December 10, 2014

Aquaponics in a Nutshell

A great way to grow year round in the Midwest

-Rachel Schipull

My experience with aquaponics

As a recent graduate of Windy City Harvest, I was exposed to a variety of agriculture techniques which give passionate and inspired individuals the knowledge and experience they need to break into the urban agriculture profession in the Chicagoland area.

During the program, we learned a bit about aquaponics, and I’d love to tell you all about it. At least, as much as I learned from Windy City Harvest’s venerable Andy McGhee and my experience with his substantial system onsite. Andy gave us an hour-and-a-half lecture on the subject, with many follow-up conversations and discussions while working in the aquaponics area.

Tilapia in the tank of an aquaponics system

Tilapia in the tank of an aquaponics system

The basics of aquaponics

First, where does the word “aquaponics” come from? Different forms of aquaponics are known to have been practiced since antiquity in Asia and Latin America, but in recent times, the term was coined in the Virgin Islands in the 1970s. Aquaponics is a blend of hydroponics and aquaculture. Hydroponics focuses on the growing of plants in nutrient solution without soil, while aquaculture is the raising of fish in pools for the sake of food. Both of these systems of food production, while innovative, are immensely wasteful. Hydroponics is costly, doesn’t have a good answer for what to do with plant waste water, and the systems are very susceptible to mold issues. On the other hand, aquaculture can be a big polluter; you are essentially setting up a feed lot for fish. Aquaponics, however, uses the waste nutrients from the plants to nourish the fish, and the waste from the fish to feed the plants.

The aquaponics cycle is much more sustainable than keeping the two separate. With the exception of losing some water to plant respiration and evaporation, the water that initially fills the system, stays in the system. Thus, one of the top advantages to an aquaponics system is water conservation. In addition, you don’t need soil and the systems are incredibly adaptable and scalable. The only waste is a little solid waste from the fish.

An example of a basic aquaponics system that would cost about $50 to set up

An example of a basic aquaponics system that would cost about $50 to set up

Andy gave us an example of a home-sized system, with a 10-gallon tank for acouple of fish and a plastic tub on top for the plants. This type of system can provide fresh basil, mint, bok choy, and some varieties of lettuce year-round. The initial set-up cost would be around $50 and that would pay for itself in no time.

Once a system is set up, you become the grandmaster of a crucial balance of pH and nutrients. Andy showed us a really lovely chart that lists the ten most essential nutrients for plants and the pH at which they are most available to the plants in solution. The best pH for plants to access all the essential nutrients that they need is between 6.5 and 7. With any significant variation, the plants start to lose access to the nutrients that make them healthy. This is important for aquaponics, because while there are many plants out in the world that grow in acidic soil, fish don’t take too kindly to living in acidic water.

Basil grown in an aquaponic system

Basil grown in an aquaponic system

I’m no biochemist, but the basic cycle is as follows: Feed fish. Fish exhale ammonia through gills. Ammonia is consumed by nitrosomona bacteria which turn it into nitrites. Nitrites are eaten by nitrobacter bacteria which convert the compounds into nitrates. Nitrates are the lovely nitrogen-rich compounds that make plants super happy. Most systems do produce some waste at this point, which can be collected in a filter and composted.

The fish in large aquaponic systems are often tilapia, although koi is often used as well. Some growers who use aquaponics raise enough fish, primarily tilapia, to sell them to processing companies. It is difficult to do so competitively, however, since tilapia raised conventionally is done on a massive scale, often with environmentally questionable practices. On the other hand, koi can be sold more profitably as ornamental fish once they outgrow an aquaponics system.

At Windy City Harvest, they have a bed system which has different plants rooted in coconut coir for aeration, sitting in puffed shale that has “red wriggler” composting worms living in it. The worms feast on the extra bacteria and waste from the fish, so the system itself has almost no solid waste. The other boon to this approach is the shale composing beds can support more intense root systems. In this sort of system, it is possible to grow tomatoes, hops, cucumbers, hot peppers, peas, and so on, making the whole system more profitable and/or delicious, depending on your perspective.

