What is aquaponics?

Some natural gardeners focus on creating habitat for wildlife in their yards. Others focus on using their land to produce food for themselves. Within this second strain of natural gardening, growing fruits and vegetables is relatively easy (though some homeowners do find themselves in the bizarre situation of being threatened with jail time for having a vegetable garden in their yard). Raising meat at home is much more challenging: most towns don’t allow residents to keep cattle, pigs, or goats in their yards, and chicken-keeping is often limited to a small number of hens.

One solution to this problem is fish.

Yes, fish. It’s usually legal to keep them in your yard, even if you plan to eat them. As added bonuses, fish are easy to care for, and they don’t get diseases that can be transmitted to humans.

Once people realized that they could raise fish in their yards, they quickly came up with an even better idea called aquaponics. Aquaponics is the practice of raising fish and plants together. The fish live in an above-ground tank, and the plants grow in racks suspended along the water’s surface. Adding fish food once or twice a day jump-starts an efficient and productive system: the fish turn the fish food into fish growth and fish waste, and the plants turn the fish waste into plant growth and clean water.

Within a few months, the plants and fish become people food. Buying young plants and fish and raising them in this way is cheaper than buying similar food at the grocery store, so the practice is cost-efficient – plus, you know exactly where the food came from.

The system is mostly vertical, so it uses space efficiently. And it can be energy-efficient too. First, choose fish and plants that don’t mind cold temperatures. Green, leafy plants like lettuce, spinach, and herbs (sage, parsley, and basil, for example) work well. Then, build the system in a greenhouse in a sunny spot in your yard. This way, it will mostly heat itself.

Keeping the system running is not difficult. The plants will need adequate light and humidity. The pH value of the water must be safe for both the plants and the fish. And the water will need to be warm enough. If the air temperature around the system is cooler, that’s usually no problem.

Novice aquaponics practitioners might be inclined to begin with a small system, but larger ones are actually easier to manage. A tank that holds less than 100 gallons will experience faster swings in temperature, pH, and bacteria populations than a tank with more water, and will require more active management.

Overfishing and industrial fish farming are both serious environmental problems. We can enjoy fish more sustainably by raising it ourselves.

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What is aquaponics?

Why don’t we see much wildlife?

Many people would like to see more wildlife – especially butterflies and songbirds, but maybe also chipmunks and deer and foxes – in their yards. Why are these animals so scarce in our neighborhoods?

One reason is that there are just far fewer animals on our planet than there used to be. Studies have found that animal populations – that is, the number of individuals of each species – have, on average, decreased by half since the 1970s. Buffalo used to roam North America in the tens of millions; now there are only a few hundred thousand. Passenger pigeons, it is said, used to blot out the sun as they flew overhead; now there have been none at all for over a hundred years. And in an anecdote of our own times, truckers are certain they used to pick up more bugs on their windshields as they drove cross-country.

A second reason is that as we destroy natural habitats to make more room for roads, houses, and lawns, the animals that used to live in our communities move elsewhere. As earlier posts have explained, few animals can make a living in turf grass. When that is all we offer in our yards, we won’t see much wildlife around our homes.

A third reason we don’t often observe animals in our yards is that animals are increasingly becoming nocturnal, exactly because they don’t want to be around people. A recent study found that mammals are shifting their activity to the nighttime hours, becoming on average a third more nocturnal than they used to be. That is, an animal that used to do 50% of its daily activities while the sun was up and 50% after dark is now splitting its time about 33% – 67%.

The researchers found that this shift is happening across species, continents, and habitat types. As an article on the study puts it, “antelope on the savanna of Zimbabwe, tapir in the Ecuadorian rainforests, [and] bobcats in the American southwest deserts” are all changing their schedules in an effort to avoid humans.

This turned out to be true when avoiding humans was a challenge for the animals – animals living in undisturbed areas aren’t changing their historical habitats. But the researchers found that animals went out of their way to avoid humans not only in places where humans are doing dangerous things, like hunting, but also in places where humans are doing innocuous things, like hiking and farming.

This shift in activity is a problem because animals that have adapted to being active during the day may not fare as well when they try to carry out their routines at night. In the dark, it may be more difficult for them to find food, evade predators, and communicate with other members of their species.

The changing patterns of animal activity also diminish our opportunities to see wildlife. If we want wild animals to thrive – and if we want the chance to encounter them as we go about our own daily routines – we must find a way to live much more lightly on our planet.

Why don’t we see much wildlife?

When do birds migrate?

We all know the answer to this one: birds migrate in the fall. That is when we see those iconic V’s of honking geese winging their way south. But why don’t we see other kinds of birds flying towards warmer climes? When do they migrate?

The answer is that other birds also migrate in the fall. But they do it at night.

Migrating under the cover of darkness is a smart strategy for many small birds. Flying predators, like hawks and eagles, tend to be active during the day. By making their long-haul flights after the sun goes down, small birds can avoid getting eaten along their journey.

