The Self-Sufficient Survival Garden: The Kratky Hydroponic Method and Making Your Own Hydroponic Mixtures
In an objective-based view, one can say that hydroponics and aquaponics are simply different routes to the same destination; growing plants without the use of soil. From my experience the more nuanced reality revealed two niches that better suited one or the other method. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but generally hydroponics is better suited to massive commercial food production facility especially when the sizes exceed 4-5 acres. Hydroponics allows farmers to fine-tune their nutrient formula to achieve incredible consistency in their quality and quantity while maintaining a highly sanitary environment. Aquaponics, on the other hand, forces farms to divide the focus between the plants and the fish. Large aquaponic farms must devote a large amount of time, money and resources to keeping the fish healthy and producing consistent nutrients. Aquatic diseases are a major concern and a large investment must be made to control temperatures, otherwise the drop in temperature will slow down the metabolism of your fish.
Aquaponics shines in agricultural categories such as non-profits, personal business sub-three acre farms, hobbyists, commercial decor/aesthetics, and applications where emphasis on natural biological systems in harmony is desired. The small 24 m x 44 m system could easily boost a communities' access to healthy vegetables, fruits, and fish for very little individual financial contributions while serving as practice grounds for budding agriculturalists and environmental biologists. The real significance of aquaponics lies in its unparalleled sustainability; even more so when in conjunction with other natural cycles such as composting, outdoor gardening, and chicken keeping. Food waste from harvests can be used to raise black soldier fly larvae for chickens and the fish. Solid fish waste and chicken waste can be returned to composting or used in the outdoor garden. Solar can be introduced to take small systems off-grid, effectively un-tethering a family's (or community's) dependence on commercially available food.
Finally at the sub 10 gallon range, hydroponics takes the lead once again due to the convenience of measuring out the perfect concentrations of nutrients for your plants. It is possible to grow a healthy bibb, kale or arugula in 2 L bottles using the kratky hydroponic method. This makes it optimal for absolute beginners to begin growing their own food at home and serves as an excellent introduction to soil-less agriculture.
Regardless of the method, I am certain the future will see a rise in both methods to sustain the growing demand for local, healthy produce in a more environmentally-conscious market.
Agriculture is about maintaining the optimal conditions of a crop for optimal growth. This means balancing a wide variety of parameters including humidity, light, airflow, irrigation, and nutrient dosing. Perfecting the balance is mutually exclusive to success: you cannot skimp or overcompensate on these parameters. For example, you could have the perfect conditions for lettuce, but have an under powered red-LED-heavy grow light and have terrible results.
The art and science of crop optimization has thus spent a lot of time and energy debating what kind of lighting conditions are best for each particular crop. So far the consensus is that the DLI (Daily Light Interval) is one of the most predictably effective method for estimate the light intensity AND duration for any given crop. The DLI is a function of the intensity of the photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) of a light source measured in PPFD and the amount of time the crop is subjected to this light schedule. A biological aspect is the role of light in a crop's reproductive/flowering cycle. For instance, a tomato plant will flower regardless of the length of the day, but a lettuce will only do so once the days get long enough and the temperatures rise. The particular variety of crop also indicates what light conditions are needed for germination. This is generally indicated on the seed package.
Through calculating DLI, you can make very informed changes to your lighting system/setup if needed. There are two basic scenarios here:
1. If you're gardening outdoors the lack of control doesn't leave you much choices. You must follow the patterns of nature, but you can at least filter the light intensity through shade clothes and reflective aluminet. In this case, stick to your gardener's almanac to decide when to plant crops.
2. Indoor gardening is where it gets more interesting in terms of lighting. The most important aspect here is to be very wary of the lighting you buy. Many cheap LEDs on amazon are lacking in the spectrum and may have unfavorable balances of blue and red LEDs. Cheap doesn't have to mean bad, however and there are a lot of companies with great LED products. A good amount of these companies have a strong online presence and have a lot of research and videos to back up their purported PAR output. Use these supplied intensity charts in tandem with the indicated hanging height to achieve best PAR estimate.
Ultimately you'll have to do a lot of experimenting as each individual light manufacture will have a slightly different spectrum but as a rule of thumb, blue light (4000+ K temp lights) favors vegetative growth and red light (<3000 K) tends to favor flowering. Depending on the type of plant, you results may vary!
It's been a long and badly-signposted road into the world of biostimulants up until last week. The market exists in that gray medium where expectations and promises are high, untethered by a lack regulatory standards and fishy marketing. Combined with the sheer variety of products promising monster roots and unbelievable harvests it's quite easy to feel overwhelmed with the options.
