Aquaponics is an unorthodox, but natural, method of gardening that relies on its own miniature ecosystem to grow plants. In an aquaponics system a tank full of fish, with a bed of plants above the tank, feeds off the ammonia the fish secrete, and the plants oxidize and clean the water for the fish.
It’s a great way to get into gardening if you want to grow your own plants, but don’t want to commit to a full outdoor garden, have limited space, or if you want to have some pretty looking plants above your fish tank! So lets over what aquaponics is, how it works, why you should use it, and how to get started with it.
What Is Aquaponics?
Aquaponics is actually a combination of two different words: aquaculture, and hydroponics.
Aquaculture is simply the act of raising water-dwelling species like fish, prawns, crabs, etc. in tanks.
Hydroponics simply means cultivating plants in water instead of soil.
Together, they make aquaponics, a method of gardening using fish to feed your plants, while your plants clean the water for your fish.
Now you may be asking, if the plant’s roots are completely submerged in water, how does the plant not die of overwatering? Well, when a plant is planted in a container full of soil or other mediums and given too much water, the air bubbles, and air pockets are forced away by the water and disappear, causing the roots to decompose and rot. This is impossible with both hydroponics and aquaponics because the roots are constantly being supplemented by air bubbles due to the water constantly flowing and pumping, and so decomposition is impossible.
People have been growing aquaponic gardens for thousands of years, despite the common belief that it’s a modern age invention. It is believed the first system of aquaponics for agricultural use was used by ancient Aztec civilizations.
While it’s debatable when aquaponics came into play for serious agriculture, most of the original designs were more or less the same. Farmers would build hollow rafts out of wood and thatch, fill them with seeds or plants, and float them in ponds or man-made pools with fish swimming freely underneath. Then they would pull the rafts ashore whenever the plants were ready to harvest. Obviously, nowadays we can have our own aquaponics systems without the need to build rafts or ponds. In this day and age, we can build our own little ecosystem to let our plants grow properly in specially designed tanks or just a regular fish tank with a few modifications.
How Does The Ecosystem Work?
Fish waste is naturally rich in ammonia, a trait which usually means that the water in fish tanks needs to be cycled and changed regularly. However, this is not the case with aquaponic gardens, because the water is constantly being pumped out of the tank and into the grow-bed above it, where bacteria converts that ammonia into nitrites, and then into nitrates. The plants then absorb the nitrates as the nutrients they need and this cleans the water for the fish. The whole garden is almost entirely self-sufficient, only requiring a pump, some fish food, and if you have tropical fish, a heater.
Why Should I Use Aquaponics?
1. It saves space.
Aquaponic gardens have much more adaptability than normal gardens when it comes to space. An aquaponic garden can be placed almost anywhere you can fit a fish tank, so all manner of options for placement are available. If you have limited space in your house or apartment, aquaponics is perfect for you.
2. You don’t need to weed your garden
For me, weeding gardens is the absolute worst part of gardening. Every day, I would have to go out in the hot sun and spend 15-20 minutes on each of my families gardens, combing over every inch of dirt so no weeds would grow. Meaning that I would be out there for hours (well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but that’s what it feels like).
With aquaponics, the plants are in a closed environment, meaning that the only plants that can grow are the ones you plant yourself. This eliminates my single biggest hassle in all of gardening. If you want to start growing your own food but don’t want to commit the time to weed it every day, or if you want to teach your kids the basics of gardening without introducing all of the steps until later, aquaponics is a great way to step into gardening without one of the biggest hassles of the trade.
3. It is easily sustainable
Aquaponic gardens require less than one-tenth of the resources needed to keep a full garden, meaning that they will always be easier to take care of and maintain than any other method of growing plants. They also use up less of your time and money. If you want to give gardening a try, but don’t have the experience or know-how to maintain a larger or more traditional garden, give aquaponics a try!
4. Plants grow faster
Plants in an aquaponic garden have access to all the nutrients they need, 24/7, meaning that they will be healthier than most other plants, and in some cases can even grow in half of their usual grow-time. If you want larger quantities of food in a shorter amount of time, the best method by far is aquaponics.
