Category Archives: Ramblings

Aquaponics and the Meaning of Life

With the first Winter rains now falling in the Western Cape of South Africa and the grapevines almost bare of their Summer plumage, ones thoughts turn to more philosophical directions. I enjoy Winter in the Cape. It offers a time for introspection; re-visiting the successes and failures of the previous growing season and planning for what lies ahead.

Aquaponics (AP) really is a scale model of the workings of the earth and provides a great platform to explain how everything hangs together. I have taken many school groups through my various AP builds over the years and I have found it extremely heartening to see the “light-bulb” moment as a child suddenly sees the point of it all. When he/she realizes that every system (whether organic or mechanical) works exactly the same and that it is infinitely scalable, the impact is huge.

Nature has no waste. Every output from one system is an input for another. Our artificially created, urban living areas “appear” to generate massive waste and seem, on the face of it, to be unbalanced, but in reality nature mops up the waste over time and uses it as an input in another system. What we must realize is that it doesn’t all happen immediately and it may be many, many years before the next system even needs the output from the earlier system.

There are many examples of this. Gold mining is one. The goldfields of South Africa and other gold producing countries are littered with “mine dumps”. These discarded mountains of earth are the by-product of the mining and extraction process. At the time, the cost and availability of technology and the price of gold didn’t make it feasible to process these dumps any further. Now, many years later, it provides a lucrative new source of gold which is extracted from these “dumps”.

Landfills are another example. I predict that in the future these hidden dumps of a civilizations waste will power cities with easily-extractable methane and the solid matter recycled in a multitude of ways.

There is no waste in the long-term.

AP has often been described as a “closed-loop” system; a perpetual motion, organic machine that, once in balance, will sustain itself indefinitely.  In theory this is true, but in practice it is not very long before some or other input is required, the most obvious being food for the fish. Another is an AP systems rapid depletion of iron and other trace elements needed in only small doses, but without which, the system comes crashing down.

The secret of AP and Life itself, is thus BALANCE. Balance is often not apparent in a snapshot, but if you look at the system, in whatever form, over a period of time, it seems to smooth out and settle into a balanced state.

Our lives, in a seemingly meaningless, headlong rush to the grave, also seem out of balance, but below the surface of this raging river is a calm, balanced, REASON for it all.  Sometimes we just have to step back, lift our eyes from our iPhones and other distracting gadgets and realize that this is all part of a bigger plan.

We are just so bogged down by detail and noise and confusion. To truly appreciate the meaning of it all, maybe we should just go out into our gardens and truly OBSERVE the miracle of nature, be it only in a tiny patch of green that we call our own.

Henry David Thoreau, the finest American philosopher who ever lived, said, “Our life is frittered away by detail.

Get out there and appreciate it.





Bitcoins – the missing link?

A concept that has intrigued me for many years, is a lifestyle combining the simplest of permaculture living with the absolute “bleeding” edge of technology. An eco-village (real or virtual) where we grow our own food, generate our own power and educate our children, free from the pressures and interference of big governments and rampant consumerism.

Now its easy to give up the day job, sell the house and cars and buy a piece of land in the country, but where will the money come from to feed, clothe, educate and protect your family? How will you afford healthcare? Many folk like me, with some web-based income, will find it easier to adapt, but what we cannot do without, is high speed Internet connectivity and the ongoing means to sell our wares online.

Once you have an online business up and running, the reality of payment options rears its head. I have fiddled with PayPal, credit cards and direct deposits over the years but the manual interventions required at almost every step makes the income earned not worth all the admininstration involved.

I started researching online virtual currencies a few months ago with a view to adapting my business model to a wholly online experience. With the recent financial upheavals in Europe I realised that governments and banks could not be trusted with our money and although online currencies where fraught with growth pains, they offer a welcome break from the traditional financial model.

Over the next few months I am going to re-visit my dreams of an eco-village, start another web business helping folk earn an income online and move all my payment options to virtual currencies, namely Bitcoin.

My ebooks book can now be paid for with Bitcoins.

Aquaponics – The Synaptoman way

If you’d like to trade in virtual currencies, including Bitcoins and SLL (Second Life Lindens) pop over to  VirWoX

To buy or sell Bitcoins, go to Mt.Gox and open an account.

Enough for now.


