In planning my aquaponics design, I'm wondering if I should consider the microscopic life that exist in the outdoors when setting up my system. Things like soil-based organisms, mycelium, zooplankton and whatever else might live and be important parts of the biological balance. When I read The Omnivore's Dilemma, I was struck by Joel Salatin's talk about how important mycelia are in the life of plants, and I'd like for my system to emulate nature as closely as possible.
What microorganisms do you guys use in your systems? One thing I've seen mentioned a few times is probiotics.
Also, what do you think of me starting my system with the smallest possible organism and ramping up as each is successful? My husband is a water scientist, so testing the water for these organisms to make sure they are thriving shouldn't be a problem. I'm thinking of starting with algae, then moving up to include mycelium, worms (which I know are commonly used), and then on up to shrimp, crayfish, mussels, and finally, whatever fin fish I decide to use.
Christina - I am enjoying the way you think! Perhaps because I'm an aquatic ecologist by training and see a lot of ecological thought happening here. If I may use two terms borrowed from ecology, I think you are pondering "succession" and "symbiosis" in your questions. In a way, what you are wondering about takes place in AP systems, but generally, we do not allow natural succession to take place otherwise we will wait forever. Thus, in a way, we ramp things up just a little in order to provide enough living conditions for plants, fish and benificial bacteria / microbes to be happy, and then, as the system matures, we can add more "layers" of a stable ecosystem.
To get the system going, you can look at how people "cycle up" or "cycle" their systems, but in general, you are adding some nutrients with ammonia as the main ingrediaent to the system to get the nitrification cycle going, and then you get plants established. At this point,m things are still too hairy for the fish and you do not want algae as they will just compete for nutrients with the plants you are trying to establish. At some point as systems develop, any algae present is typically undesirable but normally outcompeted by the plants. There are many different benificial biological coctails that people can add at this point, and as I do not add any myself other than nitrification bacteria (or know the US brands), I will wait for others to respond. Thus, after cycling fir up to around 40 days, you should have a system capable of transforming ammonia into nitrates and then mineralising solid wastes into plant nutrients. It will not be mature, but it will be able to sustain the fish you add. The microbial population typically develops and improves for up to 18 months.
So, at this point you can add fish, and the solid wastes that you create can start sustaining invertebrates in the water and media beds. Many people say that you have to feed your worms supplemental scraps in the beginning when the solids load is still light. Again, as I cannot keep any shrimp / prawn / lobster / crayfish where I am, I will wait for othgers to elaborate on these aspects, but from an ecological point of view, you now have the opportunity to add detrivores to the system to help break large solids down for mineralization quicker.
The developmental route that the system took is therefore plants and microbes established, fish added, microbe population maximised while adding detrivores, and eventually, after a season or so, you will have a stable system with primary producers, nutrient recycling pathways, some primary consumers supplemented with nutrient imports (feeding your fish) and a couple of very happy secondary consumers looking on .
Hope something there made sense.
The truth is, out in a relatively natural environment (not indoors or in a sterile lab), most of the small creatures and biological life in the system, get there on their own. Even worms will sometimes show up on their own. Add the ammonnia and they will come then as the system matures (that process is often the slow process of the other life forms taking up residence and making the system better.)
While I like the idea of getting a diverse system going, there are some challenges involved with having all sorts of different pond life and their associated habitats while still being able to harvest.
I suppose how one sets up should be based on the goals of the system since no single approach is appropriate to all situations.
I guess it really all depends on how close you want to mirror or emulate nature in an ecological way within your growing system. If thats the case, you'll first need to perform a complete microbe forensic for your area. Because unless you plan on using microbes from elsewhere, your battle is going to be countering the local microbes which will show up on their own.
You can spend alot of time and money duplicating it, but nature has a way of counterbalancing on its own terms. Wine growers for years have counted on the microbes from their specific geographic region to give their wine their own unique flavor through natural nature which can't be replicated very easliy elsewhere. I know were not making wine here, but myself, I don't want my system to be that complicated, I just want to utilize the same system thats been proven for eons to work by nature. Which is whats so wonderful about about alot of these growing systems...simplicity.
I think alot of people suddenly get struck with the fear factor when something goes wrong or isn't growing right. Nature itself is very cyclic and is neither impervious or perfect, Things grow, things die, and the cycle starts all over again. I guess in a sense you could say within these systems we are all trying to tweek or maximize nature, No one in any way will probably fault you nor should they on your approach and I hope you attain through your vision or research the pleasure, satisfaction or knowledge you seek. The world or Ap might even gain more knowledge through your system if you are willing to share on the life cycles of microorganisms.
In a sense when you start your system, the day you start it up you already start the ramping up process, Conditioning for maximum startup via nutrients is really all we do to assist nature in a natural way. Maybe more time and research from the forensic side is needed, we all try to maximize growth and only counter after the fact when objects begin dieing.
looking forward to seeing or hearing more about your project and/or data on microbes.
In the natural environment soils usually have a specific blend of beneficial microorganisms, depending on the composition of the soil and the plants that are growing in it. Soils that harbor more perennial type plants (think forest or scrublands) generally have a higher ratio of fungi-bacteria. Soils that harbor more annual plants (grasslansds, stream edges) generally have a higher ratio of bacteria-fungi.
In any form of hydroponics where the main crop(s) are annual plants, you should be more concerned with culturing the beneficial bacteria. In aquaponics this means first focusing on those bacteria that convert ammonia to nitrite and nitrite to nitrate. These will find there way into your system through "cycling" or you can add them in with inoculants from any aquarium store. With that being said, there are many types of other beneficial bacteria and even some fungi that would love to live in the system with your plants and fishies. When looking for mychorizzal fungi for your aquaponics system you want to find blends with more endomychorizzal fungi. Look for species of Glomus. Compost tea made from worm castings or top dressing wormcastings is also a good way to add bene bacteria to a system.
In traditional hydroponics we would just add these inoculants right into our nutrient tank, but in aquaponics this is also the home of our fish and could potentially cause problems for them. I would guess that the best way to add these things to the system would be by applying them as topdressing and letting them work their way into your system through the media.