5. No soil
The other biggest hassle in gardening for me is the dirt. While that may sound silly at first, let me explain. To get your plants to grow to their fullest extent, you will need particular types and varieties of soil. This alone can be a challenge for many inexperienced gardeners, and to add to that, soil gets everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you spend just 2 minutes out in your garden, you’ll still need a shower when you come inside. With aquaponic gardens, there is no soil at all; plants grab nutrients straight from the water and are held in place by small rocks or another medium, so the need for any kind of dirt is eliminated right off the bat. This means that aquaponic systems are just about 1000% less messy. It also means that you don’t need to worry about any of your typical garden pests like ants or grubs. So if you want a neat, clean indoor garden, aquaponics is the way to go.
6. No watering
Despite plants being grown in water without any soil, aquaponics actually uses 90% less water than conventional gardens. The water is constantly being circulated through the tank, and the plants just soak up what they need, when they need it. The plants are also impossible to overwater due to the fact that they are constantly being hit with air bubbles from the moving water. This means that you’ll save a lot of water with this method (helpful if you live in a dry area, or a drought is underway), and you’ll also save time every day.
Getting Started With An Ebb And Flow System
I’m going to show you how to get started with an Ebb and Flow model of aquaponics. This version is best suited for indoor use and is the most space efficient.
The Ebb and Flow system is simple: water is taken from the bottom of your tank, where the waste is heaviest and gets pumped up into the bed of plants. The plants absorb the nutrients they need, and the water drains back down into the tank. This process filters the water, but the disturbance of the water caused by the constant draining of the plant bed also aerates the water, giving the fish oxygen.
There are two main options to build an Ebb and Flow system. For those of you who like to fiddle with things and build stuff, you can build your own, or if you aren’t confident in your ability to build things, you can simply buy one of many premade kits on Amazon. Building one is the option I would personally recommend, as you can control everything about your system. With a premade kit, the particular system the company uses may not be to your liking, or you may not be able to properly use it depending on your conditions.
Understanding the parts of an aquaponics system will help you even if you decide to purchase a kit or a pre-built system, as almost all Ebb and Flow systems work very similarly.
- A tank will be needed to house your fish, and cycle your water.
- You will need a separate bed of water to hold your plants. This will drain water back into the tank after it is pumped up into it.
- One or two pumps will be needed, depending on your tank size, to cycle water up from the tank into the bed of plants.
- A growth medium will be needed to absorb nutrients, hold the plants in place, and allow bacteria to grow. The medium can be anything from clay pellets to rocks, so long as it allows for the bacteria to grow, and for the plants to say healthy.
- You’ll still need a filter for your tank, though it should be turned down, or even all the way off when plants are in place – you will still need something to pick up the slack between harvests.
- You’ll need some bacteria to help the plants grow; this is placed over the growth medium.
- You’ll need plants, of course. When it comes to Aquaponics in general, the leafier, the better. This means that all kinds of herbs and sprouts will grow without a problem, but more demanding plants like tomatoes or broccoli may be very difficult to grow.
- And obviously, you’ll need a fish. Just as with plants, certain types of fish will do better than others. Warm, freshwater fish tend to do far better in Aquaponics than colder fish or saltwater fish. (And don’t forget to buy some food!)
- To keep your fish healthy, you’ll need a thermometer, a heater (depending on where you live), and a pump for your filter. You should also pick up a water testing kit to make sure your water is healthy.
- And finally, the most important part of any recreational Aquaponics system – you will, of course, need a miniature sunken ship for your tank.
The last thing to mention is not to be afraid to make changes. Sometimes, our systems just don’t work the way we want them to, or perhaps there’s simply some room for improvement. In these cases, don’t be afraid to install a new component, move some parts around, or even rebuild a whole portion of the system. Just remember, it’s your system, and it’s up to you to get it working the best it can.
However, there is also something to be said for overdoing it. Obviously, you’ll want to avoid having 27 different pumps, 14 drain pipes, and a cup-holder. Sometimes keeping it simple can prevent problems that would arise in more complicated systems.
Aquaponics can be both a fun experiment and a great way to get into gardening for just about anyone!