In our Introduction to DIY Food Production, we talked about why we should grow our own food and how to determine how much we’d need…and we introduced you to Microponics – the integration of fish, plants and micro-livestock.
While Microponics is not complex, we want to make your entry into DIY food production even easier so we’ve mapped out a pathway to help you get started…quickly!
Let’s begin with a garden.
Now, just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about the traditional kind of gardening where you labour and sweat…and run up big water bills while you fight weeds and insects for a tiny share of what you grow.
I’m talking about smart gardening…which is the reverse of traditional gardening.
The methods that we’ll show you are efficient in their use of water and labour…and require no herbicides and pesticides…so the outcome is clean fresh food for you and your family.
We’ll start this gardening adventure with three ideas for you to consider:
Any one of these methods will see you eating your first leaf salad, Asian greens and radishes within a few short weeks of planting your seeds or seedlings. They will also accommodate any plant – including vines and root crops.
What’s more, they are water-efficient and won’t leave you with a sore back…and will only require the investment of an hour or two of your time to get started. They will only require a few minutes of maintenance each day.
The other good thing is that you can take a modular approach – gradually growing your vegetable garden – one module at a time.
Right from the outset, we’d encourage you to start to think about food production from a waste transformation perspective.
At this early stage, that means composting your kitchen wastes and newly acquired vegetable residues. Keep it simple. Just put the food scraps into a compost bin and allow them to decompose naturally. Once you fill the bin, remove all of the earthy-smelling black compost to use on your plants. Put the partly composted stuff back into the bin and resume adding your kitchen wastes.
You can also get a worm farm going. Compost and worm castings are superb plant foods…but, even more importantly, they are part of the biological leveraging that enables you to produce your food cost-effectively…while also keeping you out of the destructive and expensive chemical fertiliser/herbicide/pesticide cycle upon which industrial farming is premised.
Once you’ve got your vegetable garden happening, it’s time to expand the menu to include some eggs.
Three chickens will produce 15 – 20 of the cleanest and freshest eggs that you’ll ever eat – each week – and you’ve achieved your first important milestone in your DIY food production. You can now sit down to your first totally homegrown meals.
Don’t have the space…or local government or housing convenants prohibit keeping chickens?
Never mind…because you will almost certainly have the space to keep Japanese quail. A dozen quail hens will provide you with 60 – 80 eggs a week. Five quail eggs equal one chicken egg and, anything that you can do with a chicken egg, you can do with quail eggs. A few quail hens can be housed in a square metre and they can be explained away (to anyone who needs to know) as cage bird pets.
The arrival of your chickens or quail signals the need for a subtle shift in our waste transformation efforts.
First, we now need to redirect everything in the way of food wastes to the chickens or quail. Start to think of those fruit and vegetable peelings, plate scrapings, stale bread and virtually anything that you’d eat yourself as being leftovers to be consumed by your birds.
Kitchen wastes will offset the cost of purchased chicken mash or pellets and the best (and fastest) way to compost anything is to put it through the guts of a chicken.
Second, we need to start thinking of chicken or quail manure as an asset…something that has value -and that can have further value added to it.
At the very least, we can rake it up, mix it up with other carbon-rich plant wastes and end up with a richer compost…or we can feed to worms. If we are keeping a dozen or more chickens, then we can gather it up and feed it to Black soldier fly larvae and, in the process, produce another valuable dietary supplement for our chickens. What’s more, we can take the larvicast (the stuff that’s left over when the BSF larvae are finished with the chicken/quail manure) and feed that to our worms, too.
Welcome to the world of the cascading returns that become possible through waste transformation farming.
Now, we’ll quickly reach the point where…as good as it is…our egg salad will become a little boring from a culinary perspective. When (and if) you reach that point, it’s time to start thinking about some homegrown meat.
There are a range of options available to you when it comes to backyard meat production and they include:
You can even add lesser known organisms like snails and guinea pigs to the list – subject to your culinary and cultural preferences.
If you already have quail hens all you need to do is buy some cockerels and let nature take its course. Incubate the eggs and 16 – 17 days later you’ll have your first chicks. About six weeks later, you’ll be eating your first meal that includes homegrown meat.
You can purchase day-old broiler chicks from a hatchery or feed and grain store and be eating them about six weeks later.
