Building a DIY Backyard Aquaponics System

  
Last summer, I began to research this “new” gardening technique called aquaponics. To give a quick overview, it’s a closed-loop system of gardening: you have a supply of fish inside a separate tank, typically below a grow bed that’s either filled with media (like rocks or coconut coir) or has a raft floating above the water. The water from the fish tank, filled with waste, is then pumped into the grow beds for a “flood” where the water is taken up by the plants, then filtered through the rocks with worms to bring the clean water back to the fish. In a fully cycled system (meaning you have fish producing waste and bacteria colonies converting that waste into fertilizer) you don’t need to add any supplements, and plants don’t have to compete for nutrients since the water is evenly distributed to all the plants, then drained and renewed every hour. Which means that not only can you plant seeds more closely together, but they also grow up to twice as fast as conventional dirt gardening. At first, I doubted the claims as exaggeration. Yet now, being six months into my system and seeing it *almost* fully cycled, I’m regularly amazed at what it can produce!

aquaponics-system-growth
So how did I get here? In the beginning I browsed a few forums, but the chat was so technical with terms I’ve never seen that I got confused and overwhelmed quickly. I turned to YouTube, which is great for beginners. Yet there were still so many different options for building your own system. You can use IBC totes, or fiberglass, or build your own and line them. Even with lining them, you had so many options! It just became a bit too much. I wanted to get started, and knew I wanted my own system, but I didn’t want to have to study for several months just to figure out how to put the darn thing together. So, I started with a greenhouse. I chose Ana White’s Barn Style Greenhouse because it’s compact, affordably maximizes materials, and frankly, I trust Ana. Nearly everything in my home is from an Ana White plan! I spent around $800 on supplies, and after a two weeks of working on days my two pre-schoolers were in a Kid’s Day Out program, I had the greenhouse built.

aquaponic-greenhouse

The greenhouse is 10 feet wide by 12 feet long, and I modified the sides to be able to be propped open for ventilation.

aquaponics-greenhouse-ventilation
Now for the system. It was just too overwhelming to think about coming up with my own design, so I purchased a DIY tutorial from Endless Food Systems for $40. It was money very well spent! It had everything I needed to know to get started. I had to tweak it just a bit to fit into my greenhouse, by making two of the beds about a foot shorter than the plan. This left me with roughly 60 square feet of grow area. I started by purchasing a 300 gallon stock tank from my local Tractor Supply.

aquaponic-tank
Next it was time to build my first grow bed. The plan uses 2×12 lumber, which is extremely heavy. If I were to build this again, I would definitely add more supports to keep it from sagging from all the weight.

aquaponics-grow-bed-support
  
Next I added the right side bed, and had everything on legs.

building-an-aquaponics-system
Before I knew it, I had the grow beds and sump tanks (where you keep all the extra water to fill up the grow beds) built and ready to line.
Choosing a liner was tougher than I thought. One of the downfalls of aquaponics is that you really can’t get away from plastics. Be it the plumbing (galvanized and copper poison fish) or the tank, and even the growing beds, you have to keep it waterproofed. That means plastic. So I hemmed and I hawed, and I decided to ask a friend who is an environmental engineer. I sent her a few different options, she looked up the materials, and suggested I use DuraSkrim pond liner. This is what the pros use for organic certification, so I’m happy with my choice. They’ve come out with a new product now that’s thinner and easier to work with. I would definitely recommend that, because the DuraSkrim is ridiculously annoying to work with. But in the end, I salvaged what I could, and got this sucker lined!

aquaponics-grow-beds
  
After lining all the beds, we ran the plumbing lines. I decided to use polyethylene pipe for all the 1″ and 3/4″ lines and connections because it can withstand higher temperatures than PVC and isn’t quite as volatile. Plus it’s really flexible, which is nice for maneuvering as well as not worrying so much about freezing. I couldn’t find any 2″ PE connections, so the sump tanks had to have PVC connecting them. I hate it. They’re always leaking and cracking. I’m planning to redo the plumbing sometime this fall when it’s cooler.

