I had yellow limp "greens" in my system. I didn't know what was going on.
I could hear the sound of my aeration bar, the deafening silence of the lack of growth, and the decaying remains of what I knew to be my kale told me to listen closely.
I didn't sign up for this, man. I just wanted to do a small experiment with my son. It was supposed to be easy. Small. Cheap. Passive.
That's not what this is. It is consuming. It is active. It is... what I have designed it to be--an ecosystem of living things.
My journey into aquaponics, and my story's beginning don't coincide. I've been doing this for longer than I've written about it. I remember the early days, when I used to throw away things that I trade for now. Seeds. Worms. Compost. It was a different time. The days of easy living with closed eyes.
But this dystopia, this post-apocalyptic garden of nutrient-locked, pH-imbalanced, iron deprived plants calls out from the ground. And I know my role. It's my duty to till the lands. It's by the sweat of my brow that I shall till this clay dust bowl, checking pH, nitrates and searching out offending predators. I know I have to care for these plants and for these fish. I know I have to care for the worms and the bacteria. And I know that the weapons of my warfare lay in the realm of research, and employ a natural approach. The delicate balance of the ecosystem dictate that.
Harsh chemicals affect the bacteria, which is the engine that drives this machine. It's the universal translator which gets two dissimilar systems to talk to one another. Ammonia and nitrates, fish castings to worm castings. Waste to nutrients. Fish and plants.
Once I have the bacteria cared for, the rest is "easy". Troubleshooting now means that I can remove certain moving parts from the equation.
This whole world was foreign to me only a few months ago. I felt like I landed on Mars, with red clay pebbles and water hidden below the surface. I was an ambassador. I was an impossible astronaut, on a microcosmic voyage.
But there I was. Staring at my dying kale, and my chard sprouts. They were yellowing.
Only a week ago did I learn something about plants and light. I was getting frustrated because my plants kept on falling over. I didn't get it. I thought that I needed to put sticks in and tie them up. It turns out, they wanted more light. So they were stretching to reach the bulbs.
See, I have an indoor system, with T8 bulbs. I felt proud of myself because I wired them together and hung them by chains over the plants. Only, I hung them about eighteen inches above the plants. It was too far away.
The plants knew it. They tried to tell me. But I was just too new. I didn't understand what was going on. I didn't know how to listen. I was an ambassador, but I only knew my culture, I didn't know the culture of the plants. I didn't know the culture of the worms. I didn't know the culture of the fish. But I understood the culture of the bacteria -- only because of a previous episode.
The narrow stems were too thin to support the weight of the plant. The root systems were too shallow. I was thinking about it, and I had a thought... "What if they need more light? I should look online, I'm sure someone else has had this problem."
I did; they did. I read that I needed to lower my lights. So I did. When I did this, something happened: all of the previous seeds that I haphazardly dumped into my system began to germinate and sprout.
In a matter of days I had about 25-30 new jalapeno pepper plants growing. My chard seeds germinated and grew too! I was delighted.
My kale grew previously, but it was always stunted. It would only grow so high, and it never got more than two "true leaves" before it yellowed up, fell over and died. I had decided that this was because of the light source. I was so naive.
No, this wasn't due to my lights in totality. This was due to something else. I watched as my chards began to sprout and grow, but my kale plants still yellowed. Then, the unthinkable happened, my chards began to yellow. They turned a very light yellow, with darker green veins.
This was just another punch in the stomach. Another time to step back, look at the moving parts, and see what the symptoms are, so that I can appropriately look at the problem.
The problem, after I searched online, was that my plants had an iron deficiency. I had heard about this before. I didn't know what it meant, or why people were adding iron to their setups. I figured it was only for larger systems. My system is a 55 gallon barrel that is cut one-third down for the grow bed, and the bottom two thirds is the fish tank. So it isn't very big.
After some more research, I found that newer AP systems typically had iron-deficiencies, and I thought that might have been my problem. So, I went online and ordered some chelated iron. I also found some things which talked about "nutrient locked plants" because of a high pH. But I didn't pay attention to that. I was too focused on my solution, and the symptoms. I focused on the "what", and missed the "why", besides I found my solution of the "how", so stopping research seemed reasonable. I had my plan of attack.
A few days later, my chelated iron arrived in the mail, and I got work. I read the directions a few times, and I was confused. But, I didn't let that stop me. This was the great experiment of 2013. This was what I had been planning on doing, and I was going to make it work. This was what I had set my mind to.
So, I measured. I calculated that I had about 30 gallons of water in my fish tank, so I added 30 teaspoons, which I thought was the recommended dosage for that much water. Only I didn't read the directions properly. I dumped the iron directly into my siphon, turned the water up to full blast, and waited for it to kick in, to mix the iron in with the water.
