We’re building an aquaponics garden!

I’ve learned very important lesson as a mother. It’s how to get my family to do things that they might not want to do. Some may call it manipulation, but I prefer to refer to it as mutually beneficial collaboration.

For example, if I want my youngest to take interest in something, all I have to do is to tell him, “It’s very rare, precious and incredibly expensive”….which is how I got him to try raw oysters. When I order a platter of oysters, I go through my little ritual of intently examining each and every one, squeezing just ONE drop of fresh lemon juice and meticulously placing just a couple of Maldon sea salt flakes in each. I savor each oyster as if it were the most precious commodity in the world, making sure that I don’t spill a single drop of brininess.

This ritual isn’t for MY benefit, but for Nathan. (For the record, when he’s not present, I slurp ’em like a champ and can eat 2 dozen in 5 minutes – just ask Elise and Guy) I explained to Nathan that not everyone can eat oysters (leaving out the fact that 94% of them are just grossed out by raw oysters) and that only sophisticated, worldly and enlightened individuals could enjoy them. You know what happened next….he wanted to prove to me he was mature and had a developed palate. He ate one….and as he chewed, chewed, chewed and tried to swallow the slimey thing, I had to pinch my thigh hard to not laugh.

Every muscle in his face squeezed tight and it looked like his mouth was playing Twister, wrestling with the oyster. Then he grabbed for his chocolate milk as a chaser, which probably made things worse (blech!) But of course, he HAD to say he liked it.

To this day, he still eats the first oyster on my plate – I just know he doesn’t care for it, but he always asks and he takes it down like a man. A sophisticated man.

To get both kids to enjoy salads and most vegetables, I got them to help me garden. This was a much easier task than oysters.

They help me decide what veg to grow and they’re responsible every day watering, harvesting and chasing the chickens from the salad greens.

The garden you see here is our Earthbox and raised beds. Instead of covering the soil with mulch or hay, we tarped the entire bed and poked holes in when we planted each seedling. The tarp is held in place with ratcheting straps around the outside of the bed. This prevents weeds, helps the soil keep moisture and all the nutrients. Oh and during the winter, the black tarp helps the soil retain heat. When we water the garden, the water only goes where the plants are, so we save quite a bit of water.

Next season, I’d like to find thick burlap to use instead of plastic tarp.

(That’s Nathan using Swiss Chard as a sunshade for his brother.)

Now that you know about my boys, let me tell you about how I got Scott interested in aquaponics and hydroponics:

No, this isn’t a new Maxim competitor. It’s a HYDROPONICS MAGAZINE. Really!!! (Hydroponics = gardening without soil)


Between the pages with photos of bikini babes, are articles like, “Protecting your young plants from morning frost with a DIY garden cloches made with a wine bottle” and “How to battle slugs with copper tape and diatomaceous earth.”

Bravo….well done, publishers. You’ve finally figured out how to get men interested in gardening!!

That is, until I figured out why the magazine’s name is Rosebud, which has nothing to do with a little precious flower or Citizen Kane. Rosebud is a slang term for marijuana.

Ooooooooh…..now I get it. DUH!

Well, it turns out that Scott really is interested, but not for the obvious reason above.

A couple of weeks ago, he helped me assemble a Windowfarms, which I had backed on Kickstarter a while ago. After we set it up, I looked at the system and thought to myself that this is really expensive for small plastic pots, tubing and fish tank pump. My Windowfarms came with chemicals – liquid plant food that I had to feed weekly to the plants. It just seemed….unnatural.

Because there is no soil, the plants have no way to get nutrients unless you feed them manually. I felt like a chemist, using a small pipette to add 6mL of one thing and 8mL of another into the water.

I told Scott that hydroponics just lost its appeal to me. I’d rather dig in dirt! Play with worms! Spread homemade compost!

But what about Aquaponics, which is a soil-less garden system that uses fish to complete the cycle?

I showed him this Kickstarter campaign for a home aquaponics system, which I immediately backed and after watching a few YouTube videos on home aquaponics, he asked the magic question: Why is it so difficult to set up an aquaponics system for the home garden? 

Which led me to say, “It’s really difficult to set up. I don’t know of anyone, other than strangers on YouTube, that has built one in their backyard. What would be really cool is if the whole thing was AUTOMATED and you could control it with your iPhone.”

Which led him to say, “I bet I could do it.”

Which led me to silently give myself a high-five.

And now, he’s obsessed…. a geeky factor into gardening!

Within days, he scoured Craigslist for food-safe “totes” – which are 275 gallon plastic containers.

One for the fish (we’ll raise tilapia), and the others are cut down for the garden beds.

That night, we had a “Steamy Kitchen Board of Directors Meeting” during dinner to explain to the boys the difference between Hydroponics and Aquaponics (fish!) and planning out how the system will be set up.

I have the best Board of Directors, ever.

Oh, and I ended up feeding the Windowfarms hydroponics system some compost tea that I brewed instead of something called Formula CN-17. So far, so good. I haven’t killed anything yet.


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Comments 28

  1. Lori

    Lol, great job nudging the kids and husband! I haven’t been quite as successful yet. Looking forward to seeing the aquaponic garden.

  2. Trent

    WOW…..what an informative article. Aquaponics looks amazing…..good luck with the automation 🙂

    Now to see what format would work for a balcony on an apartment hehehe

    I’m soooo envious of your beautiful veggie garden Jaden.