Muscovy ducks are perfect waterfowl for backyard food producers. They make very little noise and a drake and three or four ducks will keep you in duck meat forever.
A buck rabbit and 4 does will provide you with some of the finest meat that ever graced a kitchen – and you can raise it in a footprint of about three square metres.
Of course, all of this has to acknowledge that meat production is not a story with a happy ending…but, if you already eat meat, then you owe it to yourself and your family to only eat clean fresh meat that is ethically raised…and processed.
Once again, the rabbit manure is an important part of the value chain and should be harvested. It, too, can be fed to the BSF larvae and/or worms. Indeed, chickens will even eat it.
By now, you are eating clean fresh food the like of which would cost you a lot of money if you had to buy it.
But, we’re not finished. How would you like to add fish to the menu?
A simple recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) will enable you to grow your freshwater fish in a footprint of as little as five or six square metres.
What’s more, you can use the nutrient-rich water from your RAS to water your gardens…effectively providing you with two crops – fish and plants – for the same amount of water that it would previously have required just to grow the plants.
Connect a hydroponic growing system to your recirculating aquaculture system and you’re doing aquaponics.
You can even build my personal favourite – the integrated aqua-vegeculture system (iAVs) – the truly remarkable food production system that was the precursor to aquaponics.
Small-scale food production doesn’t end there. If you have the space and zoning, you can also include pigs, goats and small cattle in your integrated food production system…along with fungi and fodder plants. The sky’s the limit!
All of these things are not only possible but they are also quite easy to do…and we can help you.
Welcome to the world of Microponics and waste transformation farming…where the waste products of one organism become the feedstock for other organisms…in the quest for clean fresh food.
Growing one’s own food is a key aspect of the ‘Have More For Less‘ concept…and I’ve been doing it for much of the past 40 years. For the past 12 years, I’ve also had an enduring commitment to integrated agri-aquaculture…and I’ve been writing about it for much of that time.
Suffice to say, I have a substantial body of work on DIY food production to share with you. To simply dump it in front of you would be a little overwhelming – so I’ve created the following links to enable you to access the material in a structured manner.
I developed a small-scale food production regime that, in 2008, I described as Microponics. Essentially, Microponics embraces the integrated production of fish, plants and micro-livestock…in an urban backyard. If this all seems a bit confusing, at this stage, just bear with me and I’ll help you through it.
The first thing to understand is that there’s no need to do everything that I talk about. If you do nothing more than grow your own salad greens, you’ll be in front. If, however, you want to make a big difference to your food bill…and your health…the sky’s the limit.
Let’s begin with why we should grow our own food…and then we’ll look at what’s involved in producing enough food for our own kitchen.
If we try to mimic commercial food producers, the food that we grow will be more expensive than food bought from a supermarket. To eliminate the need for commercial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides – and to offset the cost of live-stock food – we use something called integration to give us a financial edge while, at the same time, preserving our health and the well-being of the environment.
Now, Microponics is the integration of fish, plants and micro-livestock and it operates on the premise that the one thing that all food organisms have in common with each other is water – so we’ll introduce you to integrated aquaculture in its various forms.
Of course, one consequence of growing fish is that we end up with nutrient-rich water that we can use to grow fruit and vegetables for us – and fodder for our micro-livestock.
When people think of growing plants, things like forks, shovels, hard work and sore backs quickly enters their mind. There are lots of very interesting ways that you can grow food plants that have nothing to do with hard work so we’ll be exploring things like the Integrated Aqua-Vegeculture System (iAVs), aquaponics, wicking beds, square foot gardens – and much more.
A constant diet of fish and salad would quickly become boring so we’ll also look at backyard egg and meat production…and that’s where the micro-livestock enter the picture. There’s a long list of those for you to choose from including:
The links in this article are just a taste of what’s to come as we venture forth into the world of Microponics and integrated backyard food production.
One evening, in early 1976, I walked into the Third World Bookshop – my favourite book haunt – in Adelaide’s Hindley Street night quarter.
About twenty minutes later, I emerged with a book that was to help chart the course of my life.
Written in 1943, “The Have-More Plan – A Little Land and a Lot of Living” was destined to become one of the classics of the back-to-earth genre.
