Ongoing Adventures In Aquaponics – August 2014 Edition, Part 1

Howdy folks! Welcome back to my blog series on aquaponics. In last the last post, titled “Charcoal vs Biochar – The Important Detail” I discussed the use of biochar in aquaponics and my own nearly critical mistake with it.

One of those things that I do try to keep in mind is that any success of mine in aquaponics is a result of “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Which is why I’m writing these blog posts. I’m hoping to help other folks who are interested in this remarkable sustainable farming technology. I’ve made some mistakes and I’ve tested some theories, and I want to make sure that anything I’ve learned or proven or tripped over winds up out in the collective record of the Internet community.

It’s not about the magic, it’s about the normal

I was listening to a pod-cast the other day about growing in aquaponics, and someone asked a pretty straight forward question about basic gardening. The guest-speaker’s initial reply was best summarized as “what did you expect to happen?”. While that was a bit off-putting, his next comment was really what got me thinking.

People start with aquaponics systems and expect some sort of magic to happen. It’s still plants. They need light, they need fresh air, they need all the things that any regular garden does. All aquaponics does is replace the job the soil does.

At the end of the day, I think there is a level of hype that hides the fact that aquaponics “just” lets you be a more productive gardener or farmer. If you are not yet a gardener or farmer, you have some serious reading to do on those topics first before you take on aquaponics.

The classic example, for me, is the poor lighting for my basement test system. Artificial lighting for indoor growing is not a trivial issue to address … a half-square-meter of growing area needs the equivalent light of 6x 100w incandescent bulbs suspended 30cm above the average height of the plants. Oh, and you’ll need a small fan blowing on the bulbs.

That’s per half-square-meter or half-square-yard. Depending on what you are growing … you might need twice that much for best results.

I think I was around ¼ of that when I first started, and couldn’t figure out why the plants all “looked funny” … long, stringy and spindly. The answer of course, I discovered after the fact was that they were putting all their growth into reaching for the relatively weak lighting.

With aquaponics, there is no “magic”. There is just some ruthlessly optimized “normal”. I use the expression “it’s a lake in a box” to explain aquaponics to people. The only difference is that I’m growing vegetables in the marsh at the edge of the lake.

Keep that in mind when you are planning your home system. You need to know how to be a good gardener — indoor or outdoor or both — before you need to worry about how to build your aquaponics system. Do your reading. If you are like me, and “learn by doing”, at least spend some time watching other people doing — YouTube is an excellent resource.

Eventually, you have to take the plunge, and then you’ll figure out everything you didn’t know that you didn’t know. But, before you wonder what is wrong with your aquaponics, always first ask the question “what is wrong with my garden?”.

I find that it helps to keep some perspective.

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