ODESSA — Michele Holzberger long wanted to grow her own food, but until her family found aquaponics, gardening wasn't her strong suit.
"The bugs would get to the tomatoes, and the lettuce didn't seem to thrive," said Michele, 48. "I never was a successful vegetable gardener."
Now, she and her husband own a business based on gardening: the Urban Food Forest, which manufactures, installs and maintains aquaponics systems.
At a seminar the Holzbergers attended five years ago, they first learned about aquaponics, "the combination of hydroponics — which is soilless growing — and aquaculture, which is raising fish," said Michele's husband, Dustin Holzberger, 45. The method uses tanks to raise fish, and water from the tanks circulates and supports beds where plants grow.
"Within days (after the seminar), my husband had plumbing hooked up at the house, and we all jumped in," Michele said. The family's aquaponics system — which holds about 1,500 gallons of water and can grow about 1,000 plants and raise 300 fish at a time — drew attention to their home in Lutz. Visitors wanted systems for their own yards.
So two years ago, the Holzbergers started the Urban Food Forest, to make and sell systems and teach others how to use them.
Aquaponics uses less water than traditional gardening, Dustin said, and requires a gardener to avoid pesticides, which can hurt or kill the fish. Aquaponics also means "no tilling, no watering, no weeding," he said.
"Basically, we took all the work out of gardening," said Colin Holzberger, 17, who runs the business with his parents. A system does require "feeding the fish once or twice a day, topping off your water once a week, checking your water chemistry and working with the plants and pests as needed."
Leafy greens like romaine, kale and Swiss chard grow especially well, Michele said. She has grown European burpless cucumbers, too, and has started growing pineapples. The fish to use beneath plants depends on a grower's needs, Dustin said.
"If they want to look at them and give them names, we steer them toward koi," he said. "Others will raise tilapia or catfish because they want to eat them."
Aquaponics tanks can also be used to raise red claw crayfish, which the Holzbergers hope to sell to seafood markets, Colin said.
So far, the business has sold about 25 systems — small ones they could ship out of state and systems of all sizes throughout Florida, including to elementary schools.
"The systems are neat because young children can see the roots dangling in the water," Michele said. "We can teach children that they can grow food themselves."
For information about the Urban Food Forest, call (813) 283-7907 or visit theurbanfoodforest.com online.
Contact Arleen Spenceley at [email protected] or (727) 869-6235. Follow @ArleenSpenceley.