Monday, November 10, 2014

Aquaponics Saves Lives

It's true. My Aquaponics system has turned into a mini Humane Society for outside garden plants. Currently, I am growing the following transplants:

I just transplanted this parsley after harvesting all the leaves. It's grown well in this system in the past, so I should see new growth soon.

Wild Mustard
I love wild mustard. It's like wasabi as a leaf. Try it.

These purple basil are doing better indoors than they did all summer outdoors. There's been a lot of new growth and I've been cutting it back every couple of weeks.

The rosemary are my resident plants, so even if I decide to harvest all the others, I still have these two plants to filter the water for the goldfish below. They buffer the system in between plantings.

The sorrel is growing really quickly. It's an acquired taste, which is kind of sour like a wild strawberry, but I like its juicy flavor.

My coworker, Tim Stone, gave me a mint plant and I put one of it's shoots in the system. So far so good - some new growth and it's rooting well. I hear mint can take over, so I'm watching this one carefully.

All these plants are growing indoors, under two 4' low wattage florescent ballasts with indirect light from the window above.

Meanwhile, the fish are getting fat. Stay tuned for my next blog about them.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Grilled Northern Pike on Rosemary & Cedar

The other day I went kayak fishing on the Connecticut River and hooked into a strong Northern Pike. The fish pulled me around for about 5 minutes before coming to the surface. During the fight, I pulled my camera out but changed my mind. I didn't want to risk losing a nice fish for a good photo. 

I was surprised to land the toothy monster without a metal leader on my line (I was fishing off the bottom with nightcrawlers for perch and bass). At 5 1/2 pounds, and 32" long it was easily enough meat for a few meals, so I decided to harvest it.
gutted pike ready for filleting  a large pizza box
I'd never really cooked a pike before. I'd caught much smaller ones on the Connecticut River, but always released them (for taking a Northern on the river, the minimum length requirement is 28"). Pike and Pickerel have a pesky "Y bone," which makes filleting them a bit more tricky. Online, I discovered the website of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department , which has an instructional video how to remove the Y bones, and offers a slew of recipes, from "poor man's lobster" to a pickled pike dip. (Yeah, really.) Since Northern Pike is North Dakota's state fish, I figured they know a thing or two.

By the time I finished filleting, it was too late to cook, so I cut and submerged the fillets in ice water and let them soak overnight. I decided to freeze a lot of the fish (in water), since there was about 2 1/2 pounds of fillet. I have plenty of Aquaponic Rosemary, which is one of my favorite herbs for cooking fish.
Aquaponic Rosemary
For last night's dinner, I followed this recipe, substituting maple syrup for brown sugar: 

Cedar Planked Pike

Soak a cedar plank for at least 1 hour or longer until the wood becomes saturated. Keep plank in water until ready for use.
Pike Fillets (Rub quantities should make enough for 2 decent size fillets), 2-3 fresh sprigs of rosemary
1/2 Tbs smoked paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp ground coriander
2 Tbs brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
Mix rub ingredients thoroughly. Apply to fish. Set aside. Heat your grill to 350 degrees (better with charcoal than with gas but both work, you can also use your oven just be careful the wood plank will smoke). Place rosemary on soaked plank on grill for 5 minutes prior to putting fish on it. Place fish on plank overtop the rosemary and cook until tender. Do not flip fish. Serve on plank.
I started the raw fillets over indirect heat for the first 20 minutes 
I finished the fillets over direct heat for the last 15 minutes. Here they are almost done
ready to eat 
So how did it taste?

Delicious. The fish has a densely flaky texture, but wasn't too flaky. It held up well to all the spices, and the mixture of the cedar, rosemary and maple syrup really brought it to another level. A little squeeze of lemon...Boom!

If pike weren't so predacious, slimy and bony, there might not be an open season for them. I took my time filleting, but still managed to miss a few thin bones.

More Northern Pike recipes here:

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Fall Fried Perch

Fall fishin' 
Fall is a great time for fishing in Vermont; as the water cools down, the fish get hungry. Also, there is less fishing pressure as there usually aren't as many anglers on the water. 

no fishing pressure here
One of my favorite fish to cook and eat is yellow perch. In my April 28 post, I compared frying and baking them.
I caught some perch at Lake Sadawga, filleted them, and cut them into small pieces. Typically with the fillets I make a beer batter and fish fry, but today I didn't have any beer in the house. Since my wife, Susan Crowther, is an excellent cook, I asked her to cook them for lunch instead.

