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Earthan Group Aquaponic Gardens

Finally an update on the completed community aquaponic gardens at the Basin View Masonic Village on the South Coast of NSW.  The project has come from the concept plan to the finished gardens and I must say we have had a fantastic journey building it.  We met so many community groups, schools and individuals over the month we spent on site and it was always great to explain how the system works to the visitors. [heading] Earthan Beds the Next big thing in aquaponics [/heading] Rob and others often tell me 25 words or less, but that is never going to happen.  I might go so far to say, this is the largest community garden of its type, if not the only one in Australia.  Many firsts have been included in the design and has drawn a great deal of interest from groups around the world. Designing this garden had its challenges.  Firstly the residents and community gave us a brief with a very long list of functions and items they would like incorporated in the design that added to its functionality and still maintain its beauty.  Check.  Secondly, the research that will be undertaken through two universities on the meaningful participation for people with dementia in this garden required a different approach to suit the research goals.  Check.  Lastly, we are moving a very large volume of water through a very large surface area by gravity.  Check. Let me explain that a little more below. Before we get into it, I have to mention this large pod of Kangaroos that live within the fences of the village.  There is about 12 from one of our counts and some with young joeys still in the pouch.  We knew they were there from the first visit to the site, but did not realise how many there were.  We thought there may be issues with them eating the veggies in the garden but as yet they have not but time will tell as the gardens grow more. This is the very last time we will see this water meter at 1000 litres.  By the end of the build with filling up and cleaning we had used 18,000 litres of water at the last reading on 20 December 2011.  All of that water was part of the filling of the system.  We also used another tap to assist with the fill because it was a very slow process. The entire system holds 50,000 litres of water and the beds have been designed to be part of the catchment and storage of rainfall.  The average yearly rainfall for the area is 1200mm per year which we estimate and other garden groups agree, we would need about 3 months of no rain before the system will draw top up water from mains automatically which will be rare for the south coast NSW. Our estimate of water use is showing to be accurate so far as the system has not used any mains water in the last month but time will tell. The control systems in our designs are very simple as you can see from the image above.  It may look like a lot to run the garden but we have included redundancy air and water pumps that automatically switch over should one fail, water levels too low, pressure drops etc.  Some fail systems are to protect the pumps but most are to protect the fish as is required. The pump simply run water up to the aquaculture tanks in the centre of the garden and the water flow back by gravity to the water storage sumps.  The air pump provides air to both of the sumps, the three fish tanks and the 30 meters of deep water culture in the gardens.  The entire system runs on an average of 450 watts depending on the water level in the sumps.  Not bad for a 220 m2 aquaponic garden! The control systems are housed inside a simple garden shed and the two water storage tanks are in ground to maintain part of the thermal protection for the system and they look better than poly tanks above ground and easy to service. Part of the water flow allows us to partially or completely by pass all of the grow bed systems in the integrated garden just in case some treatment of the fish is needed that will not agree with the plants or beds need to be drained etc..  I doubt the option will be needed but rest assured if it was not there, it would be needed. With that isolation comes a risk to the fish as part of the filtration is built into the garden beds, so when they are isolated, that filtration does not happen, so we have built in back up filtration into the sumps to be sure the fish are well protected from stress. The water is pumped directly to the three aquaculture tanks in the centre of the aquaponic gardens.  They are independent of each other and can each be isolated.  Each aquaculture tank runs two horse shoe beds, and one of the outer curved beds with deep water culture and expanded clay media. The water in the tanks can be exchanged to a maximum of three times per hour but are not running at that.  They can be individually emptied in 40 minutes and filled in 20 minutes without interrupting the flow of the rest of the tanks should a tank need a speedy change of water.  Handy thing to have in any design. These are well aerated individually on the same air pump that runs the entire gardens.  Part of a bypass on the tanks is planed to run over the waterfalls on each tank which are yet to be installed (we ran out of time before xmas). Interestingly, none of the clay media was washed or the 90 tonnes of gravel and the water is crystal clear.   The filtration design must be good and as you can expect I am very pleased with the it as I am sure the fish are too. Currently the entire aquaponic system runs on these 10 little gold fish and 5 donated yabbies.  Seems a little understocked but everything is growing well.  It is surprising to watch plants grow so well with plenty of access to water… Seriously now.  The tanks or I should say the system is designed to produce 450kg of fish and 100kg of freshwater crayfish per year.  We will be introducing more stock to it over time so we have staged growth and even nutrient production.  The target species will be Silver Perch (Bidyanus bidyanus) a native species that is easy to look after. We have included our Earthan Beds in this garden simply because they are fantastic performers every time we have built them.  These are six large horse shoe shaped raised beds filled with a good soil mix.  The unique thing about them is water from the fish system flows through them 24/7.   We call them Earthan Beds because we are the first to design and pioneer this type of grow bed configuration in the world, so a bit of branding never hurts. They can be tilled, mulch added, plants treated, poop added without affecting the water quality for the fish at all.  In fact they improve the water quality as they are part of the integrated filtration built into them.  These will be great for every variety of plant but especially the cooler root varieties like onions, carrots, radish, beets and potato without the limitations of deep water culture and the cost of expanded clay media. Already the residents have seeded several of them and the seeds are shooting in a few days.  The resent heat over xmas gives new plants a little touch up but they all come through without loss.  These are my favourite type of aquaponic bed.  But I do like the others too. Speaking of other beds, there is 6 of these massive clay media beds.   I find the expanded clay great to work with in comparison to gravel and other heavy media, but the expense is hard to justify, so we only top dressed these beds but it still took quite a few pallets.  Once you put your hands into clay media, you will understand why it is so popular. These media beds will cater for the high water use plants like the cucumbers, capsicum, tomatoes and other viners like squash and beans.  Capsicums and eggplants have already been planted and we have capsicum already on.  Great result in a month. I really like deep water culture for its capacity to grow leafy greens and herbs like they are on steroids!  There are three DWC beds in this aquaponic garden.  They are all aerated the length of them by the air pump I mentioned before.  They have the capacity to hold around 360 plants each which is more than enough production for this community garden. The DWC beds will also house the fresh water crayfish which will require no additional feeding outside of what they can scavenge.  They will produce around the 100kg of yabbies (Cherax destructors) a year and provide endless entertainment for a few of the residents that indicated they are keen to catch them for beers and a bbq lol… For those that are not sure what deep water culture is, in its simplest form you float polystyrene on the surface of nutrient rich water and grow plants in little hydroponic net pots.  In this case we designed the bed size to suit broccoli boxes picked up and washed out from the local supermarkets to recycle them for use to support the plants in this integrated aquaponic garden.  Very simple solution and free! It is difficult to get a feeling for the size of this latest aquaponic garden from Earthan Group and we hope to have aerial shots of it from the community helicopter in the future.  For now we will have to make do with climbing a small hill to get the entire garden into shot. With over 220 m2 of grow space, plenty of fish and crustaceans and ease of use (just plant and feed) we hope the community at Basin View get many years of fresh, clean produce and personal enjoyment for many years to come and the finished aquaponic gardens are what they envisioned and dreamed of. This project has been my personal pleasure to have designed with the residents and built with the community and I look forward to a very long and productive relationship with these wonderful people into the future.  I also hope that we have inspired the groups we talked with and perhaps have even inspire you, our readers to do a bit of your own creating. Until next time my warmest regards Paul Van der Werf…

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