Thursday, June 30, 2011

We Grow Dreams - Aquaponics Field Trip

As part of my reading and research into sustainable methods for personal food production, I have been collecting information about Aquaponics. Aquaponics is the intersection of Aquaculture (raising fish as food source) and hydroponics (raising produce in soil less medium). Both have been around for a long time, aquaculture at from at least 2500 BC, hydroponics dates back to at least the 1600’s, and both have proven to be effective means of food production.

Aquatic animals produce waste (ammonia); in aquaculture utilizing tanks (as opposed to ponds, large cages or nets in open water), some of the water needs to be replaced or filtered in order to keep the water habitable for the fish.

In Hydroponics, plants are raised without soil, a nitrogen rich (and other mineral nutrients) solution is pumped to the root zone. At issue is what to do with the nutrient water once it has been pumped to the plants, it must either be filtered to reuse or in some application is merely discarded

Aquaponics resolves the problems of water replacement in aquaculture and nutrient source in hydroponics. In the simplest terms, the fish poop in their tank, part of the water is pumped at regular intervals into a gravel bed where one bacteria convert the ammonia to nitrites and another converts the nitrites to nitrates, a usable form for the plants growing in the gravel bed. The plants take up the nitrates purifying the water, which then returns to the fish tank. In a perfect system this cycle produces a closed loop, saving water and eliminating the need to purchase fertilizers. Over time, the fish grow large enough to harvest and the produce grows with incredible vigor.

I got lucky. In my town there is a small greenhouse operation, that changed hands in the last few years from a commercial for-profit greenhouse into a new non-profit greenhouse and organization called We-Grow Dreams Greenhouse and Garden Center. Their unique mission is “To provide people with disabilities the opportunity to lead fulfilling lives and to train and work in a supportive, safe and caring environment while producing and providing products and service to the community.”  I drive past this greenhouse on regular basis, so you can imagine my excitement when I saw Aquaponics"" on their marquee by the side of the road!

I contacted them and exchanged emails with Laurie Staple, the Executive Director of We Grow Dreams, and Phil Wolf, a volunteer who is responsible for the Aquaponics program, and we arranged a meeting.

It was a beautiful sunny morning as I headed over to the Greenhouse and Garden Center and met up with Laurie and Phil. Laurie, a retired special education teacher, started the tour in the office. There she explained that the purpose is not to train young people with disabilities how to work in a green house, but rather to provide transferable job skills to a population who are often underrepresented in the work force.

Currently staffed at 45 team members who work 10 hours a month for minimum wage, We Grow Dreams helps team members gain Social Security credits while performing assigned, coached tasks. Greenhouse tasks include straightening up around the retail area, assisting customers carrying materials to their vehicles, and moving product from the production area to the retail area. Out in the yard, gravel was being put down to patch some potholes, as Laurie showed me around part of the five acres.

Laurie told me the main greenhouse dates back to the 1920’s, and on the grounds there is evidence from previous decades. As we walked through "the dirt room" with an ancient dirt machine used to fill pots, I commented how hot it was. Laurie pointed out that the room was used in the dead of winter, and they ran a kerosene heater to warm it up. Quite a difference six months makes.

While we were walking from one house to another, Laurie indicated they receive no state or federal funding, so volunteerism and donations are critical to the success of the organization. After we circled back to the main green house where the Aquaponic set up resides, Laurie handed me off to Phil, an engineer by trade, and We Grow Dreams volunteer spearheading the Aquaponics project.

Here he is next to the tomato plants. Granted, the plants start a little higher than waist high but this is crazy! The sheer mass of plants is a little overwhelming.

Here's a shot from the other side.

I asked Phil how many plants this is. "I'm not sure, maybe five."

Five? Really? 

I was a little stunned as Phil sat down and started doing his tests on the chemical analysis of the water.  It's important to keep track of the health of the system so regular monitoring of ammonia, nitrate, nitrite, and oxygen saturation is important. While he performs the tests he gave me the  run down - a 1000 gallon fish tank holds about 375 bluegill and some goldfish.  This tank supplies the nutrient rich water for the system.