She dredged the fish in white flour, fried them in grapeseed oil, and took them off the heat while she made a simple sauce called Meuniere of browned butter, lemon juice, parsley, salt and pepper. 
Meuniere sauce
Meuniere is both the preparation and the sauce. Here is a step-by-step recipe for Fish a la Meuniere. Evidently, it was one of the first things she learned at the Culinary Institute of America. Lucky me! 

After making the sauce, she re-added the fish to fry them in the sauce.

almost done
Compared to my beer batter fried perch, these perch were equally delicious but much lighter. Cooked in the lemon and butter sauce, they maintained their delicate flavor. 
cabbage, sauerkraut, quinoa with hot red peppers and perch a la Meuniere
So, maybe running out of beer has its advantages? Post comments below.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Natural Insecticide: Tomato Spray for Aphids

Fall is harvest time for the outdoor garden. It also signals a time to transplant crops which can continue to grow indoors in my Aquaponics systems.

Last fall I transplanted some Swiss Chard and Parsley indoors to extend their growing season. Little did I know that I had also transported aphids from the outside, which ate my veggies and caused me to start over. You can read about it here:

harvested tomato leaves for insecticide spray
Organic pest control can be tricky with Aquaponics because what is good for your plants isn't necessarily good for your fish. When I found this organic spray using only tomato leaves and water I thought I'd give fall transplanting another shot. Since tomatoes are members of the nightshade family, perhaps I could have substituted rhubarb, pepper or eggplant leaves for tomato? Has anyone tried those leaves with positive results? I've also read that aphids hate garlic, but didn't try that as the spray called for liquid dish soap, which could easily harm my fish.

two cups of tomato leaves

two cups of tomato leaves with water added = organic aphid spray
After I soaked two cups of leaves in two cups of water, it made a dark brown liquid, which I diluted with another cup of water or so after straining it into a spray bottle. It couldn't have been easier to make.

Then I transplanted the basil, wild mustard greens, and kale.

 I sprayed them thoroughly before planting them and have sprayed them almost every day for a week. But, the tomato spray started to ferment. I used it last night and it made the whole room stink so I dumped it out. On the upside, I haven't seen any sign of aphids, or any other bugs for that matter, and the transplants are looking okay.

As an experiment, I kept the overhead lights off for a couple of months before transplanting. In the second picture below, you can see the spacing is fairly wide between the nodes of the Rosemary plant (a node is the space between the each leaf and the plant stem). The Rosemary received its late summer light only through the adjacent window. The west-facing window provided only a few hours of direct light. Still, it grew substantially, demonstrating that this herb is well-suited for Aquaponics.

Aquaponic Rosemary planted last fall

Same Aquaponic Rosemary 1 year later

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Barrelponics Videos


These short videos help demonstrate what's been growing in my barrelponics system.

The top video shows some of the cool weather plants I have been growing, while the bottom video highlights the auto siphon feature of the system.



Thursday, August 14, 2014

Eating Weed

I planted an edible weed called purslane in my flood and drain Aquaponics system. It's doing great!

I pulled it from my garden and introduced it into my Aquaponics system after learning about it's amazing nutritional/medicinal properties. Supposedly, it even contains Omega 3 fatty acids.

Purslane, a.k.a. "hogweed", "verdolaga", "pigweed", "pursley", and "moss rose" is an annual succulent which has a slightly sour and salty taste.  The stems, leaves and flowers are all edible, and it can be eaten raw or cooked. I like to eat it raw.

Evidently, one of the easiest ways of acquiring Purslane is to buy a commercial bag of Peat Moss. The Purslane seeds will likely be present in the Peat Moss bag and will quickly sprout.

It grows mostly horizontally, creeping along the ground, which makes it pretty easy to identify. It's got red stems, succulent rounded green leaves and small yellow flowers.