Aquaponics in Chicago

Interested in learning how to construct your own mini aquaponics unit? If you have a flair for tinkering with pipes, fish, and plants, aquaponics might be a good hobby for you. Windy City Harvest will be offering a 14-week class Spring 2015 dedicated to the topic. This will be a thorough introduction to the topic with lots of hands on experience, and I can personally recommend the instructor. If you want less commitment, the internet is full of information to sift through. Determining factors in creating an aquaponics unit are how involved you want to get and how much of an investment you want to make.

Why go through the trouble of assembling all the parts and risking the life of an aquatic animal? Well, first off, it is a worthy challenge, but not insurmountable. If you have a child looking for a science fair project, tracking pH and plant growth in an aquaponics system doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

Second, I have been sitting here at my desk writing this article, all the time looking out the window being reminded that Chicago definitely does not have four growing seasons, unless you move inside. The aquaponics system at Windy City Harvest fits inside a two car garage. No one is asking you to give up your garage, but maybe a small portion of your living room could give you a little green this winter.

Finally, if you are like me, growing makes you feel good. Takingcare of plants and sowing seeds to feed those around you—that feeds you, too. It’s going to be a long, cold winter; let’s not forget where our roots are in the midst of it.

If you aren’t interested in building your own system, but you want to see aquaponics in action, The Plant has an inspiring system and regularly scheduled tours. If you just want to participate in eating local aquaponically-grown produce, you should check out FarmedHere. Their products, including basil, arugula, and other salad greens, are widely available in the produce sections at various local groceries.

Click the image above to find the nearest location selling FarmedHere aquaponically-grown products

Click here to find the nearest location selling FarmedHere aquaponically-grown products

That is aquaponics in a nutshell. All in all, aquaponics is one cool way to keep local green things on the table year-round, when everything outside is grey and frozen. Spring will come again, but for now, we’ve got fish.

RSchipullRachel is a recent graduate of the Chicago Botanic Garden and Daley College’s Windy City Harvest certificate program in Urban Agriculture. Prior to agriculture, Rachel worked in higher education, career counseling, and did some writing on the side. She currently lives in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood with her partner, cat, and dog. She has great hope for the future of agriculture, food justice, and nutrition education in Chicago. Follow Rachel’s personal blog at

November 26, 2014

Why Ducks?

A novice poultry keeper’s first year with Pekins

-Audrey Cosgrove

Some might ask, “Why keep ducks?” Several years back I read a news article about a woman in Hickory Hills, IL who kept two ducks in her backyard.  Neighbors complained and the city ordered her to remove the ducks.  She appealed and lost. No livestock allowed in the City of Hickory Hills.  Her defense was that the ducks were her pets and she never intended to eat them.  I was not there when the judge ruled but I imagine it went something like “Madam, ducks are not pets! They are food.”  Now that I keep ducks, I know that the lady’s ducks probably were her pets, and also that she was addicted to their rich, golden-yolked eggs.

Duck egg

Duck egg (right) compared to a chicken egg

Nutritionally speaking, duck eggs have higher levels of Vitamins A and D, and Omega-3 fatty acids compared to chicken eggs. Although, to be fair, they contain twice the cholesterol as chicken eggs. Overall, ounce for ounce, you get more bang for your buck from duck eggs. Duck eggs are also alkaline, creating a more acidic environment in the body, which some studies suggest has health benefits.

In the kitchen, duck eggs bake up fluffier and richer.  They are much larger than chicken eggs though, so when a recipe calls for one large egg, you have to break and beat one duck egg and measure out two ounces. As a table egg, they are delicious.  The best way to prepare them is soft-boiled. The yolk is positively decadent.  Really, I use them in all the ways you would use a chicken egg.  I even sneak them into my fussy child’s breakfast burrito, and she is none the wiser.

The eggshells can even help you earn some spare cash. They are extremely thick and are treasured by Eastern European artists who make the fine pysanky. I saw a couple of ads on Etsy that offered a dozen blown out eggs for $20!

