A: I’m a native New Yorker, whom, after years of roaming the world, returned to Manhattan where I’ve lived for the past 39 years. I’m the owner and principal designer of Area Aesthetics Interior Design, a full service interior design and decorating company, and also Chair the Education Committee of the Sustainable Furnishings Council. Formerly I owned a PR and Marketing company, and before that was a journalist here in New York City and in the mideast.
Q: How did you get interested in aquaponics?
A: Growing up, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was a frequent topic of conversation (maybe, more accurately, “debate”) around our dinner table and my father passed on to us his love of the outdoors and, particularly, the oceans and marine life. Conservation and sustainability were not distant global concerns for us; it was definitely personal.
Too, I’ve always been interested in what I call “touchable tech” — the application of technology and advances in our understanding of the physical world to our everyday lives. I get excited about innovation. It’s fair to say that I fall into marketing’s “early adopter” category. In a sense, exploring how innovation can become empowering at the individual level has been the adventure of my life. So when I happened upon Back to the Roots’ crowdfunding campaign for the AquaFarm, I naturally jumped right in!
I was driven by curiousity, rather than any particular goal, and certainly never thought at the time that I could actually “farm” right inside a New York City apartment. It was my failures, plants that didn’t make it, which motivated me to learn more about the science of aquaponics, hydroponics and indoor farming in general. What I learned convinced me that it was possible to grow a good deal of food for yourself, even inside the confines of an urban apartment. My curiosity blossomed into a serious hobby and now, serious goals.
Professionally, a healthy, sustainable home is a key goal in my interior design work and I’m finding that clients are increasingly knowledgeable about the issues. The quality of indoor air and providing healthy food for their families are right up on there on their list of concerns. Indoor plants can make a significant contribution to a better indoor environment and give them more control over the source of their food. As a designer, my challenge is to accommodate this need, finding ways to successfully incorporate it into their homes. Clients want fail-safe, low-maintenance and aesthetically pleasing solutions that integrate organically into, and enhance, the aesthetics of their homes. Beautifully appointed aquaria as the foundation of an in-home aquaponics system could be an ideal solution.
Q: How are you currently working with aquaponics? Home setup, community greenhouse, etc.
A: Right now, I’ve been working with Back To the Roots’ AquaFarms in my home, mainly for growing culinary vegetation. Obviously, living in Manhattan, raising fish for food is not in the picture. But I’m always looking for ways to expand, experiment and compare the aquaponics results I’m getting with indoor soil-based organic techniques.
A: The AquaFarm is a small 3 gallon tank with room for 5 net pots above the plant bed. Although the plants get some indirect sunlight from nearby windows, I’ve used both daylight CFLs and LEDs for supplemental lighting with good results. I’ve started almost everything from seed, all of which I germinate right in the net pots . My growing medium is small rocks, the type that you would find in any pet store for use in aquariums.
For lighting, when using LEDs (a combination of white, red and blue) they run about 17 hours a day 5-7″ above the plants. I’ve found with the CFL lighting, that it needs to be on 22-24 hours a day, but this might be because my CFL setup is 12-18″ above the plant bed. I started the nitrification system with Zym-Bac from Home Grown Ponics and continue to use their products for dechlorinating water and dealing with any sludge in the tank, as well as their organic fish food. My organic seeds are sourced from Seeds of Change and I’ve had excellent germination rates with them.
If my nitrates really start to climb – (which happens sometimes after I add a bacteria booster to deal with sludge) – I plant wheatgrass because it germinates within hours, drops roots into the water within 24 hours and is pretty aggressive when it comes to extracting nitrates.
Because I lose a lot of water through evaporation and transpiration, I usually have to top the tank off every couple of days with fresh water. Over the course of a typical week, about 30% of the tank’s capacity is fresh water so I don’t have to do any change outs. Generally speaking, my nitrites are just about zero, the nitrates in the 80-90 range and the pH in the 6.5 to 7 range which works well for the aquarium and my plants. I only aerate the water – no mechanical filtration and no heater, although the frequency with which I have to top off the tank does let me make slight adjustments in the water temperature as needed.
Q: What plants and fish have you had the best luck with? And the worst?
A: Since my system is very small, I’ve only got two tenants – a beta fish and a mystery snail that has grown rather large. I introduced the snail to deal with some early algae growth – and nipped that problem in the bud – but, as it turned out, it was the snail [photo attached] that got the whole system into an (almost) self-sustaining productive balance and stabilized the nitrification process at a level where I finally started seeing really good plant growth.
As far as plants go, my focus has always been on growing what I use in the kitchen. If you had asked me a year ago about my successes and failures, I would have told you that everything germinates, but only the wheatgrass was sustainable to the point of getting a decent crop. The biggest issue I faced early on was that most of my seedlings were stretching and then just and keeling over before they had sufficient strength in their stems to support themselves. Very few actually managed to get roots into the water before dying. I experimented with Genovese Basil, sowing the seeds at different depths and supporting the stems by topping off the net pots with more growing medium as the stems grew and it paid off… I have a 34″ high basil that has been giving me repeated bountiful crops of gorgeous, flavorful 3″ leaves every few weeks and show no signs of slowing down [photo attached]. Using the same technique, I was then able to successfully grow cilantro, garlic chives, parsley, sage and mesclun greens as well. I’ve had little luck thus far with dill weed and Korean mint, but I haven’t given up trying.
I generally start everything from seed, but one day on a whim, I planted the cut offs I usually discard from scallions (green onions) I was prepping in the kitchen. They grew almost as fast as the wheatgrass.
A: Without a doubt, what I love about aquaponics is having a very low-maintenance, practically self-sustaining source of fresh greens and herbs available to me all the time. And, I’ve really enjoyed the journey.
What I’ve found most difficult is finding good reference material about indoor aquaponics, particularly with respect to plants that adapt well to both the indoor conditions and the aquaponics environment and the adjustments that need to be made indoors for a successful farm.
Q: What do you think the biggest misconception about aquaponics is?
A: Probably the one I had… that you could never produce enough of anything you regularly consume with a small indoor set up and the constraints of apartment living in New York City, particularly one without much natural light and too much steam heat in the winter.
Q: What are your future aquaponics goals?
A: Ideally, I’d like to home farm everything that I routinely use in my kitchen year round. In the immediate future, that means to continue testing a wide variety of herbs and produce to see what works.
I still have a lot of trial and error ahead, but once I feel I have a good, comprehensive understanding of what can realistically be accomplished in terms of a low-maintenace, fail-safe indoor system that would be suitable for any home, I hope to move onto the aesthetics of the system, perhaps working with one or more companies to design systems that don’t look like they belong in the basement. We’re already there with beautiful, well designed hydroponic living walls, why not with aquaponics ?
Q: What do your friends say when you show them your system for the first time?
A: Most are astounded, and all are intrigued. It’s just something you don’t expect to find in a Manhattan apartment and I get lots of questions.
Q: What is your next big gear purchase going to be? What about your next small one?
A: My next purchase will probably be additional small self-contained indoor systems, so I’ll have my ongoing food production and a separate oner for continued experimentation.
A: Here’s a very simple recipe for Basil Sauce. It’s very versatile, great drizzled over a grilled chicken breast or a salmon steak and can also be used on pasta or as a dressing.
Sweet Basil Sauce
1 cup of lightly packed sweet (Genovese) basil leaves
1 large garlic clove,
1 tsp grated lemon zest
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper in a blender until smooth
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Blend everything except for the olive oil in a blender until it has a smooth even consistency. Then blend in the olive oil, gradually working it into the sauce. Add additional salt and/or pepper to taste if needed.