In just over 70 pages, authors Ed and Caroline Robinson provided their prescription for “how to make a small cash income into the best and happiest living any family could want.”
The book’s lifestyle promise proved to be an irresistible lure for me…to the point where we embarked on our own quest for self-sufficiency.
In late 1976, my family and I moved from suburban Adelaide onto a neglected 20-acre olive tree farm on the urban fringe.
In the ensuing years, we moved from one rented farmlet to another before buying our own house. While the addresses changed, the general self-sufficiency idea remained constant. We aspired to the Robinson’s suggestion of “the best and happiest living any family could want”…and we rode a learning curve like the Big Dipper.
We bred rabbits, goats and various breeds of poultry and waterfowl. We reared broiler chickens and pigs, milked two cows, grew olives and owned a 20hp grey “Fergie” tractor. These humble beginnings paved the way for my introduction to integrated backyard food production (Microponics).
Wind the clock forward thirty eight years…and The Have More Plan re-entered my life.
The need for information relating to a project led me to my bookcase and, as I shuffled through a box of books, suddenly there it was in my hands – my copy of ”The Have-More Plan.”
I re-read the book three times in the week after its re-discovery.
On the first such occasion, I experienced the same sense of exhilaration that I did when I first read it 38 years ago. I even found myself being drawn into the back-to-earth call to action.
The Have-More Plan is a reflection of its age. While much of its content is timeless, the book is a social snap-shot of the US middle class in the early 1940’s – complete with beliefs, values and behaviours to match the period.
During the second reading, I paused on the Robinson’s call-to-action – to move to a place in the country.
While being on acreage has its merits, much of what is discussed in the Have-More Plan is no less applicable to an urban backyard.
Most people, it seems, aspire to happiness and it’s my perception that they should be able to do that regardless of their age, ethnicity or financial circumstances…or whether they live in the city or the country.
It was during the third reading, that I realised that, for me, the real legacy of The Have-More Plan is the idea that the pathway to happiness is…self-reliance. What began as an attempt to underpin our own food self-reliance later branched out into other areas like finance, housing, and transport.
In acknowledgment of the impact that The Have-More Plan has had on my life, I’ve named my island micro-farm…Have-More Farm.
You can obtain a free PDF download of “The Have-More Plan”…HERE.
At the heart of the Have More For Less concept is my belief that happiness is the product of simple living and self-reliance.
My own self-reliance is achieved through:
- growing food
- exploring alternative shelter, energy and transport options
- designing and making – and mending things
- trading – selling and bartering
In this post, I provide some detail about those strategies. In so doing, I’m not suggesting that you should follow an identical path. This is simply what works for me.
Arguably, one of the most tangible indications that you are serious about self-reliance is the decision to assume control of your own food chain.
There are a variety of reasons for doing so and, principal among them, is food security….ensuring that you have food when you need it. Knowing where your food comes from, and what’s in it, is central to your health. Making intelligent food choices is not only good for you; you’re helping the planet out, too. By the way, implicit in any discussion of food is acknowledgment of the need for potable water.
A less tangible (but no less important) benefit of growing food is the self-confidence it invests in you.
If the words ‘grow your own’ inspire thoughts of traditional gardening…with all of its digging, weeding and other hard work – relax! It doesn’t need to be that way. There are literally dozens of food production strategies that don’t require a shovel or garden fork.
Of course, there are also ways to access clean fresh food that don’t require you to grow it yourself. You can buy it directly from others who grow it – and still reap the financial and health benefits. You can also underpin food security by setting up your own food bank…stockpiling non-perishable essentials as a hedge against hard times.
The important message here is to take control of your food chain.
Shelter – Energy – Transport
Once you’re had something to eat and drink, your next survival requirement is shelter.
Regardless of whether they are buying or renting, keeping a roof over their head is the biggest expense for most people. Even those who have freehold ownership of their homes will be shelling out substantial amounts of money for insurance, rates, taxes, utilities (like water and sewerage) – and maintenance.
Most people require a loan to buy a house. Many of them will then spend the next 25 to 35 years paying off that loan. Known as the ‘mortgage trap’ this process is an issue for two reasons. Firstly, the sheer amount of life energy that has to be directed to the repayment of housing loans is huge. Second, is the insidious affect that it has on personal freedom. All manner of life choices will be made to mitigate against the risk of not being able to pay that mortgage.