Unfortunately, migrating at night comes with other dangers. Many birds use the stars to navigate on their long trips, and when they see lights closer to ground level, they can get confused and fly in circles until they exhaust themselves. Or they may simply crash into a lit window.

When we think about birds crashing into windows, we often think of glass-covered skyscrapers in big cities. In fact, most bird-window incidents occur around buildings that are less than four stories tall. In other words, migrating birds collide with ordinary houses more often than they collide with high-rises.

By dimming our lights on fall evenings – or by closing our curtains – we can help birds arrive safely at their destinations.

When do birds migrate?

What is the difference between a native plant garden and a natural yard? #2

To recap a post from last spring, a native plant garden typically follows the practices and philosophies of conventional gardening, only with native plants instead of ornamental exotics. It generally features “attractive” native plants laid out in beds, often with plenty of bare ground in between. The plants are rigidly maintained and forced to conform to the gardener’s vision.

A natural yard, in contrast, includes not just native plants but natural patterns and processes. Plants are scattered semi-randomly, instead of being placed in rows or clusters. The design changes from year to year, as plants reseed and move around the landscape. And if leaves get munched by insects or plants hold seedheads throughout the winter, those are viewed as signs that the garden is thriving, rather than as problems to fix or messes to clean up.

While native plants are good, they don’t truly fulfill their ecological functions unless they are living together in naturalistic communities. When native wildflowers are planted as specimens, in limited diversity, and are not permitted to go through their complete lifecycles, they are not providing the same benefits to wildlife as native plants that live and die according to their own rhythms, knit closely together with other native plants they have evolved alongside.

In addition, native plant gardens are much more maintenance-intensive than natural yards, with all the downsides associated with that: more use of fossil fuels, more pesticides, more supplemental water, more effort and expense for the gardener, and so on.

A formally-arranged native plant garden might be right for a gardener who wants to give up their lawn but isn’t ready to embrace the wild aesthetic of a true natural yard. But when deciding how to use native plants, it is important to remember that fitting them into conventional designs with conventional maintenance really is more work for less reward.

What is the difference between a native plant garden and a natural yard? #2

Does having a natural yard make you a bad American?

Not at all.

Some people think that natural yards look messy, unattractive, and unmaintained. They take pride in mowing their lawns and pruning their shrubs, thinking that by doing so they are showing that they care for their property, and that this in turn makes them a good neighbor, a good citizen, and a good American.

But a recent book argues that America’s Founding Fathers were themselves devoted gardeners, and that the way they gardened – the way they thought about plants – bore little resemblance to the beliefs and habits of many Americans today.

Here is one particularly striking paragraph from Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, written by Andrea Wulf, and published in 2012:

“By the time Jefferson became president, many trees had been lost [in Washington DC, which at the time was still more of a wilderness than a city]. Most shocking of all, those on the grounds of the White House had been felled by Federalists* after the accession of the Republicans, one observer noted, ‘out of spite to them who cherished it.’ Enraged by Jefferson’s election, so the rumor went, his rivals had ordered the ancient trees to be cut down as a parting gesture, knowing how such vandalism would wound the new president, who regarded tree-felling as ‘a crime little short of murder.’ Jefferson was so furious at this unscrupulous destruction that shortly after he moved into the White House, the author of the Declaration of Independence was overheard making the rather surprising comment, ‘I wish I was a despot that I might save the noble, the beautiful trees that are daily falling.'” (page 148)

(*Jefferson was a member of the Republican Party, as it existed in his day. The opposing political party – of which departing President John Adams was a member – was called the Federalists.)

And here are some other fascinating facts from the book:

Many of the most important figures in the founding of America had strong feelings about the importance of gardening. The first four presidents of the United States – George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – all couldn’t wait to retire from politics and go back to working on their farms, vegetable plots, and ornamental gardens.

The “Founding Gardeners” understood the importance of nature. The fourth President, James Madison – the person after whom Madison, Wisconsin is named – was the first major figure to publicly call for an end to deforestation in America.

In the opinion of the “Founding Gardeners”, conventional yards are un-American. Jefferson and Adams, while serving as ambassadors in Europe, observed that many people there were turning away from a formal style of gardening, seeing straight paths, pruned trees, and geometrical hedges as too dictatorial. These landowners thought that a free people should embrace a more natural look in their gardens. In other words, Americans who value independence and democracy should show it by letting garden plants follow their natural life courses.

The “Founding Gardeners” believed that native plants make America great. At his estate at Mount Vernon, Washington planted trees and shrubs from all over the thirteen states, but he did not allow any plants from Europe in his gardens. And, while some Europeans disparaged America by saying that the wildlife there was inferior, Jefferson sent samples demonstrating that the New World had bigger animals and more beautiful plants.

