Aquaponic Gardening

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Here we are a couple months into the Summer, and I figure I'd give you all an update on my greenhouse.

NYC greenhouse booty:

- 10 skinny salad heads

- 1 huge bunch of rapini

- 3 sweet pea pods (I'll explain later)

- 3 large mortgage lifter tomatoes (2lbs)

- 3 jalapeño (2oz)

- 2 red corno di toro peppers (3oz)


My system has been a bit of a pain in the arse to maintain for 3 reasons:

1. Ignorance: Pests and Environmental conditions

2. Fingerling size

3. Location location location

Ignorance: Pests and Environmental conditions

You really don't know what you don't know until you get started.

My friend and I started building this system in the winter with our minds set on testing output during the cold season. We were obsessed with making sure that our fish would be able to withstand the low temperatures of the Northeast.  While we could not anticipate the unusually mild winter, we didn't plan for the usually hot NYC summer. Originally, I figured that we would just roll back the poly cover on hot days and that our plants would do just fine.  Lesson #1: there are these nasty little variables called the weather and predators.  

I started seeing aphids a couple weeks in.  One day when the door was open, a bird decided to drink from the tank.  Thought bubbles appeared over my head: me covered in bird poop trying to release a panicked bird unable to exit the screened greenhouse; rodents resting against my plants, their bellies full, skewering their buck teeth with my fish bones.  That's when I decided that the poly would stay on, and unless I was there, that door would be closed.  I went and bought lady bugs, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.  The aphids began to disappear but spider mites reared their ugly little heads. I had a gorgeous looking sweet pea plant, which from one day to the next just looked like it turned to stone, as if it had stared into the eyes of Medusa. A replacement seedling took quickly, but again... Medusa, that bitch.  I pulled out all the sweet peas, and the eggplant is the only plant that is still a little webbed up. Neem oil's next.  I'm a little peeved that the eggplant is still not producing because I absolutely love eggplant.  I'm thinking that the lack of harvest is more heat related than anything else.  

Let's rewind for a sec. It was May when I first planted the raft and 4 seedling plants (tomato, jalapeño, peppers, eggplant).  The tomatoes took off like a rocket, and the peppers soon followed. The eggplant however stayed stunted.  We were still having some cold spells in between hot days and we soon started to see teeny tomatoes and peppers.  I was wringing my hands with excitement.  Well, guess what, It's now early August and still no eggplant.  Lesson #2: heat can keep you away from delicious eggplant.

I keep a record of water and environmental parameters, and you might be surprised to learn that the temps in my greenhouse have varied from 70 to 120F.  During our first heat wave, I saw a max temp of 115F.  Coupled with spider mites, I bought a pretty neat fan from the dollar store that blows down and out.  It helped improve air circulation around the plants, but didn't do much to alleviate the heat.  No new fruit are growing - flowers keep appearing and dying.  During this time my nitrates began to disappear.  While the 2 pepper plants seem perfectly satisfied with the greenhouse conditions, the leaves of my tomato plant have been curled and yellow on the lower portions of the plant.  Since the leaves are yellow in between the veins, I started to panic thinking that it might be a bacteria or a virus. I sprayed the tomato leaves with a diluted Calcium/Magnesium cocktail to see if that would help and it seems that the leaves have uncurled a smudge and the yellow is easing off.  I haven't ruled out the disease alternative, but I'd rather deal with the lack of nutrients in my water before pulling anything out.  This weekend I'm installing an exhaust fan and dropping down the poly over the screened windows (I need to create negative pressure to suck that hot air out).  I'll keep you posted on that.  I'm optimistically hoping for a 10 degree drop. 

Fingerling size

I started with fingerlings so small that they did not grow at the same rate as my plants. In fact the plants grew so fast that they overwhelmed the nitrates. Of course early on in the story, I don't know this... yet.  I'm diligently checking my water wondering why my nitrates are dropping all of a sudden.  Could it be that I didn't completely cycle the system the first time around?  I take the fish out, dump in an 1oz of ammonia and voila 5ppm nitrates the next day. Great. The nitrites are at 0 ppm, so I add the fish back in.  Now yikes, the nitrates spike to 40 ppm! Wth!  The fish are dancing around like they don't have a care in the world.  Silly fish.  Well, they don't seem to mind, so I hang tight.  Within 2 weeks the nitrates are back down to 0 ppm.  Great, now what?  It just recently occurred to me that my yellow vial was actually a little orangey (0+ppm).  Out go the fish, in goes the ammonia.  Next day: 10ppm.  Argh!  The fish are currently out of the tank. Lesson #3: don't get too ambitious with your initial planting. Maybe it would have been best to start with just greens.

