Jon and Janet Gibbens say their ducks improve not just the food growing in their garden but their lives as well.
The Gibbenses have built a system that automatically filters the pond water in which their ducks -- Ella, Emma and Eva -- swim to irrigate their lettuce, celery and other garden greens. The plants get water rich with nutrients. The ducks get their pond cleaned. And the Gibbenses get fresh vegetables, plus duck eggs and an unexpected way to relax.
"I work really long hours at a startup. My weekend is my time to decompress. Sitting out here and watching the animals gives me that," says Jon Gibbens while showing a visitor his backyard on a Sunday. "There is something that happens to your heart with animals. If they are kind to you, you decompress."
The couple's property in San Jose's Burbank neighborhood is home to many animals. The blue-black Cayuga ducks share the backyard with chickens and Leo the bunny. Indoors, a cat named David and four guinea pigs happily coexist.
"It's my small-scale urban farm," Jon Gibbens says with a laugh.
The duck pond project -- hatched in November -- is the newest addition. The Gibbenses' water system is similar to many popping up around the world. Before launching it, the couple had learned the ins and outs online from an Australian friend who already had a filtration system for his duck pond. Similar systems in Florida and Portland, Oregon, are going strong.
"Duckponics" or "quackaponics" -- whatever the farmers choose to call this symbiotic system -- could be the next urban-chicken-coop movement for backyard farmers to latch onto.
"The people who like chickens will like ducks," predicts Janet Gibbens. In some ways, ducks are superior to chickens for urban farmers: They are quieter and don't scratch at grass, and they keep laying their eggs over a longer time span. Oh, and their pond water can help nourish the garden. Chickens are not water-savvy; they could drown in a pond.
Here's how a duckponics system works:
Ducks spends 80 to 90 percent of their day in a pond, eating, generally doing what ducks do and excreting waste. All of the leftovers from duck-style living -- including dropped food and other waste -- become potential plant nutrients in the water. Throughout the day, the water is pumped to a bed of sand or gravel (but not soil), where the plants are growing and the water is filtered. Then the cleaned water flows back into the duck pond.
Hydroponics is the technique of growing plants without soil, in water or sand or another medium with liquefied nutrients added. Aquaponics is a similar growing technique, but with the nutrients pulled from a fish tank or pond. Duckponics uses pond water, and duck eggs are a bonus you don't get with hydroponics or aquaponics.
Since the Gibbenses' duck-pond water is completely recirculated, they need to replace only the water lost to evaporation from the pond. So the duckponics garden depletes less water than the farm's traditionally grown edible plants.
The Gibbenses started with chickens, and loved raising them, says Janet Gibbens. But when she and Jon saw an aquaponics display at a local fair, they were soon sold on that idea. They added an aquaponics system on the property to nurture their sweet tomatoes with fish-tank water.
The idea to launch a duckponics system came while the Gibbenses were touring an edible garden where they met a gardener who irrigates his plants with duck-pond water. Then, the Gibbenses did a thorough Web search and hooked up with other people who were doing duckponics.
The common complaints about ducks -- that they smell bad and their ponds are hard to clean -- are solved with the system's filtration. The operation of the pumps and filtration material keep the pond clean. "It's not koi-pond clean," says Jon Gibbens, "but it's duck-pond clean."
In the morning, when the ducks are released from their coop (known as Duckton Abbey), they can't wait to get back in the water.
They have bonded with the Gibbens family, as well as one another. "They are very much a family. They follow each other. If one goes, the others waddle behind, and we love to watch them," says Janet Gibbens.
"It's really helped us build community," she adds, and not just among the animals. "Whenever the neighbors have visitors, they want to come for a tour. It's really been a great way to get to know everyone."
Five things to know
about raising ducks
1. Make sure you like duck eggs. Jon Gibbens recommends sampling some from a specialty market before diving in.
2. Be informed about caring for ducks. Feeding three ducks costs about $35 a month. They need a safe coop at night, and when you go on vacation, you'll need a pet sitter. "It's a commitment," Janet Gibbens says.
3. Plan for at least three female ducks. If you have only two, and something happens to one, the other could die of heartbreak.
4. Build your pond and the aquaponics system before you get the ducks. They grow fast.
5. Ducks and chickens can cohabitate, but don't let chickens near a duck pond. They'll drown.
Online resource: The Gibbenses' website, www.jgibbens.com, offers step-by-step videos on their duckponics system.
-- Leslie Griffy,