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Aquaponics Humor

July 1, 2010

It’s been a tough week in our household.  On Tuesday we had to euthanize our 13 year old Devon Rex kitty.  If you have ever had to do this you know how tough it is.   You essentially play God by ending the life of an animal friend and member of your family, knowing how necessary it is to spare them the pain of what they are going through.

I find that one of the things (besides ice cream) that helps me to get through something like this is humor so I thought I would dedicate this post to some aquaponic grins and giggles.  First, I’d like to reprint a list of aquaponic lexicons recently created by one of our most active members in the Aquaponic Gardening Community, Michael Cosmo.  I love really silly (ok, stupid) puns so this really made me laugh.

Aquapon: A human pawn manipulated by the Creatures of Aquaponics.

DWC: Deep Water Culture: A cult of unspeakable icky creepy crawlers with some pretty things growing on top to hide them.

Raft Tank: A magic illusion of veggie plants floating in space.

Vertical growing: Plants on top of Plants on top of Plants on top of… you get it.

Grow Bed: The out of control mass of plants in a big wet mess of gravel.

Tilapia: Creatures from another dimension that train humans to feed them and disguise themselves as helpless fish.

Swirl Tank: What you find your head in after drinking too much Aquaponics spiked Koolaid.

Vermiponics: Worms you idiot. Just worms. Oh yeah, worm poop in fish water.

PeePonics: A secret science developed by men to give them an excuse to pee in the tank since they aren’t out fishing.

BeerPonics: What came before PeePonics. Also exclusive to men.

PH: A great mystery.

Duck A Ponics: Bird pee and poop when men or fish aren’t around.

Commercial Aquaponics: A cult of seduced Aquapons with too much money and no place to waste it.

Fish Feeders: Successfully Trained Aquapons.

Black Soldier Fly Larva: A military sect of very small flying creatures.

Pump: Like a boat. A hole in water you keep throwing money in.

Free Gravel: One of holy grails of all Aquapons.

Bell Siphon: A magic trick.

Plumbing: A bunch of small plastic holes you throw money in.

Newbie: Your last chance to get out while you can.

Novice: Too late you should have quit while you were a newbie.

And recently added by the community members:

Ammonia – The evil force of darkness.
Nitrite – Darth Vader, spawn of the evil ammonia, even worse than his life-force.
Nitrate – Luke Skywalker, spawn of the even nitrite, but somehow born into goodness and light.

MizAquapon: Wife of Aquapon addict.

ACID a devil’s brew, used in an attempt to manipulate the ‘great mystery’…pH.
Not to be confused with, what the “Aquarian’s of the 60’s” used in order to ‘explore’ great mysteries.

And if that wasn’t silly enough for you here is what I believe is still the world’s only Aquaponic Music Video, made by fellow Coloradan, Aron Arnold … Enjoy!

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Aquaponics Reception at the LOHAS Forum

June 28, 2010

I remember back in my AeroGrow days hauling buckets of water across the vast show floor of Chicago’s McCormick Place before the annual Housewares show.  I also remember the worry that came with shipping plants across the country in cardboard boxes and expecting them to look perky and smile for the crowds.  And what were the chances that all those ripe tomatoes were going to survive the journey on the vine?!  I remember muttering on more than one occasion “my next job is going to deal with widgets.  If I ever go back into a field that involves live plants someone just shoot me”.

Fast forward to last week and the official unveiling of our new AquaBundance Year-Round Gardening System at the LOHAS Forum in Boulder (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability).  A widget?  Not exactly.  Live plants?  Plenty, plus the additional stress of live fish.  Will I ever learn my lesson? Probably never.  Once a plant person, always a plant person, it seems.