You may have to work in situations that you detest simply because of the captive impact of your mortgage. It’s no exaggeration to say that, for many people, home ownership means decades of anxious scrutiny of the quarterly central bank interest rate announcements.
My interest in alternative housing is largely driven by the desire to demonstrate that people don’t need to be victims of the mortgage trap. They don’t even need to subject themselves to the indignity that often accompanies the renting of residential property. Fortunately, there are many strategies that can be employed to offset the cost of shelter. They just require a little ‘outside of the box’ thinking.
I treat the whole matter of housing as an adventure…a challenge. I live in a tiny house – not because I have to – but rather because I enjoy it. The cost effective provision of providing your own shelter is liberating and no less of a boost for your self-confidence than growing your own food.
Living without electricity is possible but, for most people, not all that practical. Buying electricity through a power company is increasingly expensive but there are things that you can do to reduce your energy costs.
Transporting one’s goods – and oneself – is also an important (and prospectively expensive) part of conventional living. For convenience sake, I treat them as part of my housing deliberations.
Suffice to say, at this stage, the exploration of alternative housing, energy and transport is a cornerstone of the Have More For Less concept.
Designing, Making and Mending
The procurement of goods and services costs money but, the more you can do for yourself, the less expensive it gets.
Eating out will cost you more than growing and preparing your own food. Building your own furniture and making and maintaining your own clothes will also save heaps of cash.
Acquiring practical knowledge and skills not only reduces the cost of living but will also assist you to generate income.
Trading – Buying, Selling and Barter
If you’re like most people, there will be some of life’s essentials that you’ll struggle to provide for yourself and that’s where trading becomes a part of your self-reliance program.
Trading is business…selling products or services. People have been doing it for thousands of years and, in its most fundamental form, it’s easy to do, too.
Long before money existed, people used barter – a system of exchange where good or services are directly exchanged for other goods or services – without using a medium of exchange – like money.
To summarise…HMFL is about growing food, living comfortably, design and making, getting around and selling stuff. It’s about building an enjoyable and sustainable lifestyle in which time assumes a greater value than money.
In my next post, I’ll reveal how a chance encounter with a little book set me on the path to food self-sufficiency.
I like to share and discuss these ideas with others. To that end, I invite you to go to www.havemoreforless.com.
I have an abiding interest in happiness.
Having experienced unhappiness (in many of its various forms), I can state categorically that I much prefer happiness. In fact, its pursuit underpins everything I do.
So, what is it?
Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary defines happiness as…
…a state of well-being and contentment.
Why is it important?
Well, as it turns out, happiness is apparently what the overwhelming majority of people want from life.
Hundreds of people have attempted to put the concept of happiness into words but, for me, nobody put it more succinctly than Aristotle when he said…
Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life; the whole aim and end of human existence.
But knowing what it is – and why its important – is one thing. Knowing how to achieve it is a very different thing.
The research that surrounds happiness is apparently abundant and, while the numbers vary slightly from one author to another, the consensus suggests that it is the result of three things – our genetics (50%), our circumstances (10%) and our intentional activities…the things we do on a day-to-day basis.
While there’s not much that we can do about our genetics, the clear message is that half of the things that determine our happiness are within our span of control. In other words, it’s up to us!
Even cursory reading of writings on the subject tells us that:
- Happiness is a personal responsibility. You have to determine what it means for you and you have to bring it about. You cannot rely on anyone or anything else for your contentment and well-being.
- Happiness should not be postponed. In life, there are no guarantees and so happiness must be viewed as a journey rather than a destination. Grab it where you can.
- Happiness requires two things – actions and decisions. It’s not going to happen for the simple act of wishing.
- Happiness is a skill…and the more you practice it, the better you get at it.
To summarise: Being happy – the state of well-being and contentment – is a worthwhile personal goal. Indeed, it should be our absolute priority and, since it’s within our grasp, we should be ridding ourselves of anything that stands in our path. Each of us is solely responsible for its definition and execution…and for our own outcomes – and that should happen without delay…every day!
That’s the WHAT of happiness. While we’ll periodically explore that in greater depth, the real focus of www.garydonaldson.net – is the HOW.