  
Once I had everything hooked up, I did a quick leak check, then it was time to fill ‘er up! I searched high and low for a good, affordable media for the grow beds. I chose media because you can grow things more easily with larger root systems, like tomatoes and okra and corn and such. Rafts tend to be better for things like greens and herbs. You need your media to be pH neutral, and a quick way to test for that is to drop a piece into a cup of vinegar. If it fizzes, you don’t want it. I ended up on crushed red granite. I did the test and it didn’t fizz, so I spent $80 on two cubic yards and filled up all three beds. It took so much time, because I had to rinse the rock off first. I apparently didn’t rinse them quite well enough, because my water was murky for some time afterwards. I’m also not convinced it’s completely pH neutral as I have some trouble keeping the pH below 8, and 7 is the ideal for aquaponics. 8 is good for fish, not so much for plants. It’s a work in progress.

  
So, the system is built! I filled the tank up with water then started adding it to my grow beds. Once it looked filled I ran the pump for a couple of days to make sure I had the right flood and drain patterns going. Then, it was time to add in some fish. We decided to grab a couple of buckets of established goldfish from our stock tanks on the property to really help get this thing moving along. Once they stopped dying (and we only lost a couple in the beginning) I bought a few koi from our local pet store. Then over time I added more goldfish and koi, building up to my current population of about 8 koi and 30 goldfish. I’m trying to build a school of fish the appropriate size for my tank once fully grown, so I didn’t want to add in too many and have to try thinning them out later.

  
Once the fish had a few days to settle in, I started tossing in some seeds here in there. My first crop was romaine lettuce, and I was over the moon when it germinated so quickly!

aquaponics-system
It’s been six months since my first seedling, and I honestly couldn’t be happier. Well, maybe if I had a few tomatoes 😉 But really, the performance of this system has been amazing. I’ve had a few learning curves to figure out with the whole ammonia->bacteria cycle, and hit a few road blocks. But overall, the system is thriving. I have had about 10 pounds of produce harvested so far, and much much more actually growing. I’m trying to keep things stocked well for the whole cycle to thrive. It’s really exciting to see things grow! I have a couple of dwarf banana trees that are doing well, a baby cranberry bush, lots of perennial medicinal herbs and some quick greens along with tomatoes, beans, peas, cucumbers and okra. Right now the chard is my top performer, with mustard being a close second. The rest is catching up as I strive to get the nutritional balances right.
Total expenses for the greenhouse and system, including plants and supplements (while things were getting started) was just over $2300. I’m happy with that, overall, because buying something this size, including the greenhouse, would easily double that cost. I’m hoping that it will prove itself in the long run and provide us with an abundance of fresh produce over the years. I’m planning to keep records to compare, and hopefully it will outshine the dirt garden so much that I can convince my family that we obviously need another AP system and just ditch the dirt forever!

Reusable To-Go Kit

  
Let’s face it: as much as I want to cook meals at home, there will be times (okay, lots of times) I eat out on the go either alone or with kids. You’d think that it would seem pretty harmless, but the single-use plastic adds up real fast. Straws, napkins, utensils, carry-out boxes, the list goes on and on. Finally I decided enough was enough and if I couldn’t eat every meal at home, at the very least I needed to carry around a “to-go kit” to reduce our plastic footprint.

  

Here’s the breakdown of the what and why for each item in my kit:

– 4 stainless steel reusable straws, because toddlers love drinking out of straws and I can minimize drink spillage with them

– 4 stainless steel tumblers from Klean Kanteen. I like that they’re I breakable and plastic-free. They keep cold drinks really cold too!

– 2 bamboo spoon/fork combo utensils. I also pack stainless kid spoons and forks and am deciding which I prefer. 

– one large stainless Lunchbots box. It can carry cuts of meat home from the market or a couple of servings of leftovers. 

– one Eco Lunch Box with a sauce/liquid container. Also good for leftovers, especially ones with dips or sauces. 

– cloth napkins (not shown) for spills and dry items like sandwiches or fries. I keep anywhere from 2-5 in here at a time.

– glass Lifefactory water bottle (not shown) for to-go drinks and water. So far we get by easily with just one.

