Aquaponics 101…or Dreams of Fish, Flora and Fauna.

I am pumped.

Fueled.

Psyched.

I’ve been viewing some videos produced by a man named Murray Hallam, who hales from Australia, about Aquaponics. I’ve had an interest in this for some time but, for some strange reason, have not satisfied my curiosity about it…until last week when I decided to type “Aquaponics” in the Facebook search engine and came across his Facebook page. He provides a link to his website and a host of videos that provide a good introduction to this phenomena.

And, yes, phenomena would be the perfect terminology when one considers what this man–and others–are growing in such a system: potatoes, squash, cucumbers, papaya, and even bananas and mangoes! Who would’ve thought? As a Master Gardener, I am well-familiar with hydroponics, which uses a “raft” (a square of styrofoam with circles cut out with which to “plant” the plants) in a tub of water to grow greens, strawberries, and some herbs. But, because there are no fish involved–fish, which supply the much-needed nutrients each plant requires–there is a limit to what can be grown in hydroponics. From what I have been able to learn from these videos, hydroponics is designed for growing lots of a single crop, or a handful of crops in a rotational manner, similar to the big agribusiness farms out West. And, because it is designed for monoculture, nutrients must be added to keep the plants healthy. Oftentimes, especially in commercial operations where a large output is needed to stay afloat (no pun intended), synthetic fertilizers, plant feed, and even pesticides are added. They’re not needed with aquaponics. The only additive that Mr. Hallam added to his tanks was a bit of either compost tea or worm tea.

What is compost tea? It is very simple. You take a handful of composted waste from your compost bin, place it in a mesh bag, tie it off and steep it in a barrel of water–much like a giant bucket of tea. Then you pour that water into your tank (or, for those of more traditional garden means, you can pour this nutrient-rich “tea” into the soil around your plants). Worm tea is the run-off from a vermicomposting set up. Vermicomposting is using worms to digest kitchen waste. It is very easy to do. Get a square box, drill a small hole in the side towards the bottom and put a plug in it. Layer strips of newspaper (non-shiny…i.e. no glossy advertisements), and/or wood shavings in the bottom of the box (PS Box should be wooden or plastic, not cardboard as the worms may eat that, too, and it won’t hold up to all the moisture inside) and then add some worms. Red wigglers work best. Now start adding in all of your kitchen scraps: vegetable peelings and cores, eggshells, spent tea leaves and coffee grinds (minus the paper filters or actual tea bags) and those little guys will start eating it up. As they eat, they do what every other creature does after eating–they excrete. This pools up into the bottom of the box and this is the reason for the plugged hole. This worm excrement is the consistency of tea, a liquid black gold that has nothing to do with the petroleum industry and everything to do life. After about 2 weeks of steady feeding of these scraps, you should be able to harvest this “tea” by simply placing a bucket under that plugged hole and pulling out the plug. This, too, may be added directly to your soil as a natural means of fertilizing it. Also, for those of you in more northerly climates, you may also cover this worm bin with straw to help insulate it but there are companies out there that sell vermicomposting systems at a fairly low cost. They are designed to actually sit in your kitchen, being a fairly attractive apparatus, with a handy little spigot at the bottom for extracting the “tea”.

Anyway, I’ve veered a little off subject but that’s what happens when I get all fired up about something. My enthusiasm takes me away. And that’s what has happened with the viewing of these videos. Now that I have a better understanding of how it all works, I want to plunge right in and get started. But I may need a greenhouse for that as New England is rapidly approaching winter and the freezing temps that go along with it. And I have no desire to go ice fishing–even if it is a popular endeavor with many fishermen.

So how does it work? The system is comprised of multiple tubs, or basins. There are actually three types of grow “beds”. One is a raft system with the styrofoam “grid” (picture a square of styrofoam with 16-20 circles, about the size of the bottom of a styrofoam cup, cut into it in neat little rows). Another is called a media bed that has gravel or clay pellets and you plant directly into them. This is for more “permanent” plants like squash or corn, whereas the raft system is more for quick-growing plants like leafy greens and strawberries. The last is a wicking bed, which is used for growing root vegetables. It is similar to the media bed with its gravel but the plants are placed in a basket of gravel and then the basket is set inside a media bed (water and gravel). This keeps the roots from becoming too soggy and rotting. Some systems also have towers, which are basically PCB pipes with holes drilled in them for planting so that you can take advantage of vertical spacing…but you need a stronger pump for these. And, of course, you also have a tank or two of fish. Mr. Hallam recommends jade perch, tilapia, or carp as being the most hardy for these systems. In short, waste water from the fish is pumped up into the grow beds. The plants filter this waste water, extracting the nutrients from the fish waste, and then the filtered water goes back into the fish tank. In the media and wicking beds, the water is actually drained and then re-filled in a constant cycle, which is how the roots are kept from rotting; in the raft beds, you need a means of aerating it. (Not sure if the latter are also drained; still learning…)

What I liked best about this is that it is a perfect eco-system. Yes, you will get bugs–both beneficial and some not-so-beneficial. But, if your system is maintained properly, you’ll strike a good balance in keeping those harmful bugs to a minimum.

Yes, an aquaponics’ system does require energy to run. Mr. Hallam has a video about using solar. He had four batteries connected to 20 solar panels to power his Indy 23 system (he designs aquaponics’ systems). He also talks about using wood pulp/shavings/mulch in a pile that you keep moist–basically, green compost–and burying some geothermal coils in it. As the moistened mulch heats up, it heats the water in the coils and that keeps your plants at a nice, even temperature. So there are definitely alternatives and, with a little Yankee ingenuity (even if you’re not a Yank!), it may be easy enough to set something up at a reasonable cost. When one considers how much food can be grown in such a system, that certainly outweighs the cost of operation. You’re getting both vegetables and fish to eat, as the fish are also harvested regularly, and both are free of harmful chemicals. In one of his videos, Mr. Hallam, talks about feeding his fish naturally (i.e. no commercial fish feed), using some of the greens grown in his beds, vegetable waste, steel-cut oatmeal (dried oatmeal) and, occasionally, some finely-cut chicken. Fish, like chickens, eat just about anything. For fish, it simply has to be cut up a little smaller.

There is also a segment about the yield one of these systems can produce: 19.8 lbs. of Swiss chard from just 3 plants; 88 lbs. of tomatoes from 5 bushes; 22 lbs. of beets from 60 plants; 33 lbs. of lettuce from 30 plants; 6 lbs. of radishes from 60 plants. Those were some samples. It’s pretty impressive. And it’s food security at its best. In today’s market, with so many herbicides and pesticides killing our rivers and streams, animals, plant life, and human life, finding healthier ways to grow food is a worthy endeavor.

For more information, you may visit Mr. Hallam’s website at https://murrayhallam.com

May God bless you & keep you!

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