I contend that the pursuit of Happiness – through Simple living and Self-reliance – enables us to Have More For Less. Conversely, Have More For Less is the pursuit of Happiness through Simple Living and Self-reliance.
If you’re interested in what I have to say about happiness, I invite you to visit regularly and, if you’d like to discuss it – and exchange ideas on its attainment – feel free to drop around to the Have More For Less forum.
If you’re like me, the probability is that you were raised with the idea that if you did what you were told – and studied hard – then you would get a good job…and be happy.
I started to detect cracks in that proposition when I was very young. The highest academic achiever in my first year high school class did as he was told, studied hard – qualified as a doctor…and then took his own life. That, and many other inconsistencies during the ensuing decades convinced me that, as a life strategy, the ‘be good, study hard, get a good job, be happy’ idea was flawed at best – and an outright lie, at worst.
If we follow the trajectory of most of those who subscribed to this idea, what we really see are people who actually struggled to put themselves in a position where they got to work for others…for up to 50 years…on the understanding that they could then please themselves about what they did with what remained of their lives.
Of course, that all assumed that things went according to plan.
It assumed that your ‘good’ job paid enough for you to accumulate enough to survive with dignity – much less to ‘please’ yourself. It assumed that you managed to avoid the substantial list of natural (and man-made) disasters that were generally regarded as ‘acts of god’ – a general description for the calamities that befall people for which no one is taking responsibility. It assumed that you avoided life’s bastards – the bandits who prayed on the soft targets who were busily following the prescribed societal direction. It assumed that you remained in good health in an environment that directly discriminated against good health. It also assumed that you actually lived long enough to get your share of the social promise.
Most importantly, however, it required you to surrender your freedom for the greater part of your life in pursuit of ends for which there were no guarantees.
Let’s remember that these are the folks who got a ‘good’ job.
Those who did not do well in an educational environment set up by the ‘haves’ often found themselves working in ‘minimum wage’ jobs that did not even provide the food, shelter and other necessities of a civilised and dignified existence. These were the ‘have nots’ that were destined to become factory fodder for the ‘haves’.
Then there’s the sick, the aged, the minorities, the traumatised veterans and those who otherwise struggled to function within the societal framework established by the folks who own it.
Now, whether you subscribe to my view of how things work – or not – is not important…and nor is it the point of this post. The important thing is to understand that, for so many people, the social promise was/is not delivering.
The next thing to determine is whether you’re one of them.
- Getting older and find that, as life should be getting easier, it’s actually becoming much harder.
- A parent of young children who is locked in a day-to-day struggle to make ends meet.
- Concerned about the looming gap between the world’s population and its capacity to feed itself in the face of pollution, aquifer depletion, desertification, erosion, climate change and the other serious environmental threats confronting us.
- A young adult wondering how you will ever achieve the ‘the great Australian (or other country’s) Dream’ of home ownership.
- On a treadmill, working for people who don’t respect you or your abilities.
- Approaching ‘retirement’ and an increasingly uncertain future.
- Marginalised, disadvantaged or disenfranchised…or lacking any sense of control over your own life and its circumstances.
- Convinced that the world is facing an imminent survival threat.
- Tired of the growing hoard of bastards who are roaming through your pockets with a sense of entitlement.
- Just someone who is seeking a more fulfilling life.
…then you’ve taken the first step toward a more satisfying life…simply by acknowledging your dissatisfaction with the status quo.
The good news is that there’s light at the end of the tunnel…and it’s not the train.
It’s called happiness…and it should be your highest priority.
In my next post, we’ll explore what happiness is…and then, in subsequent posts, we’ll get into how it’s possible to have more for less – with happiness as a consequence.
Welcome to garydonaldson.net.
Let’s begin with a brief explanation of what the site is really about, how it came into being…and then I’ll talk about what it seeks to achieve.
Websites are like children in several respects…not the least of which that, if you have too many of them, they are subject to neglect. That was certainly the case with me. My Microponics site was only getting updated spasmodically and the home of the Urban Aquaponics Manual (long overdue for revision) was similarly neglected. My old forum Aquaponics HQ (now Aquaponics Nation) had changed hands but I was still its principal contributor.
Suffice to say, I had stuff everywhere. The other problem was that, since most of my content involved food production, my websites never fully represented the scope of my interests.