– homemade carrying case to keep everything clean. I just folded a piece of fabric in half and placed everything on top then cut it to size and sewed the edges together. Then I grabbed a thick rubber band from a bunch of broccoli and voila! Ready to toss in my market bag.

Having my kit has made a huge impact on our plastic consumption. We use so much less simply by being prepared. I’m sure we’ll change things up over time, and it’s a really flexible system. I just grab and go! 

Texas Flooding and Relief 2015

I don’t normally broadcast my location, but in this case, well. I live in Wimberley, Texas. A small town of less than 3,000. This weekend, our river experienced record highs and damaged and destroyed thousands of homes in the area. It’s a hard loss. Not just homes, but trees. Hundred year old cypress trees, wiped out. Homes turned to rubble and completely washed away.

  

We lost bridges, pets, homes, and lives. 

  
If you have heard about the flooding or seen it on the news, I can tell you it isn’t sensationalized. If you feel called to help, please send donations to the Barnabas Connection or the Crisis Bread Basket, as well as the Red Cross. These organizations directly aid our local flood victims. You can also mail any goods to the Barnabas Connection to help families rebuild. Thank you all for the thoughts and prayers sent our way, they have been greatly appreciated. 

#wimberleystrong 

Library Roundup: Easy Green Living, Natural Beauty at Home, Natural Beauty from the Garden, The Zero Waste Lifestyle

  
Growing up, my family didn’t use the library much. There was one at school, of course, but I wasn’t encouraged to check out books. So for a long time I thought bookstores were the way to get books. When I started making greener choices, I subscribed to magazines and bought digital editions of novels and recipe books on my e-reader. It was still a good chunk of money from our budget, though. Earlier this year I finally made the short trip to both local libraries near my home and signed up for cards. I can’t believe it took me so long! I take a trip once a week to exchange what I’ve read with new material, and I look forward to it every time! I’ve been able to enjoy years of back issues of magazines I love as well as finding great resource books for green living. I decided to start a post series of mini reviews on the books, and hope that y’all may find some entertaining and inspiring reads among them! I don’t intent to add links, hoping these will also be available at your public library. So, let’s get started.
  
Easy Green Living by Renée Loux is what I would call “a buyers guide to going green.” It’s the easiest way to get started making conscious consumer choices for your home and life. It doesn’t focus on making, but rather outlines which companies and products do the legwork for you by having ethical, non-toxic ingredients and practices. I feel it’s a must read for everyone, because it’s not like we’re all about to start stuffing our own mattresses or weaving our own bed sheets. This way, you can save the hours of time researching which product is a good choice.
  
I enthusiastically thumbed through both of these diy beauty books by Janice Cox. Natural Beauty at Home is an excellent way to dip your toes into making your own toiletries without being overwhelmed. I found dozens of recipes I was excited to try, including some great small batch soaps. Taking things a step further, Natural Beauty from the Garden is filled with ideas on what to plant in your garden so you can not only make the products, but source your own ingredients right from your own home! It was exactly what I had been looking for. Far from being an unattainable goal, I was inspired to find some of these easy-to-grow herbs and flowers to further my self-sufficient journey. 
  
The Zero Waste Lifestyle by Amy Korst is what I would say is “zero waste lite”. There are several books out there with “extreme” practices that many Americans would find difficult to even consider, thereby discounting the zero waste movement entirely. I can’t think of anyone I’ve talked to who has said “Yes! I’m going to completely eradicate shopping from my life, only buy used, and generate only enough trash to fill a small mason jar.” This is not that book. This is what I’d recommend to a friend who wants to lessen their impact on the planet. It outlines all the highlights (or lowlights?) of landfills and how they poison the planet and it’s inhabitants. But instead of shaming, Amy shows you how easy it is to choose a few different methods to limit your contribution to the problem. Through recycling, informed purchasing, reusing and buying used, it’s easy to start living in line with the zero waste principles. Each chapter has a blip from a zero waste family outlining ways they’ve changed their habits for the better, as well as one thing (or things, in the case of disposable diapers or contacts) that they chose to keep. It doesn’t pressure you to make drastic changes all at once, but little ones over time such as switching to cloth napkins over paper towels. I really enjoyed the advice, and hop you will too!