AquaBundance grow bed planted

Planted AquaBundance Grow Bed

The Forum was tremendous and we are glad we went. An auspicious gathering of the green movement elite which created the perfect venue for highlighting the sustainable benefits of both aquaponics in general and AquaBundance in particular.  The message of using 10% of the water of traditional agriculture truly resonated with this group, although they struggled a bit with the notion of being out of the soil entirely (ironically they showed the documentary “Dirt” as part of the Forum curriculum.  Tough competition that likes to play dirty – I couldn’t resist).  One of the keynote speakers, futurist Faith Popcorn, talked about how we will soon be moving from the Green Movement to the Blue Movement as water becomes an increasingly prominent environmental focus.  Another speaker, Dr. Alan Greene, talked about poor diet and toxins in the soil contributing to obesity trends, cancer, and chronic illness in small children.  As often happens in this kind of event my hand started twitching and taking on a life of it’s own as it felt the need to raise itself so I could declare “but there IS an answer, and it’s aquaponics!  Completely organic vegetables and protein right in your backyard, using a fraction of the water your dirt based garden uses”.  But I remained silent, satisfied with the occasional knowing glances from my husband, because I knew that most of these people would be coming through the exhibit area and would see AquaBundance.

AquaBundance system unplanted

AquaBundance system (unplanted)

We definitely got a lot of attention.  People were drawn to the live plants, the sound of running water, and the promise of fish if they got close enough to peer inside the tank.  Their response was almost entirely positive (we just couldn’t convince the PETA representative that the fish were probably happy) and we made some very interesting connections.  There were discussions of United Nations applications, commercial greenhouse applications, school applications, and medical marijuana.  People envisioned it in their apartments and condos, their greenhouses, their decks, and their kid’s schools.  It was a heady couple of days.

Now we are home, recovered, and ready to get down to business!  AquaBundance is up on our website, with a wonderful deal for those who pre-order before we start shipping in August.  Come check it out and let us know what you think!

I’ve also created a short video which includes some stills and video of the product, as well as  a little video from the show.  Enjoy!

The AquaBundance Year-Round Aquaponic Gardening System

June 21, 2010

I’m pretty excited about this week.  Since last September my husband and I have been designing and testing an aquaponics system for home gardeners and we will finally unveil our work this Thursday at the LOHAS Forum here in Boulder.   We developed our system because we feel that there just isn’t an aquaponic system on the American market that is well made, durable, attractive, easy to assemble and easy to use – all at an affordable price.  And while there is lots of wonderful, imaginative work going on in the DIY world with recycled barrels, bathtubs, and cattle feeding troughs this kind of approach isn’t for everyone.

We also feel that the elephant in the room when it comes to U.S. aquaponics is the fact that most of the country can’t grow outdoors year-round unless they have a greenhouse.  This is because aquaponics is fundamentally about cultivating a beneficial bacteria base that in most parts of our country can’t survive one of our winters, or if they do, their metabolism shuts down to where there is nothing going on during the winter.  So, after spending all summer nurturing the bacteria, feeding the fish, and tending the plants, why let it all go when the first frost hits?  Why not bring it indoors?

With these thoughts in mind, we selected four principles which we then used to drive many of the functions and features now built into our AquaBundance system.

Design for Aquaponics

  • 60-gallon Fish Tank to grow full-size, edible fish.
  • 12” deep Grow Bed with Media Blocker for easy maintenance.
  • Tank plumbing designed for maximum aeration for healthy fish and ease of maintenance.
  • Expandable to a larger fish tank.  The 60 gallon tank in the original system will convert to a sump tank.

Design for Durability

  • Rotational molded, UV-protected, food-safe plastic – will not warp with heat and weight.
  • 1 1/2”, 14-gauge, powder-coated square steel tubing.
  • Furniture grade PVC that won’t break down in outdoor heat and sunlight.

Design for Year-Round Gardening

  • No width greater than 28”– fits through all exterior doorways.
  • Handles and casters on the table, and handles on the fish tank make for easy lifting and transporting (after the tank water has been emptied into another container).
  • 8 square feet of plant growing space.

Design for the Home

  • Elegant Asian look.
  • 4 Colors – Charcoal, Terra Cotta, Grey Granite and Cream Granite.
  • Furniture grade, high-gloss PVC in decorator colors.
  • Optional view windows for fun and enjoyment.