So, in early 2017, I decided to rationalise my various sites – and my collection of domain names. It was time to develop content in one place – and to conduct the discussions around my interests in another. That’s it…just two websites. And Facebook! Like it or loathe it, everybody is there so I use it as a billboard to announce my latest mutterings.
In an attempt to lend some order to the process, I listed my various interests. Long story short, a pattern (and life purpose) emerged and the Have More For Less discussion forum…a place where I can share and discuss ideas about self-reliance and simple living…was the outcome. Over time, I plan to transition the content from my old sites to this one and the HMFL forum.
I’ve been blogging and self-publishing for over 13 years…and I like it.
While the HMFL platform is certainly fit for the purpose of discussion, it’s blogging capabilites leave much to be desired. The other problem with discussion forums is that it appears that their owners should set a behavioural standard for the other participants. If I have to behave on HMFL, then I need someplace that I can say what I want without having to tread the minefield of people’s feelings.
This is that place.
Note: I’ll endeavour to identify content that is likely to offend so that it might be avoided…by those of gentle disposition, the politically correct…and my old mum.
In effect, the blog aspect of www.garydonaldson.net is a gateway. It’s here that I’ll also introduce various ideas related to HMFL (and all of its aspects) with the idea that any ensuing discussion can take place back on the forum. I’ll then post a link to my Facebook pages and groups for those who can’t fathom a universe outside of Facebook.
Wicking beds are the brainchild of Queenslander Colin Austin.
Austin claims that “the wicking worm bed is a highly productive growing system which not only produces food from limited water, but also recycles waste organic material to provide plant nutrient and capture carbon”…and my experience with the method, over the space of a decade, confirms his claim.
A wicking bed garden usually comprises a waterproof box with a drainage hole drilled a pre-determined distance from the base. A pipe is inserted into the box which is then filled with growing mix. The pipe is used to add water to the box which drains from the hole in the side when it reaches the correct level.
Wicking Beds – perfect microponics partners
In practice, the water in the bottom of the box is wicked upward so that the rest of the growing mix in the box is kept moist. This extends the interval between watering. The addition of hollow structures (like sections of PVC pipe), create reservoirs for the water and extend the irrigation intervals even further.
Wicking beds can be constructed virtually anywhere that allows for the creation of this water reservoir…..in ground, above ground or in a wide variety of containers.
Some variations on the theme feature a worm feeding station (a section of 100mm PVC pipe will plenty of small holes will do) which is inserted into the bed. Chopped food scraps (or animal manure) are placed into the feeding station and are converted to plant nutrients by the worms.
They’ve captured my attention for the following reasons:
They save water.
They provide the plants with continuous access to water and nutrients.
They can be integrated with other growing systems including square foot gardening.
They are very easy to water – plants get water from bottom – less fungal disease.
They are simple and inexpensive to build…..and easy to operate.
They will go for days (or weeks) without having to add water. How long they can go depends largely on how much water can be stored in the lower section of the bed.
…..and they would partner beautifully with an aquaponics system.
Wicking refers to the movement of water (by capillary action) upwards through suitable soils (or other growing mixes) – like the movement of molten candle wax along the wick.
Wicking beds rely on the creation of a water reservoir of 75mm – 150mm deep. A layer of soil (or growing mix) is then added – to a depth of 300mm. The wicking action is limited to about 300mm.
At the bottom of the bed, the soil is very wet and at the surface only slightly damp.
Mulch is added to the top of the bed to minimise water loss through evaporation.
Plants should be fed throughout their growing cycle (rather than in one initial hit).
The soil or growing mix needs to be maintained at the correct level for optimum growing conditions. If it is allowed to compact too much, the plant roots become waterlogged.
Polystyrene broccoli or fish boxes are ideal for conversion to wicking boxes – they are cheap, well-insulated and can be set up at a comfortable working height. Fibreglass or plastic grow beds would also make excellent wicking beds.
For those who don’t mind working on their knees, a wicking bed can be constructed in ground using little more than a sheet of builder’s plastic.
One recommended growing mix comprises equal parts of clay, sand and worm castings. There’s clearly some scope for experimentation here. There’s a need for something fibrous in the mix (to assist the wicking action) so compost would be a desirable inclusion and even coco peat might be useful.