About halfway through, I felt I was doing something wrong. I had accidentally spilled some of the iron chelate onto a jalapeno pepper leaf. After a bit, the leaf began melting, liquefying, turning into a goo.
The iron was added, and I almost used up all that came in the container.
When I finished adding it all, I jumped online, and read up a bit more concerning dosages, and overdosing plants. That's when I realized, too much iron is toxic to the plants.
I had created a wasteland. I was poisoning Eden; and I did it with the best intentions.
I ran back to my system. The water coming out of the pump was rust-colored. The fish tank had a depth of visibility of about six inches. My goldfish and koi were swimming around, and I was sure they weren't happy. The plant that was melting scared me, and I snapped off the leaf. He wouldn't have survived, and I didn't want to look at it.
I wanted to deny what was happening. But I was faced with a decision. I could embrace denial or I could take action.
I felt like Jack Shephard in Lost. I let the fear consume me for three seconds, then I acted. I did an emergency water change on the tank. I measured the pH before. It was 8.2. I had forgotten it was so high.
I lowered the pH in the new 10 gallons that I added. I didn't measure it initially, because I just wanted to get the iron out. But I lowered it too much. It was 6.4. I added that to the tank.
I removed more water. Added lower pH. And I repeated this until I had done two full water changes. That was when the water was no longer red.
Visibility was still low, but I couldn't get much more iron out.
I stared at my mistake. I measured my pH, and I realized I had almost lowered it two whole points! I thought my fish would die. I had to sleep, though. I had to give some control back to the system.
When I woke up, I checked on my plants. They were all withering. I thought they were going to die.
The lettuce plants had holes in the middle, like an acid had eaten through them.
The jalapeno plants were drooping, and splitting.
This continued for a few days. Droopier and droopier with more and more cracked and splitting leaves. Spots were appearing on the jalapeno plants too. Roots were rotting at the top, turning black.
The worms seemed okay, though. I was very surprised.
The fish all survived, too. I think I know why, though. See, these fish weren't ordinary fish. They were feeder fish. They were created for destruction. That was their purpose. I picked them up to help me cycle the tank (a story in its own), and these were the ones that survived the process. They had lived through a lot, and by gum, they were going to live through a lot more. Why? Because they could. Because they were given a chance. Because they were.
My fish were showing me the secrets of "being". And I realized that I had a lot more to learn from them than I originally thought.
I had about two pounds of wheat grass that I wanted to grow for juicing. Only I originally didn't want to add it to my AP system. But I did. I did because I wanted them to absorb all of the excess iron in the system. So I put in about 3/4 of a pound. It took up half of my empty grow bed.
A few days later, I noticed something. There was new growth on the injured plants. They were still droopy, but it wasn't that they were limp. It was that they were stuck like that, like the lame arm of a wounded veteran. They had become firm again. The leaves with the cracks and holes in them continue to wither and die, but I let them stay. As a monument to what they went through. The new growth, however, was beautiful and lush.
I noticed something else, too. My yellowing plants, specifically my chards, were becoming green again. My kale was too far gone. But my chards were getting fuzzy.
My wheat grass grew like crazy. Within a week they were 8 inches tall. The water was clear, and my chards were completely green again.
It was beautiful. I learned something though. The iron deficiency wasn't only because of a lack of iron in the system. It was because the pH prevented the plants from taking in the nutrients. There may have been a deficiency of iron in the system, but even adding it without first lowering the pH wouldn't have solved my problems. Or they wouldn't have solved them very quickly.
I needed to look at what causing the symptoms, so I could address that, and trace the problem to its source.
It wasn't a happy day for everyone, though. We lost some good plants. I lost one lettuce plant, and two jalapeno plants. My kale didn't survive, but I think it was more of a self-sacrifice on their part, for the chards. I like to believe that they wanted to be a monument to what it was to go forward. They wanted their story to be told, and to be etched in history as names with dates next to them. They took an chelated iron bullet, so that others could survive. They took the toxicity, and their ancestors would hear their tales. They would know what it was that their forefathers persevered through, endured, and sacrificed themselves for, so that their descendents could live a more full life.
They went through poor lighting, nutrient-lock, ammonia poisoning, other mishaps of an ecosystem gaining its bearings and learning how to function.
And now, as I look back on the red planet, that I have helped cultivate, I can't help but wonder what other adventures lie ahead of me.
I found my first bud on my first jalapeno plant today. My lettuce is almost ready to harvest.
I can't help but wonder if this dystopia was really a shroud, a veil covering a journey of authenticity, growth, and maturity. As order begins to enter, and entropy begins to wane, I know that my job as an ambassador to this martian world of red rocks and hidden water only gets more rich. And I wish you all would join me, with your own microcosm, marked with your fingerprints, your sweat, and your journey of perseverance, understanding, and being.