Tabletop Aquaponics

Both of my regular readers have wondered why this blog is called “The Working Fish.” Wonder no more! All will be revealed.

I have always, as you might have gathered, been interested in gardening. When I was but a young lad I began vegetable gardening—ostensibly to help feed my large family. In truth, I just love getting my hands in the dirt. Another of my lifelong hobbies is reading. I saw no reason not to combine the two and read everything I could get my hands on about gardening. There are so many different techniques to try!

One of my first gardening experiments was to emulate a technique that the Indians taught the Pilgrims—burying fish under hills of corn. It makes sense—fish is very high in protein which is high in nitrogen of which corn requires a lot to grow well. Providentially, one neighbor was an avid flounder fisherman who would often share his excess catch. Sometimes his gift would literally fill a bushel basket.

Even a good Roman Catholic family – a family of ten – could eat only so many fish. My dad gave me permission to experiment with the surplus. I carefully dug holes in our rocky soil to plant each fish before mounding up a hill of earth. I buried the seeds at the exact depth specified on the packet and watered them thoroughly. My excitement was palpable. I had never shot a deer with my bow and arrows but I could live like an Indian just the same!

The next morning I rushed out to inspect my handiwork. I was chagrined to discover a garden full of craters—one in place of each of the carefully prepared hills. During the night the neighborhood cats had descended to dig up the banquet I had so thoughtfully prepared. That afternoon, after school, I replanted my corn – without fish. The New England Indians must not have had house cats. Perhaps the squaws sat up all night guarding their fields?

As a teenager I continued to read and experiment. A favorite author (and not too distant neighbor) was Ruth Stout. Her book, Gardening Without Work, was one of my favorites and I became a fan of sheet composting. This gave me more time for reading. I plowed through Plowman’s Folly, had a good time with Living the Good Life, longed for more land while reading Five Acres and Independence, and spent  forever with Farmers of Forty Centuries.

In later years (I’m skipping over a lot) I successfully experimented with the ideas in The Self-Sufficient Gardener  and The New Square Foot Gardening. I learned from experience that every technique has its advantages and disadvantages. After moving into an apartment I had to do my gardening on borrowed land – I was using both the raised bed/sheet composting and square foot styles, depending on the crop. Are you getting the idea that this is something of an obsession with me?

Tabletop1Then, if memory serves, I ran across an article, “Food Storage Program for Paleo Dieters” by Cathy Cuthbert on Lew Rockwell’s webpage (which I read every day). This article mentioned a type of gardening I’d never heard of before – aquaponics – and contained a link to the webpage of Friendly Aquaponics. I clicked. I ordered the microsystem plans. Within weeks I had one of their tabletop systems up and running in my apartment.

Friendly Aquaponics doesn’t sell kits—they sell instructions. My tabletop unit includes a Rubbermaid tote from Walmart; a mud tub and a waterfall pump from Home Depot; and an air pump from PetsMart. The mosquitofish were 12 for a dollar at a local pet store.

Fish1I learned a lot—especially what not to do. Some lessons were: Feeder goldfish are not as tough as they look; chloramine in tap water doesn’t simply evaporate like chlorine; it’s tough to fit adequate grow lights on a tiny table in a tiny apartment. But, who cares? I knew I’d be out of there in a few months!

My intention was to gain a little experience with the tabletop unit in preparation for buying a house in 2011. Then, with my own yard, I would be able to put in a larger system and do some serious experimentation. Unfortunately the house and yard I Tabletop2was looking for exactly matched the sort that investors were buying as rental properties. It took me till this year to a) find a suitable property and b) not get outbid by a cash investor. So here we are.

As you can see from the pictures my tabletop unit moved to the new house with me and is now sitting on my patio. The fish and basil plants seem quite happy in their new home. I will finally, on this long holiday weekend, be able to start assembling my microsystem from a pile of painted lumber.

I have now come full circle and will, once again, be fertilizing my vegetables with fish.

Check back for updates,