From a small aquarium to an aquaponic farm
His child’s home aquarium school project and his discovery of organic microgreens is how Taher Noorbhai waded into the world of aquaponics.
These two introductions saw me sitting on the net and YouTube for hours in 2017, listening to people talking about growing their own vegetables at home. That’s when the light bulb in my head lit up like LEDs on steroids.
Fish feeding plants, plants cleaning the water for the fish and providing food for them.
An enclosed system that uses just 10% of the water needed in conventional farming and less land, growing bigger, healthier and tastier produce? It sounded too good to be true. I started visiting local aquaponics and hydroponic sites, trying to decipher the different opinions and methods of growing vegetables as naturally as possible.
Hydroponics is a method of enriching irrigation water with nutrients and transporting this water to the roots of plants.
Aquaponics uses fish to enrich water to feed the plants and the plants clean the water for the fish in a closed loop. Sounds simple, right? However, like most success stories, there were hard parts and it involved a lot of work. Combining the two systems and learning about them, trying not to kill either, was not easy.
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Fish need to be fed, water must be clean. And the more fish you have, the more air is required in the water. The plants can be started from seed or you can use seedlings.
I then met Shaun Thomas at MyAquaponics, who politely told me I had mixed up the theories I had got from YouTube and they wouldn’t work.
Then I realised how much goes into an aquaponics farm. It’s not a school project, it’s not a weekend hobby. It’s a 24/7, 365 days a year, full-time living organism, involving everything from feeding fish, to plant grooming to scaring away birds and getting rid of pests.
My build began in October last year when I bought fish and water and air pumps. I didn’t need a biofilter but I put one in for good measure.
The system runs from the 6 000 litre pond, to the 5m² “media” bed, to the 15m² “raft bed”.
A pump takes the water back to the pond and the air pump is used both for the pond and raft bed.
The greenhouse is 48m², with a 25m² growing area and 6m² for the pond. In total, 1 200 to 1 500 plants can be accommodated by companion planting.
The general rule is 20 litres of water per fish and 10 per square metre of growing area.
Eager to start, I could not wait nine months for my fish to mature and produce sufficient biomass to sustain the plants, so Shaun suggested I add hydroponic nutrients to my system that were beneficial to plants and not harmful to fish.
The definition of organic requires soil, so food grown by hydroponics and aquaponics is not strictly organic although it is the most naturally grown produce. Who cares about terminology when you are eating healthy vegetables that are free of chemicals and come directly from the farm to the table?
5 things I wish I had known earlier
1 The fish need to be fully grown to sustain the plants.
2 You don’t need experts to sell their version of best methods.
3 You need mentors like Shaun Thomas to succeed.
4 Try several different methods in small systems before deciding on a particular type.
5 Plants are a whole business on their own. I wish I had learnt to grow veggies before embarking on my quest.
* Taher Noorbhai runs Organic Veggies & Microgreens in Lenasia and is involved in setting up a school to teach growing techniques for use in vertical gardens where space is limited.