Aquaponics for the Painfully “Beginner”

Despite all of my reservations about the necessity for killing things, I still dream almost every day of having a small holding.  Well, more than a small holding really, I want an acre or so of land that I can permaculture.

One of the aspects I find very exciting is the idea of aquaculture.  I love fish and would have several large fish tanks if we had the space and resources.  The idea of large, outside ponds filled with edible fish (trout, maybe bass, but not tilapia. . .NEVER tilapia!) supporting a plethora of edible water loving and water tolerant plants within a larger, harmonic garden just strikes me as so beautiful an idea.

Alas, we are at least one large lottery win from this little dream, so in the meantime, I’ve decided to experiment with aquaculture on a small scale.  A couple of years ago Back to the Roots ran a Kickstarter campaign that involved a three gallon tank specialist tank, some rocks, a couple of little fish and five pots of herbs or greens.  My fiancé helped finance the campaign on my behalf as a Christmas present. When the campaign succeeded (how could it not?) they went into production and six months later, I had my tank.

It's not the size, it's how you use it.
It’s not the size, it’s how you use it.

Then, life happened to us.  And kept happening.  The tank got packed away with a lot of other things when we moved apartments and it is only recently when I began researching aquaponics that I remembered I had this little tank.  So into the spare room I went, dug it out, and in a few short steps (clean the tank, go back into the spare room for the bits that had fallen out of the box, rinse the stones, pile them in the tank, reread the instructions, dig the stones back out, rinse them and the tank again, go out for a cabinet to set the tank on, set up tank, go back out for fish, set up plants, realise pump is only a 120v pump, go back out for compatible pump, chase cats away repeatedly while installing new pump, sit back exhausted and watch the fish) the tank was all set up and bubbling away happily.

Mom, you got me a new toy!
Mom, you got me a new toy! – Aleister

The tank is broken down into several components; the main tank, the “circulation shelf”, planting basket holder with rocks and pump.  The circulation shelf sits on top of the main tank and the planting baskets sit on top of that.  In the centre of the circulation shelf a wide clear tube goes down nearly to the bottom of the tank.  A smaller inner tube within the larger tube delivers air.

Circulation Shelf: A - Overflow outlets B - Inflow C - Airline from pump
Circulation Shelf:
A – Overflow outlets
B – Inflow from tank
C – Airline from pump
Outer and inner tubes
Outer and inner tubes

The idea is that the fish do their thing in the main tank – turn the water into a nightmare of uneaten fish food, carbon dioxide, poo and nitrites.  The inner tube delivers air into the outer tube and the bubbles force water from the bottom of the tank (where the water quality would be poorest) up through the outer tube and up into the circulation shelf.  Special bacteria grown on the rocks in the grow baskets break the nitrites down into nitrates and other waste products, which the plants feast on, cleansing the water.  Clean, root-filtered water drops back down into the tank through the overflow outlets on the circulation shelf, stirring up the surface and infusing the water with oxygen.  A one inch gap between the surface of the water and the bottom of the circulation shelf facilitates this flow.

Top left to bottom right: Wheatgrass, Marjoram, feeding door, Lemon Balm, Lamb's Lettuce and Genovese Basil.
Top left to bottom right:
Wheatgrass, Marjoram, feeding door, Lemon Balm, Lamb’s Lettuce and Genovese Basil.
Close up of the rock basket and Wheatgrass seeds.
Close up of the rock basket and Wheatgrass seeds.

It’s a beautiful, simple little symbiotic system that should require a minimum of interaction beyond feeding the fish and occasionally topping up the water.  I’ve seen mixed reviews of how well it’s worked, but the theory is sound and the endorsements have been positive enough that I believe it well worth a try.

The Residents:

Goddamn Shark

If you were this fancy, you'd spend all day in front of a mirror too.
If you were this fancy, you’d spend all day in front of a mirror too.

Goddamn Shark (or just Shark for short) is a turquoise and red fantail betta.  He’s the main driver of the tank ecosystem, but since he isn’t as filthy as a goldfish (goldfish are the frat boys of fish in terms of cleanliness), he needed friends.

The Monks

Monks are not as vain as those fancy fish.
Monks are not as vain as those fancy fish.

These little guys are White Cloud Mountain Minnows, a fascinating breed of fish that is unfortunately all but extinct in the wild now due to the destruction and loss of habitat, and pollution among what little habitat is left.

Both of these species are fairly hardy to water quality (which is a good thing as thus far this is an untested system for me) and like room temperature water just fine. I have faith the system will work, but while the plants are growing and developing roots (and in case things went pear shaped) I wanted survivors that I knew could handle the nascent system while it develops.

Hey, you provide the food, I make the poops, deal?
Hey, you provide the food, I make the poops, deal?

My only hesitation with this tank is that it is an American system, and therefore replacement products for it are very hard to obtain (without taking out a mortgage).  My next big challenge with this project will be sourcing the tank and system care maintenance items I need.  A girl’s work is never done.

Wait, how am I supposed to eat these things?
Wait, how am I supposed to eat these things?

Questions, suggestions or ideas?  Leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you.  Feel free to join us on Facebook as well, where I share lots that I find in relation to food, ethical food, markets, permaculture and more!

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