Posted by: permamonk | April 13, 2012

Best laid plans of mice and monks: an exercise in humility

After being bitten by the aquaponics bug, I dove in head first and started reading as many articles and watching as many videos as I could find.  While the practice has been around in different cultures for ages, it’s a relatively new field for urban agriculturists.  Needless to say, the closed system fits in line perfectly with the permaculture principle of a no waste system, so this goes hand in hand with Br. Addison’s work in the outside gardens.  Home aquaponics at its best can provide fresh produce and edible fish in a space no more than 6ft by 6ft.  It can even be adapted for smaller set ups, including existing fish tanks and aquariums.

Since we had just finished refurbishing the solarium, stripping out the old linoleum and replacing it with tiling made from recycled tires (cool, non?), and stringing up energy efficient LED rope lights on the ceiling, we had a great space to add a meditative water feature.  So why not use it to grow plants as well?

There are several very useful DVD series and books out there on the detailed requirements for building an aquaponics system.  There are even companies that offer ready-made kits of various sizes.  Needless to say, these can get pretty pricy.  But for monks with a vow of simplicity, if we can figure out how to build it ourselves, that’s the route we’ll take.

In its very basic form, an aquaponics system needs a fish tank and a growing bed for plants.  Beyond this, you can add settling  tanks and biofilters, as well as have different kinds of growing beds.  These can include ebb and flow in which you flood the bed that is filled with aggregate and then drain it out, raft systems in which the plants are floated in the water at all times, or even flowing water systems that have the roots submerged in constantly running water.  The type of growing bed you choose will determine, to some degree, the plants you can grow.  Woody plants, for instance, don’t do well in submerged systems but are better suited for ebb and flow.  Seeing as how this was all a grand experiment, I figured we’d create a setup that had a bit of each to see what works best.

Now, for those working on a very limited budget, there are a good number of designs out there that employ found items.  Wood pallets, big blue barrels or water totes, and even kiddie pools can make great tanks and growing beds.  So if you’re not worried about aesthetics, then all this can be done fairly cheaply.  But because ours was going to be part of the meditation garden, we had to create a design that was functional and aesthetically pleasing.

What I came up with was a corner unit that would have a fish pond in the front, biofilter in the back, with ebb and flow growing beds on the sides and a cascade raft system in the center.  By having the grow beds filled from the biofilter tank in the back, which itself is filled by run off from the fish tank, this leaves the level of the fish tank at a constant instead of rising and falling with draining of the grow beds.  The whole structure would be built from 2x4s and 4x4s, with pond liners in each section.  Keep in mind, this whole thing could also be made from salvaged wood from used delivery pallets.

Well, the long and the short of it is the sketch turned out well.

Now, somewhere along the line, I don’t know where, a gear shifted in my head.  There are a lot of numbers going on that don’t show up on the page that led to the final tally of lumber that’s indicated.  Height of bottom tank, height of grow bed, length of tank and grow beds, size of boards divided into said height, size of boards understanding that 2×4 actually means 1.5 x 3.5 inches (I’ve never understood that), 4×4 means 3.5 x 3.5 inches, cost effectiveness of using wider boards instead of 2x4s, how many 2x12s which are actually 1.5 x 11.5 could make a reasonable height, anticipated height of tank is 24in., how many boards to get that close, grow beds have to be at least 12in. for root depth, repeat quandary, etc., etc.

I have a whole new appreciation for Noah.  As God is calling out figures, I wonder if Noah ever shouted back, “Could you just write that down?!?!”  So with all these numbers in my head, I divided, added, and tallied until I thought I had it all figured out.  Even double checked my sketch that was drawn up “to scale” to be sure the measurements were right.

Only after going to Home Depot and purchasing the lumber, and then cutting according to the sketch that was “to scale,” did I realize that somewhere along the line, I went from thinking 1:4 to 1:2.  That’s right, I was reading the sketch at half the size it needed to be.  I had half the lumber I actually needed.

God offers us many chances to see ourselves plainly.  Many chance to take a step back and laugh.  I remember a wonderful plaque that my mother had hanging in the house growing up.  It read, “Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves, for they shall never cease to be amused.”

As they say, it was back to the drawing board.  This time, with a constant measurement scale the whole way through!  Maybe this time, if I made a giant wooden badger…

Tune in next time for “Construction junction: monks with power tools!”


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