Back yard organic vegetable gardens are enjoying an explosion of popularity not seen since the end of World War II. There are multiple reasons; some economic, some nutritional, some environmental, but regardless of the initial motivations, vegetable gardens are nearly as popular as flower beds in many residential areas around the country.
When you add in the number of urbanites and suburbanites who have escaped to exurbia and rural America to become modern day homesteaders and farmers, the number of organic edible gardens popping up is staggering; and for people like me, heartwarming. I live to help others learn to become more self-sufficient and sustainable while staying on a budget.
The beginning gardener is likely concerned with little more than making something grow, but after a season or two of successful harvests, we start thinking about ways to maximize efficiency and productivity. We start asking questions about soil management, composting, water usage, plant nutrients and sustainability.
We comb the internet for ideas and success stories. We subscribe to magazines, buy books and join online gardening communities, all in search of the perfect growing method.
One of the best, most scalable and efficient methods of maximizing your efforts, whether on a balcony, a back deck, a basement , a back yard, or even a large plot is to combine aquaponics gardening with wicking beds.
Individually, both gardening methods are effective and productive. When combined, they can turbo charge your entire operation and take you to whole new levels of success. Let’s take a moment and look at each method, then see the benefits of bringing them together into a gardening powerhouse.
Aquaponics is merely a recent name given to a gardening practice that is very ancient indeed. Aquaponics is raising fish and plants together for the mutual benefit of both life forms. Sure, we’ve added some modern technology, science and plumbing, but aquaponics is not new.
Think for a minute about all the koi and goldfish ponds covered in water lilies, with reeds growing along the banks. That’s aquaponics gardening. It’s aesthetic rather than edible, but the principles are the same.
Rice growers learned long ago that adding fish and crawfish to their operations increased yields and provided a second type of harvest. That’s aquaponics gardening.
Even the Aztecs were known to float rafts of vegetables on ponds and lakes to create visually pleasing, yet edible gardens.
At its most basic, aquaponics is using fish to create nutrient rich water to feed plants, while using plants to filter and clean the water for the fish. We are mimicking nature, by creating a river or pond culture where we see this symbiosis happening all the time.
Another way of looking at aquaponics is to think of it as combining an aquarium with a hydroponics system in a single loop.
The benefits are obvious; some have estimated that aquaponics gardening uses 90% less water than other methods. Chemical fertilizers and nutrients are replaced by natural, organic ones, which is good for the budget and the environment. For those who wish to raise edible, rather than ornamental fish, you can harvest protein and vegetables all from a single system.
Wicking beds, and their smaller siblings, self-watering containers, were a gardening revelation to me. Again, the financial, environmental and production efficiencies vs. traditional gardening are numerous.
A wicking bed really is just a large self-watering container. You can build them using wood or blocks and pond liners, or buy them. Many of mine are actually made from stock tanks purchased from a farm supply store. I drill overflow holes about a third of the way up the side of the tank and that’s about it.
Like aquaponics units, there are a variety of styles and methods of building wicking beds and a simple internet search will reveal a plethora of ideas.
In traditional row or raised bed gardening, water and nutrients are lost as they run off or drain into the earth beneath the garden. There is no loss of either resource with wicking beds. The overflow holes prevent flooding and anaerobic decay, while the loose soil wicks up the water held in the lower portion of the bed.
Plant foods and nutrients remain available to the vegetables because they can’t wash away. This results in significant cost savings and healthier plants.
Now, imagine combining Aquaponics Gardening with your Wicking Beds. The possibilities are awesome. When your plants need water, simply use some from your aquaponics system then top up the aquaponics system rather than topping up the wicking bed from an outside water source. The plants in the wicking beds get free nutrients, the aquaponics unit benefits from some fresh water and the beneficial bacteria in the aquaponics system gets to make a whole new batch of nutrient rich water. The end result is healthier fish, better vegetables, less water used, no fertilizers entering the ground water, and substantial financial savings for the gardener. Everybody is happy. Everybody wins. Who doesn’t want a piece of that plan?