The merits of Animal Husbandry

Animal Husbandry is defined as, ” The branch of agriculture concerned with the care and breeding of domestic animals such as cattle, hogs, sheep, and horses.”  I am sure that it could quite easily be applied to the breeding of fish and in my case, specifically Tilapia.

An interesting definition of Aquaculture on the other hand can be found over at the State of Maine, Department of Marine Resources.  They end their definition with this sentence, “In order to qualify as aquaculture a project must involve affirmative action by the lessee to improve the growth rate or quality of the marine organism.”

Now for my South African readers this reference to “affirmative action” does not mean our quaint local custom of firing perfectly competent white workers and replacing them with random (or politically connected) appointees solely on the basis of their skin colour to earn BEE points, but rather the direct intervention of the aquaculturists to protect, nurture and grow the fish under his care.  This intervention takes the form of feeding, heating/cooling, treating disease and ensuring water quality and filtration.

Another really important form of “affirmative action”  takes place during the breeding process.  Like many other animals, fish do not make particularly good parents.  Or at least they don’t appear to.  It is difficult to judge the actions of  a fish living in a totally artificial environment, so I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.  My experience however, over a five-year period actively breeding Tilapia is that I can achieve survival rates thousands of times more successful than the parents, if left to their own devices.

The intervention in the breeding process of Tilapia entails either stripping eggs from the mouths of the females and then hatching them in an incubator or allowing the female to hatch the eggs and then removing the fry immediately they are free-swimming.  Over the years I have tended towards the latter approach because despite the yield being marginally lower, the effort and cost entailed is substantially less.

Which brings me back to Animal Husbandry and the merits (or demerits) thereof.  Two weekends ago, while cleaning the Tilapia tanks in my home AP system, I had cause to really question the logic behind saving the life of a baby fish when, if no intervention was made, it would have most certainly been eaten by its parents.

To perform my annual “deep clean” of my tanks, I move all the brood fish into one tank, drain the other and then spend 3-4 hours scrubbing the sides and bottom of the tank until it is as clean as new.  Moving brood fish in the middle of breeding season is sure to result in thousands of coughed up fry, egg-sac fry and unhatched eggs.  We have had a particularly good breeding season so I was prepared to make this sacrifice and we save as many of these as we can while the clean takes place.  Once this tank is cleaned, the tank is filled, the fish are all moved to the clean tank and the process is repeated in tank #2.  More eggs and fry are spat out and we get busy with the net again.

I have always told my clients that Tilapia, being vegetarian, are not particularly interested in eating their young.  I have seen a female accidentally “swallow” her entire brood when stressed, but I cannot say that I had seen them actively eat their young.  That was until now.

While busy in the second tank, I peeped over the rim and looked into the clean tank.  A school of a couple of hundred Tilapia fry were swimming around the edge.  The net was nowhere near at hand so I chose just to observe.  A large male of about 800g slowly swam up to the school and gently opened his mouth and “sucked” in about 50 at a time.  He swallowed and then repeated the procedure until there was only about 10 little fish frantically darting out of his reach.  These I rescued later and moved to the fry tank.

Which got me thinking.  These rescued fish were faster and more alert than their eaten siblings.  Had I unwittingly stumbled on a “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection” exercise in progress.  By practising Animal Husbandry are we not saving fish and their inferior attributes that would not have stood a chance in nature?  And it’s not just fish.  By feeding, protecting and healing animals,  are we not breeding  progressively weaker and inferior animals? 

It is easy to criticise these “dumb fish” for eating their young, but are they not in fact ensuring that only the fittest, strongest and quickest babies make the next generation and in turn stand a better chance against real predators in nature?

I felt rather humbled by this observation.



FOR SALE – A Suburban Homestead

For those of you who have followed my trials and tribulations in aquaponics and sustainable living in general over the years, you will probably have noticed that most of my projects have taken place at my home in Knysna, South Africa.

This home is now for sale as I am pursuing the next chapter of my adventure further West in Paarl.