Location location location

This is not going where you think it's going.  Here's a tip.  It's probably a bad idea to set up a greenhouse at your relatives' house when you don't know what the heck you're doing yet.  My thinking was that I don't have an outdoor space and my family is only a 15 minute drive away.  So why not?  I guess I could have started a small indoor system but I prefer to torture myself.  Lesson #4: have your setup as close to you as possible, preferably in your backyard.  

My family's been doing an ok job feeding the fish and caring for the plants, but the biggest issue has been feeding the fish often enough and caring for the fish when I pull them out of the tank.  Without a filter, the ammonia quickly rises in a small aquarium.  Between working full-time, going to grad school and managing social expectations it's exhausting to zip between responsibilities.  I've found myself emptying ammonia from one tank to the other at 11pm.  The most frightening thing happened last week during a water change.  I've done many of these and the fishes never seemed to mind, but that day I saw them all rush towards the corner of the tank gasping for air.  And by gasping, I mean their mouths were clear out of the water.  I had to think quickly.  To me, gasping = lack of oxygen.  I ran to my tank, pulled the air filter and added a second diffuser.  Within seconds, the fish settled down.  My blood pressure rises just thinking about it.  This is the second time I pull the fish out and the first time they gasp for air.  The difference?  The number of diffusers.  I was wondering how the fish could continue to dance around so happily the first time around when my ammonia vial routinely turned greenish-blue.  The first time around, I dumped 2 diffusers in the aquarium tank.  This time around, I moved the aquarium to the garage, where the fish would be cooler (water temps had gone up to 90F the last time around I did this exercise.. by the way, the fish danced happily then too - so silly).  Anyway, I bought a separate air pump and dropped in just one diffuser.  Lesson #5: It seems that tilapia are agnostic to changes in water temps and ammonia as long as you pump enough oxygen in their tank to blow them out of the water. They seem to love swimming through the bubbles by the way.


That's it for now.  Hopefully you'll learn from my mistakes.  Lesson #6: No amount of training can eliminate the likelihood of making mistakes. It just reduces the risk of failure. You'll have to jump in and learn by making your own mistakes :)  I'm not ashamed to say that I did get professional training, and clearly I'm still learning.

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Comment by Little NYC on August 5, 2012 at 9:17am

Hi Lynda, Thanks for your comment. I just checked out your Facebook page, and what an impressive amount of space you have! I can easily move my fish since I only have about 20 fingerlings, the largest of which is 3". I added an exhaust fan to my greenhouse yesterday and I couldn't believe my eyes when I watched the temperature drop 10 degrees in the first 5 minutes, and then another 5 degrees when I returned 15 minutes later!  I'm hooking that baby up to a thermostat today to conserve energy.  I calculated that 400 CFM was suitable for the size of my greenhouse and bought the "Hydrofarm Active Air 6 inch In-Line Fan". The thermostat controller I'll be using is the "Lux WIN100 Heating & Cooling Programmable Outlet Thermostat". 

Comment by Lynda on August 5, 2012 at 6:27am

We hear you... Aquaponics in NC, on facebook... yes.. the bugs, the slow growth.. the dont feed, feed issues.. the first 90 days, were interesting... we started with gold fish, and bass... they both have held up well in the temps.. since fish like the dark, we have kept them covered with blue tarps and over the blue tarp white sheets, and their water temp stays around 80 on the days it got to 105 here, it was over 120 inside, the water stayed about 85... there were a couple days we added well water, comes in at 55 degrees, we just added about 5 gallons, cooling it... we added it to the rock bed first not to add shock... we have also learned from a couple of the greats on here.. that it takes about 6months of nutrient growth to support tomatoes.. got that after ours didnt grow.. you sound just like us. .. except we have not done any fish removel yet... thankfully.. we have about 75 gold fish and 7 bass, the bass are about 7 inches long... we are hoping to add some blue channel cat very soon.. thanks for making me feel better by sharing..

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