Watering your wicking beds from an aquaponics system would provide some nutrients and liquid fertilisers like Charlie Carp or Seasol would serve as a top up.
Overfeeding is a risk in a closed system like wicking beds so you would be advised to feed little and often. Periodic flushing of the reservoir with rainwater would help to avoid problems with the build up of minerals.
Wicking beds demonstrate many of the features of the best growing systems and, as such, they are excellent components in any microponics system.
This article was first published in August 2009. It was reviewed and updated in June 2017.
Imagine being able to produce your own freshwater fish and salad – simultaneously – in your own backyard.
Well, you can…..using integrated aquaculture.
The three important elements in any integrated aquaculture system are plants, fish and beneficial microbiology. Put simply, you feed the fish, the microbes turn the fish wastes into plant food and the plants clean the water for the fish.
The best known manifestation of integrated aquaculture is aquaponics – the combination of intensive aquaculture and hydroponics. Aquaponics is not, however, the only way to integrate the production of fish and plants.
While the fish and plants are the visible elements of the integration, it’s microbiology that makes it all possible. While this microbiology is very complex, the aquatic nitrogen cycle is easy to understand and is the part that allows for the conversion of toxic fish wastes into plant food.
The waste produced by the fish breaks down to produce ammonia.
When the ammonia levels in the fish tank reach a certain level, bacteria (Nitrosomonas) begin to colonise the system. As the numbers of these bacteria build, the ammonia (NH3) is converted to nitrite (NO2). As the ammonia levels drop, the nitrite levels increase. The nitrites (like ammonia) are toxic to fish.
When the nitrite levels in the water reach a certain point, other bacteria (Nitrobacter/Nitrospira) begin to colonise the system. These bacteria convert nitrites to nitrates (NO3), which are far less harmful to the fish.
While the microbiology associated with aquaculture is complex, the equipment needed is very straightforward.
To produce freshwater fish in your backyard, you’ll need:
A fish tank
A pump and some fittings
Mechanical and biological filtration
That’s it! These three components comprise a basic recirculating aquaculture system. You just add water and some fish……and start doing some water tests.
The first successful closed loop integration of fish and plants was called the Integrated Aqua-Vegeculture System (iAVs). It was invented by Dr Mark R McMurtry in 1985.
In its simplest iteration, iAVs consists of a fish tank and sand bio-filters.
Subsequent developments saw the emergence of what became known as aquaponics…the integration of recirculating aquaculture and hydroponics.
Aquaponics comes in many forms but the dominant systems are:
- gravel culture – flood and drain aquaponics
- deep water culture – raft aquaponics
Both recirculating aquaculture and hydroponics create a waste stream. In a conventional recirculating aquaculture system, nitrates are removed through water replacement where a predetermined volume of water is dumped each day. In a conventional hydroponic system, inorganic salts are used to provide nutrients for plants. Once the nutrient levels drop below a certain level, they are also dumped. In both situations, the wasteful disposal of nutrient-rich effluent creates environmental issues.
When they are integrated, however, the waste streams are reconciled – to the benefit of both fish and plants.
Integrated aquaculture is not limited to iAVs and aquaponics. There are also a number of soil-based options.
Since they all grow plants, the choice of a particular system boils down to personal preferences and the availability of resources.
Regardless of the method used, integrated aquaculture differs from conventional horticulture in a number of important ways.
The first (and most obvious) distinction is the source of nutrients – the fish. Integrated aquaculture effectively provides two crops – one is fish and the other plants – for the same volume of water that it would otherwise take just to grow the plants.
The other very important difference is that, since chemical herbicides or pesticides are toxic to fish, they cannot be used in recirculating systems. Clean chemical-free food is the result.
The list of Australian freshwater fish that can be produced in a backyard includes:
- Murray Cod
Freshwater crayfish include Yabbies (Cherax Destructor), Redclaw and Marron.
Every region throughout the world has its own freshwater fish species.
Pelletised rations, specially formulated for native freshwater fish, are available from fodder stores.
Integrated aquaculture lends itself to virtually any plant…particularly food plants. The specific method will vary according to the type of plants being grown.
I’ve been engaged in integrated aquaculture since 2005…and I’ve written hundreds of articles on the subject. In fact, I self-published what was arguably the first book on the subject in the world (The Urban Aquaponics Manual) back in 2007. This material is being reviewed and will be available on this site.
