Iterative progress

2017 system

2018 system

Sometimes it’s hard to see the progress you’ve made until you look back. In the true spirit of iteration I have iterated from a simple 300l system to a 1500l system.

Two next objectives is to get a rotation of salads planted in grow bed.

And to work on breeding fish – which I still haven’t sexed yet.

Pear shaped

Over the last month we’ve had family staying and things have fallen apart somewhat.  Routines have been disturbed and the flow that had been established is a chore. 

The system is still alive, the plants are still growing but there are a bunch of issues.  The flood and drain system is no longer flooding, and this morning the pump stopped working, the chickens have figured out how to get in to the veggie patch, and the meal worm farm has been decimated by neglect ( and the occasional attack by the smarter chicken), my sowing plan has gone to crap, the coriander is all dead, one of the chickens is brooding, the grass lawn is all dead due to drought, and the place is in a general mess. 

Personally, I’ve stopped eating healthily – so not harvesting salads or tomatoes –  weight is coming back on, and generally feeling more tired. I’m back smoking again, and although not drinking too much I’ve been having a few drinks every evening. 

Its also been very hot. 

Fortunately, none of this is beyond repair however this experience does give me pause to reflect. 

Clearly the more systems I try to maintain the more opportunities there are for things to go wrong.  And so focusing will help to minimize the load. 

But perhaps more importantly I’m recognizing that progress and getting better is not a straight line affair.  It’s hard to constantly improve.  I needed a break and I subconsciously used the visiting family as an excuse to take a break and change things up.  And abused that to its fullest.  

If I’m honest with myself, I knew I was neglecting my efforts to improve but I didn’t want to face it and it’s not until now – now that they are gone – that I’m facing it. 

In the meantime, a month of damage has been done. 

Going forward, I need to recognize this pattern and plan for it.  I need to recognize that improvement is not necessarily a straight line growth, and that it will more likely take the form of 3 steps forward 1 step back. 

One clear example of how recognizing this fact, lead to me having some longer term success is my weight loss efforts.  The graph below shows my weight loss progress over an 8 week period where I lost 7 kgs (98kg to 91kgs).  Each weekend, I’d take a break from the diet and consequently my weight would bounce back up, but it was these scheduled breaks that helped me to maintain motivation to keep the diet going for a meaningful period of time.  Over the last month I’ve let things go and I’m only back up to 92.6kg this morning.  So it’s not all terrible news, but it does make me reflect on what I can do to keep a more stable pattern over time. 

And I think the answer to that is two fold. 

Firstly I think I need to reflect on what my goals and vision are.  Where do I want to get to.  Give myself some tangible targets.

And secondly I need to plan in periods where I can take steps back.  Reduce the stress,  pressure, and guilt of taking a step back and instead recognize that sometimes that’s just life.  Sometimes I just need to chill out, relax, and let it all hang out. 

So, I’m going to take the effort to try and plan these two things and to start again.. I’ll see how that goes. 

Summer solstice update 

It’s the summer solstice tomorrow so I thought I’d do a general update. 

Things are growing well.  The salads have been the most successful with plenty more than we can consume.  The tomatoes are looking to be pretty decent too. 

Both chickens are still alive and laying on average about 1.5 eggs a day.   All 25 fish are going strong and have grown significantly. 

I’m building a new floating raft bed that should be about 3x the size of my existing one so that I can dial up my aquaponics salads and basil.  Once I get that going I’m going to test différent types of salads for a bit of variety. 

I’ve been servicing my compost in preparation for a fall planting of winter crops.  

But it’s not all good news.  It seems my potatoes got sick and I lost 2 out of the three plantings. 

New salads going in this evening. 

Learning about Learning

I’ve spent a lot of my recent career solving problems, and thinking about how to go about solving problems – methodology for solving problems.  I have developed a leaning towards lean / agile problem solving which encourages fast experimentation, intellectual honesty (understanding that you don’t know the answer and that you’ll probably get it wrong the first time around) and reflection.  The faster you can perform this loop the faster you learn.

Improving the methodology is all about figuring out how to run experiments, get results, learn : and doing all of that as fast as possible and at scale.

And so I found myself applying this way of thinking to bonsaiponics and i’ve figured that i’m going about this all wrong, or at least I have now reached the point where I need to change the way i’m experimenting.

Up until this point all my learning has been about picking up initial subject matter expertise; does this grow, does this work, what will fish eat, what temperature water, how to hook up system, how to sow plants, how to filter water, nitrogen cycle.

