The Things We Do For Love: A man’s passion for Aquaponics

There’s no missing the Makerspace in Summerside, P.E.I.

I follow my friend’s directions to Greenwood Drive and find an old city warehouse — to a giant, homemade sign that screams “MAKERSPACE” in wood letters.

Before using the Makerspace, Colin MacLean set up a small garden in his basement and planted his first crop: his favourite, bok choy. (Dave Atkinson)

I’m working on a new series for CBC P.E.I. called “The Things We Do For Love.” I want to tell stories of the things we do because they bring us joy.

Not our jobs. Not our side-hustle.

The things we do for love.

The man with the terrific beard

“Hello?” I call into the front door of the Makerspace.

All sorts of tinkerers and hobbyists pay a fee to use this space to work on all sorts of projects.

There’s a giant wall of plants growing under fluorescent lights. There are tools mounted on the walls for everything from woodworking to electronics to polishing pretty stones.

“Hey!” calls a man with a terrific beard, emerging from around the corner.

“Hey Colin, nice to meet you,” I say. 

“You want a tour?” he replies.

The water in the fish tank gets dirty with waste. That water is pumped into the grow beds, where bacteria converts the fish by-product into nitrates. (Dave Atkinson)

I’ve known Colin MacLean through Twitter for years. He’s a reporter at the Journal Pioneer in Summerside, but this is the first time we’ve met in person.

He leads me to a little room on the other side of the warehouse. Along one wall are two big bins overflowing with lush tomato plants. Right beside them is a tank, nearly as tall as me, filled with water. I peek in and see several fish — each more than a foot long.

“They used to be a lot smaller,” explains MacLean, “but now they’re doing a lot better in their new big tank.”

MacLean sprinkles some food pellets on the surface. Fifteen hungry tilapia rush to gulp down every piece.

‘But where’s the fun in that?’

I look around the room. The fish tank is connected by PVC pipe to a series of pumps and reservoirs to the big bins growing tomato plants.

That’s aquaponics, said MacLean. “Aquaponics is an amalgamation of hydroponics — which is growing plants entirely in water, with some nutrients added in — and aquaculture, which is obviously growing fish.”

‘To be able to see that whole process and grow things in the middle of the winter? You know, for everyone else it’s just a feverish dream coming in a couple months. But I don’t have to wait to scratch that itch, I guess,’ MacLean says. (Dave Atkinson)

MacLean explains the science.

The water in the fish tank gets dirty with waste. That water is pumped into the grow beds, where bacteria converts the fish by-product into nitrates.

The plants suck up the nitrates and clean the water, which is pumped back to the fish tank.

The fish help the plants. The plants help the fish. And MacLean reaps the benefits.

“So you know they sell tomatoes at the farmers market, right?” I ask.

MacLean grins. “Yeah, sure. But, where’s the fun in that?”

‘So unbelievably satisfying’

“How did you get into this?” I ask. “Like, you’re a reporter, man. You’re a busy guy.”

“A few years ago I was living in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and my parents came for a visit. And mom brought me a planter with these really nice pepper plants growing in it, right? And I don’t know why, because I’d never shown any sort of interest in plants before,” he said.

‘You know they sell tomatoes at the farmers market, right?’ I ask. Colin MacLean grins. ‘Yeah, sure. But, where’s the fun in that?’ (Dave Atkinson)

“But I babied [those] pepper plants and eventually I had a really awesome, fire-truck red Carmen sweet pepper. And I chopped that thing up and threw it in spaghetti, and it was, like, the best damn thing I’ve ever tasted in my life. 

“Ever since then, I was like, ‘I can get into this growing my own food thing.’ It tastes so good and it was so unbelievably satisfying to eat something you’d put so much time and effort into.”

MacLean went whole hog into gardening, but ran into a wall when the snow started to fall that winter.

“I tried growing it outside, but the bugs love it as much as I do.— Colin MacLean

“So I started Googling ‘growing plants in the winter,’ ‘growing plants in the house’ and that sort of thing. That leads you pretty quickly to hydroponics and growing under lights.”

He set up a small garden in his basement and planted his first crop: his favourite, bok choy.

“I tried growing it outside, but the bugs love it as much as I do,” he said.

“By the time I got to it, it was full of holes and you’re usually picking slugs off of it before you eat it — which is fine, but when you grow it inside, it’s perfect. There’s no blemishes on the leaf at all, and it’s just really nice looking when you get it into the pan.”

What do you do for love?

MacLean eventually moved part of his hydroponics operation here in the Makerspace. Someone donated an old aquaponics setup and he adopted it.

It’s a lot of work, but for him it’s worth it.

“To be able to see that whole process and grow things in the middle of the winter? You know, for everyone else it’s just a feverish dream coming in a couple months. But I don’t have to wait to scratch that itch, I guess.”

It’s a thing he does for love.

And for that clump of ripe red tomatoes. He does it for that, too.

What do you do for love? What do you do for no other reason than it brings you joy?

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