Aquaponic Gardening

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Environmental science has been on the fringes for a very long time, with big business and conspicuous consumption filling the world’s views and attitudes for a very long time. The knowledge and theories of environmental sciences have not changed much, but I see with some interest now that it is getting re-labelled to some extent. I do not necessarily see this a bad thing, but it has me thinking about things that got me exited about aquaponics in the beginning.

 

The catalyst for all this is the term “bio-mimicry”. Previously known as common sense to people like me, some of the central thinking of this “newish” field is to study nature and base design or processes on this. Do not try to fight nature in other words, but understand it, learn from it and implement its winning formulas when designing something which, in essence, have been honed in nature over millions or even billions of years. Perhaps environmental science should have been taught to designers all along. We would not have people building in flood plains or putting nuclear power stations right next to the sea in earthquake prone areas. We definitely would not have had all this monocropping agriculture with chemical fertilizer and pesticides and most importantly, we would not have this mass-hysteria about bacteria and marketing aimed at selling people stuff with which to attempt to banish the microbial world from your dwelling.

 

OK, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and people can call incorporating environmental science into design bio-mimicry if they really want to, but how can all of this be related back to aquaponics? Well, it is pretty much the “aquaponics is building an ecosystem” theory that I support. Some snippets that I want to throw out here in this first blog (each one is a book chapter on its own thus I will glance over it here) is perhaps some starter thoughts for people wanting to know how successful environmental (Nature) design compares to our AP systems. But what is successful design really. In the earth’s almost 4 billion years of life, there has been a massive ebb and flow of species design. Only a fraction of it is left, and most of the destruction of sometimes immensely superior beings came from Nature itself. We have been happily destroying biodiversity for only a moment compared to what has raged on this planet up to now. We all know the dinosaur story, and the plight of the previous masters of the open ocean, the ammonites. What happened to the world that these creatures inhabited? Well, it changed rapidly. Smart design can eventually give you a specialist species honed for a specific environment. Take away the environment, and the fancy species is doomed. That orchid that can only be pollinated by a single wasp species, or the mighty Clanwilliam Cedar that cannot survive a fire. It takes only a small mishap to take these species into extinction.

 

To see successful design, one has to think small. Smaller than insects, although they are pretty wonderful examples. What you need is life that is not all that dependant on other life. If it is in need of other organisms for survival, it should be similarly robust, plentiful and successful at dealing with a changing environment. The masters of this game is the life forms that were first recorded 3.8 billion years ago and are still at it today. Often unchanged, they persisted in habitats that are still around after all this time. Thus, for aquaponics to be successful at bio-mimicry, we need to look at the most successful organisms there is, and look at the type on environments that have allowed them an unchallenged run at survival since the dawn of life. Luckily for us, we are in the right place. For it is microbes we need to look at, and their habitats are well, almost everywhere. To narrow it down, I want to suggest that future AP bio-mimickers will be taking a very close look at sandy beaches, estuaries and floodplains. These are all environments in which both fish and plants occur, where nutrient inputs are typically quite high (although seasonal in many) and where the detrital recycling pathways – those microbes that take organic matter and return it to the environment as nutrients – is extremely important in the maintenance of productivity.

 

If I look at these systems, their functioning, and their seasonality, I wonder about the following topics:

• Sand as a media option, but coarse sand, not too fine

• Seasonal approaches to stocking rates, feeding rates or operating temperature

• Periodic, intentional shifts in pH

 

For obvious reasons, we try to explain aquaponics to people as a marriage between an aquaculture system and a hydroponics system. I do this too sometimes, but what I think people should do, is try to banish that thought. Both the former systems were out of sync with natural processes, while we try to bring a functional ecosystem to life in aquaponics. While most people venturing into aquaponics are from a “fish” or a “plant” background, I think a lot more effort is needed to get everyone into an “ecosystem” frame of mind when designing and operating aquaponic systems.

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Comment by Chris Smith on May 1, 2011 at 12:47pm

I do not notice any change in water quality nor can I detect a difference in nitrates. Those bins are supplementing my commercial system which has about 6000 gallons of water. The worm tea is very diluted but having a positive effect in the ecosystem.

Make yourself some worm bins! The worms multiply rapidly and before you know it you will have more than enough.

Comment by Kobus Jooste on May 1, 2011 at 11:28am
Fantastic development Chris - I have always quietly reprimanded myself for not having a serious amount of worm bins on my property and your idea here is going to give me even more food for thought.  What does the extra nutrient input do to your critical water quality parameters such as DO, pH and Ammonia?  I must say I'm not well versed in the chemistry of worm tea.
Comment by Chris Smith on May 1, 2011 at 11:15am

Ihave been experimenting with a new idea with great results so far. For some time I have had worm bins that have making nice castings for me, but I wasn't doing anything with the juice that escapes the bins. About a month ago I relocated some of the bins over one of my sump tanks allowing the juice to enter the system. My system has responded well to the added nutrients and my plants look healthier than before. I have started target composting bananas and potato skins to boost potassium and iron. I believe that the micro-nutrient and micro-organisms addition to the system is making a big difference in my systems health. I have also feeding the poop out of my settling tank to the worms as well as all roots. This is helping me keep as much nutrient in the system as I can at the moment.

 

This is a shot of some of my worm bins over my sump.

 

Comment by Kobus Jooste on May 1, 2011 at 9:09am

I did see the blog, and will be looking over at Frank's two posts you just featured as I am sure he is doing the kind of things that I am very interested in.  I am also kind of thinking of a book, but more in the sense of family tradition right now.  My grand-father was an author, so was my father.  I need to get a book out some time to keep the tradition going!  I just personally think that there is so much more I want to see happen in AP before the type of book I'm interested in can be written.

 

May we all learn to wipe the slate clean and look at everything as a possibility.  That way we will surprise ourselves, I'm sure! 

Comment by Sylvia Bernstein on May 1, 2011 at 8:23am

Bravo, Kobus.  I find that I am usually talking to audiences with a hydro bent, and they are the toughest to get into an ecosystem frame of mind.  The notion that you can't just "add potassium" if it is lacking in the system, for example, is foreign, annoying, and a bit scary to these folks.  We need to just keep hammering on the "it's an ecosystem" message.

 

Did you read my recent blog post about bio-mimicry? I'm wondering if I might have somehow fired you up 

 

I'm looking forward to your book! (clearly you have to pull all of your blogs into a book someday, right?).

Comment by Kobus Jooste on April 29, 2011 at 7:49pm

I think there are more to "ecologically operated" systems than what we have explored to date.  Ecosystems experience a wide range of environmental conditions, while we try to keep "optimal" parameters locked in.  Our temperature and pH regime, for instance, locks certain nutrients out of the supply chain.  We know this, and add more in liquid or fliar spray form where we could also investigate the benefits of seasonal or perioding pH shifts. 

 

We may have to increase or media volume for this, but I'm all for that bit of ecosystem redundancy.  I have operated a system with "surplus" media volume and one with "just enough", and I think there was more positive things to say for the one with surplus media volume.

Comment by Chris Smith on April 29, 2011 at 11:46am
I agree with you Kobus. When teaching classes I explain aquaponics as a simple, assisted ecosystem in a man-made container. More people respond and understand the concepts better when I explain the ecosystem and how it works. I have several habitats(gravel beds, raft beds, towers and buckets) where efferent species thrive in their habitats. The more complicated the ecosystem the happier everything seems to be.

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