Sunday, February 6, 2011

Doing the Dirty Work at Tidal Gardens

The King School Carnival at King Elementary in Akron was a yearly chance for overworked primary schoolers to get away from the grind, an orgiastic free-for-all filled with fun, games and delicacies even more sumptuous than what we were offered daily in the lunch line.  As a first grader navigating the funhouse for the first time, I slapped down a ticket for the right to participate in a game of skill. The stakes?  A real live goldfish.  With an Olympian display of dexterity (after 14 tries), I tossed a ping pong ball through the narrow mouth of a glass bowl.  Victory was mine.  My prize was handed to me in a vessel normally reserved for the safe transport of ham sandwiches.  Excited by the prospect of a new companion, I took my scaly friend home, filled a goldfish bowl with gravel and water and vowed to be a dutiful master to my underwater charge.

The next morning I found my poor fish floating belly up.

After a year of blaming god and washing down Prozacs with straight vodka, my grief finally subsided.  Hopeless optimist that I am, I took another chance on a King School fish, with the exact same results. 

Watching Goldie II swirl clockwise into oblivion and wracked with guilt, I wondered where I had gone wrong.  My goldfish bowl was a death trap, and the senseless loss of life had to stop.  My days as an aquarist were over.  I needed to find a hobby that made sense for an eight year old.  I turned my sights to winemaking.

Except that winemaking isn't as glamorous as it may seem on the surface.  Last summer my buddy, Than, treated me and some friends to a pair of the finest French wines money can buy.  Sipping liquid transcendence can put one in a romantic mood.  It can also make people do some really crazy stuff, like drop everything, move to California and burn the kids' college funds on starting a winery.  A wise man (Than) once wrote: People often look at winemakers as these people gazing off into the distance and pontificating about the universe as seen in movies like Sideways and Bottle Shock.  In reality, winemaking is really dirty work and you end up pruning several acres of vines by hand and hoping to god something doesn't come along and nuke your crops (like locusts or Monsanto).

And that's true.  Because growing grapes is really no more romantic than growing Brussels sprouts, when you get down to it.  The fact is you still have to dig in the dirt, plant the crop, apply fertilizers and pesticides and worry about the weather.  As a bonus, viticulturists spend long hours hunched over while snipping and trimming acre after acre of vines.  Believe me, your back will already be aching when the time comes for picking.  And all that's before you ever get the grapes to the winery.

Where is this leading?  Winemakers are really glorified farmers.  There's a lot in that bottle besides fermented grape juice.  Just like there's a lot in that goldfish bowl that I never saw, like chlorine, minerals and nitrates.  You know why my fish died?  Because there's more to keeping a fish alive than plopping it into a bowl and sprinkling in some funny-smelling flakes.

No one knows this better than Than, who as a professional aquaculturist is really a glorified wastewater treatment engineer.  It's easy to look at an aquarium that looks like this:

and think, hey, I'd like to do that!  Well almost anyone who ever had a fish tank has found it takes a lot more time, effort and money than they had planned on investing.  Just ask Than.  Even a basic aquarium has minimum requirements: filter, aerator, light source, heater, water testing equipment, food; and there are water changes to think about, and water quality tests, and algae removal.  And even under the best conditions tanks get diseased, get the picture.

Than's aquaculture business, Tidal Gardens, originated from the 10 gallon freshwater fishtanks he used to keep in lieu of dogs and cats.  That hobby morphed into saltwater aquariums and eventually evolved into the coral propagation venture it is today.  A visit to Tidal Gardens in Copley, Ohio is worthwhile even if the only fish you care for comes in a breaded, frozen square.  Inside Than's greenhouse is a complex system of tanks, skimmers, water softeners and reverse osmosis purifiers, all dedicated to making the water as pristine as possible.  Yeah, the corals are like some kind of fantastical iridescent dreamscape...

but look at the kind of crud that Than deals with on a daily basis, all in the name of keeping his stock healthy and thriving.

A protein skimmer, skimming the poop

And no, this isn't the kind of protein you want to drink, as much as it looks like that spirulina smoothie you tossed back this morning.

Vintage scum

Experienced marine aquarists will find a wealth of healthy coral growing in Than's tanks.  You can buy online or set up an appointment.  I keep a modest freshwater tank myself, but every time I visit the greenhouse, I come away knowing that someday I'll take the plunge.  Because, short of hallucinogens, I can't think of any better way to bring colors and shapes so spectacular to my home than having a marine tank loaded with coral.  When I'm ready, all my coral will come from Tidal Gardens, because I know that Than will have done all the dirty work necessary to keep the crap out of his tanks.  There is simply no finer source in Ohio for populating a reef aquarium.  That makes Tidal Gardens kind of like the Chateau LaTour of the coral biz.


No comments: