Monday, March 31, 2014

Mix It Up

Alright! Spring is finally here, and we're up to our eyeballs in salad again. The green is a nice change from looking at the foot of snow that's still covering the lawn.

I transplanted most of the baby starters into one of my "T Barrel" systems about a month ago. The seed packets I used had diverse mixes, so we have a nice variety of lettuces which include: Tango, Royal Oak Leaf, Red Salad Bowl, Black Seeded Simpson, Grand Rapids TBR, Red Sails, Arugula/Rocket, Four Seasons, Romaine Cos, Lolla Rossa, Romaine Cimmaron and Ruby. Who knew there were so many kinds?

The packets also contained the following seeds: Bloomsdale Spinach, Bok Choy, Golden & Magenta Swiss Chard, Endive, Mizuna and Red Giant Mustard. 

Growing multiple varieties promotes biodiversity which is healthy for the overall Aquaponics system. I'm no plant expert, so knowing that everything is edible makes the challenge of plant identification fun. Plus, it's more colorful, tasty, and interesting than if I'd just planted one variety of salad.

Meanwhile, the Fathead Minnows are getting ready to spawn in the 10 gallon fishtank. Stay tuned...

Monday, March 10, 2014

Aquaponics System For Sale or Trade

Recently, I've acquired and set up a couple of new fish tanks to convert into Aquaponics systems. Space in my house is getting pretty tight, however, so I have decided to sell one of my homemade "T Barrel" Aquaponics systems (the one on the right in the picture above).

I built these last year with 55 gallon water storage barrels, pvc plumbing, a small submersible water pump, and fluorescent overhead lighting. They have produced well indoors.

The top barrel holds the grow bed media (lightweight expanded shale) and pvc plumbing for the automatic bell siphon in the center, which periodically drains the grow bed. A small submersible water pump located in the bottom barrel provides aeration for fish in the bottom barrel, and plants in the top barrel. I run the pump on a constant flood and drain cycle to automatically flush every 12-15 minutes. When the grow bed is completely drained, the bottom tank holds about 30 gallons of water. 

I primarily used goldfish in this system to grow cool weather vegetables indoors throughout the year (parsley, spinach, lettuce, etc).

Aquaponic parsley
This system would be suitable both inside a house or apartment, or outdoors in the summer. It could also be used in a greenhouse, a sunroom, or even on a deck. As you can see, it's got a small footprint, and fits nicely below a window.

I am selling it for $200 with two light ballasts and bulbs, or $150 without them. I would also trade for a small towable camper or a utility trailer. The buyer will have to pick it up.You can email me at: with any questions. Thanks! Check back for upcoming posts about my new system designs.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Starting Over: New Fish & Plants

Here's a 10 gallon tank I set up about two weeks ago. I've been "cycling" the water and getting the nutrients up to convert it into a mini-system and grow some lettuce. Typically, the tank would be covered, to help prevent algae from growing, but with the sun beaming in from the left side, it makes for a better picture.

There are a half dozen fathead minnows in the tank, but they are all hiding. They are a hardy and reclusive fish. They like to hang out on the bottom of the tank and in the caves. They prefer slow moving water, so I set up the sponge filter (on the right) as they kept getting sucked into the water pump when I had them in one of the "T barrel" systems last winter. The sponge filter is much gentler for them. Live and learn, right?

They prefer schools of at least 5-6, water between 7.0-7.5 pH and temperature from 50-70 degrees F. So far, all the conditions seem just right for them to thrive in the small tank. Who knows? They might start breeding once the temperature gets warmer. It's around 60 degrees in that room now, so they are still below breeding temperature of 18C, or 64.4F.

Anyway, this what the fathead minnow looks like. Mine have turned much darker to blend in with the black backdrop of the tank, and are not as olive colored.
A couple of weeks ago, I planted a couple of trays of lettuce seeds from some left over seed packets. The High Mowing Organic Seed from Vermont sprouted in a week. Because all of my seeds were over a year old, I planted twice as much as I thought I'd need. This worked out well, since one of the trays hasn't sprouted anything yet. I'm going to re-seed that one by the end of the week if there is no growth.

The trays came with a plastic cover, just like a mini-greenhouse. After watering the seeds, I covered them with it and germinated them in the warmest part of the house (by the wood stove) where it's temperate, but dark. This kept them in a humid environment while the warm temperature sped up the germination rate.

Once they popped through the soil, I moved them to the office (where it's much cooler), took off the plastic cover, and put them under direct light. I can get the light twice as close (which is twice as strong) with the plastic cover off. Plus, they don't need the cover after they pop through the soil, anyhow.
Here they are under a new pair of cool white fluorescent bulbs which are covered by aluminum foil. The foil maximizes light reflection and also keeps in the heat.

Unfortunately, one of the two grow bulbs in the old ballast had burned out. I'm not sure when it happened, and only just noticed it today. You can see the stems of these greens really stretching toward the light. With the new bulbs overhead, their vertical growth should slow, and the leaves should start to develop at a faster rate than the stems. Otherwise, if they stretch too much and fall over, I'll have to start over again.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

It Takes a Year

You know that old saying, "It Takes a Year"? It's logic does seem to hold water (pun intended) when relating to taking on a new job and figuring it out, especially when the work is cyclical, as it is with the Biomimicry of nature in Aquaponics, as well as nature, itself. William Ackerman's acoustic album (music for meditation), "It Takes a Year" which relates to the seasons in nature seem like an appropriate soundtrack for this blog entry. Turn up your speakers. Here's the title track from it:
Pretty tune, huh? Anyway, as I reflect on my year experimenting with Aquaponics, I've come to realize that my systems are best designed for short-lived cool weather crops. The vegetables seem to grow more slowly after they become fully mature, as their roots don't uptake nutrients from their food as well when they get old - much like what happens with a human or animal's body when it ages.

In my last blog entry, "Extending the Growing Season", I wrote about transplanting Swiss Chard, Parsley and Rosemary from the outside garden to my soil-free Aquaponic systems in my indoors office. The Swiss Chard and Parsley quickly rebounded from transplantation shock and grew at a decent rate for a month or so. But, little did I realize that when I brought them inside, I also introduced aphids (aka "plant lice" into my systems. Yuck!
While aphids are tiny, they reproduce like crazy and do a lot of damage in a short period of time. They suck the juice from a plant, thus stunting growth. Aphid saliva is evidently toxic to plants as well.

Aphid populations can be kept under control by spraying the plants with water. There are organic ways to treat them which are non-toxic for fish (like chili and garlic sprays or introducing ladybugs which eat aphids). It's imperative not to introduce insecticides into Aquaponics, as they are toxic to fish but also get into our food supply as well. Murray Hallam has some helpful aphid control suggestions here at his Practical Aquaponics blog.

So what did I do? I harvested all but the Rosemary, as the aphids didn't touch it at all. The oil from Rosemary is medicine; no wonder they didn't like it.

To prevent harm to the fish with ammonia buildup, I simply took a bag of activated carbon which I would typically use in my aquarium, and put it under the water outflow on top of the growbed. This ensures that the water pumped from the fish tank to the growbed gets purified (what the roots of the Swiss Chard and Parsley were doing), and the fish don't experience a harmful ammonia spike.

Back to the cyclical nature of Aquaponics - it's time to plant some more lettuce seeds and start all over again!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Extending the Growing Season

We finally got our first frost last night. It came about a month later than usual. Since this fall has been so mild, I decided to keep potatoes, turnips and Swiss chard in the ground to let them continue to grow. But, it looks like it will dip into the 20's every night this week, so I'll harvest it all, with the exception of some turnips.

One of my favorite things with Aquaponics is transplanting plants from inside to outside, and vice versa. A few weeks ago, I transplanted a few Swiss chard and brought them indoors. They really don't seem to mind being transplanted from soil to the Aquaponics grow beds, and get over their initial transplant shock within a day.

Swiss chard


I started this parsley indoors, moved it outdoors for the summer and then transplanted it back inside about a month ago. It's still growing steadily.  You can see in the picture below how the parsley roots surround the grow bed media (expanded shale) for support. I had to trim the roots a bit when I transplanted it back into the grow bed.

The baby rosemary shoots that I rooted inside seem to be doing well so far in the grow beds. Most of their energy is going into developing their root system. They're pretty small, but rosemary is a strong herb so it really doesn't take much to add flavor to food.

Aloe Vera

I moved a tiny two-inch-high baby aloe plant from the grow bed into it's own container in potting soil. It seemed to be doing OK, and had grown about five times its original size. A couple of baby aloe plants even popped up around its base. 

After I transplanted it, I learned that aloe is not just used for external use (like healing burned skin), but there have also been claims that this versatile plant offers a myriad of internal health benefits as well. Supposedly, the juice of the aloe vera plant can lower blood sugar levels, triglycerides, LDL and total cholesterol levels - all helpful for diabetics and pre-diabetics. Check out this article from Natural News which claims it also fights cancer, Crohn's disease, gum disease, halts joint inflammation, boosts the immune system and more. There's even a aloe smoothie recipe toward the bottom. 
You probably know that aloe vera is good for your skin. But when you drink the juice of an aloe vera plant, you could help lower your blood sugar levels. You could also lower your triglyerides, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol. These are two very important preventative measures for diabetics and non-diabetics alike. - See more at:
You probably know that aloe vera is good for your skin. But when you drink the juice of an aloe vera plant, you could help lower your blood sugar levels. You could also lower your triglyerides, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol. These are two very important preventative measures for diabetics and non-diabetics alike. - See more at:

Outside, I'll see if I have any contenders for this Saturday's Gilfeather Turnip Festival in Wardsboro. Here's an article by Amy Kleppner of Wardsboro with more information, recipes, and history of her town's turnip, and the festival celebrating it. See you there!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Harvesting: The (Bitter)Sweet Reward

It's apple picking season, which also signals that it's time to harvest the outdoor garden. Since we only have one harvest time in Vermont, harvesting is a bittersweet process for me, since it will be an entire year before we get to do it all over again. This is one of the main reasons I practice Aquaponic gardening - to have the freshest grown food available year-round. Since I've been spending most of my gardening days outside in the dirt this summer, though, this blog post is dedicated to those crops instead.


I've only been growing corn for the last couple of years. Why? I dunno. Maybe because fresh corn is so plentiful and affordable this time of year at farm stands. But, there's really nothing like pulling an ear right off the stalk, dunking it in water, and throwing it immediately on the grill, as fresh as it gets. I figure they're ready to pick when I can't get my hand around the ear anymore. 

 I grew a few rows of Silver Queen right on the south side of my deck, spaced only about 8" apart. With this closer spacing, I noticed that instead of growing two full ears (last year I planted them 12" apart), most have only developed one. Still, I have a good dozen ears more than I grew last year. Most all of them recovered from the trampling from the neighborhood bear in early June. Check out those paw prints. They were as big as my hand.

Butternut Squash

I planted four hills with two squash plants each, and let the plants sprawl around the base of the adjacent corn plants. I haven't eaten any yet, but they seems just about ready since most of them are fully dark yellow color and the leaves are dying off. I've heard that the best thing to do is to pick them, and then rotate them for a couple of weeks, to prepare/season their skin for winter. I haven't grown these before, so we'll see how they turn out.


It wasn't a good year for my tomatoes. We bought a variety of kinds from Walker Farm - from cherry tomatoes to Romas. They were doing well until mid-August. But with cool temperatures and too much rain, the ripening process slowed right down to a sluggish crawl. Unfortunately, I still have quite a few semi-mature tomatoes on the vine, with our first frost right around the corner. Some drop right off the vine, still green. I noticed that some of the tomatoes had green/yellow "shoulders" on top. Many of them were heirloom varieties, and I guess that can be a prevalent condition with heirlooms. I grow basil in between the tomato plants, but they didn't grow that well this year either.

Asparagus Bean 

OK, I know what you're thinking...."Asparagus what?" This bean is also known as Yard Long Bean and Snake Bean. I bought a seed packet of these beans in an Baltimore Asian market this spring. I planted them in late May, but the plants grew very slowly. Since they grow like vines, I put up a low fence for them to use, as I do with my spring peas. But, they just grew around and through it.

They're finally starting to flower. Needless to say, I'm pretty sure the frost will kill these in the next couple of weeks before the beans develop if I don't cover them, so I may put up a cold frame around them and give them a better chance. Anyway, in Asia, these suckers grow bean pods over one and a half feet long! This is what they're supposed to look like when mature.


During that April trip to Baltimore, I picked up a small Northern Chicago variety fig tree at a nursery for $40. It was just a year old, but I was reassured that it would fruit this season as there were a few dead figs around the base of the plant already. I planted it in a big pot, and brought it outside in mid-May, and put it on the south facing patio. Figs require a lot of water, and have a soft wood, much like sumac. They grow very quickly. Within a month it had grown a foot or so, and sprouted about thirty little figs. This variety is ready to eat when they turn from green to purple. They're delicious and not too seedy. After a couple of frosts, I'll bring it inside, prune it, and it will be dormant until I put it back outside next spring. I guess it doesn't need much watering at all in the winter, so it's only a high maintenance plant half of the year.


I pulled the row of Tiger Lilies from the front of our house and planted beets and turnips in their place. Sound weird? Well, I wanted to maximize growing space on the long side of our house which faces West. With all the rain cascading off our roof, the beets and turnips did pretty well and didn't need much attention. This one is about softball size.  

Gilfeather Turnip 

You gotta love the ol' Gilfeather Turnip (a.k.a. "the poor man's lobster"). It's hearty, grows late into the season, and so tasty. I grew these up against the house on the West side. Insects chewed holes through the leaves, but if you're familiar with these vegetables, you know it's a pretty ugly vegetable, anyway. Who knows? Maybe I'll submit one of them to the Wardsboro 11th Annual Gilfeather Festival on October 26th. They do award a prize for the ugliest turnip in their turnip contest, after all.


My neighbor gave me some Yukon Gold potatoes in early spring, so once May hit, I planted a couple of rows of them in a mix of soil and fresh compost. I planted them with their sprouts pointed up, just peeking through the soil. An early May frost turned their leaves brown and I thought they'd die. But, they were hardy, and the taters bounced right back. Weeds quickly took over my potato beds, and by late June, they demanded serious attention. Luckily, after weeding them I had a lot of soil from my new garden plot to cover the plants with, and they grew well in foot-high mounds. Next year, I think I'll plant more rows.

Swiss Chard

Chard is an amazing plant. It seems that the more you cut it, the more it grows back. I planted just one row of chard this year, but that was enough since it grows like crazy. I might even have to freeze some for winter.

Dinosaur Kale

This variety grows longer than some other kinds of kale, and the leaves do resemble dinosaur skin. Insects got to mine, but that's no big deal. I'll just make some kale chips by rinsing it, patting it dry with a towel (otherwise you'll end up steaming it) and covering it with just a little olive oil and salt. Bake it at 350 degrees for about ten minutes flipping it after about five minutes. They're awesome.

If you've read this far, you're probably wondering what's happening with my Aquaponics projects. Find out by tuning in to WKVT AM 1490 this Friday from 10-11am for September's radio show of "Tank to Table" with Susan Crowther and host, Chris Lenois! 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

On the Radio: Tank to Table

"Testing 1-2-1-2...Hey, is this thing on?!"

This Friday, I'll be on the local radio with my wife, Susie Crowther, and "Live and Local" DJ, Chris Lenois. We're kicking off a new talk show, called "Tank to Table", which will air the third Friday of the month on WKVT 1490 AM.

Tank to Table features aquaponically grown food and No Recipe cooking. We'll discuss healthy eating, gardening, sustainability, localvorism...and much more. Check it out this Friday from 10-11am!

Since the release of Susie's book, we've been on the radio and TV quite a bit this summer, something new for both of us. These experiences have inspired us to host our own radio shows on Thursday mornings at WVEW 107.7 FM from 8-10am. From 8-9am is "What's Cooking?", featuring health, cooking, and music. My show, "Homebrew", follows from 9-10am. I feature the local music scene and cover topics like Aquaponics, sustainability and gardening. As a local musician, it's been a great way to connect with talented artists and promote our community.

Since Susie and I spend so much time together, I've even gotten her to sing on a couple of short radio jingles I made for both Chris Lenois and DJ Pockets. Here's a spooky one we did for "Konspiracy Korner: Down the Rabbit Hole". Enjoy!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Taking Local to a New Level

 Hemp seed in Saskatchewan, Canada 

Have you seen the Summer 2013 issue of Vermont's Local Banquet magazine?

This water-themed issue features articles on Local Trout, Aquaponics and Wild Mountain Fish - all found in our beloved Green Mountain state. Does that article look familiar? "Hooked on Aquaponics", was a reprint from The Commons article from March, only with different photos and a fancier layout. I was honored to be featured.
Soon after VLB's 25th summer edition came out, Brattleboro hosted some Localvore activities as part of their "Slow Living Summit". Not surprisingly, Vermont was, again, rated #1 on the Localvore Index.  A famous author, Francis Moore Lappe, even came to town and talked to people about her book, "Diet for a Small Planet". People came from far away, including a group of Middlebury College students who visited town on a field trip for a summer food course. After they heard Lappe's talk, they visited our house and learned about Aquaponics. I eagerly shared how growing your own food with Aquaponics is more sustainable, healthier, better for the environment and more economically positive than foods sourced from "big Ag", or large-scale, globalized food systems. They were bright students, and easily understood the many benefits of growing with Aquaponics.

My wife is Susan Crowther, author of the new Natural Foods/Culinary Arts book,
"The No Recipe Cookbook: A Beginner's Guide to the Art of Cooking".

We spent the following evening at her first book signing in Brattleboro. Even though it poured rain, and we never saw Francis Moore Lappe, we did have a great time talking to people about FARE WELL (her acronym for cooking with what's "Fresh, Ripe, Whole and Local"), at at The Kitchen Sync on Main Street.

But, now all this talk about food is making me hungry...time to pick some more Aquaponic salad!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Connecting the Drops

Last Saturday's Aquaponics workshop in Bellows Falls was a big success! I was honored to be part of Grafton Nature Museum's 2013 series of lectures and workshops about water called "Connecting the Drops". Thank you, Carrie King, Will Danforth, and Madeline Bergstrom!

Missed it? No worries. Email me at if you'd like me to give a workshop to your organization, or if you are seeking consultation about Aquaponics.

Here are some photos of the event by Madeline. 



Monday, June 03, 2013

June 15 Aquaponics Workshop & Fish Ladder Open House

Want to have fun on Father's Day weekend? Brattleponics is coming to Bellows Falls!

Here's the official press release.

The fish are jumping! The Nature Museum at Grafton will offer a full day of events related to rivers and fish on Saturday, June 15, in Bellows Falls. All events are free and open to the public. These events are part of Connecting the Drops, The Nature Museum’s year-long series of programs on water issues.

Aquaponics is an ancient gardening practice of growing edible plants by fertilizing them with the waste water from fish in a sustainable closed system. An Introduction to Aquaponics with Mark Crowther will be held on June 15 from 10:30 a.m. to noon at the Windham Hotel ballroom at Popolo, the restaurant at 36 The Square in Bellows Falls. Crowther is the founder of Brattleponics, creating aquaponic systems and leading workshops to teach others about the practice. This workshop will acquaint you with how to create your own home aquaponics system. Admission is free; donations are welcome. Learn more about Mark Crowther at

Around the corner at the Bellows Falls Fish Ladder Visitor Center, The Nature Museum will offer a free Open House from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., also on June 15. Check out the exhibits, see live fish, and find out how the fish ladder works. Activities with naturalist Susan Foster will include a mystery animal hunt, a pond life touch tank, and nature crafts. Lael Will, a Fisheries Biologist with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, will talk about the health of the Connecticut river and its fish from 12:30 to 1:15 p.m.

The Fish Ladder Visitor Center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from now through Labor Day weekend. Admission is always free. The Nature Museum at Grafton operates the Visitor Center on behalf of TransCanada Corporation, owner of the fish ladder as well as the hydroelectric facility in Bellows Falls.

Located at 186 Townshend Road in Grafton, Vermont, The Nature Museum offers engaging exhibits, programs for adults and children, tours for school groups, and in-depth naturalist residencies in schools. This summer, the Museum will host a drop-in summer camp on Thursdays for pre-K through 5th graders. Information about this and other upcoming events can be found at or on The Nature Museum at Grafton’s Facebook page.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Aquaponic Cultivation Tips

In preparation for recent workshops, I compiled a list of cultivation tips. Some of these are no-brainers, while others may be less obvious to the Aquaponic newbie. Keep these guidelines in mind as you set up your new Aquaponic system, and your fish and plants will thank you.

    General Tips
  • Invest in a pH kit and test the pH of the water periodically. 
  • Plants generally prefer pH slightly acidic water (6.5-7pH and fish generally prefer slightly alkaline water (7-7.5pH). Many Aquaponic gardeners shoot for a 6.8-7.0pH range. 
  • Your water must stay within 6.0-8.0pH range to allow the process of nitrification. Otherwise your plants won’t grow well, and your fish may suffer, too. Sudden changes in pH can harm your fish, so make changes to water pH slowly.
  • It’s a good idea to invest in an ammonia, nitrite and nitrate test kit as well. You can buy a kit that will test pH, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate, for about $25.
         Tips for Fish
  • Rinse your gravel thoroughly. Dirt will clog gills and harm your fish! 
  •  If you know someone with an aquarium, “seed” your new sponge filter by squeezing their established filter bacteria over your new sponge. This will speed up the time it takes to cycle your fish tank.
  • Always use non-chlorinated water. If you have municipal tap water, then pour two 5 gallon buckets (for a 10 gallon fish tank) and leave them outside. The chlorine gas will escape and the water should be safe to use after a couple of days. You can also treat water with de-chlorinator additive, found at a local pet store. 
  • Collect rainwater in barrels to re-use the water in your fish tank – the plants prefer water that’s slightly acidic anyway, and there is no chlorine to worry about.
  • If you see your fish with red gills, swimming erratically, then you may likely have an ammonia problem. Remember, “Dilution is the Pollution Solution”. A quick water change can help if you notice the problem in time.
  • After you set up your fish tank, remember to do partial water changes (about 20-25% of your water) every few days for the first couple of weeks. Don’t change more than ½ of your water at one time. 
  • If you are not over-feeding your fish, you should be able to reduce water changes to once a week or so after that. If the solids are accumulating on the bottom of your tank, remove them with a siphon.
  •  Don’t over-feed your fish! Feed them what they can consume in 5 minutes or less. If a fish dies, then don’t feed any surviving fish for a day or two. It’s better to under-feed than over-feed.
  • Regularly inspect your fish for changes in behavior. You may be able to double or triple the time between water changes in the tank if you start out slowly and don't over-stock your fish tank.
  •  Stock your tank no more than 1" for every gallon of water, at the size your species of fish will grow to maturity.
  • Stocking density "Rule of Thumb" is 1 pound of fish for every 5-10 gallons of water.
  • If you have the space, most Aquaculturalists will tell you that a round fish tank is best. But, plenty of Aquaponic gardeners grow in rectangular and square tanks that do just fine.
  • In general, bigger fish tanks tend to be more stable, and it is best to shoot for at least 90- 100 gallons if you are growing edible fish to plate size.
         Tips for Plants 

  • When starting your system, at first consider plants that require low-nutrient levels as it can take a while to fully “cycle” your water and get your fertilizer levels (nitrates) up!
  • It’s OK to transplant small starter plants, just be sure to remove all the dirt from the roots! 
  • If you are using low wattage fluorescent lights, the closer the better - keep them about 1-2” above the plants. Remember that lighting intensity is cut in half when distance from plant to light is doubled.
  • Make the sides of your glass fish tank opaque to prevent algae growth, which will kill the roots of your plants. Simply covering three sides with a black garbage bag will work, and still allow viewing access to the fish, but it will warm up the water temperature. 
  • For maximum natural sunlight exposure, South facing windows are best. But be careful to watch the temperature fluctuations, as big spikes can harm both plants and fish.  
  • If you harvest all of whatever you’re growing and re-plant new, the baby plant roots won't be able to absorb as many nutrients as your mature plants. Keep water changes in mind when you replant.
  • If you use sea salt to cure sick fish, your plants won’t like it.
  • For media filled growbed systems, you will want to have at least a 1:1 ratio of 12" deep grow bed volume to fish tank volume.  Much less than this will not provide adequate filtration for your fish.  You can go all the way to a 3:1 grow bed to fish tank volume, but remember there is a limited amount of nutrients available in the water for the plants, your plant growth will likely suffer beyond 3:1.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Workshops at Putney Library May 15 & 19

This Wednesday, I'm giving an "Introduction to Aquaponics" workshop at the Putney Library at 7pm, sponsored by Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center (BEEC) and Transition Putney. It's free and open to the public.

Online registration is required for the follow-up workshop on Sunday, May 19th, called "Build your own mini-Aquaponic system". There is a $50 materials fee and participants will go home with their own kit to start aquaponic gardening. In case you missed it, here's my previous post about the kit:

$50 mini-system growing lettuce
In preparation for Wednesday's Introduction to Aquaponics workshop, I've been updating my Powerpoint presentation. The workshop is about an hour, and will follow this structure:

  • What is Aquaponics?
  • How does it work? 
  • Brief History of Aquaponics
  • Why practice Aquaponics?
  • Personal Choices: Plants, Fish, Materials (Benefits & Solutions)
  • Considerations
  • Implications 
  • Question & Answer

I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Got yellow leaves?

I transplanted garlic, basil and parsley last week into my Barrelponic systems. Within a couple of days, the parsley leaves and some of the other plants started to turn dull yellow. Also, I noticed some of my other plants had stunted growth. Uh oh.

Maybe the sea salt I added to the water (to cure some sick fish) the previous week was killing my plants? Plants don't like salt that much. But, I hadn't added that much salt. After a little research and a quick water test, I suspected that the slightly high pH of my water was causing Iron Chlorosis. Iron Chlorosis is a condition where plants are unable to extract sufficient iron from their environment, due to high alkalinity. The leaves turn yellow and eventually brown.

Chelated Iron may be added to counterbalance high pH and reverse the yellowing process. Because it is safe for fish, it is widely used in Aquaponics. But, Chelated Iron can be expensive, so some Aquaponic farmers add rusty nails or rebar ("pig iron") into their systems instead. Rust is really iron oxide, which is not a water soluble form of iron like Chelated Iron. Rusty nails turn the water brown, but plants can't the absorb iron oxide into their cells. Also, most nails are made from a mix of metals anyway, so you have to be careful that you're not adding other unwanted metals into your system as well. 

Since Chelated Iron seems to be the most widely recognized supplement for Iron Chlorosis, I thought I'd try it out to save my yellowing plants. I found some tablets in powder form in the dietary supplement section of a local supermarket. They were only $5 for a bottle for 100 tablets, which was much cheaper than what I expected. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for. The tablets must not have been very pure, because not all of the powder dissolved into the water. I found a few dead fish the following day. I suspect they ate the undissolved additives such as potato starch, magnesium stearate, and medium chain triglycerides. Potato protein is found in my goldfish food, but the other stuff is not. A purer form might have saved the fish.

The good news is that all the plants responded well. The leaves returned to a vibrant green after a couple of days. Here's the parsley after Chelated Iron treatment. Growth is strong once again.

So, what's the lesson?

Be careful what you add. Unwanted chemicals can quickly harm your systems. What's good for your plants might not be good for your fish, and vice-versa.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Salad Time

Aquaponic salad

One of the best things about indoor Aquaponic gardening is that salad is always available and just a few feet away. Plus, there's no dirt or bugs! I've been cutting the leaves off the lettuce with a small pair of scissors and tossing them directly into the colander for a quick rinse. Using scissors must seem like a pretty funny idea, for non-gardeners. But, the scissors make a clean cut, which promotes leaf regeneration. One benefit is less re-planting of baby lettuce, which means less work for me.