There are many many different bacteria and mycorrhizae that can promote plant growth, and most research repeatedly shows that a rich diversity of microorganisms is optimal since there's more of a "net" if you where to look at the flow of energy as opposed to a single "linear" flow from the single metabolism offered by only one type of microorganism. Additionally, amino acids have been shown to be best in a combination of each, but glycine (thanks to the bare-bones simplicity of the molecule) has been observed to produce the best results when used as a nitrogen source.
Some trial and error has led me to a couple certain improvements to my nutrient solution. I now start my seeds with some Superthrive and mix my substrate with small amounts of Great White and Agro Silicate powder. I add about 50 ppm of Silicate and half the recommended amount of Great White into my fish tank as well some 25 ppm of glycine. In one week my arugula shoots have exploded and my potted plants perked up like they just had the plant equivalent to an strong coffee.
In these past couple of months Kodaponics has entered a new phase of research and development. As Connor and I began Kodaponics one of the motives was to create a legal embodiment of our shared passions and curiosities with which we could compile a compendium of the botanical knowledge and aquaponic wizardry we discover along our path. The more we learn, the more it becomes evident that we know nothing about how fantastically intricate the lives of microbes, mushrooms and plants are woven together.
Well, this next phase is all about the refinement of the aquaponic process. We learned that we could grow things real fast and big. All six of our outdoor systems produced massive mint, okra, basil, cucumber, pepper, passion flowers, turks cap, lemon balm, lemon verbena, and more. With everything we learned we can take this winter to hunker down and level up our more nuanced understanding of horticulture. Connor has moved to Colorado to serve as a kodaponics liaison to the wonderful world of aquaponic cannabis. Our winter reading list is mainly comprised of amazing new sciences like biostimulants, beneficial mycorrhizae, plant growth promoting bacteria, and so on. We hope to apply this in our fledgling Kodaponics 420 research project that will result in a comprehensive aquaponic cannabis production system.
I also want to give a shout out to https://blog.feedspot.com/aquaponics_blogs/ for mentioning us as top aquaponic blog. We're excited to continue sharing what we've learned!
Whether you're using a Kodaponic system or your own DIY aquaponics build, the most important part is what and how you grow. You're preferred crop is, of course, based on what you intend to do; eat it or sell it. The use of heirloom seeds fits extremely well with both outcomes as the crops produced are delicious and rare. Examples of such plants are Aji limon Pepper, sweet cheiftan savoy cabbage, Zebra tomatoes, crimson merlot lettuce, chinese violet watercress, the possibilities for what you can grow in different climates and seasons gives even the most experienced gardener a wide palate of crops to choose from. The point is to capitalize on the control you have over your food as a grower and experience the massive diversity of food that you've never seen in a retail store. This practice has added benefits for the ecosystem by preserving the diverse genetics of all these wonderful crops.
As an avid aquaponic gardener I find myself with more waste from trimming, harvesting and ultimately eating my veggies and fruits. Organic waste, as I see it, is in itself a resource that can be used as an input for another cycle in a biosystem so composting was a no brainer. Our composter setup was made using the rejected frame for solar panels, a 55 gallon barrel, and some old longboard trucks and wheels to allow the rotation the compost in the bin. This is all secondary to a few features that let me harvest black soldier flies (BSF). First of all, the 55 gallon barrel has two ~1" diameter holes on the top that allow BSF adults to lay their eggs in the rich compost. After adding some burst cantaloupes and watermelon rinds to the compost I can expect to have about 2 cups of BSF larvae easily picked from the top of the pile in a day or two. There are far easier methods of compost farming BSF on the web that can use the BSF's natural movement to autoharvest bigger quantities, but since I don't need more than 2 cups every other day and don't mind the 10 minutes it takes to pick out the larvae I just work with what I have.
On top of the BSF, which make excellent feed for our fish, a finished batch of compost can be used to make a powerful compost tea foliar spray. Our process consists of taking a 5 gallon bucket, a pillowcase filled with about 1-2 (~1 kg) of finished and mature compost, One ounce of unsulphured organic molasses, and an air compressor with air stones for aeration. We simply steep the compost in the molasses water mixture while adding copious amount of aeration to cultivate beneficial aerobic bacteria and prevent harmful anaerobes from rotting the mixture and causing a stink. The aerobic brewing lasts for 3 days and the final product is filtered through a strainer to be used immediately. The benefits of a compost tea foliar spray are significant. It establishes a healthy bacterial biosphere on the plant to combat bacterial and fungal infections and pests as well as providing a complete nutrient mixture for better growth and flavor.