But back to my original question, when neighbors heard I had ducks, not chickens, their first question was always, “Why ducks?” Probably because I like to be different. Plus, when I started my research I learned that ducks are quieter than chickens, a good thing when you live close to your neighbors. They are also hardier than chickens, a definite benefit when you have my schedule.  I eventually narrowed my search down to Pekin and Muscovy, both smart, sociable breeds that are good layers.  I showed my kids pictures of the finalists and they decided Muscovy were weird looking, so we went with the Pekin. The Pekin variety also happens to be very common, and in April (Easter time of course) The Feed Store on Harlem Avenue had about 100 Pekin ducklings, at $5 a pop. I bought four hoping to get two females to lay eggs.

Pekin ducklings

Pekin ducklings

The babies started out in a large rubber box with a heat lamp, but QUICKLY outgrew it.  First, I moved them to the bathtub, but the smell was unbearable. So, I then moved to the garage in the bottom half of my Labrador’s crate.  In short order, they could climb, or rather, flop out of the crate.  Fortunately the weather was warming up and their yellow down was being replaced by white feathers. With feathers, they can keep themselves warm so I did not need to confine them with the heat lamp.  The whole family struggled with the idea that they had to stay outside. They were so adorable that we had to remind ourselves they were farm animals, not house pets.

Eggs found in the yard

Eggs found in the yard

As they grew, it became clear that I had one boy and three girls.  It also became clear that one female was not a Pekin but an Aylesbury, an unrefined duck that none of us liked.  Simultaneously, I realized that four full-grown ducks were two too many for my garden, so I found a young couple to take the male and the Aylesbury.  Settling in with “the girls,” as we call them, has been a breeze.  They don’t need to roost, so if I forget to confine them to a side yard enclosure at night, finding their eggs in the morning is a treasure hunt.

They are the easiest animals to care for, nearly maintenance free.  The most important thing to keep in mind when caring for ducks is they require water to drink at all times.  Besides the dry poultry feed I provide them, they forage, picking up flies, grubs, and worms, and washing it down with big messy billfuls of water.  They also like to play in the water, so I got them a blue plastic baby pool.  A couple of times a day I found them splashing and dunking themselves to cool off and clean their brilliant white feathers.  When I have time on my hands, I like to water my ducks, squirting them with the garden hose while they arch and stretch like supermodels. The phrase “like a duck to water” takes on a new meaning when you actually own one.

Like most of you, I am an avid gardener and ducks are destructive when they find something they like.  Tom
atoes are a particular favorite. Luckily, they are trainable.  When I catch them in the garden I yell at them from the house to clear out and they grumblingly oblige.

As winter has come, I insulated their house (my children’s old play house) with straw on the inside and burlap on the outside. I purchased a large electric water bowl to keep their water from freezing.  It’s 17 degrees out as I write this.  I worry about them out there, but tell myself that they will be fine. After all, they are wearing down comforters. 

Audrey CosgroveAudrey Cosgrove is a native Chicagoan, a self employed attorney and former Illinois Master Gardener.  She lives in Chicago’s Independence Park neighborhood with her husband, two lively children and a small assortment of furry and feathered friends.   She has a little house, but a big backyard where, in addition to growing the usual perennials and vegetables, she is experimenting with 4-season growing and growing super hot exotic peppers.

November 20, 2014

Share Your Sweet Skills & Knowledge at the 2015 Good Food Commons!


“You know, like nunchuck skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills…”

AUA is again partnering with the Good Food Festival to organize the 2015 Good Food Commons micro workshop series on Saturday, March 21st, and you’re invited to be a part of it! The 20-minute micro workshops will cover topics including growing, composting, preserving, raising livestock, cooking, and community building. Scroll down for more details and the application form (application deadline is December 19)!

November 13, 2014

Calling All Bloggers: AUA seeking contributors to write on urban ag topics!

AUA is seeking contributors to our blog! You don’t need to have any prior experience blogging, but if there is a topic you are interested in writing about related to urban ag, let us know! Examples of articles might be: recipes for home-grown vegetables, tips for urban growing, reports from a workshop related to urban agriculture, reports on current research, reports on urban ag practices, profiles on projects, and relevant policy issues in Chicago and elsewhere. 

You can view our new blog guidelines here.

It is part of AUA’s mission to share information, resources, and best practices. We have had a blog since 2009, but we aim to make it more robust and useful to Chicago’s urban ag community. We need your help to do so!
If you are interested, drop us a line at Thanks!