In addition we made sure that most everything in this system is U.S. made, and that everything will ship via Fed Ex so that we can

AquaBundance prototype

Alan working on an early AquaBundance prototype last September

avoid pallets and keep shipping costs as low as possible.

We’ve experimented with a wide variety of system parameters in our greenhouse systems over these past 9 months, and spent

countless hours designing every last detail and we are now ready to let you see what we have worked so hard to develop.  We won’t be shipping until August because we still have some final work to do on the user guides but you can soon check it out on our website and let us know what you think!

Introducing the “Aquaponics Explained” Video

June 17, 2010

When I was planning how to launch our new business early last winter I wanted to be sure to include video.  I love this new era of watching video for its content rather than its glitz that YouTube has brought us.  I’ve had a ton of fun producing my own video diary of the progress of my greenhouse over this past winter.  It feels like I’m sharing a casual ongoing conversation with a silent friend – kind of like writing this blog for all of you.

One of my video goals was to capture one of the two 3 ½ hour classes I was signed up to teach this past winter.  Both sold out – no doubt helped by the publicity generated by the NY Times article featuring me and a few others and an article in the local paper here – so they were going to have a nice energy level.  Plus, I believe there is a real dearth of clear information about home based aquaponics in this country.  There are some good workshops on a commercial level, but commercial-focused instruction doesn’t always translate well to home systems.

The Denver Botanic Gardens agreed to let me tape the class I taught there, so I hired a videographer and crossed my fingers.  We figured that if the tape wasn’t very good, we could put parts of it out on YouTube (kind of like the old Life Cereal commercials with Mikie “hey, give it to YouTube.  He’ll stream anything”).  To my delight, however, it turned out pretty darn good.  Ego aside (really!) it is 3 hours and 20 minutes of very solid information about home based aquaponics with an engaged room full of people.  While it has Aquaponics Explained videonone of the flair of Murray Hallam’s aquaponics videos it feels like you are in the class learning right along with us.  So, we decided to professionally package it, call it Aquaponics Explained and offer it for sale for $29.95 (the class cost between $75 and $100) with the hope that it will help to fill some of the gap in home aquaponic education.

As an introductory offer we are paying the shipping until our first batch runs out.  Please check it out and let me know what you think!

(click here for a peek at the entire case sleeve) Aquaponics Explained Case Sleeve

Aquaponics and the Out-of-Season Locavore

June 13, 2010
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Lately I’ve been engaged in a wonderful email exchange with one of the members of the Aquaponics Gardening Community.  Our discussion recently came to the subject of books we are reading.  Currently on her nightstand is, among others, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver.  This wonderful book is the account of how Kingsolver and her family spent a year living locally, providing for themselves through food they either grew or purchased from local providers.  The book is filled with stories about how they craved the first lettuce that emerged in the early spring, how overwhelmed they were by their August canning activities, and about other deeply felt experiences of scarcity and abundance.  I found myself gushing over how much I had enjoyed the book, but also about how I disagree with it’s core premise – i.e., that to truly eat locally one must grow according to the seasons.

Allow me to digress (you will see why in a moment).  In laying the marketing foundation at AeroGrow for the AeroGarden I had the pleasure of participating in esoteric discussions about what it is that defines a gardener.  What motivates her?  What does she hope to get from this activity?  I always asserted that a core characteristic of a gardener is a desire to control her outdoor environment.  Think about typical gardening activities.  Weeding is a way of removing plants that naturally grow in a space so as to make way for plants that the gardener prefers to grow.  We sow seeds and plant plants  to arrange nature to suit our needs.  We water when it gets dry, we enhance our native soil with compost and fertilizer, we remove spent flowers, we deploy all matter of methods for ridding our plants of harmful insects, and we scare away the deer and bunnies.  An amazing gardener is one who manages to create an Eden in the desert, feed her family and her neighborhood from her abundant land, grow the rare and bizarre, and harvest the first tomato or the biggest pumpkin.Aquaponic heirloom tomato