  3. Gabrielle

    I wish you oodles of success with your Aquaponics. Love how you got your son to try oysters – sneaky!

  4. Farmer'sWife


    awesome pictures! We did the same trip with hydroponics to aquaculture. Started with the hydroponics (reduced water usage by 90%) but was a hassle managing the ph, etc. My daughter read something about goldfish, so we decided to try it.

    Threw a few 10 cent goldfish into the water (we were using rafts with the plants floated in them, in holes, on top of the water, as well as 5 gallon containers. Water was pumped throughout all the plant containers.

    It was incredible… goldfish grew like crazy, the ph took care of itself, and the plants were awesome. I did have to fine-tune the nutrients a bit when the tomatoes got to the fruiting stage, though.

    We also had to deal with 117 degree F weather for a week (and 4 weeks above 100 degrees). Ended up burying some 50 gallon containers into the earth and running the water through them in order to use the earth’s temp to naturally cool the water down. Plants could tolerate the heat IF the water was cooler!

    We sold our 10 cent goldfish for $10 at the feedstore… at the end of the season. They were huge.

    Proof of concept! We’ll do an expanded setup in the future.

    Keep up the good work.

  5. Chris

    I used to buy a magazine that dabbled in hydroponics as a late teenager…I think it was called “High Times”, lol.

    Seriously though, cool venture. One of Alexis’ friends and her husband started a business doing this locally and we bought their veggies at the market this year. They lost their first crop of talapia unfortunately but have recovered since then. Can’t wait to hear your adventures to compare to theirs.

    Happy New Years to you, Scott and the fam! (Which keeps growing with dogs, chickens and now fishies).

  6. Becky

    Bravo! And lucky you to live in a warm climate! Freezing here in Indiana!
    Jaden , you truly inspire me, I noticed one son was holding a bunch of greens. Now I am very interested on how to prepare greens and some of the beautiful veggies… can you help me?!
    Good luck on all your garden adventures…. looks like fun.. maybe this winter I will dabble in herbs! 🙂 Thanks and Happy New Year!

    1. SteamyKitchen

      Absolutely! Those are Swiss Chard greens – we stir fry with them and also add to soups too. Very healthy. I’ll be sure to post some recipes!

  7. Libby

    I would love to read the whole article but unfortunately there is a big wide strip that won’t go away asking for me to sign up for the newsletter (already am) and follow on twitter etc. No way to close it on my screen. Very annoying!!!!

  8. Elaine

    Hi jaden. I’ve been following you for abt 4 -5 lylears now. (Tribune days!) I live south of you and am always impressed at how you have made fl work for you. I’ve been here for 22 years an I know one of these days I will love it! Lol. Thanks for your posts always..

  9. Tonipet

    LOL…that’s the power of having a woman in the house. Thanks for sharing this here Jaden. I’ve always loved your ideas. Now I know about hydrophonics..oops… hydroponics (careful with my spelling:=))thing. You have a wonderful family, very nice boys to appreciate the green lifestyle and get involved. Thanks for being a woman of inspiration. Proud of you! Happy New year to you and your family- Tonette

  10. Susan Pence

    Love the topic if this article – I’m gonna have to to check it out. Nice strategy of getting Nathen to try oysters – that’s a keeper!

  11. elarhy

    Just wanted to coment….when little my mother usually got me to try new food by giving me 2 options
    a- eat it
    b- go hungry
    (after 3-4 hours of hungry) “you sure you dont want ___?”

    If i tried it and really, really did not like it she would make a sandwich.

    Oyster were a special case… both my parent were eating them once but told me i would not like them, i was maybe 8 and took that as a challange.

  12. Mary

    Hi Jaden,

    This is absolutely fascinating. We have a pond off our patio – one that a landscaper put in years ago, maybe 20 years ago or so – and I am wondering if I could use that pond (we keep fish in it) and replace the present filtration system with something like you are talking about here.

    I am going to look into this and I’ll let you know what I find out.

    Thanks so much for sharing all about this.


    1. Scott

      It is possible to use ponds for the fish tank in an aquaponics system. Keep in mind that what goes into your pond also goes into your food. Many people who run aquaponics systems like to keep them as closed system with minimal inputs from outside. Pesticide and fertilizer run off can be an issue. We decided not to use the ponds on our property because of not knowing what is or has seeped into the water. At the very least, I would have the water analyzed before using it in a system to grow your food.


  13. Scott

    The construction of our Ebb and Flow system is complete and we just recently completed the initial cycling of our system. We have fish due in tomorrow. We’ll be posting updates on the system as we go.

  14. Lee

    That’s great that the whole family is involved. I love aquaponics gardening because you can grow so much more in a smaller space and it’s so much fun (plus no weeding). As you know, there’s nothing more rewarding than growing your own food source!

  15. Rajeev Sahadevan

    Excellent page. Love to see kids taking all the interest in growing plants. For a first aquaponic system, thats a great load of work and investment. I have not started an aquaponic system just because i find it more expensive to start off. there are also some concerns of finding the right parts. For instance i dont like the tubs which are available locally as its made of PVC and it has round edges. The ones which have square edges are small.

    Complaints aside, i think i am either lazy or not confident. At least i can see some of the great work people like you do to get inspired and start growing my own stuff.

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