TL;DR: To make maintaining and changing things in an AutoMicroFarm easier and more convenient, we’ve come up with a concept of inserts. We need your suggestions on how to best prototype and manufacture them. We would love to hear from you!
Although aquaponic systems are very easy to use to compared to gardening, one of the few things we found to be the really inconvenient from our barrel-ponics prototype is maintaining the vegetable bed (or containers). For example, tomato plants have very extensive root systems that tend to dominate the media bed, and start growing into the siphon/outlet area (something we found out first-hand). Also, we’re sure many of the first AutoMicroFarm customers will want to experiment with different setups and conditions. For this reason, we want to make sure that our aquaponics systems are as easy to use, maintain, re-configure and change as possible.
The solution that we’ve come up with both on our own, and in discussion with other aquaponics experts, is to use inserts. Think planting baskets used with aquatic plants (Figure 1 below), but uniquely suited for an aquaponic system.
Figure 2 below depicts the side view of the inserts, each consisting of a support structure and a space for the media. We have examples of very little media, on the left; progressively less media space in the middle; and where all of the space is taken by the media, on the right (the example on the right is functionally identical to the planting basket above, but bigger). Of course, more space configurations are possible. In all cases, the insert walls will have holes to let the roots grow out of the media into the open space; the holes will be small enough to prevent the media from falling out. Also, the tops of the containers will touch to prevent light from reaching the plant roots, which causes undesirable changes in most plants.
The bottom half of Figure 2 above shows the same three inserts in a container, with the middle inserts taken out. Each insert will have a support structure strong enough to hold the media and the plants, and handles (not shown in the figures above). We’re in the process of designing these inserts. The overall dimensions will tentatively be 12” H x 16” W x 16” L (30cm H x 40cm W x 40cm L). We have also considered smaller widths and lengths, including 12” (30cm) and 8” (20cm). Once we start with dwarf/pseudo-bonsai fruit trees, we may also have bigger inserts than 16”x16”. All these design considerations will be tested and iterated on to find out what works best.
We think there is real value added by incorporating inserts in AutoMicroFarm systems, instead of just filling the container full of media—and not just for the tinkerers. By using inserts in our next product, we will be able to do maintenance on the root system easily by being able to take out an insert and get to the bottom of the root system, doing any trimming if needed. Also, the inherent compartmentalization of each insert will also allow for quick re-planting of new vegetables, fruits and herbs in isolation from the rest of the vegetable bed for testing the best combinations of companion plants. Another benefit of the inserts that we recently realized is the ability to grow root vegetables, easily seeing how the root is doing, and harvesting it if needed.
In the next post on the topic of inserts, we’ll share our work on designing and researching manufacturing options for the inserts and the vegetable bed, and the timeline for doing so.
For now, we have several requests: please suggest any improvements you can think of from the stand-point of convenience and ease of use. If you have aquaponic systems and have any concerns, let us know. Also, if you have experience manufacturing these sorts of things, please give us suggestions on how we can best prototype and manufacture these inserts. We would love to hear from you and collaborate with you on making AutoMicroFarm systems the world’s best aquaponic systems!