For the experienced gardener and aquarium-keeper, aquaponics is a natural next step. Combining plants with fish allows the excrement from the fish to feed the plants, while the plants clean the water for the fish.
You can create a symbiotic environment in your home with aquaponics.
Aquaponics helps reduce the chemical-heavy nature of hydroponics (growing plants without soil) and the chemical runoff of traditional aquaculture (raising fish in tanks). By combining the plants, fish, and microbes into an ecosystem, aquaponics dramatically reduces the need for chemicals or careful disposal of contaminated water.
Other benefits of aquaponics include:
- Waist-height plants, reducing back strain from gardening.
- Ability to grow your own fish and plants.
- Using less water than traditional gardening.
- Dramatically reducing or eliminating weeds and animal predation on your crops.
But how do you get started?
What You Need to Get Started in Aquaponics
There is a wide range of sizes available for aquaponics. From countertop aquaponics setups for 5- to 10-gallon fishtanks to full industrial setups, you’ll need different setups for different operations. Modern aquaponics does require a bit of setup but is generally pretty easy to keep going later.
In general, you’ll need:
- A fish tank to hold your fish. In theory, you can fit about 1 pound of fish per 1 gallon of water. It’s better to start out with 1 fish per 10 gallons of water until you get your systems down! Most big DIY systems start with a 55-gallon drum or a 225-gallon square bin. Be sure you’re not repurposing a bin that once held something toxic!
- A water pump to keep the well-circulated for your fish and plants. You won’t need a filter in most setups, but the pump helps ensure the nutrient-rich water reaches your plants.
- An aeratian system to ensure your fish have plenty of oxygen.
- A plant holding system or “grow bin.” This will vary depending on your setup but will help keep your plants well-situated to get just the right amount of water. You can purchase a pre-built one or build one out of shallow wooden boxes lined with pond liner.
- A growing medium. Though you won’t be using soil, your plants still need something to grow in. Perlite is a common medium since it’s light enough to easily elevate from the surface.
Some setups will also require a heating system to keep your fish warm and a grow light to keep your plants well-sunned.
Of course, you’ll also need some fish. Tilapia are the most common fish for bigger aquaponics setups. Catfish do well in tight quarters but only grow well in warm waters. Yellow perch do well in cold water and are also popular.
Many plants can be grown in an aquaponics system, but aquaponic gardening might require more additives for some types of plants. Leafy plants, like spinach and kale, tend to do well with just the nutrients from the fish water.
Berries, cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes can all be grown in aquaponic farms — but they’ll generally need additional fertilizer.
A Crash Course in Aquaponics: How to Get Started
Any new aquaponic farmer should be ready for a bit of reading, research, and trial and error. The plumbing alone for an aquaponic system is pretty complex! Food production using aquaponics has a lot of benefits, but initial simplicity isn’t one of them.
Location: Aquaponics generally does best inside of a greenhouse, which keeps your plants and fish warm year-round. Regardless, you’ll need a flat and well-lit area (using sunlight or grow lights). Set up the tanks, plumbing, aeration systems, and grow beds here.
The Start: Set up the fingerling fish in the tank, planting your seedlings in planters at the same time. When your seedlings are big enough to be transplanted, the fish will also be producing enough waste for them to survive.
Maintenance: The aeration system will need to run 24/7. A pump that sends water to the growing medium and grow beds should work on a timer that goes off a few times per day. The exact timing of this will vary from setup to setup, so expect some trial-and-error. The fish will eat about as much as they can easily eat in 20 minutes, three times per day. You can also use a timer and feeder setup for this.
How did you get started in aquaponics? What hurdles did you run into when you were starting out? We’d love to hear about it!