Here is a shot from the other side where two volunteers had just finished cleaning out a  couple gravel beds. Water is pumped from the fish tank (located under the gravel beds holding the tomato plants to the left of Phil)  to the gravel filled grow beds that hold the giant tomato plants. You can see the down pipe that feeds the watering pipes.

After running through the gravel beds where helpful bacteria breakdown the ammonia and waste and the plants take up what they can use, the water runs to a 3500 gallon raft tank.

A raft tank is a large tank of water with Styrofoam or polystyrene insulating boards floating on top. Holes are cut into the boards and small mesh pots are set into the holes. A small amount of rooting material (often expanded clay) is used and plants are placed in the mesh pots. Their roots grow into the water in standard hydroponic method. Here is basil in the foreground and lettuce at the other end. These plants extract yet more nutrients from the water before it is returned to the fish tank

Here it is from the other side. The lettuce looks really healthy!

If you have any doubts about root development, check this out!

The addition of the large raft tank adds stability to the system. Fluctuations in temperature and water quality take much longer when there is almost 4500 gallons of water involved.

One final bit, Phil is also practicing vermiculture, starting with 1 lb of worms  back in January, there are now many times that in the gravel beds and other installations he is involved in. He keeps them busy in a worm bed located under one end of the gravel beds feeding them kitchen scraps.

As a fun demonstration, he put a small amount of worms from the worm composting bin into the gravel grow bed. In just one minute (I timed it) they went from this...

to this.

The worms easily crawled down between the spaces in the gravel. They also consume organic material and contribute their own rich nutrients to the grow beds.

To close our conversation Phil indicated he is in the process of writing up a six month review and analysis of the installation. He openly acknowledges this is a learning process and while there has been some trial and error, looking at the results they are on the right path. There is more to do and learn.

I was very happy to get an up close look at an operating system. As I said at the beginning of this (long) entry, I am interested in this system for personal use in the future. This was a great first exposure to a live system and I am very grateful to Laurie, Phil, We Grow Dreams Greenhouse and Garden Center for allowing me to come and visit,  they were very generous with their time, and their mission is a noble one.

I know I'll be back to check on their progress and to pick Phil's brain a bit more.

For more information about We Grow Dreams, feel free to contact them at:

Phil Wolf may be contacted at

If you are interested in additional links and information about Aquaponics, let me know and I'll share what I have.

Until next time, Keep Digging & Eat Well!

The Gastronomic Gardener
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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Humble Sunday Harvest

It's pretty modest but has the makings of a fine salad.

Green onion
Crooked neck squash

This makes me happy!

Total harvest so far... a tiny 3.9 lbs.  But tasty and satisfying, with the promise of much much more.

Until next time, Keep Digging & Eat Well!

The Gastronomic Gardener
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Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Sunny Saturday Morning

Welcome Jessica, I'm glad you are here.

I've been a litle remiss in posting, life keeps getting in the way blogging. The nerve!

It's a beautiful sunny morning, so I grabbed the camera and my coffee and stepped out the back door. There is something for everyone this morning.

I'll start with the vegetables, but if you wish to jump to the flowers, Scroll down.
Green beens starting to blossom

Hairy Tomato blossoms

Cukes growing up the mesh trellis, so far so good!

A healthy start

The peppers are also doing well.
Giant Marconi (sweet)

Hot banana

Greens are a mixed bag. They are growing well, but something is eating them, I will put up a short fence this weekend.
Chard, lettuce, and shallot

Lettuce is happy

Rabbit(?) damage


Green tomatoes in the Growbox

All in all I am rather pleased with the Squarefoot garden attempt. So far so good.

Flower Power!
This week the lilies burst onto the scene.

Good view of Stamen and Carpel. The Anthers will stain fabric, be careful!

I cut this Clematis down to 6" tall last fall. It's over 8' tall now.

