When Margo Ameera and her fiancé, Charles Labedz, first met five years ago, they discussed their dreams for the future. What they learned was that they had a common interest — the desire to grow their own clean food.
So in 2010, the self-proclaimed foodies who love dining on local fare began to envision their own greenhouse and the ability to grow fresh, clean and affordable foods they could feel good about eating. Two years later they began work on the Sage Garden, an aquaponics garden housed inside of a geodesic dome.
“We wanted to have fresh foods in our daily diet, which is expensive if you rely on grocers, and even then you don’t know where your food is from or how it has been grown,” Ameera says.
With help from Ameera’s sons, Gavin Jakobi, 19, and Sage Jakobi, 8, Ameera and Labedz worked through the summer of 2012 — and through a heat wave — to complete the dome in August 2012. They invested $2,000 in materials but saved more than $5,000 by completing the manual labor themselves, a process they documented with photographs along they way.
Outside gardens also surround the dome. Although the couple had no prior hands-on experience with aquaponics, both Ameera and Labedz share a hunger for knowledge.
“There is a wonderful thing called the Internet, and we are online a lot, and we are always learning and looking at information on things that interest us,” Ameera says. “If we have a question about something or want to know something, we look it up online and find the answers we need or find the people who have the answers we need.”
For Ameera, a student at Lincoln University, and Labedz, who works in information technology, their primary goal was to grow clean and fresh food for their family year round. Also important to the couple was being able to share information with those who want to replicate what they have done.
“We are an open source in regard to this project, meaning we make how we have done it and what we are doing available for anyone who is interested so that they may learn about and hopefully be inspired to do something like it for themselves,” she says.
Aquaponics is an enclosed, sustainable food production system that combines conventional aquaculture — or growing aquatic animals such as fish, snails, crayfish or prawns in tanks — and hydroponics — or growing plants in water. The Sage Garden uses blue tilapia, which produce waste in the water. The water is then filtered, and the filter converts the ammonia-rich waste into nitrates. The plants eat the nitrates to grow, and the clean water is returned to the fish.
“All is well in fish and plant land as this cycle repeats over and over,” Ameera says. “The blue tilapia are our fish of choice because they are very hearty and disease resistant. We are feeding our fish organic, non-GMO feed specifically formulated for tilapia. They are very tasty white meat filets, and they live about eight years, so if you’re vegan, you don’t have to eat them.”
Although work on the greenhouse is complete, there is always work to be done on the property. Ameera says Sage loves to take responsibility for feeding the fish, while Gavin pitches in to help with tedious tasks around the greenhouse and outside gardens. They recently received several truckloads of mulch from Memorial Park to help control weeds and make the property look nice, though Ameera says there are always weeds to pull.
Those who are interested in taking a look for themselves and learning more about the project are invited to visit the garden.
“At present if someone wants to visit, they only need to call and set up a time and day to stop by, and we will gladly give them a tour,” Ameera says. “Soon we will have a set day that anyone can drop in and visit and purchase food from us. This will most likely be this winter or next year.”
The greenhouse has been complete for less than one year, but it is already producing more than enough to feed Ameera’s family. Ameera says they are specifically focusing on growing high-yield herbs and vegetables, and they’ve planted the garden with heirloom seeds purchased from Bakers Creek Heirloom Seed Co., an ethical seed company based in Mansfield, Mo. All varieties of basil, several varieties of cherry tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, parsley, mint, rooted vegetables and watermelons are plentiful, and the duo makes their excess crop available for purchase by the public.
Ameera also runs a booth at the Lincoln University Farmers Market with Gavin, where they sell an assortment of raw, dehydrated snacks and baked goods, including some vegan offerings.
As the couple looks toward future growing seasons, Ameera says their goal is to grow more varieties of fruits and vegetables. With hopes of being a resource for others considering their own garden, they also plan to give away seeds, plant cuttings and blue tilapia to help others begin their aquaponics systems. And their efforts to educate others on growing safe food are timely, as consumers become more aware of genetically modified foods.
“Food safety and truth is becoming paramount today,” Ameera says. “People are tired of purchasing food that is filled with sneaky tactics just for big companies to turn a profit. People are getting to a place where they are ready to learn how to eat foods that nourish their bodies and fill them with life.
“Eating local and growing your own food is one way to sidestep the food circus,” she continues. “The other is to support your local growers and food producers who have integrity and are using quality ingredients and seeds.”