I've been growing most of my lettuce in expanded shale and have observed that my plant roots grow more horizontally than vertically, as with soil-based gardening. When I added the young lettuce transplants, a lot of their energy was spent establishing a root system. Now that the lettuce roots are established, the plants can easily uptake nutrients from the water, and seem to re-leaf quickly. But, so far, not as quickly as baby lettuce grows, and not all the cut lettuce leaves grow back.

Aquaponic gardening requires a continuous cycling of planting and harvesting both young and old plants for maximum yield and to balance water chemistry. The fish, providing the fertilizer for the plants, depend on the plant roots to clean the water. So, if I pull all of the plants out at the same time, the absence of an established root system would cause a spike in ammonia, which could harm the fish.

Lettuce will keep growing until the temperature gets hot enough for it to "bolt" or produce seeds (instead of leaves). At that point, the lettuce gets bitter. I read in the Farmer's Almanac that lettuce will bolt in the late summer when the temperature at night stays hot. Evidently, lettuce likes to cool down at night. Since it's only April, and not early August, the threat of bolting is a long way off. For now, it's salad time!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Vertical Gardening

My garden
Weather permitting, I'm about to plant my outdoor garden next week. I've been turning the soil over and fertilizing with fresh compost. Compared to aquaponic gardening, all the tilling and weeding is extra work. By Vermont standards, it's still early in the season. I feel fortunate to have started before the weeds really start growing. Hopefully, I'll fix my garden fence before the neighbors' cows escape and find the fresh hay mulch I put down in between the rows.

The garden rows are in great shape now, but the adjacent strawberry bed is overcrowded with baby runners.
freshly weeded strawberry bed
Since I didn't weed it enough late last summer, the grass took over and I had to weed it all over again. I wanted to rescue my old strawberry bed, but all the weeding is getting tiresome. Surely, there must be a simpler way to get a few quarts of berries, right?

April strawberry
Looking for the easy way out, I found this simple design to build a wooden pallet vertical garden, which I plan to fill with hay and transplant the baby strawberry runners. I've got an extra bale of hay, so I might try just stuffing the pallet with hay and planting the strawberries directly into it. They're not called straw-berries for nothing, right? Hay is a good source of nitrogen and withholds moisture, so it's worth a try. Besides, a pallet has a tiny footprint of only four feet of space. I'm going to support it on the bottom with feet so it can be easily moved, like this one.

Vertical pallet garden with feet

Since gardening is scalable, you can put a vertical pallet garden right on a patio, deck, rooftop, or someplace where you might not ordinarily consider gardening. It can maximize overall plant yield, which is a huge benefit. Some varieties prefer to be grown vertically, like heirloom tomatoes. They naturally like to sprawl, as opposed to the bush tomato types. Since the plants are off the ground, the system is less susceptible to pests, and there is less bending over to take care of the garden. Besides requiring less soil, I've read that vertical gardens also require less water, which is another huge benefit. Best of all, though, I won't have to do as much weeding!

Australian Aquaponic guru, Murray Hallam, demonstrates a few options and considerations about how to make your own Aquaponics vertical strawberry tower.

Murray Hallam next to strawberry tower

Because my aquaponics systems are centered around growing vegetables for year-round indoor/outdoor production, I've opted not to grow strawberries in my systems, but I do plan have a vertical system built soon.

I've been working on a prototype for a vertical mini-Aquaponic system, and am intrigued with this Youtube video below. I found a couple of 5 gallon water jugs and plan to replicate this design. With a lightweight (portable) pvc pipe for the frame, a 5 gallon water jug, a couple of air pumps, aquarium tubing, some gravel, and some recycled plastic bottles, this inexpensive system can get you started with aquaponics.

The hole in the middle of the growbed is used to feed the fish, but also allows access for a siphon tube to clean waste solids from the bottom of the tank. I think this 5 gallon system would be too small for most species of fish, but might work well with a betta (Siamese fighting fish), guppies, or for a shrimp or crayfish tank. Stay tuned!