Work has been a little slow the last couple weeks. So switching gears this time around, I wanted to share with you something that I’ve been reading about for years and have recently decided to give it a go. It’s called Aquaponics.
Most of us have been aware, or becoming more aware, that our food supply has become tainted with all sorts of chemicals, hormones, pesticides, etc… and the importance of getting our hands on good, clean, quality food. Experts encourage us to either buy local organic foods, or grow them ourselves. Since I’m a new dad, this has become more of a priority over the last year.
During the last year, with the extra money I had coming in, I decided it was time for me to try Aquaponics. So what exactly is Aquaponics? A lot of people I’ve talked to that are into gardening have never heard of it. So don’t feel bad if you haven’t either. Aquaponics is a system of gardening that incorporates the raising of fish and vegetables together in a closed system. The fish fertilize the plants and the plants clean the water for the fish. It really is a pretty slick system. If you’re having a hard time picturing it, here is a fairly short video that explains it pretty well. The guy is from Australia so it may take a couple minutes to get used to his accent.
When I bought my house 9 years ago, it had an additional 14′ x 20′ cement slab in the back yard that we never really used. we attempted a nice glider swing, but our Great Danes promptly ate it. One would think that their love of furniture would translate to the outdoors. But No. Not so much. So the slab remained mostly unused most of the years we’ve lived here. Which made it the perfect spot to build a greenhouse. So amongst the dandelions & other weeds, the project began. I had previously started collecting old windows & sliding glass doors to use in the greenhouse, later to learn that they weren’t old enough and had UV protection in the glass, which dramatically reduces the benefits to the plants inside.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I didn’t have any time to spare last summer for the project, so I enlisted a friend to Build it for me. At the end of every day he worked, I took a photo to document the progress.
The IBC (Intermediate Bulk Container) tanks inside were originally used to transport corn syrup. So they were food grade plastic with no chemicals to leach into the system. They will serve as the fish tank and the grow beds. They were to big to fit thru any of the doors, so we had to put them in before all the walls were finished.
As I mentioned, most of the windows & sliders I gathered had UV protection in the glass, which isn’t to good for greenhouse use. So I opted for this double walled plastic panels for the south walls and roof.
Once the greenhouse was built, I had another friend wire it for electric for lighting and power for the pumps. My younger brother and I started laying out the inside tank and grow beds. We cut up several of the IBCs for the grow beds using their cages for support.
The grow beds were raised on cement blocks and treated planks to hold the weight while making it easier to work the garden. It’s a lot easier on the back. Once all the grow beds and the fish tank was set up (fish tank in blue, about 300 gallons) we started in with the plumbing. Every grow bed was plumbed with it’s own water inlet with valve to fill the beds & a “Bell Siphon” for drainage. The grow beds were also elevated to allow room for Sump tanks underneath for the grow beds to drain into. Once the water level in the sump tanks get high enough it triggers the sump pump to send the clean water back to the fish tank.
By the time it was all set up, I didn’t have much summer left. So I put some plants in and just waited to see how they did. It’s a pretty low maintenance system once it’s all set up. Feed the fish, Check the PH of the water. You want it to stay around 7 ph, & add water to the system every 2 -3 weeks to replace evaporation (maybe only 50 gallons) & add plants.
For not having any extra time to mess with the set up, I was very pleased with what we were able to grow over the winter. We grew several kinds of lettuce. This picture was taken after several heads were already removed. There is a way to harvest lettuce to make it last for a very long time. You plant a variety of lettuce, let it grow for a few weeks and then start to harvest the lower outer bottom leaves. This way, instead of growing a head of lettuce, harvest it and one or two nights of salad later, & it’s gone. Harvesting just the outer leaves, we were able to make these heads of lettuce last for 3 months and cut our lettuce bill by 50% this winter. Once the plants start to get really tall, they’re about to “go to seed” and it’s time to pull them before the leaves get a bitter taste. We also grew broccoli and this weird spiral cauliflower called Romanesco. I’ve never been able to grow cauliflower before, much less this funky stuff. It tastes just like regular cauliflower, but with a very mild nuttier flavor. It’s very faint. Now, just to reiterate, there is no soil in this system at all. everything is grown in gravel. Some other plants I put in the system were these strawberries. They made it thru the winter and already have a tone of new fruit forming This week I filled the rest of this grow bed with more strawberries and I’m going to try Goji Berries as well. I have some Goji plants in containers outside that are just now starting to wake up. So I took some cuttings and stuck them in. I’ll be keeping a very close eye on these in the next few weeks. I’ll be pretty stoked if they take!
Some other plants that I wasn’t sure about were some of the dwarf citrus I put in the system. As most people know, Idaho winters are way to cold for these plants to survive, much less grow. But guess what? Here’s my dwarf Lime tree. Check it out!I was worried about the dwarf tangerine I put in also. Most of the leaves fell off, but a couple a weeks ago, I noticed all these new leaves coming in. But I have to be honest, the the plant I’m most excited about are the dwarf blueberries. In the last 6 years I’ve started gardening, I’ve never been able to get blueberry plants to make it past one season. No matter what fertilizers I used, getting the soil PH up (they love acidic soil) the right soil drainage. It didn’t matter. They always died over the winter and never came back. So you can imagine my excitement when I came out & noticed this…See those little white flowers? Those will soon be blueberries! So not only did they survive the winter in the system and are starting to wake up. But they will also start producing fruit already!
You can see that I harvested most of the plants that grew over the winter and have a fairly clean slate for this season. But I have seeds starting from 2 weeks ago that should be ready to start transplanting into the system in the next 2 – 3 weeks. Everything from more lettuce, to peppers, tomatoes, spinach, kale & so on. My goal is to grow 35%- 40% of my produce for my family this year. I still have a lot to learn I’m sure & still have some trial & error ahead. If all goes well, next years goal will be 50%- 75% of our produce grown in our greenhouse.
I know this post is way off the norm. But I wanted to share this with you all. Much like the time & effort we put into maintaining our cars to get the most out of them & keep us safely on the road, we need to take the time to care for and maintain ourselves. If you were to ask my friends from 10 – 20 years ago if they ever pictured me having a garden, much less being excited about it, you’d get a resounding “NO WAY!” But in the last 8 years, not only have I found the importance of the quality of our food, I found that I actually enjoy it.
So once in a while, I will post the progress of the greenhouse and the plants within. I also have about a 5th of my backyard dedicated to a small berry farm. I currently have blackberries, raspberries, goji berries, green & concord grapes. This area has also evolved over the years. It currently needs a lot of work to clean it up and get it ready for the season, so I’ll post pictures of this area with a greenhouse follow up later.
A slow last couple of work weeks equates to a small gain in mileage. But every mile gets me closer & closer to my goal. I hope everyone out there is taking care of themselves & enjoying the spring weather!