Thursday, February 7, 2013

Book Review: Aquaponic Gardening by Sylvia Bernstein

Since one of our ultimate goals is to be able to produce all of our own food, we've been slowly accumulating reference materials to help us be more victually autonomous.  Aquaponic Gardening has become a very important part of our collection in that regard.  It is an excellent beginner book for those interested in simultaneously growing fish and plants, and for handy folks may be one of the only resources needed to get started.  It's an easy read, and Bernstein's expertise comes through in a this-is-what-helped-me-when-I-was-in-your-shoes sort of way.  She doesn't skip steps and gloss over important entry-level details as many experts are prone to do.

Sylvia Bernstein's Aquaponic Gardening.  We got our copy here.  It doesn't come with a bookmark on the 'cycling' guidelines page--we had to add that ourselves.

Bernstein starts off in the first chapter by making sure everyone is on the same page, with definitions and discussions of hydroponics, aquaculture, and their brilliant offspring, aquaponics.  If you're reading this blog, chapters 2 and 3 are probably optional reading.  They talk about why we should all care about growing our own healthy food, and why aquaponics is the perfect setup for growing lean meat and organic veggies year round.  You probably already know most of that stuff. :-)

The real value starts in chapters 4-6. Bernstein emphasizes that the design of your system will depend on your particular geographic situation and your own personal inclinations, but gives several examples of what has worked for people in the past--not having to invent a system from scratch saves a lot of time.  There are a few pages of pictures of different systems in the middle of the book, which is helpful.  If anything, the book could use some more of these.  The 'formal aquaponics' picture was probably what convinced Katie to OK the plan for setting up an aquaponic system in our guest bedroom, so that picture alone was worth the price of the book!

After describing several common system layouts and the pros and cons of each, Bernstein gets into the permanent components of your system, such as the fish tank, grow beds, pumps, pipes, water and growth medium.  We were glad that she mentioned weight considerations, but would have liked to see a few more resources and guidelines for sizing your system appropriately.  For example, if you live in an apartment above the first floor, you are actually fairly limited in the size of aquaponic system you can build.  In fact, Bernstein notes in multiple places the challenges of maintaining a stable system below 50 gallons, which is generally the upper limit of what apartment dwellers can install (in wood-framed apartments, anyway).  We had to do a little searching on the internets to figure out the maximum size we could get away with, but this page was one that we found particularly helpful. (*Note: since we put together a small system in our guest bedroom, we'll try to add insights about what we had to learn outside the book.  We've only got a 50 gal tank, but it's been running quite stable for several months on end.  We only have three small fish, which probably helps.  Wish they'd grow faster!)

Next, Bernstein gets into choosing fish and plants to put in your system.  It turns out just about any kind of plant will work, as long as they don't need extreme pH levels.  She talks about many different kinds of fish, including pacu, catfish, trout, bass, tilapia (probably the most common), and a bit about koi and goldfish.  We knew we wanted something fast-growing and edible, so we got tilapia.  Knowing what we know now, the choice might not have been so obvious, but we found tilapia locally before we found catfish or pacu, so that's what we went with in our system.  For smaller setups, the trick is finding a source that will sell you only five or six fish.  Mail order fish are expensive, so we found the best resource to be local fish and pet stores.  The price per fish was quite a bit higher, but we didn't have to get 25 of them and pay $80 for overnight shipping.  If you've already decided on a certain species of fish, the book doesn't go into a lot of details about the different strains that might be available for that species.  A lot of times you just have to go with what's available, but if you're interested in the different options, you'll have to do the research yourself.  (We did some of that for tilapia, which we'll talk about in a later post.)

A close-up of our take on 'formal aquaponics.'  (Formal part not shown.)  We've had good luck with basil (front), swiss chard (left and back left), dandelion greens (back right), and even a green onion (back middle).  Sylvia was right--just about any kind of plant will grow well.  If you look close, there's a worm toward the bottom middle-left.  He was hiding under the duckweed bowl, which we moved for the picture since it's not growing much duckweed.

Probably the second most valuable part of the book for us was chapters 13 and 14, which talk about the roles of bacteria, worms, and how to cycle the system.  We weren't that familiar with the intricacies of establishing stable aquarium biochemistry before we got interested in aquaponics, so we found these chapters full of juicy information, especially on cycling the system.  This was probably the chapter we referenced the most when getting our system running. We also enjoyed being able to release a handful of our composting worms into our grow bed and just letting them go to live among the Hydroton.  We check in on them every now and then (like when collecting pieces of Hydroton for the blog header), and they seem to be doing fine.

What time is it? Basil thyme!  From our aquaponic system--these herbs transmogrified into a delicious pesto just after this picture was taken.  Thanks for the inspiration, Sylvia!

In summary, this book is an excellent resource for those just starting in aquaponics.  If you don't have the limitations of living in an apartment, it probably has everything you need to know to set up a very functional system.  We didn't follow all of Bernstein's suggestions, but less than a year in, we can see in each of those cases what she was talking about. She really knows her stuff, so we have no problem recommending this book to anyone interested in aquaponics.  A+!

1 comment:

  1. Aquaponic gardening is the next major trend in sustainable living and urban agriculture. It combines the already used areas of hydroponic gardening and aquaculture to create a food and fish growth system that is economically viable and works on any scale.