Foreword

The Urban Aquaponics Manual first saw the light of day in 2007 – the first publication of its type in the world.

I created the 2nd Edition in 2008 and, in 2010; I revised the Manual yet again (3rd Edition) and made it available through a subscription web site – another first.

In 2012, I embarked on this 4th Edition.

I had already done a substantial amount of the work when, in 2014, I made the acquaintance of Dr Mark R McMurtry. In the ensuing couple of months, everything that I thought I knew about integrated aquaculture got turned on its head. (more…)

Getting Started with DIY Food Production

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.

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An Introduction to DIY Food Production.

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: 

  • chickens
  • ducks
  • turkeys
  • quail
  • rabbits
  • geese
  • pigeons
  • snails
  • bees 

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.

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Wicking Beds

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 micropnics partners

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.

 Core Principles

  • 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.

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This article was first published in August 2009.  It was reviewed and updated in June 2017.

Broiler Chickens

Being able to produce chicken meat is an important milestone for aspiring urban farmers.
Day-old Broiler chicks.

Day-old Broiler chicks.

If you believe, as many nutritionists suggest, that we are what we eat, you’ll realise that the big benefit in rearing your own is that you’ll be eating the cleanest and freshest chicken that you have ever had.
Just seven days old - trebled in size.

Just seven days old – trebled in size.

Producing broilers (meat chickens) is a project that will (assuming reasonable management), take up to 8 weeks to conduct. The precise time will depend on how big you want your chickens and what you intend to feed them.
14 days old and eating like crazy.

14 days old and eating like crazy.

Don’t confuse the term broiler with boiler.  The broiler is a 5 – 8 week old tender frying chicken while the boiler is a retired layer or breeder that is likely to be at least 18 months old.  Both are useful sources of food but they are prepared in very different ways. Broilers are what you get when you order chicken and chips (fries) from your local fast food outlet.
7 weeks old - ready for processing

7 weeks old – ready for processing

You can begin harvesting your chickens from about 24 days onwards. Chickens at this age are referred to as Poussins and they make an excellent single-serve dish.
Two kilograms of clean, fresh chicken meat

2kg of clean, fresh chicken meat

At six weeks of age, your chickens will dress out at about 1.5kg or better. If you keep them for up to ten weeks, you’ll get very large chickens indeed.
The important thing to take out of this article are that you can produce clean fresh chicken meat in your own backyard.  
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