soil leads to really tannic conditions. Great if you’re keeping Amazon blackwater fish. Less so if you’re not and actually want to see your fish. Sand I tried to order online. I wanted to get the same stuff I used on the River Tank (which I still need to write up) but I screwed up. Instead of buying 40 lbs of dry sand, I managed to order 40 of wet sand meaning that I ended up with a LOT less actual sand than I intended and a lot harder to spread around. This of course I didn’t discover until I had already gotten 3/4 of the way through my rescape and it lead to frantic late afternoon big box petstore visits. I knew that House of Tropicals, the best fish store in the DC area, had sand, but they closed in an hour from the time of discovery and it takes at least that long to drive there from my house. So I ended up with the only sand I could find, a bright white courser sand instead of a fine golden. I like the finished look overall but I still would have liked a darker color.

So here’s the finished product!

Large aquarium with a pile of intertwined logs in the back surrounded by white sand and a smaller number of plants

Still a little hazy from the initial set up, but not as bad as it had been. I love the wood pile in the back and the loaches and catfish have been loving it as well. Besides the logs, I also added lengths of capped PVC pipes to act as caves for the bigger fish. The loaches have set up shop in some, the ancistrus in others, and the Striped Raphael catfish (Platydoras armatulus ) in another. I’m glad to finally have a good cave for the Raphael as he’s a nocturnal fish and definitely doesn’t enjoy the high light output from the LEDs. The one nice thing about the white sand is that the PVC blends into it marvelously. It’s harder to spot than it would have been against darker sand.

The plants look a bit sparse because I planted them in the soil level and then added the sand. I thought it might make them less likely to come out of the substrate as the tank filled and also give them some recovery time. A few weeks later and the crypts and swords are all taking off, lots of new leaves coming up. I added some baby tears from the crab terrarium as a foreground plant after this picture was taken. Not sure how it’ll do, but at least it should get enough light. I’m also hoping I can get some java moss and java fern to take root on the logs, but I have really poor luck with it in this tank. Probably the ancistrus don’t help much. I’m sure they knock things about. I also moved the tomato plant to the far right side of the tank instead of the middle. That way it’ll have a lot more room to grow before it shades everything out and less chance for the roots to end up in the filter intake.

All told, I’m pretty happy with this rescape. It did everything I wanted it to in providing new homes for fish, allowing me to better see my fish, and allowing for better aquatic plant growth. I’m probably going to have fewer spawning tetras until the tomato plant roots come back, but I’ll probably have more ancistrus babies.

Now for miscellaneous fish pictures!

3 Bronze Cory catfish rest on top of white sand 2 Skunk cory catfish, small fish with a pale stripe down their back with a black stripe on either side of it, and two diamond tetra, shimmery silver fish. The tetras are blurry while the catfish are in focus
Raphael catfish and ancistrus in artificial caves with tails hanging out Male Bristlenose Ancistrus. Has a lot of tentacle-like growths on his face, brown skin with yellow spots

Have any questions about how or why I did something? Let me know!

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Aquaponics

I’ve done aquaponics – which is basically using fish to fertilize the water you use to grow plants hydroponically – out of the Battlestar before but this is the first time I’ve done a fruiting plant. I had a volunteer cherry tomato show up in my back garden thanks to throwing moldy tomatoes out for the squirrels. It got nice tomatoes on it before the end of the season so I decided to take a couple of cuttings and try growing it inside. Basically all I did was stuff the cuttings into some plastic pots with clay hydroponics substrate that I wired up to sit on the top of the tank and then let nature take over. Only one cutting ended up rooting and taking off, but boy has it grown.

tomato plant sprawling on the top of a large aquarium

Here it is 20 days ago, finally  getting its first fruits. The roots are on the other side of the glass tank cover. The light source is a AquaUFO + Red LED fixture.

On the other side of the tank I have my giant mass of watercress and some Garnet Rose Lettuce starting.

Lettuce seedlings sprouting

Here’s a picture of the whole tank. We’ve got the top wrapped with black paper because the LEDs are so bright that they make tv watching impossible. They’re also pretty uncomfortable to look at directly, although not dangerously so. Please excuse the state of the tank as I really needed to clean the filter before I took this picture. The aquatic plants at the bottom aren’t edible and have been in there for years. It’s mostly a mix of cryptocorynes and tiger lotus (Nymphaea lotus) as that seems to adapt best to the constantly changing light conditions and my lack of attention.

large aquarium with plants growing out the top

Twenty days later, we’re really cooking now.

The whole tank

It’s a bit hard to compare because the lighting conditions make photography tricky, but the tomato plant now spreads from one end of the tank to the other and has branches up to almost the ceiling. I did clean the filter so there’s less murk. I also had to change the position of the powerhead I have in the tank so it’s blowing the root ball of the tomato to the front of the tank. Makes for a somewhat less attractive showcase tank, but it’s fun to watch the fish hunt for food and spawn in the roots. My diamond tetras reproduce in the tank pretty regularly. I have less fry lately because of the addition of some more predatory fish, but eventually they’re going to be too big to comfortably be able to fit in all of the root structures and I’ll see more fry again.

Tomato Plant

Behind the light guard, you can really see how the tomato plant is covering the top of the tank. I’ve got tons of flower, young fruit and two ripe tomatoes! Jason tasted one of the tomatoes last night (because I don’t actually like them!) and said it was a completely perfectly ripe tomato with excellent flavor and sweetness. I am very excited to have them continue to succeed!

On the other end of the tank, the Garnet Rose Lettuce is starting to leaf out and turn a beautiful red. This is a new breed for me and I’m looking forward to tasting it.

Garnet Rose Lettuce seedlings

If anyone has questions about fish stocking, feeding, or any other specs, let me know.

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