Lining the tanks

Volunteers Gary Jenkins, left, and Curt Millington, right, and microbiologist Dave Love, center, of The Johns Hopkins Center for a Liveable Future, are lining the holding tank for fish at an aquaponics facility under construction in a greenhouse at Cylburn Arboretum. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / December 19, 2011)

He started out with a hydroponics garden a few years back, he recalled, then tried his hand a couple of years ago with an indoor aquaponics operation — in their basement bedroom — after a friend turned him onto it.

Leah Lazar, 28, said she enjoyed the soothing sounds of the fish tank in their bedroom, decorated with two-foot tomato plants and other greens.

"It was also nice when I'm cooking to go and get some chives from in there," she said.

Lazar decided this year to scale up and moved his aquaponics operation to the backyard in the spring, raising his fish at first in an in-ground pond. He said his neighbors weren't wild at first about how he was transforming his backyard, so he's worked to win them over with some homemade jam. And he said he's entertained Baltimore County code inspectors twice, so far with no repercussions.

Once cold weather hit, though, Lazar said he realized he needed to enclose his entire operation. Tilapia are tropical fish and will start dying if water temperatures dip to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. His turned belly up one frigid day recently, though many revived once rescued and moved indoors.

He figured he's spent perhaps $3,000 on a 20-by-20-foot hoop greenhouse, six 55-gallon plastic drums for raising his fish, and a dump-truck load of pea gravel for his six garden beds made from used, cut-up plastic bulk containers. A few kale plants, shallots, spices and Bibb lettuce remain, but a new crop of radishes is starting to peek up through the gravel.

Before he can finally reinstall the tilapia, though, Lazar has to complete construction of a "rocket mass heater," a special type of wood-burning brick fireplace, to keep the water warm enough. Once everything's finished and fine-tuned, Lazar said, he hopes to be able to harvest 100 full-sized tilapia a year from his operation, and plenty of greens.

"It doesn't look like much, but it works," he said, as water trickled from hoses into each of the big garden beds. "I want to show that anybody can do it."

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