Aquaponics is, as a food production method, fast gaining popularity among commercial food producers and hobbyist gardeners alike — and since aquaponics is almost magic when you really stop to think about its inner workings, it’s not difficult to see why!
As a self-sustaining and environmentally-friendly way to grow crops and raise fish or other small aquatic animals at the same time, aquaponics is a system uniquely suited to the emerging climate-change related challenges of the twenty-first century.
If you’re a garden enthusiast, you are probably at least vaguely aware of the basic elements of aquaponics. Indeed, you may have given this food growing technique a cursory glance in the past, only to quickly decide that it looked excessively complicated and appeared to rely on a lot of unfamiliar equipment that would likely require a significant investment.
There is no getting around the fact that aquaponics is complex, but getting started with your own aquaponics ecosystem may just be a lot easier than you had ever imagined.
What Is Aquaponics?
Aquaponics is an amazing, and amazingly sustainable, way to raise fish or other small aquatic animals while simultaneously growing plants.
This food production method can be compared to a natural perpetual-motion machine, in which the waste materials the fish leave behind feed the plants being grown in the system, while the plants reward them for the nutrients by providing the fish with filtered and clean water.
Aquaponics is quickly becoming rather fashionable at the moment, in a day and age where the upcoming challenges related to climate change make exploring more efficient and greener farming methods a high priority — and one look at some pictures of the large-scale commercial aquaponics farms that are now gaining traction might make you think that it’s a novel farming technique.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Although the precise origins of aquaponics as a concept is heavily debated, many historians believe that it was practiced by the Ancient Aztecs in South America, by the Ancient Egyptians, and in Ancient China. Even the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon are often said to have relied on aquaponics.
To break the term “aquaponics” down, it combines aquaculture, which means raising fish or other aquatic animals, with hydroponics — a soilless approach to gardening in which roots are floated in a nutritionally-enriched water mix.
You already know what “aqua” means, of course, but you wouldn’t be the first to be struck by the oddity of the word “ponics”. That one comes from the Greek ponos, which means “work”. In aquaponics, in other words, the water does the hard work for you!
While there are many different approaches to aquaponics, and the setups currently in use vary from simple and small to huge industrial systems with many parts, the end result is always similar — aquaponics yields a very impressive and largely self-sustaining food production system that can allow commercial growers and hobby gardeners to produce more food, in less time, and with fewer resources. We told you; it’s almost magic!
Three basic elements all form an intricate and highly symbiotic relationship in an aquaponics setup, and they are:
- The fish or other smaller aquatic animals, such as snails or prawns, produce waste materials that are rich in nutrients. This water is circulated along the crops’ roots, giving them constant access to a soilless medium that can replace fertilizer. The fish or other aquatic creatures feed the plants grown in the system, in other words.
- The plants incorporated into the aquaponics system, in turn, play an integral role in keeping the water clean and healthy to create an ecosystem in which the fish can thrive, primarily by filtering nitrogen from the system.
- Microorganisms are a key aspect of aquaponics as well — these naturally-occurring helpful bacteria are able to convert the ammonia the fish or other aquatic life leaves behind as waste into nitrites, and then nitrates. They turn the waste from raw materials to a natural fertilizer the plants in the system can effectively feed on, then.
It’s already easy to see how each part of an aquaponics system interacts with each other part, forming a mutually-beneficial working relationship. Aquaponics is neat, from a scientific viewpoint, but how can it benefit gardeners or farmers?
What Are the Benefits of Aquaponics?
The benefits of aquaponics can best be summarized as being able to grow crops more efficiently and sustainably, and often in much smaller spaces as well as more quickly. For those who are seriously considering adding an aquaponics system to their lives, those buzzwords will not be convincing on their own, though. Are you ready to come to the aqua side? You may be, once you realize that:
- Fish farming is rendered less resource intense in an aquaponics system, as the plants also grown in the setup are hard at work to keep the water clean so that the fish and other aquatic life in the aquaponics system can thrive.
- As the waste products the fish accumulate in this food production system are incredibly rich in nutrients once bacteria convert them to a form the plants are able to absorb, aquaponics allows you to grow crops without using artificial fertilizers. Given the recent surge in fertilizer prices, large-scale farmers especially welcome this fact. Hobby gardeners can benefit, too.
- As an approach to producing food, aquaponics uses up to 90 percent less water when compared to traditional farming methods — the water present in the ecosystem does not need to be replaced very often at all, and continuously circulates back to both the plants and the fish.
- This fact also means that crops can often grow much more quickly in an aquaponics setup, creating the possibility for more harvests.
- Weeding becomes unnecessary in this enclosed systems.
- Aquaponics is a great choice for farmers and gardeners who are interested in organic food production techniques, as pesticides are not part of this approach.
Is Practicing Aquaponics Hard?
Yes. It’d be wonderful to be able to say anything else, but claiming that aquaponics is simple to practice and difficult to mess up would be a lie. When you hear buzzwords like “self-sustaining”, “symbiotic”, and “efficient”, it is a little too easy to jump to the conclusion that an aquaponics system does all the hard work on its own, without too much interference from the gardener’s side. That is not true at all, unfortunately.
