Watered Down

A closed-loop system springs a leak

In 2010, my husband Ben and I had been bit by the small-farm bug. I had just swapped a career in managing concert venues and nightclubs to start working with farm and food businesses. He was a paramedic who had lived on a Kibbutz in Israel for four years milking cows, picking avocadoes and doing field work.

Illustration by Sarah FeroneWe had just moved into our first apartment in Philadelphia, but were sure that within five years we’d buy a farm and build something of our own. We grew sprouts, wheatgrass and greens under a small shop light. We hung upside-down tomato planters, with boxes of basil and cilantro underneath to catch the drainage. Our humble harvests had us wide-eyed, knowing that we were planting the seeds of our future. 

One day I came home from work, and Ben had surprised me by building our koi fish tank into an aquaponic herb planter. I was mesmerized watching the fish swimming through tunnels of dangling basil roots. Aquaponics is a soil-free cultivation that takes hydroponics to another level by creating an ecosystem that uses the fish waste for plant food. In hydroponics, the grower mixes nutrients into the water reservoir to feed the plants.

Wanting to experiment with both techniques, we traded in our dining room table for a 16-square-foot hydroponic system to grow greens. When our koi started to get too big for their tank, something clicked. Why not retrofit this hydro system to be fed by the fish and solve two problems at once? We were soon swept off our feet by aquaponics, watching every Murray Hallam video we could find on YouTube, and phrases like “closed-loop sustainable system” started peppering our dinner conversations. But soon our apartment was bursting at the seams with equipment, and tying to balance the flow of water for 10 hours a day wasn’t working. We kept springing leaks, which the bank below us did not appreciate. 

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