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?

What’s new in natural yards? April 2018

New Jersey has long been known as the Garden State. Now, it’s taking further steps to live up to its nickname.

Recognizing the opportunity created by its miles upon miles of highways, New Jersey has passed a law that landscaping projects alongside highways must use only plants native to the region. The law, which was passed last spring, went into effect in the fall. It applies to new roadway projects; it doesn’t require immediate re-planting along existing highways.

The law was drafted by Republicans in the state senate and assembly. It proved wildly popular among lawmakers from both parties: of 106 senators and assemblypersons who voted on it, only two were opposed.

There are lots of reasons in favor of planting natives, but the bill’s proponents focused on just a few of them. First, following the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012, many New Jerseyans realized that plants native to the mid-Atlantic coast were better at withstanding these kinds of storms than exotic plants from around the world. As they ride out bad weather, these hardy plants go right on preventing flooding and erosion – services that non-natives stop providing when hurricanes wipe them out.

Native plants are also better at sustaining native animals. The new roadside plantings will serve as vital corridors for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife moving through the state.

Finally, the lawmakers noticed that natives are cheaper. Why? Because natives, once established, happily take care of themselves, while non-natives need constant expensive maintenance and often die anyway, leaving nothing to show for the investment.

The New Jersey lawmakers hope that more people will take up gardening with native plants. In the next post, That Blog will look at different ways native plants can be used.

What’s new in natural yards? April 2018

Who do yard ordinances punish?

As more and more people become aware of the many harms lawns cause to human health and to the environment, lawns remain common largely because of local laws – called ordinances – that make it difficult for property owners to plant anything else. Most of these laws were passed at a time when few people were interested in natural yards or other lawn alternatives, and thus plants more than a few inches tall were generally due to neglect, rather than being a deliberate choice. The laws, which were intended to ensure that properties were maintained in good condition, therefore used unmowed plants as a proxy for neglect, and banned any vegetation that was growing at its natural height.

But even in the times before the value of healthy, naturally-growing plants in residential yards was widely known, these ordinances didn’t work very well. Rather than catching and punishing property owners who were lazy or negligent, the rules disproportionately caught and punished those who were genuinely unable to mow their lawns. In 2001, the city of Palmdale, California, reviewed the likely impact of a proposed lawn ordinance, and concluded that 80% of those who would find themselves in immediate violation were either elderly or poor. (The city passed that ordinance anyway.)

Lawn ordinances also regularly catch and punish those who are most knowledgeable about how to establish a natural yard, and why natural yards are good choices for residential landscaping. In 1976, the lawn ordinance in New Berlin, Wisconsin, was thrown out after the city incorrectly accused a wildlife biologist of not mowing his lawn. (He was planting a prairie restoration.) In Philadelphia, a landscape architect who gets paid to install natural landscaping in city parks around the country was fined for having natural landscaping in her own yard. And a woman in Oak Park, Michigan, was threatened with three months of jail time for planting a front-yard vegetable garden to provide healthy, affordable food for her six children.

Articles published in law journals have argued that even if a yard is genuinely neglected, it is less harmful to public health and safety than an intensively-maintained lawn. While the current laws may have been passed with the best of intentions based on what was known at the time, we now have a different understanding of how we should manage our yards to take good care of our properties and our communities.

Who do yard ordinances punish?

What is a greywater system?

In plumbing terms, there are three kinds of water. White water is the water that comes in through your faucet and is safe for drinking. Black water is the water that goes out through your toilet, and isn’t safe for anything. And grey water is the water that goes down your drains after being used to wash your dishes, your clothes, or yourself. While you shouldn’t drink it, it’s still good for many other purposes.

For example, some buildings route the greywater that goes down the bathroom sink into the toilet tank. Then, the toilet can be flushed with water that was already used for washing hands, instead of with clean, drinkable water.

