Growing interest in sustainability and horticulture

Ambler Aquaponics started in 2013 and is now expanding its work.

Although Michael Bavas says his tilapia would taste delicious in Temple’s cafeterias, they are not on the menu. Instead, they’re used in an aquaponics program he founded in 2013 at the Aquaponics Research Lab at Temple Ambler.

Aquaponics is a gardening practice similar to hydroponics, which is gardening without soil that flushes water and fertilizers through the roots. An aquaponics garden flushes water from a fish pond through the roots of the plants, taking a second step toward sustainability. The plants filter the water while the fish provide nutrients to the plants.

Last September, the horticulture program accredited an aquaponics course called “Introduction to Aquaponics,” taught by adjunct professor Tom Bilotta at Ambler during the fall. There is also a non-credit online course of the same title.

Bavas, a senior technical support specialist, was interested in starting an aquaponics garden for Ambler’s horticulture program after he learned what it entailed.

“I’ve always had interest in the environment and I used to garden—that’s how I found out about aquaponics,” Bavas said. “One day I asked the president of the campus if I could use the basement, where the garden is located. He told me he didn’t have a problem with it.”

The garden grows tomatoes, okra, oregano and basil, while the stock tanks hold two species of tilapia: blue Nile and Mozambique. Tilapia are known for easy breeding and reproduce multiple times per year, which makes them ideal for aquaponics gardening.

“We constantly are donating [extra tilapia] to help start up other gardens,” Bavas said.

The new course attracted a few Montgomery County Community College transfer students, along with a few veterans. Navy veteran Kieran Quinn currently studies in a Temple dual admissions program at MCCC and plans on transferring to Ambler in the fall to study in the program.

“I volunteered with Anne Brennan [horticulture supervisor] in the Arboretum a few times this summer and took the noncredit aquaponics course,” Quinn said. “That convinced me to seek a career in aquaponics and sustainable food systems. Since late August, I have volunteered in the aquaponics lab at least twice a week.”

The program is looking into several different expansions.

“We are currently expanding the lab to test different set ups, such as a dual root zone system,” said Connor Fleming, president of the Aquaponics Club at Ambler. “It’s a way to incorporate nutrients needed for fruiting plants, such as cucumbers and tomatoes, that are toxic to the fish without actually harming them.”

Bavas said they are also working on introducing other aquatic species like prawn, a type of shrimp.

In addition to a greenhouse, the program is looking for programming and engineering majors to help expand by developing different nutrient-measuring tools that can benefit the setup. They are also looking for education majors to give tours to high schools and other education programs visiting the facilities.

“The program had been visited by over 200 high school students the past month,” Bavas said. “Now their classes are talking about starting their own gardens.”

Alexander Casper can be reached at

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