Try it out.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Upcycling Plastic

In Brattleboro, it's easy to recycle plastic packaging - just take it to the curb and it gets picked up every week. Because I live in the country, however, my recycling and garbage are at the end of my road, over 1/2 mile away. I drop off my recycling every couple of weeks at a station near my work instead. Consequently, I have a lot of plastic on hand to reuse for other purposes. 

After catching and cleaning a couple of rainbow trout, I decided I wasn't going to cook them right away. I hunted around for a Tupperware container that was long enough to freeze them with the heads on (cooking with the heads on gives better flavor). No luck. 
freezing a couple of trout in an upcycled plastic milk container

I cleaned out a milk container and cut off the top. Then I added the trout and filled the container with water. The trout fit perfectly. Completely submerged, they'll keep fresh with no "freezer burn." 

Milk containers are made from High-Density Polyethlyne (HDPE), or Type 2 plastic. HDPE is safe when frozen. Look for the HDPE label on the container.

After I cook these trout, I'll probably reuse the container for gardening. Fill it with soil and it's an instant planter with a handle. Or, cut out a bit more plastic and it becomes a scoop. This works great for removing gravel from fishtanks. 
My perception of plastic has changed since I upcycled those HDPE 55 gallon blue barrels into two barrelponics systems. Now, when I see a used plastic container, I ask myself, "What can I make with it?"
It is our collective challenge to prevent waste in all aspects of food production and to conserve our natural resources in the process. Aquaponics is resourceful gardening, helping to close energy loops by recycling the water in recirculating systems. Soil-based gardening requires up to 90% more water, as it cannot be reused after it soaks into soil.

Upcycling helps to keep plastic out of our landfills and oceans. It conserves energy used in production, as well as energy needed for the recycling process. This flow chart explains the process of plastic consumption, from Recycling vs. Upcycling: What is the difference? 

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Introduction to Aquaponics Presentation on TV

Last Thursday, I was a guest on Brattleboro Community Television (BCTV), hosted by George Harvey and Tom Finnell. This hour-long show called "Energy Week Extra!" highlighted my "Introduction to Aquaponics" presentation. This video is available exclusively online. Please share it with people who are interested in Aquaponics, energy and sustainability!

(Left to right: George, Tom, and me)

"Energy Week" is a program, which features current topics related to Energy and Sustainability. I joined that discussion as well, preceding the Aquaponics show. Here's the YouTube May 29th Energy Week program which was also aired on BCTV local cable access. 

Check out George's blog, "geoharvey" for daily news about energy & climate change: 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

You don't always get what you pay for; sometimes you get more.

I found another free fishtank! Out with the old...
My first Aquaponics system is gone.
In with the new:

29 gallon fishtank, next to 10 gallon fishtank (on left) 
I sold one of my barrelponics systems to Tim Stone, a coworker at Landmark College, to make space for a new system. Another coworker, Jim Lovering, was giving away his 29 gallon tank with accessories. Thanks, guys! The dimensions fit the space well. I made the stand about twenty years ago and was only using it for books. Now it works both as a stand and storage.

I'm planning to set up a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) system with the new tank. NFT is popular with Hydroponics (which is fish-less) but is also used in Aquaponics.

Since I already have Media Filled Grow Bed (MFG) with my other barrelponics system, and Deep Water Culture (DWC) with my 10 gallon mini-system, I figured it was time to experiment with NFT and have one of each design.

Alphabet soup? What's the difference between NFT, MFG and DWC? Japan Aquaponics explains the three designs in more detail with photos.

I already have a custom support piece to support the PVC tubing for the new system. This will go width-wise across the top of the tank. Actually, I didn't even have to make it. The previous owner of my other 29 gallon fishtank gave it away with accessories as he had converted that tank into an Aquaponics system.
support piece for PVC tubing
When finished, the system will look something like this:
NFT system at Kalakaua Middle School, Hawaii
Stay tuned!

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Cedar Plank Grilled Rainbow Trout

fresh Rainbows on cedar, ready to grill 
It's trout season! I caught these from my kayak while trolling with a lure. Trolling is a great way to get exercise and enjoy nature while you catch dinner. These are recently stocked Rainbows; notice they are roughly the same size. Stocked and farm-raised fish don't have a natural diet, so their flavor is bland in comparison to native and wild-caught. This can be easily fixed with a cedar plank and a grill.