Borax Free Dishwasher Detergent

Many recipes for natural cleaning involve Borax. Now, I’m not saying it’s safe or unsafe, but I’ve read several articles from both sides and decided to discontinue it in my everyday cleaning recipes. The fact that it’s not recommended for food use meant that I didn’t feel great about using it to clean the dishes we use to cook and eat. The good news is, you can get your dishes just as clean as easily with other natural ingredients! Here’s a recipe that works great even with my hard water.

 
1/2 Cup citric acid

1 1/2 Cup washing soda

1/2 Cup baking soda

1/2 Cup coarse sea salt or Epsom salts
Mix together in a container and use 1 tablespoon per load. You can also add a tablespoon of white vinegar in the rinse aid department if you’re washing a lot of glass and want them sparkling. 
Most of these ingredients are available in bulk bins, which means you can make this entirely zero waste and packaging free! I’m still sourcing where I could find washing soda in bulk, but for now the box is made from 100% recycled cardboard that I can recycle again. Wins all around!

Why We’re Gluten Free – Food Intolerances in Infancy and Beyond

About this time last year, I was suspicious about food issues with my 6 month old baby, and decided (against my pediatrician’s wishes) to do an elimination diet. Even with Caroline being exclusively breast fed, she had horrible eczema and was just so miserable all the time. She was the classic “colicky” baby. Oh, it was okay if you held her in just the right way, being sure to never ever sit down and constantly pace. She could nap if she was laying on your chest. Sometimes maybe in the swing. Anyway, my mama senses were tingling, so I gave up dairy and gluten. Dairy because I am mildly intolerant so I was suspicious she would be too, and gluten for it’s reputation of causing skin and digestive issues. My pediatrician told me I was wasting my time, that the eczema was genetic and in no way diet related, and I just had to go get prescription steroid creams for my tiny little baby with tissue thin skin and accept that pharmaceuticals were the only answer for her. I declined, and thought, “What could it hurt? It’s only food.” If I can’t ditch conventional bread and pasta for a few weeks for the sake of my child’s health, what kind of person would I be?! I had more self-discipline than that! So I researched what gluten was and where it was hiding, then completely cut it out to test my theory. Here is our before and after shot, taken 30 days before and after cutting gluten from my diet.

gluten free before and after

Amazing difference, right? It was like this all over her body, but her face was the absolute worst. Now her skin is clear and smooth, with barely a rough patch to be seen. Needless to say, I switched pediatricians. However, my new doctor wasn’t thoroughly convinced about my personal findings. I can’t say that I blame him, because neither was I. I was acting on suspicion, and though it seemed I was right, I prefer to know, you know? I didn’t like depriving her of practically an entire food group simply on whim, as it felt. I didn’t like people judging me for my “trendy” eating styles either. But my doctor kept brushing my concerns aside. “Just avoid gluten until she’s three, and then we can reassess.” That seemed like a very long time for guessing, considering we were at her 1 year well check. I was also suspicious about tomatoes, given her face looked like this whenever she got ketchup/bbq/pasta sauce on her skin:

tomato intolerance skin reaction

He told me it was just because it was an acidic food, that she would grow out of it eventually. She would be fine eating tomatoes, no big deal. I wasn’t entirely convinced. So, I pushed for a few months and got him to agree to an allergy test. Well three vials of blood taken later, they tested 13 measly food items. It did not include testing for celiac or tomatoes. The only item of concern was wheat, which showed no reaction. So, based on the “all clear” phone call I received, I started feeding her (and myself, since I still eliminated gluten in my own diet because of breastmilk) gluten and tomatoes again. Over the weeks that followed, she became incredibly crabby, throwing tantrums over the slightest provocation. Things like a toy falling over would cause her to throw herself on the ground and scream unconsolably. She had a low grade fever more days than she didn’t, around 99.3 degrees. Her digestion was off. She was increasingly tired but slept poorly. Many of these things could be explained away – she was teething, she had mild RSV, she was going through developmental changes emotionally and physically, so she could just be tantruming, etc. But again, I just knew something was off. More than just conventional “baby-ness”. So I talked to Kelsey of Texas Total Health (who I’ve been working with during our nutritional transition and is amazing and wonderful and CALL HER NOW!) She mentioned the Pinner Test, which tests for IgG reactions (vs IgE reactions that show allergies) and can signal food intolerances. These delayed immune responses can take up to 3 days to manifest, and last for as long as you keep eating the foods, which make it tough to pinpoint. They can cause headaches, digestive problems, grumpiness, and more. I signed up right away, and with one measly finger prick Caroline was tested on 200 different foods. And guess what she had a reaction to??

