Aquaponics How-To

Shamelessly stolen from Balloon-Juice. Every Sunday morning, Anne Laurie, who cross-posts my Friday Recipe Exchanges, hosts a Sunday Morning Garden Chat and today she featured commenter MB’s aquaponics garden and I was so fascinated by it, I wanted to share it. So with apologies to John Cole (hey, you get like a million hits a day anyway) I took the whole post and reposted it here:

First a thumbnail sketch of aquaponics (AQ) in general and as practiced in the above pictured greenhouse. AQ is the process of growing plants in water like hydroponics but the fertilizer is (mostly) provided by fish who live in the water used to flood the plants. It is, at it’s heart, a symbiotic relationship wherein the plants feed from the fishes’ effluent which cleans the water that is returned to the fish who then, frankly, shit in it again. Fish gotta do what fish gotta do. The good news is that fish poo is just about the best poo you can use for plant food.

My AQ setup is housed in a 12×40 greenhouse and is comprised of a 600 gallon fish tank containing ~200 fish, four 4×7 gravel planting beds and a sump which runs most of the length of the greenhouse. I use one pump to pump water into the fish tank and the dirty water from the tank runs by gravity to the four planting beds. You have to have at least a 1:1 ratio between the volume of your fish tank and the total volume of all planting beds. You can support up to a 1:2 ratio. I have a 1:1.33 ratio. I have a total of about 1200 gallons in the whole system. The water is used over and over again and only lost to the system through evaporation and plant use. It it generally thought that AQ uses 1/10th the water needed for traditional gardening. This was a big selling point for me as I hate paying water bills and watering plants.

aquaponics loop siphon

The water enters the bed relatively slowly but exits quickly through the use of a siphon (shown above) similar to the siphon used to evacuate your toilet bowl. The orange arrows in the above picture indicate the direction the water flows. When it reaches the top of that pvc gooseneck and begins to drain over, it kicks off the siphon. It takes nearly 30 minutes to fill the bed but less than 5 to empty it. This is important because it sucks oxygen into the root zone. This also helps clean the water as the gravel “polishes” it removing all solids which remain in the bed available to the plants. A lot of aquaponists use the bell siphon system but I found it to be very, very temperamental whereas the loop siphon works pretty consistently. The pvc piece in the upper right hand corner helps the siphon stop when the water level is low enough to suck air into the siphon.

Fish poo is unusual relative to other animal waste in that it is immediately suitable for use by plants without composting. Worms also like it and will populate any AQ bed and that serves to further break down any solids. Finally, of course, the system depends on the nitrogen cycle to clean the water of dangerous nitrites that would harm the fish. In fact, the first step in the setup of an AQ system is to get the nitrogen cycle started, usually using ammonia, before fish are introduced.

The cleaned water dumps into the sump where it is pumped back into the tank through a venturi nozzle that infuses the water with oxygen – good for fish and great for the plants. From the fishes’ perspective, the AQ system is a giant filter and the principles involved would be familiar to anyone who has ever kept an aquarium or done water gardening. However, the “filter” is overdesigned specifically so you can overcrowd your tank without endangering the health of the fish. You need a large number of fish in order to make enough fertilizer for heavy feeders like cabbage and tomatoes. If you use game fish in the system, they will mature and you can eat them. However, AQ should not be considered a way to raise fish for food because it will never supply enough fish to be more than a meal now and again.

aquapnics goldfish

I have a mix of catfish, goldfish and a few bream. If it were up to me, I’d only have goldfish. They are very tough fish where most game fish are more sensitive to water conditions. Also I like the pretty colors. The experts will tell you not to buy feeders because feeders aren’t well-bred. On the contrary, I have had very good results with feeders and they have 2 real benefits going for them:

  • they are cheap as hell – just about the cheapest fish you can buy; and
  • if you don’t buy them they’re going to end up as some other critters lunch. Probably some pampered 1%er living in some rich kid’s bedroom. (Occupy the fish bowl!) So I figure I’m getting some good karma off this and striking a blow for the oppressed.

That is pretty much the basics. There is, of course, much more to it and it is an ongoing learning experience for me. I’ve had fish in the system now for about a year and a half. The first year is really a shake down cruise though I did see some results and was generally pleased with the production.

aquaponics cabbage comparison

Some plants do very well in the system, others not so well. Green, leafy things generally do very well and it is not unusual to see plants get really large really fast. I have an eggplant that is still producing that is over 6 feet tall. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and eggplant all do well. Okra, not so much. Above right is a picture of a cabbage currently growing in the AQ bed. On the left is a cabbage planted about the same time outside in my raised bed (outside cabbages are being fertilized with chicken poo – so it’s the battle of the poos, chicken v. fish.) The AQ cabbage is easily twice as big though the head is not nearly as compact. I really can’t get over how huge the leaves are on the AQ cabbages and I’m looking forward to eating this one on New Years with some black eyed peas, etc.


