Coming Home to Aquaponics

Jeremiah and LoriIt all started at my Aunt Lori’s house.

I was three.

She asked me to take off my shoes before entering the house. Not wanting to, I sat on the porch to pout and stare at the ground. A smart woman who knew how to handle kids, she came over and sat by me, not saying anything. After a while, I asked her a question—perhaps the most important question I’ve asked in all my life.

What is dirt?

Knowing that I was just trying to justify myself, she still took it seriously and pondered for a long time before responding, “You know Jeremiah, I just don’t know what dirt is. I think you should find out.”

I spent much of the next thirty years doing just that, and you know what?  I still don’t know what dirt is. I don’t think anyone does. It’s a great and marvelous mystery that still baffles and astounds me.

God and Dirt

In high school, I wanted to know God.

I attended six church youth groups, sometimes visiting one every night of the week. On Mondays I was Pentacostal, Tuesdays Lutheran, Wednesdays Evangelical Free, and Thursdays Non-Denominational. I loved to debate people from each church on the merits of their approach to faith and the reasons that they thought they had some kind of real connection to, or knowledge of, God. As you might imagine, this did not earn me a lot of points.

Jeremiah MountaintopIn college, I found something.

Alone on a mountaintop, in a rainstorm, I sheltered under a tarp and contemplated the fairly serious life and family problems I was facing at the time. Just before sunset, the rain stopped, two hawks and an eagle began fighting high above the valley, and the horizon opened just enough to let me see the most beautiful sunset of my life light up every single drop falling from the pine tree over my head.

Leaping and yelping for joy, I felt that I had been given an answer. If I wanted to know God, I had to return to the source—the source of all life—to the sun, water, rocks, and dirt.

To begin this new spiritual path, I had to get my hands dirty.

Working with Dirt

With no gardening experience to speak of, and no friends or family interested in teaching me, I started “gardening.” It was a little awkward.

Year 1: In a little second story apartment, I raised four cherry tomatoes (not plants—tomatoes) and 12 beans from a window box.

Year 2: In another apartment, I got permission to plant a small garden in a yard spot that got full sun in the winter, though apparently none in the summer. Nothing grew.

MowerYear 3: Now with a wife and a house, I planted a 4’x8’ tomato garden in my new, huge (to me) urban backyard. Not understanding the brakes and clutch in my new riding mower, I mowed over my tomatoes. I also started a little kitchen hydroponics garden, which worked great.

In the years since my early false starts, I read dozens of books about soil structure, minerals, organisms, and improvement / management techniques.

Did you know that the largest organism in the world is an underground mushroom colony in Oregon that stretches 1000 square miles and can learn?

I bought a trailer and manure fork, and added ten tons of manure, five tons of coffee grounds, ten yards of wood chips, ten yards of leaves, and 2000 square feet of cardboard to my yard. The result was a large annual garden  and a nearly-burned-out motor in our little Toyota. I then proceeded to make many mistakes with bugs, diseases, and inexplicable plant deaths.

Maple BottomThen I turned to permaculture.

Experimenting with hugekultur, I enlisted soil organisms to build the soil on which to start some plant guilds with hazelnuts, good king henry, sheep sorrel, false indigo, bunching onions, and strawberries. The wood was still sucking nitrogen last year, though this year I hope for a good harvest.

I added black and red raspberries, currants, ramps, Solomon’s seal, and started—as Eliot Coleman calls it—an enchanted asparagus forest.

This backyard annual and perennial garden now produces nearly all our vegetables and is starting to make a dent in our fruit consumption. This year we hope to begin giving away our excess.

Animals

With veggies and fruit nearly worked out, I turned to meat and eggs.

Previously, most of our protein came from factory farms. I wanted to—in an affordable way (organic store-bought meat is very expensive)—improve the quality of our meat in the same way that we had improved the quality of our vegetables.

 Jeremiah's Chickens

I wanted animals. But I lived in the city. I couldn’t raise goats, sheep, rabbits, cows, pigs, laamas, alpacas, turkeys, guinea pigs, or any other walking animal for meat.

I began raising chickens for eggs, and for their amazing ability to kill grass for garden bed prep. But I wasn’t allowed to eat them—that is, until I discovered that the law against in-city slaughtering wasn’t enforced unless somone complained (shhh…). Since all my neighbors loved my chicken habit, I started processing my own birds quietly in my garage basement (it’s a weird house) and throwing annual Wisconsin booyah parties.

Still, I wanted more.

Visiting some websites to figure out how to improve my little hydroponics system, I stumbled across aquaponics. And everything changed.

A New Kind of Dirt

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile I loved the ease of hydroponic growing, the artificiality of it irked me. So when I discovered that you can make hydroponics more natural (i.e. more spiritual) by adding fish (i.e. meat), I got excited.

It combines the simple labor-free growing benefits of hydroponics with the natural, organic, soil-food-web-based growing that I had come to love in dirt gardening.

Always one to put my learning into practice, I ordered books and bought a greenhouse on craigslist. Since I live in the North and needed insulated tanks, I made them myself out of freezers.

Over the past year, I’ve raised tilapia, trout, catfish, and perch along with basil, spinach, and lettuce.

Three things I can say about aquaponics:

  • Systems are a nightmare to build when you don’t know what you’re doing (and if you’ve never built one, you don’t).
  • Once built right, they take nearly zero effort. I just feed my fish and harvest greens. That’s all.
  • Plants grow amazingly well!  Last summer I got 75 lbs of basil leaves from my 11.8 m2 (128 ft2) greenhouse. Right now we’re feasting on an overabundance of spiniage and four types of lettuce, weeks before we’d be able to harvest the same amount from a conventional plot.
Making Pesto

Making Pesto

As an energy engineer, I really focused in my design on how to conserve energy. It worked. My system operates year-round without much energy use. Over the winter, one of the best parts of my day was going out to the greenhouse to feed the fish and being reminded that something in this world is still alive.

Every night, I get to pick the most delicious, nutritious lettuce in the world. Because it’s clean, I can throw in a bowl and eat it dry, without washing. If you’ve never had clean never-washed lettuce, I would highly recommend it. And every week, I get to fry up some of the freshest, tastiest, healthiest, local-est fish I’ll ever eat.

Aquaponics

Courtesy of Kent Sweitzer Photography

Life as a Dirt Lover

Raising fish and chickens in your urban backyard and converting all your grass to garden tends to attract attention. When I bike home from work, I often find a half-dozen kids waiting to feed the animals. They love testing the water quality of the fish tanks, catching fish in their nets, getting eggs out of the coop, and feeding the chickens sunflower seeds out of their hands. Once I even managed to convince them that weeding the garden was a game.

Garden KidsWhen the kids aren’t there, often some adults from the neighborhood want to buy some lettuce or get a tour.

I live in a low-income neighborhood and, while I didn’t build it for this reason, the aquaponic greenhouse is making a real impact here in terms of bringing people together and giving us a sense of community. Sometimes it just takes one kooky person to give everyone something to talk about.

And when everyone’s gone home and quiet returns to the garden, I stay. I watch the birds and squirrels, and listen to the sound of the wind.

Jeremiah on Path

Courtesy of Kent Sweitzer Photography

I get up before work to wander the paths and observe the little ecosystem mircacles happening all around me. Surrounded by the glorious beauty of creation, I marvel at my tiny place in this unimaginable universe and listen for the Spirit that still hovers over the deep waters.

Jeremiah Robinson
Cold Weather Aquaponics
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