After many struggles, dead fish, dead plants, bug attacks, fish food issues and water heater issues, at last, all our hard work (I should say my HUSBAND'S hard work), has finally paid off. The system has been up and running for nine months and this is the kind of growth we see:
This picture was taken April 9th of this year, just after we planted the summer garden.
And THIS was taken last weekend, May 5th - olne month's growth. All I can say is WOW! Obviously all biological systems are operating on full steam ahead. I'm particularly impressed by the snow peas (we are harvesting every day). I've also never seen strawberry leaves so big (although the birds seem to be getting most of those). Our cucmbers are already blooming, the beans are blooming and the watermelons just started growing well this past week when we finally got some sunshine and warmth.
I'm so excited, remember, this system has no chemicals, no soil and minimal input from the gardener. We feed the fish several times a day. The pump circulates the water up to the grow beds. The grow beds fill with water, then the siphon forms in the bell siphon and the whole bed flushes out, drawing oxygen down to the plant roots as it travels back to the fish tank by gravity. We also added red worms to the system in September along with a stock tank water heater (when we found out bream don't live in temps below 41 degrees). Some of the fish are already large enough to eat. but others are still small. Soon we will have fish for dinner!
Aquaponics forces me to expand my vegetable growing repertoire, because the system requires continuous plant growth, even in the dead of winter. The plants eat the fertilizer produced by the fish, so this year, I have several different kinds of plants growing. One of these is bok choi.
Now many of my friends extol the virtues of bok choi and as you can see, my plants are GORGEOUS, but I just don't think this is a plant for a true southern girl. The mild taste leaves me wanting something with more bite, like the mustard greens I so love with my grandmother's cornbread dumplings or the collard greens South Carolina produces so prolifically. Bok choi greens just don't grab me like those old southern favorites.
Now the stems are another story. With the right sauce, they could be amazing. They are juicy and non-stringy...kind of like giant celery. My quick sauté in olive oil, garlic and toasted sesame seeds did not do them justice. Perhaps next time I will grill or roast them.
And I will definitely separate the leaves from the stems, keeping each one for a different recipe...maybe even mixing the leaves with some of my beloved collards? Maybe next year I'll try beets in the aquaponics instead. It will be interesting to see how the roots develop in the ebb and flow system of aquaponics.
What's your favorite winter green and how do you cook it?
Well, I apologize for disappearing for so long. Truth is, aquaponics is not as simple as it first sounds…the bell siphon takes awhile to adjust…then the water cycle itself took another six weeks…which seems like a long time to me, when its outdoors and mid-summer and my plants are still in tiny starter pots, languishing. Then the first batch of catfish proceeded to die on us. Who knew the same fish my dad kept in coolers forever on long summer nights did not tolerate heat well, but they don’t. Fortunately, we also had bream and they did fairly well. We did find we spent a lot more time outdoors, sitting in front of our fish tank, feeding the fish, tending the plants…the sound of the water pleasantly filters the sounds of the neighborhood. Here's a view from the bench, the screen keeps the sun from overheating the fish tank and keeps debris from blowing in as well.
We put worms into the system grow beds in September. We wondered if red worms could survive in a semi-aquatic habitat, but two weeks after putting them in there, we saw lots of tiny baby red worms around the roots of plants we harvested. For treats, we pull a few worms from my worm bins and feed the fish. At Thanksgiving, we started a new tradition, a true farming tradition: the whole family (nephews included) took the vegetable trimmings to the worms before we ate our own dinner. Then we harvested some worms and fed the fish…and I’m sure we all hoped next year we would be eating fish!
Fish food creates another issue…nowhere have I found it practical to buy organic fish food and because our little fishies are for the most part carnivores, we are not getting the benefit of “grass fed fish”, but my vegetables are beautiful. Even though I planted in July, we harvested lots of okra and a gallon of peppers off of one plant. Pretty incredible. Now I have gorgeous greens: bok choi, collards, mustard, chard, lettuce and cabbage. I have been disappointed in their growth rate though. I’m sure they are shading one another out. I also forgot to take into account how much lower the sun tracks in the winter time, so we get minimal sunlight but it’s still a work in progress, as with any garden. What are your plans for the new year in your garden?
Here's the fall garden and the summer garden. You can see the seaweed extract in the milk jug. I used this to add nutrients this summer, while we waited for our fish to produce enough waste for the plants to use.