It starts with some rocks. Then some water, fish and vegetable plants. They can go in barrels or tubs outside or in a greenhouse. An aquaponics garden is a growing system that may sound like an odd amalgam of natural ingredients, but they all add up to an efficient and tasty cropper’s dream. Take it from James Tinker, who has been gardening off and on for 30 years.
Since Tinker moved to Wilmington five years ago, he has been experimenting in aquaponics with the hopes of becoming a more self-sufficient citizen. Tinker trusts that his aqua produce will support him when the big-box grocery stores are no longer able to do so. The American economy, he believes, could one day fail its country. “It’s a downward spiral to me,” Tinker candidly admits. “If nothing happens and it doesn’t [fail], I am still better off because I am eating a lot healthier and don’t have to pay the prices on the produce.”
Tinker began investigating aquaponics when he realized the astronomical amount of water expended on his dirt garden to keep his produce happy in the ground. “I used thousands and thousands of gallons, even in the winter time, to keep it watered, so I figured there had to be a better way,” he explains.
Tinker’s current and most extensive project, a 12 by 33 foot aquaponics system, holds 2,000 gallons of water, shared between the fish tank and sump tank, a holding tank that lies beneath the produce beds. According to his website, theaquaponicsgarden.com, an aqua garden uses one-tenth less water than a normal dirt garden. Tinker estimates that he tops his tank off every three to four weeks, with anywhere between 20 and 40 gallons, to replace water lost through evaporation.
The aquaponics system that is in Tinker’s backyard is known as a Chift (Constant Height In Fish Tank) Pist (Pump In Sump Tank) system. Tinker stresses that no system is the “correct system,” and adds that, while the task may seem daunting, “it’s not difficult at all. It looks scary because there are so many little things that you have to think about.”
These little things that require monitoring can thankfully all be charted or figured from simple math formulas. Once a system is mature, it only requires maintenance once every few months. During an aqua garden’s genesis, it will need to be observed for six to eight weeks to make sure the system is cycling correctly. Tinker lists four important components to cycling to ensure that both fish and food are happy: ammonia, pH, nitrites and nitrates.
Tinker’s aqua garden sustains its dwellers, which, when broken down, is incredibly complex and fascinating. First, a pump pushes water from the underground sump tank into Tinker’s fish tank, which will eventually overflow into the grow beds through PVC piping. A siphon has been installed into the grow beds so that when the water reaches an excessive point, it is flushed back into the underground sump tank. The plants are never drowned.
Over time, bacteria will begin to form in the rock of the grow beds. The water overflow from the fish tank washes fish waste into the beds, which feed the bacteria. These bacteria produce nitrites, potential toxins to fish, and nitrates aid in the plants’ growth. To alter the ammonia level or production of nitrites and nitrates, Tinker suggests changing the amount of food supplied to fish. “The hard part is getting it to cycle,” he encourages, “and it’s not hard. It just [takes] diligence and patience.”
Aside from having little impact on wells, aquifers and other water sources, the aquaponics system of growing has many other benefits. For one, there’s no dirt. Tinker incorporates river rocks into his system, with an additional three to four inches of lava rock to absorb bacteria. The water is able to circulate freely through the rocks and plants aren’t troubled by weeds. He also uses composting worms which create a natural fertilizer for the plants. Because the organisms are not competing for food and have a solid base to grow in, plants can be rooted much closer together than the recommended growing distance; the habitat is much more cooperative.
Aquaponics gardens have high yields; this factor is increased if the systems are enclosed in a greenhouse so produce can grow during fall and winter months. Tinker grows a type of tomato known as Big Boys, and estimates that from one plant this winter’s yield will equal to 10 or 15 pounds. His plants thrive as a due result from the lack of competition and the output is evidence: “I started them about three inches tall, and they are growing like crazy,” he reveals.
On his website, Tinker guarantees a 50 percent faster growth rate on aqua plants; and there aren’t any pesticides or chemicals. Around Christmastime, he starts giving food away. From monster radishes and tomatoes, to squash, hot peppers, onions, lettuce and garlic, anything will grow in the aqua garden. The only veggie Tinker has yet to conquer is the potato.
Tinker offers free tours of his aquaponics garden roughly every two weeks; updates to his schedule can be found on his website. He also welcomes any questions, and offers help with cycling. He hopes that more people will make the move for self-sufficiency.
“Everyone goes to the grocery store and thinks it’s going to be there,” he notes. “Well, what happens if we have huge droughts, or huge storms?”
Thankfully, Tinker’s solution to our big-box syndrome is a simple one: “I think more people need to get back to gardening.”