This article was first written in 2009. It was reviewed in September 2017.
Duckweed – a must have for Microponicists
Duckweed is one of the best-kept secrets of Urban Farming.
It is a high quality feedstuff that can be produced in useful quantities at little cost and with little effort. Of equal interest (particularly in an Aquaponics context) is its ability to remove nutrients from water.
We began growing duckweed in 2004. Initially, we used it to supplement the pelletised rations that we fed to our Japanese quail. In more recent times, it has become an important part of the diet that we provide to our Jade Perch.
In the right conditions, this tiny plant can double its mass every 24 – 48 hours. Close control of the production parameters for duckweed is relatively easy in the small ponds and tanks favoured by backyard food producers.
Its explosive growth rate enables you to harvest and feed fresh duckweed on a daily basis.
At 35% to 40%, it has a higher protein level than Soya beans and higher concentrations of the essential amino acids, lysine and methionine than most plant proteins.
The other great news is that growing duckweed is easy.
You can purchase your initial stocks from most aquarium supply shops…or from vendors on Ebay.
You can use any open tank, large tub or in-ground pond. Place smaller containers in semi-shade or somewhere that you are able to shelter them from the worst of the summer heat.
While it is not essential, recirculating water from your fish tank is desirable. Aside from saving you the effort of bucketing water from your fish tank, recirculating the water will ensure that the nutrient levels in your duckweed pond remain at a consistent level.
You should aim for complete and dense cover of duckweed (within the range 0.6kg/m2 – 1.2kg/m2) for backyard farming purposes. Much below this and algal blooms will be an issue and much above it will cause it to self-mulch. Wind or fast-flowing water will also cause diminished production due to self-mulching.
While a variety of organic materials can be used to supply nutrients for duckweed, the logical source for Aquaponicists is their fish tanks. Of particular importance to aquaponicists, is the plant’s nutritional preference for nitrogen in the form of ammonia.
Duckweed is capable of rapid growth in water containing trace elements of nutrients. Interestingly, we almost killed off a batch of duckweed through overdosing it with poultry manure.
Temperature and sunlight are more important growth parameters than nutrient concentrations.
Duckweed grows across a wide temperature range – between 6oC and 33oC – but we’ve determined that it grows best in a range of 18oC to 24oC. We know that growth slows progressively up to 30oC and the plant begins to die off quickly at around 33oC.
While it will live in pH 5 to 9, the optimum pH for growing duckweed is in the range of pH 6.5 to 7.5 – also the preferred range for aquaponics systems.
Feeding out duckweed is as simple as dragging a kitchen sieve through the duckweed tank and placing it into your fish tank.
To avoid the duckweed from being pumped out of the fish tank, we made up an inexpensive duckweed feeder from a bucket with the bottom removed. The bucket is suspended in the water and the duckweed is placed into the bucket. This arrangement allows the fish to access the duckweed without distributing it throughout the tank.
Jade perch waiting for duckweed.
Surplus duckweed can easily be dried and stored for later use. When drying small quantities, we allow the duckweed to drain in a kitchen sieve and then spread it thinly over several thicknesses of newspaper or kitchen towel. Turn it over several times each day for two or three days. Store it in an airtight plastic container.
Freezing is actually our preferred duckweed storage method. We simply gather up the tiny plants in a small kitchen sieve and squeeze the excess water out of them before arranging the mass in a shallow plastic container.
After freezing, we turn it out of the plastic mould and place the duckweed biscuit into a large storage container. Whenever we need duckweed for one of our fish, we select what we need from the storage container in the freezer and float it on the surface of the fish tank.
Frozen duckweed – fast food for fish.
To summarise, duckweed is a high quality source of plant protein that grows quickly, costs virtually nothing to produce and requires little labour. It offers the added benefit of being able to remove nutrients from water.
Our first challenge was to learn how to grow duckweed in consistent, predictable quantities.
Our current focus is on the full integration of the plant into an aquaponics system. We want to be able to grow duckweed to remove nutrients, feed fish and other small livestock and to conserve water through reduced evaporation.
Duckweed is a must have for Microponicists.
This article was first published in May 2009 and reviewed in October 2017.