Water Gardens

From Hydroponics to Aquaponics and Back Again

Last week, I shared my experience of a visit to The Green Exchange, where I learned how to grow salad using chemical-free hydroponics, which made use of ethically sourced soil and biochar.  For this week’s venture I returned to Incredible Edibles in Todmorden to meet Jed, a grower at the Incredible Aqua Garden.

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Watercress grown using aquaponics

My partner has been excited about aquaponics since our permaculture course, so I decided to take advantage of an invite to learn what is entailed, and wondered if I’d return home as similarly enthusiastic.

Cyclical System

Aquaponics is a system of growing food without soil by creating a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants.  It combines aquaculture with hydroponics.

Fish are kept in tanks and their excrement produces ammonia, which is toxic to the fish. Pumps draw the excrement into hydroponic beds.  Bacteria convert ammonia into nitrites, which in turn, fertilise plants.  This has the effect of filtering the water which is then pumped back into the fish tanks.

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Incredible Edibles Todmorden: Incredible Aqua Garden

Two sources of food in one!

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The Incredible Aqua Garden

We first checked the health of the fish by checking the health of the water.  We fed the tilapia, goldfish and fry.  Detailed data is kept on the records that are taken with each inspection. The design of the system and its software are freely available.  The system has been put together to show that it would be possible to make use of recycled materials in the construction of something similar.

Like the Green Exchange, it was immediately apparent that the Incredible Aqua Garden is relatively well-funded, with purpose-built growing rooms, kitchen, and space for educational work.  Additionally, food is grown using hydroponics and also in external and internal raised soil beds and a polytunnel.

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Hydroponics at Incredible Aqua Garden

Soil, no soil, to dig or not to dig?

Jed has been an apprentice with the project for the last year and soon to leave.  He’s passionate about no-dig and chemical-free gardening and shared his thoughts on how not every aspect of the Incredible Aquagarden suited his preferred way of working.  He was clearly happier with his no-dig beds, polycultures and being outdoors.  He illustrated the difference in the quality of plants depending on the different growing methods used through a tasting of different lettuce leaves.  It was an experience that said more than any words could.

Outdoor grown lettuce was stronger and more flavoursome than the vertically grown lettuce.  The difference was striking.  Additionally, mushrooms were not only growing in the outdoor beds, but also the soil beds indoors – a sign of a healthy subterranean ecosystem.  Jed pulled back some of the soil to show the web of mycelium that had formed just below the surface, a network that would be quickly destroyed by exposure to UV rays if the soil was opened by digging.  He didn’t need to convert the converted, but I enjoyed the pride in his demonstration of what he’d created.

We watered the indoor beds and planted mixed mustards in the polytunnel.  I left feeling I’d not done a great deal of work today, but was reminded of how permaculture reduces the workload most farmers complain of!

Inspiration

Jed shared the name of an organic farmer who advocates the no-dig method.  I thought I’d pass on the inspiration.

Inspired?

Charles Dowding shares his 35 years of experience, including seasonal tips and a forum here.

Conclusion

For me, I was fully in agreement with Jed, it was soil beds over aquaponics and no-dig over dig.  But, I could be persuaded by the idea of keeping fish.

The Revolution in Brighouse

We were the first to arrive.  One of the three beds opposite Wilkos, they said.

Propped up against one of the beds, we wondered if we were the sum total of the Incredible Edibles team, but we were soon to be welcomed by Mark, Chris and Bernie armed with forks, spades, trowels and bags.  We felt very underdressed, our kit comprising only boots and gloves.

Still we went with the flow, hoping we’d survive this effort for the revolution, and promised to be better prepared in future.

The revolution, disguised as gardening, has invaded Brighouse.

At the moment it is a very small army that meets bi-weekly.   As Mark explained, the party of volunteers tends to be between two and six people.  Our presence brought this week’s total to eight.  A jolly gathering of diverse individuals, tasks were cooperatively discussed and with a larger group than expected – we divided into two teams.

The first of the teams remained in the town, the second attended to the beds on the canal towpath.  We remained with the first team, led by Mark.

The initial task created the first conundrum for the day.  Weeding existing beds was the agenda, but it soon became evident that some agreement on what counted as a weed, and what didn’t, was needed.  Mark’s knowledge, derived from his more professional role in local parks, helped us to distinguish groundsel from a sow thistle and of course, the edible from the non-edible.  One of my favourite wild flowers, tufted vetch, I learned is a legume.  It has a beneficial symbiosis with soil bacteria and also acts as a nitrogen fixer, which benefits the quality of the soil.  According to PFAF, the seeds and leaves are edible. However, being a small flower it would be difficult to harvest in sufficient quantities without threatening it.   Seems best to use as a companion plant.