Plants need a total of 16 essential nutrients, in various amounts. These are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, boron, chlorine, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, and finally zinc. An aquaponics system cannot effectively meet all the crops’ needs, all the time, and some supplementation will be necessary.
At the same time, even the hardiest fish are quite picky about the temperature of the water they live in, as well as the water’s pH level — which will be altered by the plants growing in the system on an ongoing basis.
Those gardeners of farmers who want to engage in aquaponics not just for the fun and novel experience, but to get serious results, will need to pay close attention to keeping every part of the system healthy, happy, and working together. That takes skill and experience, so yes, practicing aquaponics is tricky for beginners.
That’s not to discourage you from trying, though! Far from it — we mention this only to manage your expectations, so that you won’t be tempted to give up as soon as you hit a roadblock.
What Crops Can be Grown Using Aquaponics?
It is possible to grow a multitude of different crops in an aquaponics ecosystem, but some of the most popular and beginner-friendly choices would include:
- Tomatoes, which need to be kept at temperatures between 70 and 80 °F (21 to 27 °C), require a pH level between 6.0 and 6.5, and can usually be harvested after four to eight weeks when grown in an aquaponics system. Tomatoes will need at least eight hours of sun exposure each day.
- Bell peppers, which love temperatures between 65 and 80 °F (18 to 27 °C), need a whopping 12 to 18 hours of light each day (which means you’ll need grow lights), and favor pH levels of 6.0 to 6.5. In some cases, they’ll be ready for harvest after as little as 50 days. Some bell peppers do take longer to mature.
- Lettuce, which likewise needs a temperature range from 65 to 80 °F (18 to 27 °C), requires 10 to 18 hours of daily light, and prefer pH levels that range from 5.6 to 6.2. Your heads of lettuce will be ready to harvest after six to eight weeks.
- Cucumbers are slightly harder to grow in an aquaponics setup, as they have a vining habit that calls for trellises, but are still very doable for beginners. These fresh veggies again have the same temperature requirements, need a pH of 5.5 to 6.0, and will need 12 to 14 hours of sun exposure a day. They’ll be ready to harvest after about 70 days.
While these are some of the best crops to start off with, others, including eggplant, cauliflower, broccoli, squash, spinach, peas, strawberries, blueberries, and chives can also successfully be grown using an aquaponics system. The key is to take the plant’s cultural needs into account before getting started — there may not be any soil in the aquaponics system, but the water circulating in your setup needs to meet the plant’s needs.
What Do You with the Fish in Your Aquaponics System?
The most common fish and other aquatic animals to be raised in aquaponics environments include tilapia, koi, goldfish, crayfish, prawns, snails, trout, and perch. It is essential to investigate the cultural conditions each fish needs before choosing what fish are right for your aquaponics setup — the temperature and pH needs of the fish should match those of the crops you are hoping to grow in your aquaponics system.
The fish still need to be fed, of course — and picking the right diet for your fish is not just essential for their health, but also for the health of the crops you’re growing, because the waste your fish leave behind goes on to feed the plants. Your aquaponics fish will need a balanced diet that serves them and the plants perfectly, something that requires thoroughly researching what each plant and each fish species requires!
High-quality commercial flakes or pellets are a popular choice, but many aquaponics practitioners ultimately choose to make their fish food from scratch.
As far as the purpose of the fish in your system goes, larger systems can be set up to raise fish for consumption — but many small-scale gardeners simply prefer to enjoy ornamental fish as a decorative element, being perfectly content with the role the fish play in feeding the plants.
What Does a Simple Aquaponics Setup Look Like, and Where Can You Get One?
Besides the obvious fact that the plants make up the top of an aquaponics system while the fish rest below the crops, there are a few different popular setups. These can be created from scratch if you are handy with DIY, but nowadays, it is far easier (though, of course, slightly more expensive) to buy a ready-made commercially-produced aquaponics growing system. They’re available on Amazon, and range from highly decorative to completely utilitarian.
The basic types of aquaponics systems include:
- Raft systems or floating systems, which allows plant roots to hang down from floating systems while fish are grown in a pond underneath. An example of such a system on Amazon is the very affordable hydroponics floating island planter system.
- Medium-based systems, which incorporate rocks, gravel, or lava rocks. The water is not continuously circulated along the plants’ roots, but instead allowed in periodically. This type of system is usually created from scratch by DIY enthusiasts.
- Nutrient-film technique (or NFT) systems, which rely on irrigation channels to provide the plants with water and nutrients. To set up such a system, it is possible to purchase a basic hydroponics system, such as the LAPOND hydroponic grow kit, and to combine it with a fish pond.
- For an even simpler system that is truly easy to get started with, those who would simply like to experiment while simultaneously enjoying a beautiful fish tank can opt to get something like the AquaSprouts Garden, which is simply an aquarium with plants growing on top — allowing roots to take nutrients from the dish.
- One-barrel aquaponics systems are designed for function over form, and are made at home with a large plastic barrel. A rock based filtration medium is placed around the plants, and the fish grow in the tank itself.
