Inspired by reading about Travis Hughey's Barrelponics system and Will Allen's much larger scale operation (Growing Power) in Milwaukee, I decided to try to grow some of my own food by making a small home aquaponics system.
Aquaponic gardening is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponic gardening, where the waste products from fish fertilize plants, and in turn the plant roots filter the waste from the water and absord nitrates so the water is clean when recycled to the fish tank. The key to the system is bacteria that convert the ammonia from the fish waste into nitrates that are easily absorbed by the plants.
My aquaponics experiment started with an ambitious dream of a backyard pond full of perch and a greenhouse full of vegetables. That isn't what happened. Instead, I ended up with a basement laboratory (Mwa-Ha-Ha!) filled with flourescent grow lights, gurgling water, and a soil-less garden full of lettuce and peas. More after the squiggle.
After our Bradford Pear tree was hit by lightning and my wife got tired of looking at the stump, I thought I had my opportunity. My son and I dug out the stump, and I pitched the idea of making the hole we dug into a pond. My wife thought that was a great idea. Of course, I was thinking perch-filled aquaponics pond. She was thinking decorative garden pond. We compromised and made a nice decorative garden pond, and populated it with comet and shubunkin goldfish. My wife and daughter named the fish after composers and famous literary figures like Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Ondine, Dorian, and Bozo. I was disappointed at first, but they are pretty little fish.
They also became the key to my aquaponics plans as the weather got colder. Our pond is only a few feet deep, so our famous fish friends would need a warmer place to spend the winter. The pictures below shows my first system, with a 150 gallon stock tank for the fish and a single shallow planting bed filled with expanded clay planting media and a bell siphon drain.
I planted plum tomatoes, snow peas, and green beans in my first attempt. The peas did very well for a while, but the tomato plants eventually took over and crowded out everything else. As I read later, the combination of cool temperatures, low light intensity means that the tomatoes produce few fruit, but the high nitrate content is great for growing long stringy plants and leaves. We had three tomato plants with vines growing up into the basement rafters, but got a total of four small tomatoes.
Still, I was inspired by the fact that I hadn't killed the fish and produced a pretty nice batch of pea pods and a huge sprawling mess of tomato vine in the process. I've expanded a bit since then.
I think I'll need to try a different fish and upgrade my lighting to get better production, but my crazy basement garden is a success.