When Gina and Lloyd Lancaster bought their home in Alexander City 17 years ago, they were told the land would not grow anything and to not even try. To this day, the couple has changed the entire habitat of the backyard, which includes a hand built aquaponics system designed by Gina and constructed by Lloyd.

“We have more than 230 different varieties of tropical fruits, medicinal herbs and veggies, as of a few years ago when I last counted,” said Gina Lancaster.

When the Lancasters first started researching this system about a decade ago, there wasn’t a lot of information out there on aquaponics, so they basically worked using a trail-and-error procedure.

“We’ve had some failures,” said Lloyd. “One Christmas morning we came out here and about 800 pounds of fish had died.”

Aquaponics is a farming technique that combines conventional aquaculture with hydroponics in a symbiotic environment. The 25-foot by 5-foot wide and 5-foot deep pond dug into the ground holds 5,000 gallons of water and grows mostly tilapia, with a few koi.

“I just observed what the fish needed and adjusted accordingly,” said Lancaster. “I let whatever wants to grow, grow and what doesn’t work, we take it out.” 

She feeds the fish once every morning and said they eat the fish on occasion but not as often as they should.

Some of the surviving fish are close to 9 years old and have been there since the beginning, despite some fiascos.

The greenhouse is composed of three different grow systems. Fish water is automatically pumped into one of the grow systems every hour for about 20 minutes. In another system, the water fills up to about 2 or 3 inches from the top of each grow bed and uses a flood-and-drain system with a bell siphon. The third system is called a wicking bed.

“Everything in here grows out of gravel, except the wicking bed, which has soil,” said Lancaster. 

The wicking bed is made of gravel on the bottom; a middle layer of coconut coir and straw; topped with sterilized compost, worm castings and sterilized potting soil.

“It doesn’t use the fish water because there is too much nitrogen in it,” she said. “We grow root crops in the wicking bed.”

Typically, twice a year she will add layers of straw and compost to the pile, but it’s become self-sustaining and hasn’t required additional elements in two years.

All the plant beds are made from recycled parts, including those from old pontoon boats.

Lancaster, an herbalist and naturopathic doctor for more than 30 years, originally brainstormed the growing method as a way to provide food and medicine.

“We have something growing here that would feed people year round,” she said. “We harvest the plants for medicine, as well – such as jioagulan that brings down high blood pressure; graviola, which is considered 10,000 times stronger than chemotherapy; and moringa, used in third-world countries to battle malnutrition and prevent children from going blind due to lack of protein.”

Lancaster even designed a bio-filter that cleans the entire fishpond, and there is a wood-burning heater that helps warm the water during winter months to about 80 degrees. This warm water circulates throughout the greenhouse; and then, filters back into the fish tank. 

“It’s considered thermal mass,” she said. “This process warms the gravel, which retains the heat and keeps the roots of the plants warm.”

The couple recently built a solar water heater outside to help supplement warm water on sunny days.

“Ideally, tilapia should live in water about 70 degrees,” said Lancaster.

The solar water heater uses recycled materials similar to the rest of the greenhouse and is made of metal roofing with leftover pipe from previous projects.

“We don’t like to throw anything away,” said Lloyd.

The metal greenhouse surrounded by Solex has become it’s own little ecosystem filled with beneficial insects – such as brown lacewings and ladybugs, which do most of the work of balancing out the bad bugs. 

The Lancasters’ aquaponics system has been studied by visitors from around the world and is used as a yearly field trip destination for Auburn University Fisheries Department Dr. David Cline and his student teachers.

Some examples of plants found in the greenhouse are peppers, ghost peppers, limequats, lemonquats, oranges, allspice, coffee, pineapple, red turmeric, asparagus, 9-foot tall ginger root plants, fig trees, Mexican bread fruit and more. There are many plants that are not native to this area and should have no reason to flourish here but seem to anyway, said Lancaster.

“This is a little piece of heaven on earth,” she said. 

The couple met at Auburn University where Lancaster was hand illustrating all the biology textbooks – some still in use today – and Lloyd was an architectural intern. Lancaster also is a 3D abstract expressionist wall sculpture painter.

“Now I’m weaving plants like I was weaving art,” Lancaster said.

The house and greenhouse will be on the market this spring.

For more information or to schedule a tour, visit glaquaponics.com or call 256-786-9669.