Similarly, water that’s been cycled through the dishwasher or washing machine can be used to water plants. Some people have plumbed their houses to drain this water into a rain garden or similar system. The water then gets filtered by the plants, instead of being filtered by a municipal system on the taxpayer’s dime.

Greywater systems are a great way to use resources more efficiently, conserving water and saving money. Unfortunately, they are not legal in many cities, because health departments worry that the slightly-dirty water could transmit disease if drained into yards instead of into pipes.

These fears are largely unfounded. If a greywater system is set up properly, and care is taken to not put toxic soaps or other harmful substances into the system, then recycling greywater is safe for people and the environment.

As water shortages become more severe, greywater systems are likely to become legal in more places. Citizens can ask their elected officials to not delay legalizing this simple way of using resources more wisely.

What is a greywater system?

What’s new in natural yards? May 2017

Two weeks ago, the City of Madison made a change to how it will handle emerald ash borer (EAB).

Previously, the City had decided that it would not give any ash trees that were already unhealthy a treatment to protect them from EAB. What the City did not make clear to residents was that any tree located under a power line would be considered unhealthy, regardless of what condition it was actually in.

In thinking about the impact that this decision would have, the City realized that older neighborhoods in Madison, which have overhead power lines, stood to lose a lot of trees, while newer neighborhoods, in which the lines are underground, would be able to keep their trees. Recognizing the immense value of trees to nearby residents – due to trees’ ability to clean the air, reduce flooding, moderate temperatures, increase property values, and so on – the City concluded that it would not be fair for some neighborhoods to lose a lot of trees while others are able to keep their trees.

Based on this conclusion, Madison’s Common Council voted that ash trees under power lines should be treated to protect them from EAB, provided that they meet the City’s other requirements for treatment.

The full text of the resolution can be read here.

What’s new in natural yards? May 2017

What’s new in natural yards? February 2017 #2

For the first time since 1978, Madison has updated its ordinances related to “natural lawns”, which will now be called “natural landscapes”.

The new ordinance can be summarized as follows:

  1. Grass in residential yards may not exceed eight inches in height.
  2. Grass in residential yards may exceed eight inches in height, if the property owner obtains a permit.
  3. Grass in residential yards may exceed eight inches in height without a permit, if the area containing the tall grass only occupies a certain limited percentage of the yard, and if this area is a certain distance from the property lines, and if the tall grass is a species found on a brief list included in the ordinance.

The ordinance can be read here.

City officials hope that this will make it easier to have a natural yard in Madison, and plan to continue working on ways to encourage gardening practices that are friendly to pollinators and the environment.

What’s new in natural yards? February 2017 #2

Where does yard waste go?

In the past, yard waste went to landfills, just like other types of waste produced around the home. In 1993, Wisconsin passed a law making it illegal to dispose of yard waste in landfills.

Unlike some other types of household waste, yard waste is organic: that is, it is biodegradable. However, waste does not decompose in landfills. This is because in landfills, waste is packed in tightly, preventing air from circulating. Without air, the organisms that normally would break down the waste are unable to survive and do their jobs.

Some organisms can survive these conditions. Though these organisms are able to break down waste, they do so through a process that produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Sending organic waste to a place where it either does not decompose, or decomposes in a way that contributes to climate change, is not a good practice. In addition, before the 1993 law went into effect, up to 20% of the landfill-bound waste stream was organic yard waste. That just takes up a lot of space!

A better way to deal with yard waste is to let it decompose in a way that produces healthy soil, instead of greenhouse gases. Currently, Madison collects yard waste and takes it to be composted centrally. This collection process, however, comes with its own harms. First, yard waste awaiting collection sits on or near the street, where nutrients can leak out of it and pollute our lakes. Second, collection is done using large trucks, which burn fossil fuels and make a lot of noise.

The need for collection of yard waste can be reduced if homeowners compost their own waste in a corner of their yard. In addition, yard waste itself can be reduced by eliminating unnecessary cutting of plants.

Where does yard waste go?