Taipei Aquaponics: Rooftop Urban Agriculture

Chillaxia Aquaponic bones 

Taipei is a pretty green place. Figuratively, literally the mid-century ugly style Japanese buildings are softened by lush greenery sprouting in and around every crevice and surface. Its common to see patches of dirt cultivated into vegetable gardens. Until recently there was small farm across the street from Taipei 101 the world's second largest building in the smack center of Taipei's commercial area.

Recently I've been seeking the stories behind these gardens. I don't have a space to garden, but I thought I'd draw some inspiration from what is happening and share it for everyone to see. Facebook has been a remarkable resource in Taipei for locating groups. A post in Green Taiwan led me to learn about a woman named Tammy Turner with permaculture garden in Xindian, a large Aquaponic garden called Avata, and a gentleman named John building his own aquaponic system on his rooftop dubbed Chillaxia. I immediately requested a tour, and he happily agreed.

An into a world of puppets! These are some of the pieces you might see at the Dream Parade. 

Dream community is just as its name suggests. 

A friend, Reider, and I set out to an area just east of DongHu MRT. We ended up getting more than just a garden. Chillaxia is on top of one of the Dream Community development's rooftops. This is no ordinary place. A development that grew out of a virtuoso pig farmer's vision of community supporting a puppet workshop, theater, specialty travel restaurant, samaba drum classes, sculpture studio, glass blowing facility and more all set within a set of several modern and comfortable residential buildings. The Dream Community may be most well know for its Dream parade once a year, where it brings Carnival style floats, costumes, and fun to unsuspecting people of Taipei. And of course now its own citizens are introducing an aquaponic garden.

These circumstances are pretty special, and they answered my first question, "What kind of approval did you need to set up a rooftop garden?" If you are an urban gardener you are dealing with limited real estate, borrowed spaces, city ordinances, and the general transient nature of people living in cities. The Dream Community is a easy-going place that encourages creativity. John told me that in fact a goat used to live on this specific spot. Once the goat had died he was free to set up as he pleased using the old goat shed as materials to hold his garden.

My next question was. "Where do you find materials to build an aquaponic or hydroponic garden?" The answer (my favorite answer to any problem really) is to re-use old materials. His split blue bins are reclaimed from commercial sources. The wood platforms used to be a goat shed. Split bamboo from a neighboring garden was bent to structure his hoop houses. Tools? Well he does live over a puppet and art workshop. Kuddos to John for making the most of his space and resources. Other materials such as tubing can be pretty easily attained at a home store. There was some plastic sheeting to cover the hoop house that was made specifically for that purpose. Clay balls used to anchor the plants and their roots was ordered from New Zealand. John told me that he had used contacts made from the Avata garden to source these specialized materials.

Let's take a look at his system. Its still being built (I'll visit again to post an update when he has things growing) so use your imagination to see the lush greens and herbs, fat squashes and pumpkins growing along side the happy tilapia that will live in his aquaponic system. This is a 3-part system 1) growing beds which are the blue split barrels. These will be filled with water from the 1000 liter tilapia tank. The grey pipe running horizontally along the right side of the system carries this water. The grey vertical tubes in the back of the blue barrels  the blue barrels are autosiphons. They automatically drain and fill the growbeds. As the growbeds are drained, oxygen can get to the roots. And then as the growbed fills again, the roots get exposed to the nitrate-rich water. The plants which will be held in place by clay balls that not only prevent roots from drowning but are a place for good bacteria to breed. 

Clay balls to anchor plant beds and cultivate bacteria

The black tub on the left below is the tilapia tank. The Tilapias' diet will be leftover vegetable scraps, commercial fish food, and black soldier fly larvae from a larvae farm that is also going to be built on this rooftop. Their waste (ammonia) is converted to nitrite by one kind of bacteria, and then converted to nitrate by another kind of bacteria. The nitrate is fertilizer for the plants, and the fish can reuse the water after the plants have removed the nitrate from it. Its a closed symbiotic system! Variables can cause things to go wrong but ultimately its extremely sustainable way to feed a family or small community. The Chillaxia system is only beginning. To succeed John will have to tend to all three living parts (plants, bacteria, and fish) but after its running successfully he told me that he can tripple his grow beds. If everything goes well he will not need to contribute any extra nutrients to his system. In some cases, iron chelate is added to the system as an aquaponic system can become iron deficient. I look forward to seeing and hopefully tasting his results. 

Black 1000 L tub will house tilapia.

Cardiovascular organ of the system, a pump.

Above you can see the heart of the system a pump. Some systems use solar panels for energy. The convience to urban gardening is that are likely to have an easily accessable power sources. Chillaxia has outlets only feet away!

What luck an outlet on the roof. 

Not ready to start your own full system, or just not sure where you'll be for the next 3 years? The Avata garden sells a DIY starter kit using a regular storage bin it can easily live on any balcony. In Taipei we all have balconies on every floor, often on multiple sides of our buildings. The utility end of our apartment lives, where residents dry clothes, store cleaning materials, keep your shoes, and rain coats, and whatever else you don't bring inside. Here you can see John's successful system which is growing an enormous mint plant.

 Ryder ponders Donghu next to home-sized aquaponic system. Not mint plant is close to 3 feet tall and being supported. 

Pump and tank for John's DIY home sized system. 

You can only sort of see one of his koi fish. He had 3 of different colors. With slightly different materials this system could make very attractive decoration for your home. 

I'm very motivated to visit more of Taiwan's gardening projects. Little and big gardens are happening everywhere here. Its currently November so I may take a break from this pursuit hoping Spring will have more to offer. 

-- updated on 2013/11/13: thanks to John for edits. 


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