Green thumbs know there’s at least one big hurdle to having a lush vegetable garden in Texas – the state’s water insecurity. Even last year, the wettest on record, there were long periods without significant rainfall. Gardeners had to pull out watering cans and hoses. Yet there’s a “growing” trend in gardening that could save green thumbs a few trips to the faucet.
Aquaponics may not sound like a water-saving technique. But Texas A&M AgriLife Extension specialist Joe Masabni says it’s a better way to use water.
“Five to ten percent of the water you would use in the field,” he says. “You could produce the same crop with aquaponics.”
So what is aquaponics exactly?
“Basically is using fish as the source, specifically the fish waste, gets digested and broken down by bacteria and becomes nutrient for the plant part,” Masabni says.
Fish poop feeds plants. Sounds a little gross. But think about nature. Plants love growing around ponds and rivers. Now consider a garden attached to a fish pool or fish tank.
“With a traditional aquarium, you can kind of think of it as a sterile pool,” Austin resident Jack Ikard says. “You want to keep your pool very clean, sterile, with lots of chlorine and kill any bacteria. With an aquaponics system, it’s a living ecosystem, so you want that bacteria to start thriving and converting that waste into nutrients for your plants.”
The system Ikard is describing is one he designed himself. The senior PR major at St. Edwards University first got interested in aquaponics in high school and founded the company AquaSprouts as a college sophomore.
“I’ve always been in love with fish,” Ikard says. “I’ve had aquariums since I was very young and grew up around fishing and the aquarium hobby in general.”
He says it was finding one of his old 10-gallon tanks in a shed one day that got him started on his business venture.
“I made my first system out of cardboard,” Ikard says.
You can find a lot of do-it-yourself projects like that on the Internet right now. Ikard thinks that’s great, but he thought it’d be even better if there were a simpler way for people to get their feet wet with aquaponics.
“So we make our aquaponics systems for 10 gallon aquariums which are very very commonly available,” he says. “So when you’re able to go and have a garden that fits over an existing aquarium. It’s just much more economical to get aquaponics into anybody’s home.”
Something he says even his mom would want to put into her kitchen. Plus, Ikard says it’s chemical-free gardening, and as close to maintenance-free with a fish tank as you’re going to get, though you still have to feed them.
John Huntington has been working with Ikard.
“We’ve got a mixture of some of the more common aquarium species,” Huntington says. “Some of the fish that people are most likely to be keeping in their home tanks.”
Huntington’s lab is a small room off of the warehouse space AquaSprouts shares with a fiberglass company. On rows of narrow shelves are several of the 10-gallon systems with different plants growing in the attached gardens.
“The data we’re collecting here is definitely letting us answer customer questions a little better because we know a lot more of the specifics of how things work in the AquaSprouts garden,” Huntington says. “We are definitely already working on R&D for next product series.”
AquaSprouts is going bigger with its ready-made products. AgriLife Extension specialist Joe Masabni says it’s already something some producers are using on a larger scale across Texas.
“There is a commercial operation in Hockley, Texas – that’s west of Houston,” he says. “There’s another operation in Cameron, Texas, south of Dallas area. There’s another business, a small one, in Bryan.”
Masabni says right now most of those producers are specializing in products, say lettuce for local restaurants, but he sees a growing and diversifying interest.
“My dream is to have an aquaponics association in Texas where all the producers meet and we have annual meetings,” Masabni says.
It’s a dream that may not be too far away, as backyard gardeners and commercial operations alike weigh the benefits of a water-wise system in drought-prone Texas.