Aquaponic Gardening: Phase I

An aquaponics setup featured on TeachGreen.
With winter coming, we're down to cauliflower, leeks, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and celery out in the garden—which means our tomatoes are canned and blanched, our string beans are canned (and some sauteed and frozen), and soybeans are frozen (ready for edamame).

Instead of being reduced to (gasp!) shopping for all our produce at the grocery store, and since we've got a stellar intern riding out the cold months with us in the North Country, I consulted this morning with dear friend Marco Centola of Brooklyn Farms about creating a hydroponic setup at Better Farm to grow fresh salad greens (and even a tomato or pepper plant) year-round.

We're very interested in not just going hydroponic, but in utilizing earth systems to make this happen. Marco brilliantly suggested we create an aquaponic setup with a fishtank where we could raise any kind of freshwater fish we wanted, including—if we go large, with a 100-gallon tank or bigger—trout or other edible fish for the omnivores of the house.

Marco explained that setting up the fish tank has to happen about a month before introducing plants to the system. Here are my marching orders for the next few weeks before Marco comes up to initiate the full system with us:
  • Purchase at least a 40-gallon fish tank, with two corner filters
  • Fill the tank with water
  • Two days later, add fish. At first, Marco explained, we should only add feeder fish. He says these fish will die ("Bad genetics and bad water quality," he explained); and that when they do, we should leave them floating in the water. As the feeder fish break down, they'll be ammonia-based waste. Bacteria will slowly colonize and turn ammonia into nitrite (ammonia and nitrite are both toxic to plants). After that, more bacteria will colonize and change nitrite into nitrate, which is usable fertilizer.

So, I'm off this afternoon to pick up a tank, filter, and a few bags of gravel, and of course, cool under-the-sea decorations. In a couple of days I'll pick up a ton of feeder fish (which, if my past pet-rearing experience holds true, will never die, not for years and years). I'm also going to get Intern May started on researching the nitrogen cycle so she's a regular aquaponics expert by the time Marco shows up in November. First phase of the experiment underway, stay tuned for photos and updates!

To learn more about Better Farm's sustainability internship program or to apply, click here.
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.