Being a good American means having a yard that reflects the natural plant communities of America. Being a good American means letting plants have their own life, liberty, and pursuit of vegetative happiness, rather than constantly imposing our own will on them.

America invented the idea of national parks. Having nature in our yards shows that we share the longstanding American values of respecting and conserving our natural environment.

Does having a natural yard make you a bad American?

Is it like this everywhere?

As described in several recent posts, people who don’t like naturally-growing plants often try to shut down people who do by claiming that liking nature is strange and wrong. Sometimes this claim shows up in the form of the argument “It’s like this everywhere.” That is, every town insists on frequently-mowed grass and harshly-pruned trees, and anyone who doesn’t agree with this consensus on how to treat plants is just an odd person with a fringe opinion.

But it isn’t true that it’s “like this everywhere”.

In most other countries, lawns have never been a common feature of residential yards. Even in the United States, where lawns achieved a level of popularity never seen anywhere else in the world, the pendulum is now swinging the other way. Communities all over the country now encourage native plants. Increasingly, Americans towns and cities are banning lawns.

The habit of pruning shrubs into geometrical shapes – a hallmark of American gardening in the 1970s – is hardly universal either. In Sweden, gardeners do sometimes prune shrubs. But they don’t let their aesthetic preferences overrule the needs of other species. If a Swedish gardener finds a bird’s nest in a hedge, she’ll leave an oddly-shaped lump on the bush rather than harming the nest in the pursuit of a perfectly straight line.

It is also untrue that people all over the world casually destroy trees whenever they find the trees a little inconvenient. In the city of Curitiba, Brazil, property owners cannot cut down trees in their own yards unless they get a permit first – and the permit always requires homeowners to plant two new trees for every one that is destroyed. Rather than making it easy for residents to complain that they don’t like their neighbor’s native flowers, Curitiba’s leaders instead have created a dedicated phone line for people to report that someone is killing a tree without a permit.

How we treat plants is a choice, not a universal law. Compare the stories of two countries: Japan is a densely-populated island nation with few resources, yet two-thirds of it is covered with forest. In part this is due to Japan’s climate and topography, which favor rapid tree growth while making logging difficult. But it is also largely due to choices, made over centuries, to value and protect forests.

Conversely, Australia’s climate historically made it the least-forested continent. Yet, today, Australia is logging its forests at one of the highest rates in the world, losing 100 trees for every one that is replanted.

We can choose to treat plants as living beings, not as yard decorations. We can choose to treat them as members of our communities, rather than as our personal property, to be destroyed whenever we decide we don’t like them anymore. We can choose to value what plants do for us when they’re alive, instead of only calculating what they’re worth when they’re dead. And we can remember that plants are important not for what they look like, but for the vital roles they play in the ecosystem.

It’s not “like this” everywhere. And it doesn’t have to be like this where you are, either.

Is it like this everywhere?

Why do we need nature in every neighborhood?

People often toss around the words “appropriate” and “suitable” to describe where they think nature belongs. Nature is “appropriate” in city parks. Nature is “appropriate” in faraway wildlife refuges. Nature is “inappropriate” in people’s yards.

We should be asking these people why they think it’s “appropriate” to deprive others of a healthy living environment.

It’s a fact that some neighborhoods have more nature than others. In particular, affluent neighborhoods tend to have more street trees and more green space than poorer areas of the same town. Now, of course, there are lots of reasons why rich people are doing better, in all sorts of ways, than those who are less financially advantaged. There are also reasons why wealthy neighborhoods are greener: for example, those with money and status are more likely to demand that these kinds of amenities are created and preserved.

Presumably, the well-off would not be demanding more trees and parks if they thought these things were bad for them. But the more important point is that there are direct links between more greenery and being better off. Experts say that access to nature tends to move people towards healthier patterns in their exercise routines, transportation choices, and diets. Nature also reduces stress, moderates temperature, and combats air pollution. When people don’t have access to nature, they don’t have access to these important benefits either.

It’s fairly obvious that people who have nature right outside their front doors have more access to nature than people who have to travel some distance to experience healthy plants and plant communities. People who have more access to nature and all its benefits are more likely to actually receive those benefits.

The city of Madison recognized this when it said that destroying trees in some neighborhoods and not destroying trees in other neighborhoods would be unfair to the residents of the de-greened areas. It was exactly because of this unfairness that the city decided to work harder to protect trees.

In saying that it’s not fair for some people to have more trees and some people to have fewer trees, the city of Madison was expressing that trees have value. Nature has value. And so, to return to the original point – why would it be “inappropriate” to have valuable things on our property?

Nature belongs in every neighborhood – in the form of pocket parks, street trees, and natural yards – for the same reason that every neighborhood should have fire hydrants and nearby places of employment and access to public transportation. These things make our lives better. Anyone who says otherwise is not acting in your best interest.

Why do we need nature in every neighborhood?