Use an untreated plank. Submerge the wood in water for at least 30 minutes (I did 2 hours) before grilling. This adds to the prep time, but is a very important step. It prevents the wood from burning and also keeps the fish incredibly moist. Light only one side of your grill, and cook them over the unlit side for about 15 minutes. As the cedar slowly dries, the humidity stays high in the covered grill (think sauna). For the last 5 minutes, move the plank over to the direct flame to brown the fish. The plank will smoke a bit, and may get a bit charred on the underside, but can be reused over and over.

I hadn't cooked anything on a plank before, so I followed the recipe below fairly closely:
I blended paprika and chili powder for both tangy and smoky flavors and used fresh parsley and sage where the recipe called for "herbes de Provence."

Cedar plank trout reminds me that gourmet food really can be simple. My sister-in-law joined us for dinner and described the flavor as "over the top."  I have to agree. "Sauna trout" is amazing!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Yellow Perch: Fried vs. Baked

Yellow Perch in bucket
I had another great season of ice fishing in Brattleboro and caught many Yellow Perch. They are definitely one of my favorite fish to eat, with very tender white and flaky flesh. They have a delicate texture and are a versatile fish to cook. In the winter, the female perch are heavy with thousands of eggs. I fry those those up for my dogs. They go crazy for that Vermont caviar!

Fish spoil quickly, so it's important to keep their temperature as cold as possible before preparing them. Of course, that's not a problem in the winter. Once I snap their necks, I put them in a bucket and pack snow all around them. That way if I don't clean them right after a long day on the ice, I can do it the next day without any risk of spoilage. Also, they are easy to cut through once they've stiffened up a little bit.

I typically fillet them with the skin off, cut them into 2"-3" pieces, dunk them in beer batter and fry them in an iron skillet with canola oil on medium heat until golden brown. 

Squeeze a little lemon on them and pop the bite-sized pieces into your mouth. Boom! It doesn't get much better than this.

these fried Yellow Perch spell "I Love Vermont"

Extra uncooked fillets are put in the freezer. I submerge them in enough water to cover all the flesh. This avoids the dreaded taste of "freezer burn," and keeps the fish fresh for months. For best thawing results, put the frozen brick of fish-ice in a bowl of cold water in the fridge. It takes about a day, but is totally worth it. 

Yellow Perch fillets frozen in water
By March, there were lots of fillets in the freezer but I kept fishing anyway. Sick of filleting, I simply prepared them the way I did in my youth. I gutted them, cut off their heads, rolled them in flour with salt and pepper and baked them at 350 degrees. When done, the skin peels away easily, the fins pop right out, and the meat falls right off its skeleton. After picking out the remaining bones, it still takes me less time than filleting. Plus, it wastes less meat. What can you do with the leftovers? Squeeze the juice of a whole lemon on it and it will maintain its delicate flavor by marinating in the fridge for up to a few days without spoiling. 

Lately, my favorite lunch is Yellow Perch tacos.

Yellow Perch taco
It takes only a few minutes to prepare. Fry some corn tortillas, add the (previously baked) cool marinated lemony perch meat, some Aquaponic lettuce and top with some Chipotle sauce. Mama mia! This is a perfect meal for a hot day.

fried Yellow Perch

baked Yellow Perch
Fried vs. Baked...I can't decide. They're both awesome. What do you think?
Got a perch recipe to share? Post it below!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Mix It Up

Alright! Spring is finally here, and we're up to our eyeballs in salad again. The green is a nice change from looking at the foot of snow that's still covering the lawn.

I transplanted most of the baby starters into one of my "T Barrel" systems about a month ago. The seed packets I used had diverse mixes, so we have a nice variety of lettuces which include: Tango, Royal Oak Leaf, Red Salad Bowl, Black Seeded Simpson, Grand Rapids TBR, Red Sails, Arugula/Rocket, Four Seasons, Romaine Cos, Lolla Rossa, Romaine Cimmaron and Ruby. Who knew there were so many kinds?

The packets also contained the following seeds: Bloomsdale Spinach, Bok Choy, Golden & Magenta Swiss Chard, Endive, Mizuna and Red Giant Mustard. 