- Bathtub aquaponics systems are larger, and also fairly easy to create with the right materials and modest DIY skills. A set of hoses allows for water to be exchanged between the fish and the crops.
How to Get Started with Your Very Own Aquaponics System: A Step-by-Step Guide
Now that you are a little more familiar with the possibilities aquaponics can offer, you may be itching to get started with your own setup. Aquaponics requires a fair amount of research for the best results, so simply buying a large and expensive system that you like the look of and then deciding how to put it to use may be tempting, but it’s not an approach we would recommend. Instead, use this checklist to make informed and well-researched decisions give you the best chance of achieving the results you are hoping for with your aquaponics system.
1. Realistically Assess How Much Space You Have Available for Your Aquaponics System
Aquaponics ecosystems can be set up to operate outdoors in the garden, inside the home, or in a greenhouse. The environmental conditions are essential to the success of the system, as they impact the health of the fish or other aquatic animals in the system, as well as your plants. For this reason, most first-time aquaponics practitioners will be best off getting started with an indoor system, inside the home or in a greenhouse.
Since you likely won’t be able to expand the space you have available, it’s recommended to analyze how large your aquaponics setup can be before you set any other goals, both in terms of the type of system you would prefer to get started with and the kinds of crops you would like to grow.
2. Decide What You Would Like to Get Out of Your Aquaponics Experience
A good goal, to start out with, would simply be to gain experience. We would advise new aquaponics practitioners to begin by growing crops that have a high chance of succeeding and are not too difficult to maintain, which include lettuce and tomatoes.
Decide whether you would prefer herbivorous or carnivorous fish as well, or whether you would like to add other aquatic animals such as snails to your system. Once you have a slightly better idea, you can begin to investigate which fish pair well with the crops you are hoping to grow aquaponically.
3. Choose the Right Aquaponics System
Most beginning aquaponics practitioners will have the best experience if they start out with a commercially-bought, and easy to set up, medium-based aquaponics system, or a raft system. Especially handy people who already have the right set of tools may wish to build their own aquaponics systems from scratch, which is beyond the scope of this guide but very possible.
4. Consider Whether You Need Artificial Lighting
Sun-loving crops grown indoors with an aquaponics system will need to be supported with grow lights, but it is good to keep in mind that natural sunlight still does the best job of supporting your crops’ growth. Consider how much light the area you chose will get, and whether you need to add grow lights.
5. Getting Your Aquaponics System Set Up
The next stage, once you have acquired your aquaponics system, lies in adding the water, fish or other aquatic animals, and inserting your crops. The fish should be added first, in order to “cycle” the system; this means getting the bacterial colonies that are essential to the system established. Feed the fish and monitor the water quality, waiting until the right pH level and nutritional balance is in place before adding crops.
6. Maintaining Your Aquaponics System
The system will continuously need to be monitored to yield any results, and the steps involve:
- Feeding your fish regularly with high-quality feed that meets their needs as well as the plants’.
- Checking the water’s pH levels.
- Looking at the water’s ammonia and nitrate levels at least once a week.
- Having a thermometer in place to check the water’s temperature.
- Caring for your plants by checking for pests and diseases, and pruning them as needed.
Best Selling Aquaponics Systems
- YEAR ROUND WATER GARDEN: The Back to the Roots Water Garden Duo allows you to grow a succulent or houseplant garden all year round and comes with everything you need to get started - no green thum or big backyard needed.
- CONVENIENT AND EASY: Harvest organic microgreens from your aquarium in just 10 days; Your Water Garden becomes a self-cleaning fish tank that also grows fresh food up top; The fish waste fertilizes the plants on top and the plants clean the water.
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- COMPLETE AQUATIC ECOSYSTEM KIT: This DIY aquaponic fish tank kit is fully equipped with everything you need to get started - radish and wheatgrass seeds, water conditioner, a growing medium for your seeds to take root, water dechlorinator, fish food, and even a fish coupon
- Connell, Seth (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 154 Pages - 09/15/2020 (Publication Date) - Rockridge Press (Publisher)
- Amazon Kindle Edition
- Deschain, Dean (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 120 Pages - 07/14/2014 (Publication Date) - Rach Helson LLC (Publisher)
Last update on 2024-01-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Q: Does the water in an aquaponics system need to be replaced?
A: Not exactly, but because some water will evaporate, the lost water will need to be supplemented. Measure the water level to find out how much water needs to be added to your system.
Q: Why does aquaponics allow plants to grow faster?
A:Aquaponics yields harvest-ready crops sooner than traditional gardening because the plants’ root systems are exposed to nutrients and water throughout the day.
Q: Will I need to use pesticides?
A: No, don’t use pesticides in an aquaponics system! Since aquaponics bypasses the need for soil, pests are much less likely to be a problem with this approach to gardening. What’s more, using pesticides would expose your fish to poison, which you definitely don’t want.
Q: How long does it take to cycle the system?
A: Cycling with fish takes around 10 weeks.
Q:How many fish does my aquaponics system need?
A: Many people recommend one inch of fish per gallon of water. It is important not to place too many fish in your system, but sufficient amounts of fish should be present to create the nutritional balance your crops need to thrive.