So why then is it considered a locavore virtue to flow with the seasonal obstacles that nature hands out? Why should we not strive to amend the air temperature or length of daylight when it is fine to amend the soil?  Why restrict consumption of salads to the coolness of the spring and fall, and tomatoes to August and September?  Why not extend the warmth of the summer through a greenhouse or another indoor setup and the length of daylight through supplemental lighting?  Yes, energy is consumed but unless we are willing to follow the example of Barbara Kingsolver and spend countless hours canning and freezing and foraging during the summer to provide food for the off-season we will be buying our produce from the grocery store.  That produce will have either been grown in a commercial greenhouse, probably under lights, or have been shipped thousands of miles across the country from warmer climates.  I think I’d rather expend the energy myself on delicious heirloom tomatoes and more that have been coming out of our aquaponics greenhouse since January.  Just seems more local.

Aquaponics and Black Soldier Fly Larva

June 7, 2010
Black Soldier Fly

Black Soldier Fly (credit to Dave's Garden)

Black Soldier Fly larvae (BSF) are the juvenile grub of the BSF, and fish and chickens find them DELICIOUS.  While the notion of cultivating fly larva (uh, don’t you mean maggots?) seems pretty nuts, ends up BSF are very different than your ordinary housefly.  First, they don’t carry diseases, they cannot bite or sting, and, the experts claim, they won’t annoy you at picnics.  They are

voracious eaters of compost scraps (including pet waste), eliminating most food scraps in 24 – 36 hours.

Some very fun guys at a company called ProtaCulture have developed a product that has been specifically designed to attract, grow and harvest BSF and their yummy young.  It is called the BioPod Plus, was over 8 years in development on 3 different continents, and can process up to 5 pounds of kitchen waste and pet feces a day!  Here is a video clip of our friend Murray Hallam from his Aquaponics Made Easy video describing how he uses the BioPod to grow food for his fish.

Last fall when I was starting to think through a product line for The Aquaponic Source, I had a fascinating email exchange with Karl, one of the founders at ProtaCulture.  At one point I asked him about the difference between using red worms for composting and BSF larva.  After assuring me that he has nothing personally against red worms, here was his response:

  • Red wigglers are not efficient for processing meats, dairy products, oily foods or grains. Black soldier fly larvae readily consume all of these food types. Worms also don’t process citrus, and large food needs to be chopped. BSFL do process citrus and chopping isn’t necessary.
  • With worms it’s recommended that you bury the food scraps to avoid odor and pest problems. With BSFL the scraps can be put on top of the pile because they don’t last long enough to spoil and smell bad. BSFL give off an info-chemical that repels other flies and it’s relatively rare to see another species in the container.
  • Worms require periodic harvesting because their castings are toxic to them, and this has to be done manually. BSFL will self harvest when they are mature. In their last stage as larvae their mouth is replaced by an appendage that helps them crawl out of the container. They empty their gut and excrete an antibiotic in preparation for pupation. The container has been designed so that the prepupal larvae drop into a bucket when they exit the container, and they can live in the collection bucket for
    Black Soldier Fly Larva

    Black Soldier Fly Larva (credit Black Soldier Fly Blog.com)

    several days, maybe even weeks before being collected. At this stage they don’t eat.  From here, it is a simple matter to collect them and feed them to your fish.

  • Worms require a fairly specific environment with regards to moisture, ph, and temperature. Different sources recommend keeping worms at a minimum of 54 and up to 70-84 degrees depending on the source of the information. BSFL are much more tolerant. Once a BSFL was tested by being submerged in isopropyl alcohol for two hours and it survived. They can survive between just above freezing and about 100 degrees.
  • Worms process about three times their weight in food scraps per week. I assume five pounds of worms would be a substantial quantity and would consume 15 pounds of food per week. A BSFL colony in a 2 foot diameter container can process 11 pounds of food every day. Even with 10 pounds of worms you would still be limited to 30 pounds of scraps per week.
  • Most kitchen scraps are converted into BSFL at a rate of 5 to 1 so 10 pounds of food scraps would yield about 2 pounds of larvae, i.e. delicious fish food, per day.