pinner test food intolerance test

To say I was not surprised would be an understatement. I was actually rather relieved to finally have real answers, versus my suspicions. And to have someone listen to me, agree that things didn’t sound or look “normal”, and to help me find those answers. I’m not sure if it’s a problem with most pediatricians to dismiss nutrition’s impact on health, but considering my batting average is a big fat ZERO in that department right now, I’m not feeling very confident. It actually enrages me, to think about how miserable my daughter would be feeling if I had just followed their advice and not looked further into the issue on my own. It’s certainly had me second guessing quite a few different things, and looking around for another pediatrician who will actually listen and address the underlying issue, instead of just throwing prescriptions at the symptoms. Caroline was only 17 months old, so it isn’t a tough transition to take out tomatoes and gluten. I did decide to have a gluten-free home, however, because I don’t want to struggle with the “But daddy is eating crackers, I want some too!” issues. I want solidarity, so she never has to feel like she’s alone and unsupported. It’s actually much harder for me to eliminate tomatoes than gluten! For now, I’m going to research tomato-free ketchup and sauces, and just limit dishes I cook with them, keeping them mostly in mom and dad meals and letting the kids eat modified versions. I’m still trying to get a handle on things, and come up with a game plan for how we’ll be cooking without two pretty major players in US kitchens. It’s challenging, but it could be SO much worse, and I am grateful that we have such a minor struggle. Gluten-free is basically a fad now in stores, so it’s easy to find affordable supplies for baked goods, and cheat every now and then with pre-made crackers or breads. I am looking forward to the challenge. Especially now that I know my baby girl feels healthy, happy, and whole.

Zero Waste Shopping at the Grocery Store

  
Happy Earth Day everyone! Today is a day for planting trees and saving energy. I’d love to hear how you chose to celebrate!

One of the largest trash collecting practices in my home was going to the grocery store. Plastic wrapped bacon, styrofoam containers for meat, jars and cans and bags and UGH! It was just so much. Then once I was through I had them put in plastic bags to tote them home. I was surrounded by packaging waste. It started to annoy me, all this stuff for just one use? It’s like throwing money straight in the trash. 

 
A friend of mine recommended reading Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson. That’s the first time I read about purchasing food in bulk, using packaging you already have. While going to the farmer’s market is great, it’s not really feasible for everyone. When I lived in Lake Jackson, the closest market was over an hour away! Now I have access to many, but they’re not always at times that work with my schedule. So, what to do? Figure out how to shop at the grocery store without buying plastics!

  
My local HEB carries a great array of food in their bulk section. Cornmeal, coconut flour, nuts, rice, and granola are just a few. In the beginning, I took jars with me. I filled the jar, poured it into a bag, weighed the bag, then poured the contents back into a jar. It was time consuming and I spilled a lot. 

  
To make the process run more smoothly, I made some cloth bags using scrap fabric pieces. I folded a rectangle in half, sewed the other two sides, made a hem at the top, and used rubber bands from produce to secure them. It was so easy!

Now I have a Grocery Kit: 5 large cloth bags for bulk, 5 medium, 5 small for spices, two gallon sized NeatOs bags for deli meat, two smaller NeatOs bags for chops and steaks, mesh produce bags, and canvas shopping bags to carry it all home. Now I rarely buy anything in a package, and have significantly reduced the amount of trash in my home! It’s been a big change, and one I think many can easily make. I hope to hear of your own zero waste shopping kit soon!