Aquaponics: The Basics


Photo by Adobestock/chartphoto

I recently decided to try my hand at aquaponics! I’ve been doing regular hydroponics for a little over 10 years, both as a hobby and a job. Hydroponics is the process of growing plants without the use of soil. Instead, you use an inert growing medium and special fertilizers made for hydroponic growth. Another hobby of mine over the last 7 years or so had been keeping tropical fish aquariums. I have a marine (salt water) tank at home and two fresh water tanks at my retail gardening store. So I thought to myself, why not combine the two hobbies? I started reading Aquaponic Gardening by Sylvia Bernstein, and it instantly hooked me. Now, when I get something in my head that I really want to do, I want it done right now. So, an hour later I had a basic DIY aquaponic set up built onto my existing aquarium.

Aquaponics is a type of hydroponic growing in which the fertlizer used is actually generated by the fish themselves with a little help from some beneficial bacteria. There is no need for additional fertilizer. Likewise, the plants then filter out the water by sucking the nutrients out of it and thus negating the need for weekly water changes on your fish tank — a perfect symbiotic relationship.

Aquaponic Set up part two
Photo by Maryann Robinson

There are two different types of aquaponics. The type I did is a smaller scale using “pet” fish, but you can also do a larger scale operation in which you not only get fresh produce from your garden but also fresh fish for your dinner table. I was obviously not planning on eating my fish, I’ve grown quite attached to them and yes, they all have names.

Having an existing aquarium was a huge time saver. The tank had been set up in the store for 5 or 6 years at least, so it was well established. A fish tank needs to be “cycled” through a series of biological events in order to be able to sustain life. Fish waste produces ammonia which is toxic to fish, so in an enclosed environment such as a tank, the ammonia levels can rise quickly and endanger the fish. The tank needs time to build up beneficial bacteria which will break the ammonia down into nitrite. Nitrite, however, is actually more toxic to fish than ammonia. Fortunately, a second type of bacteria will develop that will convert the nitrite into nitrate which is not nearly as harmful and is also a fantastic fertilizer. See where I’m going here? These bacteria will develop naturally, it will just take time. Now in a normal fish-only aquarium you would need to remove the nitrate manually by doing weekly water changes. When you add plants into the mix they will take the nitrate out for you and use it to grow.

1/16/2018 4:11:28 PM

I am going on a mission trip to Belize Jan 23 The people we are going to serve have a beginning hydroponic system My job will be to help them. I have completed a Master Gardener certification but my knowledge is limited regarding hydroponics.. Please point me in the direction for more knowledge in setting up a system and the maintaince of one.. Thank You Richard B

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