The house boasts panoramic views over the Knysna Estuary and is situated high on the hill in Upper Old Place. I specifically chose the house originally because of the elevation of the land and painstakingly terraced the property to best use gravity to my advantage. If my memory serves me correctly, the erf size is over 1200sq/m, the house itself is about 300sq/m and consists of;

4 Bedrooms (2 en-suite)
A 3rd Bathroom.
Guest Toilet.
Open Plan Kitchen/Livingroom
Home Office
Laundry (where I also brew mead)
An enclosed deck.
Pizza Oven.
Double Garage (one half converted to a maids room)
A separate one-bedroomed cottage

Then the grounds;

Swimming pool and pool deck.
6m x 3m greenhouse tunnel.
2 x Fish ponds.
Superb Tilapia brood stock producing 2000 fingerlings a week in season.
Numerous pumps, plumbing and filters.
18 Aquaponic growbeds.
Water storage of another 30 000L. including a 20 000L “Koi” pond.
Extensive soil-based vegetable and herb gardens.
Fruit and olive trees.
etc. etc. etc.

It’s a large, rambling urban homestead, ideal for a large extended family who can enjoy it as much as we have. It’s not a spick and span showhouse, but more of a comfortable place that you and your family can call home.

My price is R2.5 million ($362k) and as we are relocating lock-stock-and-smoking barrel, I’ll throw in our family restaurant (The Old Gaol Restaurant, Knysna) at no cost if we find a willing buyer at this price. The restaurant is a great little investment and will easily pay your grocery bills and also provide a small income. With some innovative “hands-on”  management this could be a little gold mine.

I would really like this property to go to someone who will appreciate the “bigger picture” of building a sustainable, suburban homestead.  There are so many more things that I would have liked to have incorporated but, hey, I need to move on.  Contact me directly at aquaculture (at) (replace the at with @) and let’s chat.

Enough for now


The Clay Oven – The Proof of the Pudding

Well the oven looks good, it’s dimensions are correct, it seems to fire OK and hold it’s heat. But does it work? Well today we set out to prove (or disprove) a theory that you can make an oven out of clay from your own garden.

Step One was to start a fire. We built it up about two hours before the cooking and slowly got the clay up to a decent temperature. Then we made the pizza bases (12 in all).


Everyone then built their own pizzas using tomato, cheeses, spinach, feta cheese, salami, onions, mushrooms, bacon, ham, spicy chicken and numerous other delicious toppings.

Then they were popped into the now scorching hot oven using a hastily made pizza paddle (made out of a recycled road sign !!) This is what the first pizzas looked like in the oven.


Here is a shot of my two “assistant chefs” hard at work.


And here is what the first pizzas looked like on the plate.


After the last pizzas were cooked I popped some bread rolls in and closed the door to see how it baked.


The overall verdict was a big thumbs up. This is certainly a great way to spend a long lazy Sunday with family, good friends and a good few glasses of red wine.



The Clay Oven – Update #7

With the insulating layer completed, I proceeded to fire the oven every evening.  As the inner layer gets harder, I can build bigger fires and raise the inside temperatures.  The insulating layer fired well and the temperature caused the straw in the clay to almost char and we could smell it quiet distinctly.  Also you could see the burnt straw on the surface of the clay so it must have got very hot.  Some minor cracks developed (probably because I dried it so quickly), but these I patched and then proceeded to the final (finishing) layer.

This is a clay/sand mix the same as the inner layer but is only about 30-40mm thick and is really just to finish off the oven nicely.  You build it identically to the other layers and work your way around and around placing the mix, pushing down, pushing in and repeating.  Here is what it looked like.  Note the insulating layer showing from underneath.


As you can see the oven now reaches almost to the end of the frame.  The walls are now over 150mm thick and this should allow me to achieve some impressive inside temperatures.

I fired it once again and this time a lot of cracks developed because this final layer is thinner and also I worked in gale force winds which dried it out far too quickly.  I decided to plaster the floor of the oven with the clay/sand mix as the brick paving floor wasn’t smooth enough to get pizzas in and out.

The rustic door was completed and the door frame plastered so that the door sits snugly in the frame.  The last thing to do was to put my signature (hand print) above the door and voila, the oven was finished.  The hand print is a pagan touch and apparently man’s first signature.  Hand prints were put over traditional oven doors to protect against the “evil eye” and bless the food that was to be prepared.   Well here is the completed oven.


My next post will describe the delicious pizzas that will be made in the oven on Sunday evening and then from next week, it’ll be back to Aquaponics.