About a Betta

July 2, 2014 at 4:36 pm

What you see here is a betta, an inexpensive, hardy Siamese fighting fish living in a plastic tank in my living room. I’m not a huge fan of the situation, although I do enjoy Thai food. I dislike keeping living animals in enclosed spaces. But this betta serves a larger purpose, and the local pet store fish expert assures me that he is happy where he is, in a Back to the Roots AquaFarm.

Bathed under an LED grow light, wheatgrass thrives atop an AquaFarm.

Bathed under an LED grow light, wheat grass thrives atop an AquaFarm.

This betta (whom I have yet to name because I did not believe he would survive his first week) is, like many captive fish, swimming in a sea of his own waste. However, a small pump pulls the water up into a plastic growing tray. There, the inch-deep water is a bath of ammonia-rich fish poop. The filthy water level rises and then spills over a raised hole in the tray to return to the tank from which it originated.

Normally, living in a tank of increasingly ammonia-filled water would kill a fish. This is why fish owners either continuously filter or replace the water. But this betta (whom I should really name at some point) is luckier than his brethren because this is an aquaponic tank.

Perched in slotted cups above the growing tray are wheat grass plants. Instead of resting in soil, their roots weave among specialized rocks (Growstones, if you will). These rocks were inoculated with at least two types of bacteria. One turns the ammonia into nitrites and the other turns the nitrites to nitrates (If I have that reversed, it doesn’t really matter to anyone except the wheat seeds). You see, the plant roots love them some nitrates and gobble them up out of the water. Thus is the ammonia filtered from the water and the betta (Bobby? Bart? Catherine Zeta?) lives another day to swim back and forth repeatedly all. day. long. As a native of the tropics, he enjoys warm water. As a family with an air conditioner too small to adequately cool our house, we offer him ideal living conditions.

I was skeptical of the setup at first, even though I’d requested the tank as a Father’s Day gift. So much can go wrong when growing plants, let alone plants, bacteria AND a fish. Mind you, I already successfully grew a batch of mushrooms with the Back to the Roots Mushroom Farm, so I might have shown a little more faith. But the online video, the written instructions and the online instructions slightly disagreed with one another and differed from the contents of the kit I received.

Nonetheless, the wheat seeds germinated in just a few days and within two weeks was out of control. Wheat grass is really healthy in the sense that it’s filled with vitamins and not particularly tasty. Our dog, Tesla, ate a few blades at first, but let the others drop to the floor. I tried to eat it raw and gave up quickly. A co-worker has taken home a few dime bags of grass to his juicing wife and she claims to have enjoyed it. Wheat grass requires a specialized device to liquefy it properly, or you can kick it old school with mortar and pestle.

As a local crop, though, the grass doesn’t care about direct sunlight. I placed the tank as far from a window as possible to avoid encouraging algae. The basil seeds, on the other hand, desperately need sunlight and are failing without it.

So I arranged my LED grow light (which formerly failed to keep some artichoke seedlings alive over the winter) over the growing tray and while the grass grew even more quickly, the basil still failed. Putting the assembly in direct southern sunlight would no doubt help, but the ensuing algae in the water would require me to clean the tank with chemicals. Or I could enjoy the distinction of successfully growing yet another type of local flora, as every lazy swimming pool owner is familiar with. By the way, the LED relies heavily on red and blue light, hence the purpleness of the photography.

In any case, the tank is filthy enough as it is because, never having husbanded a fish before, I gave the betta (my younger son thinks we should call him Poops McGee because he poops a lot. The fish, I mean.) way too much food. The excess food sank, disintegrated in the water, and created a brownish murk that took more than a week to clear itself. On top of that, several wheat seeds fell through the slots in the growing cups and attached to the gravel at the bottom of the tank where they grew to look like seaweed. Mr. Fish loves having his own garden and hides himself behind the blades of grass and the beards of debris that has grown on them, wafting gently in the current of the pumped water.

As far as the product goes, the AquaFarm has been educational and mostly fun. The pump that comes with it is somewhat weak and keeps conking out. Fish sometimes hangs out by the pump waiting for it to turn itself back on and flush his water away. Possibly the pump is getting clogged by the disintegrated food debris.

We have more than all the wheat grass we can eat (because none of us eat it). I’m not a big fan of wheat grass as a crop, although it has done a good job of keeping my swimming vertebrae prisoner alive. Its roots grew quickly and thickly. The fantastic customer support staff at Back to the Roots shot down my idea to grow eggplant because I need something with a small and forgiving root structure. This means I’m pretty much sticking with herbs that don’t need too much sunlight or grow too tall.

On the plus side, the tank has been a good conversation starter and costs little to maintain (for under $5 I bought a years’ supply of fish food). A proper aquaponic system (tilapia and lettuce, anyone?) can set you back well over a grand and take up several square yards of space. Building your own can be a fun do-it-yourself project, but the AquaFarm was just over $50, and worth the risk. I’ll have to spend a few bucks to buy more seeds and then, of course, there’s the cost of powering an inch-wide pump and an LED. And the tank and its supporting table occupy a corner of the room that we were struggling to decorate. No doubt hanging a large painting of a fish would have cost us much more than the tank did