Water conservation

Grow food in small spaces with fish poop and recycled water

If your garden is tiny, or even just a balcony, Jordan Karambelas has a suggestion for growing food organically: an attractive aquaponics system that uses recycled water enriched with fish poop to irrigate the vegetables planted above.

Karambelas, a junior at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, Calif., is a lifelong Girl Scout who was seeking a Gold Award project, the organization’s pinnacle achievement. She started a permaculture club at school this year to educate her peers about ways to grow food “in harmony with nature” and chose the aquaponics project as a way to promote this message.

His work was inspired by Mike Garcia, a South Bay landscape contractor and “certified permaculturist” with Enviroscape LA who has spent decades working on water conservation and recycling methods.

With Garcia’s help, they completed the project in a weekend, building a beautiful, 4-foot-by-8-foot, two-level redwood structure in one of the schoolyards that would fit easily into a front yard, patio or even a balcony.

“Most people don’t have a lot of land to recycle water (using storage tanks), but something like this can be put in place in a relatively short time,” Garcia said.

Many materials were donated, Karambelas said, but it would have cost him about $1,500 to build the structure at full price. Materials included 26 redwood planks, pond liner, Arqlite Smart Gravel – lightweight nuggets made from recycled food-safe plastics – PVC pipe, 40 small goldfish and an Oase AquaMax Eco Classic 3600 pump, recommended by Garcia due to its low power consumption.

The lower box is covered with a pond liner, filled with water and small fish. Garcia helped install the pump, which pushes water from fish level to peppers, chard, eggplant, tomatoes and other vegetables planted in Smart Gravel above. The constantly recycled water floods the planting boxes and the runoff drains into the aquarium, keeping the water aerated.

If the water level gets too low in the aquarium, the pump automatically draws water from the city and, as a bonus, the sound of running water is a balm in the dry yard outside a row of classrooms.

Aside from a few pranksters throwing Smart Gravel, the response from students has been positive, Karambelas said, and she hopes it will generate enough interest to increase membership in her new club next year.

Karambelas has big plans to rebuild the broken greenhouse and neglected raised beds in the yard – the remains of the school’s now-defunct clubs – and replant them all using recycled water. This summer will be the test to see how much water her aquaponics system needs, but she plans to visit frequently and expects a good organic harvest.

“It’s important for students to know this because a lot of people don’t have land, and it can be done literally anywhere,” she said. “A lot of students don’t know anything about it, so even starting a conversation is important because then they’ll be more likely to implement what they learn in their daily lives.”

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times and was distributed by Tribune News Service.