One of my favorites, Coreopsis "Moonbeam" just starting to bloom, in a week or so it will be a golden carpet.

That's what I'm up to this morning, now I'm off on a field trip. More about that later!

Until next time, Keep Digging & Eat Well!

The Gastronomic Gardener
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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Comparing growing methods after one month

Welcome Kalipso, glad you are following, and welcome to everyone else who recently started following. I'm glad you are here. From now on, I'll do my best to acknowledge you, the readers, especially those who are new to my blog.

About a month ago I planted tomatoes and peppers using three different techniques.
1) Grow boxes

2) Square foot garden

3) And over at the Veggie plot a few miles away.

So far moisture has not been an issue between the gardens. The Growboxes do come with fertilizer strips, the Squarefoot garden is naturally fertile from all the compost, and the veggie plot we know is very fertile.

In the Growboxes
  • Tomatoes 
    • Celebrity - 24" tall, fruit and many blossoms
    • Roma - 18" tall, fruit, many blossoms
  • Peppers
    • Between 8 and 12" tall, no fruit loaded with blossoms

In the Squarefoot beds:
  • Tomatoes
    • Celebrity - 21" tall, fruit and many blossoms
    • Roma - 21" tall, fruit, many blossoms
  • Peppers
    • Between 8 and 18" tall, some fruit, many blossoms


Here's a shot of the garden behind the house, with the veggie beds surrounded by flower beds. Quite a difference from a month ago!

A quick drive over to the veg plot, some weeding and scratching - as expected this is a little neglected - but as we have had sufficient rain (and more on the way) things are growing - including the weeds!

  • Tomatoes
    • Celebrity - 23" tall, no fruit and some blossoms
    • Roma - 16" tall, 2 fruit and some blossoms
  • Peppers
    • Between 6 and 10" tall, 2 fruit, some blossoms 

And a shot of the whole garden...

Not much difference in growth between Growbox and SFG in terms of plant size, and the tomatoes at the veggie plot  are not far behind, but the peppers are relatively stunted.

Fruit production:
The difference so far between the Growbox and SFG is, in my mind, negligible, and the in-ground veggie plot lags behind.

Some of the difference might be explained by differences in light exposure between here and the veggie plot. Time will tell if any ground is made up, if the SFG can support larger plants later in the season, and if there is difference in long term fruit production. Stay Tuned!

Until next time, Keep Digging & Eat Well!

The Gastronomic Gardener
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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

Until next time, Keep Digging & Eat Well!

The Gastronomic Gardener
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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Of flowers and vegetables.

Honestly, I sometimes first go out with the camera to postpone the mowing and weeding. Today was such an occasion. You've seen the roses, but what is happening elsewhere?  Click on pictures for a larger view.

Along the west garden path, the lupine volunteer is in bloom.

And the drifts of beardtongue are blooming.

The foxglove re-seeded. I love the exotic look of them. The new ones are not as muscular as the original plant but they are lovely. Keep in mind they are toxic if you have pets or small children who are still jamming everything into their mouths.

The lilies are massive! Some are taller than I am and they are loaded with buds. It looks like it will be a spectacular display this year, and I know I'll have to tie them up. The second picture is for comparison. That stalk is thick!

Let's pop over to the Squarefoot garden and see what is happening.

The squashes are starting to fruit.

I've pulled two more fat radishes and the French breakfast radishes are about ready for harvest. I need to bake some bread to go with them.

I am excited about the prospects of Brussels sprouts this fall. So far the plants look vigorous. Here is one in a cage.

The turnips are very healthy, and and the roots are starting to thicken.

Peppers are full of buds. I have about 15 pepper planst so hopefully we'll be  pickling some to put up for the winter.

The eggplant is blooming. They are such pretty plants, the fruit is an extra!

And finally, the Thai basil is blooming, so it is time to pinch it back. But before I do, here it is.

Now I can't put off the chores any longer. I have to get busy.

Until next time, Keep Digging & Eat Well!

The Gastronomic Gardener
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