The plant that caused most disagreement was coltsfoot.  The leaves of the plant have a liquorice like flavour that was traditionally used to treat coughs and asthma.  Nancy Arrowsmith (2009) describes a typical recipe for coltsfoot cough drops:  2oz of leaves boiled with a quart of water until the quantity is reduced by half.  4 cups of sugar are added and boiling continues until the ‘hardball’ stage.  The mixture is then poured onto a buttered cake tin or buttered marble slab, then cut into shapes.  When cool, they are dusted in sugar (or slippery elm powder) to prevent sticking when stored.

Some members of the group reminisced about a sweet they’d enjoyed in childhood – Coltfoot Rock.  This is now a recognised regional product (like Wensleydale Cheese) and is manufactured by Stockleys Sweets in Lancashire, using a secret recipe.  I’ve been charged with the task of seeing if I can purchase some from a traditional sweetshop close to home.  I’ve never had the commercial version, but I did try a homemade variant a friend once made for his children.  It was – well –  like liquorice.

If there were specimens of coltsfoot removed before the exchange of childhood memories, I didn’t notice anyone removing any afterwards.  This may not be a great idea for the main plants in the beds, a range of perennial herbs and annual vegetables  planted in order to create interest and colour throughout the year, coltsfoot can be invasive.

We moved to the old health centre where the largest beds were for the second and last of our tasks for the evening – potato harvesting.  About half of the potatoes were gathered and new sprouting spuds replaced them.   We brought some of them home with us, so I’m planning a saag aloo with green lentils for dinner this evening.  We have some perpetual spinach in the garden which will work with the community grown potatoes!

Reference:  Arrowsmith, N. (2009) Essential Herbal Wisdom: A Complete Exploration of 50 Remarkable Herbs, Llewelyn Publications.

Incredible Edibles

I first heard of Incredible Edibles three years ago when I embarked upon a Permaculture Design Certificate course.  The hosts for the course invited in evening speakers, two of whom were particularly entertaining.  They spoke of how their community had begun to create edible spaces in and around their market town, a project that had school children bringing watering cans to school so that they could water the food beds on their journey.

The idea made it to my classroom.  I led a lesson on deep ecologism and how the philosophy manifests in practice, one example being permaculture and the second the Transition Town Movement.  One of the students declared:

Have you seen the chickens crossing the streets in Todmorden?”  Pollination-Street-for-Web

Can’t say that I have, but one local venture ‘Every Egg Matters’ does involve local people keeping chickens and selling on their eggs.  The organisers have been tracking the growth of local business through this one product.

I had found the guest speakers inspiring and three years later, decided to go back to see how they were getting on.  In not planning for this trip nor arranging to meet with anyone involved (although I have initiated contact), we followed “the green route” and made it a photography documentary.

There is an alarming increase in the demand for food banks and emergency food aid within the UK.  To ascertain the extent and nature of usage a number of rapid studies have been conducted.  A review of these was conducted by Warwick University for the Food Ethics Council.  Although there may be methodological issues with the research due to the nature of its rapidity, food bank and emergency food aid is only used by the poorest of households.  Food insecurity is also highly associated with bereavement.  Additionally, there is a perceived stigma attached to admitting to not being able to feed your family.
As the old adage teaches: “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”, the idea of involving a community in the production of its own food would seem to be more prudent than charitable aid.  And Incredible Edibles educates.  As you follow The Green Route, you’ll find many instructions on when to harvest a particular plant. and when it is best left alone.  Children are taught to peek inside a beehive and not to fear one of the best friends of a healthy ecosystem. Do-Not-Disturb-for-web

Since 2007, the idea seems to have sprouted and like a good reseeding plant, has spread.  From humble beginnings, there are now more than 100 incredibly edible towns across the globe.  It is not unlike the Transition Town movement, but is more focused on feeding the community.  With the alarming increase in the demand for emergency food aid, educating a community to become self-reliant in food is far more than a small idea, but that one that is well-past its sell by date, much like the remaining red and blackcurrants and raspberries around the town.
Although very unlike the profuse marjoram, ox-eye daisies, sage, mint, feverfew, camomile, cornflowers, apples, plums, damsons and I could go on if only my identification skills and memory were much better than they are.Ox-Eyed-Daisies-for-web

One of the founders of the growing movement of incredible edibles is Pam Warhurst, who here tells her story:

I enjoyed the second of my adventures into local ecoprojects and hope to go back to visit the incredible farm and incredible aqua garden to see aquaponics in action. These will require a bit of forward planning, but in the meantime – next stop: “Horton Community Farm” for a scheduled workday.

Photos by Safar Fiertze, taken on the Green Route, Todmorden. Click on image to enlarge

For the first of the local adventures see:  Bedford Field Community Forest Garden