My favorite part about all of this an overarching principle that the cyclic movement of nutrients and energy is in harmony with nature. Similar to how a dead deer decomposes to feed very grass that sustained its life, it's evident that nature abhors waste so it's in our best interest to follow suite. By constructing systems that use the waste of one process as a resource for another, we can begin to optimize the conservation of nutrients and microbial life all while greatly minimizing waste.
Global climate change and population growth has become the droning broken record of our age. It's a well know prediction that we'll reach almost 10 billion people by 2050, most of which will be living in cities and we have to quickly figure out how to keep everyone fed. The first steps, I believe, are ones of reform. Better legal avenues for food production infrastructure, more agricultural education, and a greater social emphasis on sustainability would help tremendously to kick start the slow migration of food from massive and secluded monoculture farms to the urban centers.
Furthermore, the key to overcoming the high prices of urban real estate would be through the integration of food production within the everyday facets of city life. One of the greatest assets in aquaponics is that the process can be extensively customized. Nutrient rich effluent from fish can be pumped great distances, limited only by the power of the pump so massive circulatory networks can be made to connect high producing grow beds with several fish tanks. This, of course, is a fantastic vision of the many possibilities that aquaponic opens up. Regardless of the method used to produce food one aspect remains the same: to achieve something we do not have, we must do something we haven't done. One of the unfortunate consequences of modern farming is that it removed the product from the consumer. For the most part a consumer is not involved with the production of his or her food, there's no second thought as to how it was grown, transported, sold or even marketed as the world of agriculture as secluded and misunderstood as it is wasteful.
To further prove this point let me describe the gauntlet a head of lettuce has to endure to sit on the shelf of your local grocery store. First, seed suppliers provide proprietary phenotypes of lettuce to the grower/farmer who then grows it out as fast as possible because their life depends on it. If the lettuce is going to be chopped for a salad it must be first sold to a processor as the farmer cannot legally cut it, otherwise it's sold to a distributor. Distributors require the lettuce to meet produce weight and attractiveness standards that cause approximately half of what is grown to the landfills, but if the lettuce is deemed worthy by the distributor it is then packed and shipped once more to retailers who can then sell the lettuce to you. Just as in the natural food chain, there is a loss of resources every time the lettuce exchanges handlers. Petroleum is used to harvest, transport, and refrigerate, the price tag keeps going up to accommodate the profit margins of the middle man, and a compromise in produce quality and nutrition is made in favor of greater shelf life and transportability.
This is all to say that we don't just need a new method of food production, we need a new system. Food can no longer remain an afterthought for the public to take for granted. I believe that reintroducing food production into the spotlight of modern life would have great results as it would instill a sense of respect to food. We cannot afford to continue dumping our food in landfills or sustain massive global food transport.
For transparency's sake I must begin by saying that I have never attended an aquaponics course nor received certification through an agency. That being said, I have delved into the many available courses and guides just to see what is offered in the aquaponics field. The majority of the educational aquaponic services were 3 hour long farm tours for between 50-100 dollars a person and weekend long seminars for home systems for a couple hundred dollars. Few outliers included online seminars or classes that spanned multiple weeks, but those tended to be close to a thousand dollars.
What I mean to emphasize with this observation is that the resources for learning how to run an aquaponic system are limited by the sparse physical locations of aquaponic farms or the high price of online courses. On top of that, the time and material required to cover the intricacies of aquaponics cannot be condensed into short lessons for a weekend.
If aquaponics is truly something that interests you use that curiosity to be proactive about gathering aquaponic knowledge. There is no better way to learn than to get involved, jump in, make mistakes and ask plenty of questions.
There are many people that are interested in aquaponics, but the question I always get asked is "what if I've never taken care of fish or a garden before"? Of course, since people ask in relation to our Kodaponic systems I can point out that we have free aquaponic consulting for our customers, but the answer is more complex for those wanting to start out on their own. In many ways DIY and beginner aquaponics share the same vein, so in this post I'll strictly talk about those who have absolutely no experience in aquaponics.
For those who want to test the waters before committing to many hours of reading and research, my recommendation would be to immerse yourself in the community. Check out http://reddit.com/r/aquaponics, or http://backyardaquaponics.com and ask the community what to expect and other considerations. This will give you several different answers and perspectives and a more complete picture of what lies ahead if you wish to continue. Another benefit to joining these types of forums is the fact that you'll have some support with the problems you'll encounter. However, there are some caveats: all information cannot be assumed correct so it's your responsibility to vet the advice given to you to avoid damage from misinformation.
Cheers and Good Growing!