Sure convinced me, but tragically we don’t have BSF in Colorado!  Ends up you need to be in zones 7 – 10 (sometimes 6) to have BSF, and because they are winged creatures having a native supply is a requirement.  So there is a plus for the redworms – they won’t fly off on you!

The BioPod Plus

The BioPod Plus

For more information please check out The BioPod Plus at The Aquaponic Source.  If you purchase one before June 15th we will pay the shipping.

Happy grubbing!

From Hydroponics to Aquaponics

June 3, 2010

I am very excited (“tickled pink” as my mother would say) about being invited to write a monthly column on aquaponics for The Growing Edge.  Growing Edge is probably my favorite gardeningThe Growing Edge logo magazine (now turned e-magazine) because it is the only publication I know of that gives serious, but always interesting, treatment to alternative gardening methods without any of the 20-something male, hot-rod look of typical hydroponic publications.  They have agreed to let me reprint my articles here for you.  The introductory installment is below – enjoy!

_______________________________________________________________________


Over the past year and a half I have morphed from being a Hydroponics Professional to becoming an Aquaponics Evangelist. It’s been a fascinating journey. I’ve learned that in aquaponics, especially in an evangelist role, you must be prepared for all manner of visitors, including the raccoons who think your fish are mature enough to eat, no matter what their size, as well as people who are fascinated by the concept of growing fish and plants together.  There aren’t many of us around, so there is a certain social obligation to share one’s experiences with wide-eyed future aquapons.

I entertained such visitors just yesterday.  They were a young couple who found me through a connection with my graphic designer.  The female made the connections, but clearly the male was driving the visit.  He had been involved in LED lighting until recently when “the Japanese took over the market”.  In his explorations with his partners on what to do next he said that “aquaponics just kept coming up.”  He seems to be considering a commercial based aquaponics business of some sort, and is quite experienced in hydroponics, especially aeroponics.  I love talking with hydroponic people because I relish the look of disbelief combined with amazement that sweeps over their faces when I tell them that I don’t worry about nutrient levels…WHAT?!?  No EC meter?  That’s right.  Not only that, pH generally becomes very stable in a mature aquaponic system.  And the best part is that I never, ever flush my tanks to replace the nutrients.  Aquaponics is all about creating a natural ecosystem and standing back while nature takes over.

I am now a self-described Aquaponics Evangelist, but I wasn’t always that way.  My relevant background was first as a long time traditional dirt gardener spanning 4 yards over 4 states.  In 2003 I was hired by the newly forming team at AeroGrow International to do the plant research and development for the soon-to-be-launched AeroGarden.  I stayed at AeroGrow for 6 ½ years, managing the formation and operation of the Grow Lab and Plant Nursery which developed the nutrient, pH buffering, and other seed kit technologies on which many of AeroGrow’s patents are based.  I then became the Director of Plant Products and assumed the responsibilities for the rest of the seed kit product line.  By the time I left AeroGrow in October of 2009 I was the VP of Marketing, Innovation and Product Development.  Why did I leave such an interesting job?  In part, it was time to move on.  AeroGrow had become a very different place than the company I had joined so many years ago.  The main reason, however, was to pursue what had become a true passion – aquaponics.

You see, when I saw my buddy’s basement aquaponics setup about 1 ½ years ago I became instantly convinced that this is going to become a very important growing technology.  It solves the problem of chemical fertilizers in hydroponics.  It solves the problem of waste removal in aquaculture.  It solves the problem of excess water use in traditional agriculture.  And for the backyard gardener, it solves the problems of weeds, under and over watering, fertilizing, and back strain.  And sustainable and organic advocates are drawn to its lack of chemical inputs, mimicry of natural systems, low water use and waste recycling.

Since this epiphany I’ve started a blog, a community site and a company that brings aquaponics education, community and products together under one roof.  My husband and I have designed an aquaponics system we are launching on June 23 and have many ideas for future products.  I teach, I speak, and I have produced a video titled Aquaponics Explained.  My goal is to evangelize aquaponics to any willing audience and to take it from an obscure technique that just a few of us are converted to into a world-wide movement.  Are you with me?