Finally, what Balloon Juice post would be complete without a pet picture? This is Vidalia, a 12 year old (11 in this picture) longhaired miniature dachsund, my constant companion and the sweetest dog that ever drew breath. Honestly, I don’t think she cares a whit about aquaponics, but she tolerates my obsessions and gives me a reason to get up in the morning.

If anyone has any questions about AQ or my project in particular, I’ll do my best to give a coherent answer or help direct you toward more information.

If you head on over to the Garden Chat, MB answers some great questions on the comments, too.


Recipe Exchange Updates, Rosemary and Author Wiley Cash


Kirk Spencer had a terrific suggestion in an email this morning. We were talking about bamboo skewers (and how you MUST soak them before grilling to avoid flaming kabobs) and he said he’d used rosemary stems as skewers. I thought this sounded just wonderful. Maybe a lemon marinated chicken skewered on rosemary. It wouldn’t need much other seasoning, that’s for sure, and of course you’d really need to like rosemary. Lamb would probably hold up well with that type of seasoning.  Yum. Can’t wait to try on something.

Now for some news on the Thursday Recipe Exchange. This week it will be postponed to Friday because the wonderful Wiley Cash will be live blogging over at Balloon-Juice about his book A Land More Kind Than Home tonight. And since I post the recipe exchange specifically to be cross-posted over there, a changed seemed prudent.

Friday night is where it’s going to stay for the time being, because of some special events planned at B-J on Thursdays. I’m good with that, hope you are, too.

Back to Mr. Cash, first of all, has there ever been a better novelist’s name? I read his book when it first came out and gave it as gifts over the summer. It’s worth a read, sets a beautiful North Carolina mountain scene as the backdrop to a dark mystery. It’s a quick and compelling story, told from the perspective of several characters in the first person.

I think that covers everything. Hopefully Kirk and I will have a big cooking announcement in the coming weeks.

Until tomorrow….

Pet Calendar to Benefit Animals in Need


I owe a lot to Balloon-Juice. It is an amazing community of people who listen, snark, commiserate and most importantly love animals. The ship is captained by John Cole, a big bear of a guy with a heart of gold who loves his Tunch, Lily and Rosie, all of who came to him as rescues, in one way or another.

Just this month, the team at B-J, headed by John, helped rescue and pay for the medical needs of a beautiful St. Bernard, named Garnet. Even better, when all was said and done, she was adopted by someone in the B-J family. I’ve lost count how many that makes this year. But a post will go up about an animal in need of a home and by the end of the day, someone in the B-J community has a new member of the family.

I am so happy to direct you to the Balloon Juice calendar.  Not only is it beautiful, but it helps animals in need. The pets that appear on every page are all from the B-J community and EVERY DIME goes to help animals in need.

Makes a great gift. So help a puppy or kitty out and order yours today.

Thursday Recipe Exchange: Chipotle Macaroni Salad

Photo by JeffreyW

EDIT: Just realized the tomatoes were omitted from the ingredient list. Corrected now.

What a week. The Colorado wildfires became personal again, as my office was smack in the middle of an evacuation zone. The authorities never had to make it mandatory and as I write this, that fire is well contained.  Add to that, one of the guys I work with was in a horrible motorcycle accident at the beginning of the week and that shook us all up. I was ready for the week to be over sometime around Tuesday night, so I’m grateful it’s Thursday and the weekend is within sprinting distance. Even happier that Independence Day is around the corner

Since I love July 4th, I have quite a few recipes that celebrate it with great picnic foods. All 21 of them can be found at this link.  There is quite a variety: fancy appetizers; cold salads; grilling ideas; fun desserts; and even cold drinks. There is also an entire post of potato salad recipes from Balloon-Juicers.

I really like tonight’s featured recipe. It was a huge hit last year at the July 4th picnic. I’m actually making it right now for a going away party, that’s how it became tonight’s recipe.

All right, now it’s your turn, what are your favorite foods on July 4th? Are you all-American with burgers and dogs or something more sophisticated? Share your favorites in the comments and we can all argue about it, good-naturedly of course.

Tonight’s featured recipe:

Chipotle Macaroni Salad

Chipotle Mayonnaise:

  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 chipotles in adobo sauce, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon adobo sauce
  • 1 tbsp limejuice

Mix together ingredients and set aside while macaroni cooks.