Growing multiple varieties promotes biodiversity which is healthy for the overall Aquaponics system. I'm no plant expert, so knowing that everything is edible makes the challenge of plant identification fun. Plus, it's more colorful, tasty, and interesting than if I'd just planted one variety of salad.

Meanwhile, the Fathead Minnows are getting ready to spawn in the 10 gallon fishtank. Stay tuned...

Monday, March 10, 2014

Aquaponics System For Sale or Trade

Recently, I've acquired and set up a couple of new fish tanks to convert into Aquaponics systems. Space in my house is getting pretty tight, however, so I have decided to sell one of my homemade "T Barrel" Aquaponics systems (the one on the right in the picture above).

I built these last year with 55 gallon water storage barrels, pvc plumbing, a small submersible water pump, and fluorescent overhead lighting. They have produced well indoors.

The top barrel holds the grow bed media (lightweight expanded shale) and pvc plumbing for the automatic bell siphon in the center, which periodically drains the grow bed. A small submersible water pump located in the bottom barrel provides aeration for fish in the bottom barrel, and plants in the top barrel. I run the pump on a constant flood and drain cycle to automatically flush every 12-15 minutes. When the grow bed is completely drained, the bottom tank holds about 30 gallons of water. 

I primarily used goldfish in this system to grow cool weather vegetables indoors throughout the year (parsley, spinach, lettuce, etc).

Aquaponic parsley
This system would be suitable both inside a house or apartment, or outdoors in the summer. It could also be used in a greenhouse, a sunroom, or even on a deck. As you can see, it's got a small footprint, and fits nicely below a window.

I am selling it for $200 with two light ballasts and bulbs, or $150 without them. I would also trade for a small towable camper or a utility trailer. The buyer will have to pick it up.You can email me at: with any questions. Thanks! Check back for upcoming posts about my new system designs.

*May 22 edit: SOLD!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Starting Over: New Fish & Plants

Here's a 10 gallon tank I set up about two weeks ago. I've been "cycling" the water and getting the nutrients up to convert it into a mini-system and grow some lettuce. Typically, the tank would be covered, to help prevent algae from growing, but with the sun beaming in from the left side, it makes for a better picture.

There are a half dozen fathead minnows in the tank, but they are all hiding. They are a hardy and reclusive fish. They like to hang out on the bottom of the tank and in the caves. They prefer slow moving water, so I set up the sponge filter (on the right) as they kept getting sucked into the water pump when I had them in one of the "T barrel" systems last winter. The sponge filter is much gentler for them. Live and learn, right?

They prefer schools of at least 5-6, water between 7.0-7.5 pH and temperature from 50-70 degrees F. So far, all the conditions seem just right for them to thrive in the small tank. Who knows? They might start breeding once the temperature gets warmer. It's around 60 degrees in that room now, so they are still below breeding temperature of 18C, or 64.4F.

Anyway, this what the fathead minnow looks like. Mine have turned much darker to blend in with the black backdrop of the tank, and are not as olive colored.
A couple of weeks ago, I planted a couple of trays of lettuce seeds from some left over seed packets. The High Mowing Organic Seed from Vermont sprouted in a week. Because all of my seeds were over a year old, I planted twice as much as I thought I'd need. This worked out well, since one of the trays hasn't sprouted anything yet. I'm going to re-seed that one by the end of the week if there is no growth.

The trays came with a plastic cover, just like a mini-greenhouse. After watering the seeds, I covered them with it and germinated them in the warmest part of the house (by the wood stove) where it's temperate, but dark. This kept them in a humid environment while the warm temperature sped up the germination rate.

Once they popped through the soil, I moved them to the office (where it's much cooler), took off the plastic cover, and put them under direct light. I can get the light twice as close (which is twice as strong) with the plastic cover off. Plus, they don't need the cover after they pop through the soil, anyhow.
Here they are under a new pair of cool white fluorescent bulbs which are covered by aluminum foil. The foil maximizes light reflection and also keeps in the heat.

Unfortunately, one of the two grow bulbs in the old ballast had burned out. I'm not sure when it happened, and only just noticed it today. You can see the stems of these greens really stretching toward the light. With the new bulbs overhead, their vertical growth should slow, and the leaves should start to develop at a faster rate than the stems. Otherwise, if they stretch too much and fall over, I'll have to start over again.