AQUAPONICS GONE FISHY!
On March 2nd we kicked off sustainability studies in honor of Dr. Seuss, The Lorax, and his literary/philosophical contributions to society. All month, we visited the aquaponics greenhouse at the Tahoe for Environmental Sciences building at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village and we keep going back for more! Our kids are experiencing the aquaponics garden hands-on! There is so much more to it than meets the eye and the kids dive in for information. Our tour guide, Graham, is the innovative thought behind the self-sustaining project. He spends quality time with our kids talking with and guiding them through the process of aquaponics for soil free, greenhouse gardening.
Our curiosity was sparked last February after reading about Graham’s efforts to build a self sustained garden. It’s a project that is extended to the students at Sierra Nevada College as part of their sustainability studies, a degree well worth the earn. In fact, you can stop by on any day and find a student watering, harvesting, or using microscopes for observation of leafy matter. One day, we caught an art student heatedly sketching the month’s radish sprouts as part of an art class project. All the students are helpful when the little ones show up to chat. Everyone is willing to spread the word…I feel Seuss smiling.
The key to this aquaponics garden is the unique fact that fish are used to fertilize it…protein eating fish, no less–black bass. The first question out of our 8 year olds mouths is the question I immediately thought, “Doesn’t the fish poop ruin the lettuce?” In fact, quite the opposite. Fish “poop and pee,” Graham uses laymen terms with the little ones, “helps our vegetables grow.” And when the water leaves the fish tank, the fecal matter is spread throughout the vegetable garden returning to the tank purified and leaving nutrients for healthy plant growth behind. The garden is a cycle of sustainability down to the fish food–earth worms. Graham composts to grow healthy worms to feed the fish, as black bass are meat eaters. The boys dig in and pull out some worms for the feeding process and their excitement heightens.
In addition to the worms, Graham does feed the fish a dried, pellet, protein base fish food for variety. It helps to balance the ph levels for fertilizing purposes. From the fish tank, the water is sucked up to the highest suspended barrel where herbs, including cilantro, mint, and thyme are growing. Graham offered the boys a taste of fresh mint and it was a hit! PVC pipes are set length-wise across five gallon barrels that have been cut in half, to house vegetables. The pipe has a series of holes drilled below to provide an even flow of water to the garden. And the rhythm of splashing water is like being in a mediation garden…music to our ears.
A light weight soil substitute, an aggregate of perlite and vermiculite, acts as the soil. It’s a clean and friendly way to garden and holds moisture without sacrificing nutrients to the vegetables. When harvest time rolls around, the students simply wiggle the root vegetables out of the aggregate, soil free, leaving no trace. There is a system to planting in aggregate, however. It involves growing the vegetables from seed until they are big enough to be transplanted in the aggregate. This is done in an all organic sponge base pod and kept in a mini-greenhouse and watered….looks like this…
Graham created a dynamic analogy for the difference between aquaponics gardening and our age-old system for growing food. He wanted to be sure we left understanding that our current system is set up in a linear fashion, where consumers demand production of which is consumed and eventually disposed. The aquaponics paradigm for production is a closed loop system–a cycle. Apparently this made a lot of sense to the kids who commented, “a cycle like the cycle of life” and further, “…yeah, like the weather cycle.” Wow! I’m still savoring this learning moment.
Before leaving, we learned the fish themselves are up for harvest when they are big enough to eat, about 14″ in length according to Graham. At the moment, the bass are only 5″-6″, so they have some time. The idea is these fish will procreate, therefore sustaining the tank. And Graham points out that all the materials, including the fish, were donated by a variety of agencies to further the efforts of his innovation. His entire project equates to ‘zero impact’ to our Tahoe environment.
Like I said, we continue to visit the aquaponics garden. Our hope is to further the idea and bring it into people’s homes. I presented the idea of building an artistic, aquaponics home garden to my husband, who loves these kinds of challenges. I want to use copper pipes for aesthetic reasons, but we learned that will most likely alter the ph levels to an unfriendly degree and negatively effect our vegetables. So, we continue to ponder our science project coupled with art. One thing is for sure, we have Graham on our side for developing aquaponics home gardens.