All of this is good solid initial subject matter expertise.  However, if I want to get beyond small experiments I need to start figuring out how to do all of this at scale.  The challenge with nature is that experimentation takes time, plants take time to grow, systems take time to balance, learning in nature in an asynchronous fashion will take a long time. Plus there’s the seasons.  So, i’ve got a window to get a lot of learning done. How can  achieve this as effectively as possible.

The thought process:

So this is how I figured what  had to do….

I reasoned with myself, and recognised that i’m not going to get it all right, there’s so many levels of complication that I still don’t know about, that although i’ve removed several levels of uncertainty…there are still many layers of the onion left.

If I continue in this way i’ll have a broad (horizontal) but shallow knowledge over several things, but not much practical results to show for it.  However, if I can focus, go deep on a limited scope, more vertical than horizontal, I might get some practical results and eventually success.

This reminded me that I had not yet outlined what the success criteria were – what did success look like for me?  In IT talk that would be the V in MVP (Minimal Viable Product) – What is the minimum thing that could happen that would make me feel like this was a success?

What is Success?

For me it was all about production and creation.  At the end of the day, I wanted to produce some food.  I wanted to produce food at a meaningful scale that it could replace my need to buy certain vegetables.

In the past, i’ve planted and had some success with several different types of vegetables, but I never produced enough to make a meaningful indent in to my actual habits. This was the key.  If I could determine what would make me feel successful at the end of the year, then I could use this goal to reduce the scope of learning needed and focus.

The Target:

So, I decided that I was going to focus on 3 core crops which were stables in our house: Salad, Tomatoes, and Radishes.  I then defined the scope of success to mean that I would want to be producing at least, 1 salad, 6 tomatoes (equivalent mid sized), and 20 radishes every week for as along as I could.

There was still a little uncertainty (subject matter expertise) about how long it would take me to get up and running, and exactly how long the crops would produce for, so I did not define how long I had to maintain this target.  However, as a guide I set a duration of “at least one month”:  meaning that at some stage of the year i’d be producing to my target sustainably for 1 whole month (4 consecutive weeks).

Right with that decision made, I immediately started to do some back of the napkin calculations to figure out how i’d get there.

20 radishes a week:

I’m not going to go over the full plan here, but instead go through some higher level examples to demonstrate the thought process and the insights and implications that arose from changing my approach.

So to reach 20 radishes a week, with an assumption of potentially 6 months of grow period in the year left, I would need approximately (20 x (6 x 4.5)) = 540 radishes.  I’d need to plant 20 radishes a week, possibly 25 a week to compensate for those that don’t germinate, I probably don’t want to be planting every week so perhaps i’ll plant 50 radishes every 2 weeks.

Hang, on, where am I going to plant them.  If each radish needs to be planted 3 to 5 cms from each other, in rows 10 to 20 cm apart, then 50 radishes is going to need an 1/8th of a square meter.    Every 2 weeks i’m going to have to plant 50 radishes on 1/8th a square meter, and I should be harvesting that amount too every week.

Seeing as they take 4 to 6 weeks to mature, and can probably stay in the ground for up to 8 weeks, then i’ll need at least 4/8th of a square meter constantly sowed. I’m going to double that because I figure it gives me more flexibility as I can always harvest more if I need, and adjust my sowing rate up to compensate.

This is doable, but only now that i’ve figured out the details of how to micro scale production for this one crop.  It completely changes the experiments that I need to conduct.  And firstly, I need to get a much more aggressive planting schedule.

The Plan:

When I expand this type of thought experiment to Salads and Tomatoes, it becomes clear that my challenge here is not going to be the subject matter expertise of how to grow a good salad, or how to grow a healthy juicy tomato.  The actual challenge is going to be how do I do produce at scale!!??? (in this case scale doesn’t actually mean scale …it’s relative to what I have done before).  And  learn the subject matter expertise along the way to get healthy juicy results.

This now becomes a logistics challenge.  And I do love a good logistics challenge.

This is the game plan at this stage:

  • Radishes, testing several types in outdoor in ground bed.
  • Salads testing 2 types, aquaponics and in ground bed,
  • Tomoatoes testing several types, in aquaponics (flood & drain grow bed) and in raised bed


Full circle learning:

The great news is that this method will also allow me to learn fast because i’ll have a constant flow of germinating plants to mess up and learn with.  Inevitably, this constant sowing strategy is going to provide me with the focus and velocity to go deep and master some focused areas.  Looking forward to it.

Wish I could do the same at work.