It has been almost two years now since Chuck and I finished building our grand aquaponics experiment – a roughly 600-gallon network of underground pipes and lined beds that create a closed ecosystem to raise fish and grow vegetables in our back yard.
It has been a glorious and rewarding learning experience with this ‘garden’ where the fish (ahem) ‘feed’ the vegetables, the plants get their nutrients from filtering out the waste, and the natural bacteria and worms break down the solids. Over the course of the past two years, we have had the pleasure of watching the fish grow, eating loads of fresh veggies and listening to the gentle sound of falling water as the pump keeps everything recirculating 24/7.
Throughout the course of our aquaponics adventure, we followed the steps outlined in Sylvia Bernstein‘s book ‘Aquaponics Gardening, A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Vegetables and Fish Together’. Fantastic book, by the way, if you are interested in trying this gardening approach. Sylvia’s book quickly became our aquaponics bible, so to speak, and kept us on the track to success.
This is not to say though that there weren’t a few challenges along the way:
- Sourcing the expanded shale in enough volume to fill the media beds wasn’t easy. We could buy it in 1 pound bags at a local supply house that services that industry that is legal in some States but not approved by the US government (wink, wink), but that wasn’t practical or cost-effective. We ended up getting it hauled from a construction company over two hours away. Being used to dealing in construction quantities, not home improvement amounts, even though I only ordered 3 tons of shale, they just filled up the truck and dropped the load on our driveway!
- As a result of challenge #1, we were faced with challenge #2 – getting rid of about 2 tons of expanded shale that we couldn’t use. It was piled on the driveway for almost a month while we figured that one out…preventing one of us from getting our car out of the garage. (I graciously drove him to work every day for three weeks!) Quite by happenstance, I came across the organization LEAF that is all about teaching people how to grow healthy food sustainably in our area. They were just getting going at the time and they could use the extra shale as a soil amendment in their gardens. As luck would have it, we were able to donate everything to a good cause and they sent a truck over to pick it up!
- Sourcing the fish was even more difficult that sourcing the shale. There is a LOT of regulation when buying pond fish in California. It isn’t like going to the local pet store! It is designed to protect people from purchasing fish and then having them get loose in the wild thereby introducing species where they do not belong. This is the reason, for example, why it is illegal to raise tilapia in California; they aren’t endemic to California waterways. Since two years ago, it has gotten a little easier because a few hatcheries are realizing that there are enough people doing aquaponics that it is worth their while to open their doors to the public. Fortunately, we found one of these hatcheries (Freshwater Fish Company) about two hours from home and were able to use them to get our blue gill, red-eared sunfish and channel catfish fingerlings.
By now, our aquaponics system has long since reached a balance and has been superb at growing lettuces, assorted types of kale, broccoli, tomatoes, celery and more. We have had some challenges with spinach, peas, onions and a few other root crops but there’s always next year to give those another try.
Having harvested so much kale from the garden, I thought I would share a recipe that we love. It uses a lot of kale but much of the flavor comes from mushrooms and beans so it doesn’t taste like you are just eating your greens. We’ve tried it out on people who claim not to like kale and it gets a thumbs up. Give it a try. We’re sure you will enjoy the results!
Dinosaur Kale and White Bean Stew with Parmesan Topping
1/2 Cup Parmesan Cheese
1 Tablespoon Butter
2 Cups Mushroom, sliced
3 Cloves Garlic
8 Cups Kale, torn
15 1/2 Ounces White Beans (We like beans so we often double this amount.)
1 Cup Broth
2 Teaspoons Lemon Juice
1. Heat oil and butter in large oven-proof skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms; increase heat to medium-high. Stir, cover and cook 5 to 6 minutes, or until mushrooms are lightly browned, stirring occasionally.
2. Uncover pan. Add garlic and stir 30 seconds.
3. Add kale and cook 2 minutes or until wilted.
4. Add beans, broth and 3/4 cup of water. Cover and simmer 6 to 8 minutes. Uncover and simmer until liquid has reduced by about 3/4.
5. Stir in lemon juice and remove from heat. Taste and add more lemon juice, if desired.
6. Heat broiler to high. Sprinkle parmesan cheese over stew and brown until topping is crispy. (Sometimes we get lazy and just sprinkle the cheese on top and forego the broiler; it doesn’t look as professional but it tastes just as good.)