Macaroni Salad:

  • 1 lb elbow macaroni
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 stalk celery, minced
  • 4 green onions, chopped
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp minced parsley
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped (or equivalent)
  • 8 oz cubed sharp cheddar cheese
  • 4 thick cut bacon strips, cooked and crumbled (optional)
  • 1 cup chipotle mayonnaise
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring water to a boil, add 1 tsp salt and macaroni. Cook until al dente (firm to tooth). Immediately drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. Do not drain well, allow macaroni to stay wet, remove to bowl. Immediately add garlic, celery, onion, parsley and lemon juice and let sit for 5 minutes. Stir in cheddar cheese, tomatoes, bacon and chipotle mayonnaise. Salt and pepper to taste. Allow to chill 15 – 30 minutes. Serves 8-10.

Just a note: There will be no recipe exchange next Thursday, we’ll pick up again on July 12th.

Summer Rerun: Guest Recipe: Cabbage Rolls

I am reposting this because John Cole had a birthday last week and his dad made him cabbage rolls again and everyone was asking for the recipe. Here it is. Originally published August of 2010:

I was catching up on my Balloon-Juice reading one afternoon, when blog host John Cole mentioned that his dad was making cabbage rolls that night for dinner.  It so happens I’ve been looking for a good recipe for cabbage rolls for a while.  I figured if it was served in the Cole household it must be good.  John was kind enough to fulfill my request, so here is Dad Cole’s recipe:

Dad’s Cabbage Rolls

  • 1 medium size head of cabbage
  • (If you use Savoy cabbage, the cabbage will cook faster and the rolls are more delicate.)


  • 1 pound ground beef mixed with ½ pound ground pork
  • 1 small to medium onion, chopped small
  • 1 celery stalk, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup uncooked rice
  • ¼ cup finely chopped fresh parsley, oregano, and basil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons tomato paste


  • 1 large can of tomato sauce
  • 2 tbsp parsley, oregano, and basil
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 beef bouillon cubes dissolved in a cup of hot water
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 small can of sauerkraut

Boil three quarts of water in a large pot. Cut the core out of the cabbage and remove each cabbage leave carefully. When the water is boiling, drop the cabbage leaves into the water. Leave for at least two minutes. Remove and cool in ice cold water. Drain and then use a pair of shears to remove the hard ridge that is the spine of leaf. Set leaves aside on a paper towel to drain.

In a bowl, mix the beef and pork with the eggs, seasonings, rice, and tomato paste as though you were making a meatloaf.

Take a leaf, place a large tablespoon of the meat mixture at the core end of the leaf. Roll once, then fold each side over the mixture and complete rolling the filling to the end of the leaf.

Place rolls in a crock pot or baking casserole. As you layer them, spread the sauerkraut and any leaves not used after (chopped into fine strips). Mix sauce ingredients and pour over the rolls. Make certain there is enough liquid to cover the rolls. If using a crock pot, select the time. They can be cooked slowly over a 6-8 hour period, or within 4 hours. If baking, set the oven at 350 and bake for at least 1 ½ hours or until a fork can easily pierce a top roll. If more liquid is needed to keep the rolls covered, mix a small can of sauce with an equal amount water and add during the cooking time.

Serve with a sprinkle of freshly grated aged Parmesan.

I can’t wait to have an occasion to try these out.  And I’ll let you in on a little secret.  I only hang out at Balloon-Juice because I have a huge crush on this guy:

Balloon-Juice Lord and Master

John, I had to go back 4 months to find a good picture of Tunch,  which means one thing, MORE TUNCH please.

Thursday Recipe Exchange: Pizza

Cross posted at Balloon-Juice.

JeffreyW’s Fantastic White Pizza

On the road again, but didn’t forget you. Tonight I thought it would be fun if we shared pizza recipes. And if we’re talking about pizza, at least at What’s 4 Dinner Solutions, we’re talking JeffreyW’s great pizza incarnations. I think he posts a new one at least once a week and each looks better than the last. I knew as soon as he posted it, I wanted to feature his White Pizza recipe.  But his ideas just start there, he makes Deep Dish Pizzas, a variety of pita pizzas and an array of pizzas topped with his Awesome Sauce.

JeffreyW’s Pizza with Dried Tomatoes

Next week:Rice will be our ingredient.


Mighty Tunch in all His Mightiness

This is Tunch.  He belongs to John Cole and just so you know, he’s probably the only reason there is a food blog here.  It’s a long story, but my love of  Tunch kept me hanging out at Balloon-Juice and then before I knew it, I was posting menus there by request.

Love. That. Cat.