Backyard Aquaponics Project

A few years ago, my daughter wanted a fishtank for Christmas, which was cool for everyone because we all got to enjoy it in the living room.  We kept live plants with the fish, and I noticed at the time that they tended to thrive in the water the fish lived in.  Nitrites or nitrates or something.  Made them all very green.  I wondered whether there was a way to make use of this idea in gardening.

It turns out that this concept already exists:  aquaponics.  You’ve heard of aquaculture – growing fish for food – and hydroponics – growing plants in  water and/or growth medium, instead of dirt.  Aquaponics combines the two.  You can fit a lot of plants in a small space because they aren’t competing for nutrients or water, and using a pump, circulate the water between the plant area and a big fishtank.  The fish poop fertilizes the plants, and the plants clean the toxins out of the water on its way back to the fish.  And thus, you can also put a whole lot of fish in a small space.  To eat, for example.

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So when we arrived in India, I thought about trying to construct an actual aquaponics system.  There are all kinds of videos and kits out there that show different “easy” aquaponics systems, where you just run down to the hardware store and buy everything you need in one trip, and basically snap or screw everything into place, and you’re all set.  Only there is no Home Depot or Lowe’s here in Chennai.  The best I have been able to figure out, if you need ten different hardware items, you might have to go to 15 different little shops to buy it.  And explain it in a foreign language and/or hand signals, and make do with the closest approximation in many cases.  With the help of a driver, for example, I had to go to four different stores to find a few meters of steel wire, for example.  It cost me two bucks and three hours.  So that’s one challenge.

The other consideration is that we know we will only be here for two years, and it’s not my house, so it has to be a very temporary and inexpensive setup.  So you may scoff at what I came up with, but the whole setup cost about 75 bucks, plus stuff I found around the yard.  Here is what I made.

Needless to say, the natives were skeptical.  And with good reason.  I planted every type of food plant imaginable.  And everything would sprout, grow about two inches, and promptly wilt and die.  The locals said I was growing things that don’t grow in South India.  I figured, it’s sunny and warm – everything should grow, right?  I did attract some wildlife.

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I realized the lack of fish was probably a factor.  No poop.  I had been unable to find tilapia or other food fish (fish store owners would look at me like I was crazy when I would ask for “fish I can eat”).  So finally I bought half a dozen big goldfish-looking things (parrotfish) that would be hardy enough to survive just about any conditions, and I managed to get a few plants to grow quite large – melon, cucumber, tomato – and then they promptly wilted again.

Finally, I got a few things to grow.  Basil (rear left) and mint (rear right).  spindly tomato plants in the front, but so far only two tiny tomatoes.  We had a crop of baby lettuce – enough for one salad.  And in the front left, a tree that sprouted on its own.  I’d take it out, but it makes the setup look like a success.

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So basically I had given up. This has been the situation for about half a year now. I feed the fish. They grow. Basil and mint.

And then I ran into a guy the other day who has a degree in aquaculture. I asked him if he’d heard of aquaponics, and when he had, I couldn’t wait to tell him about my setup and ask his advice. “You need more fish,” he said right away. “Yes, but I’ve been unable to find any live food fish” I responded. “We own a fish farm outside Chennai” he replied.

So now I am the proud owner of a small school of tilapia. This is going to be what brings it all together, just wait and see…

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