Photo by Dallashomestager
For the uninitiated, aquaponics – a combination of fishkeeping (aquaculture) and hydroponics – is the practice of growing organic crops in the nutrient-rich wastewater produced by raising fish. The plants then purify the water by removing the waste for their own use, allowing it to be recycled into the aquarium.
There are many benefits to aquaponics, most notably its efficiency and the significant reduction in water use it affords. It can also lead to quicker plant growth, and some practitioners swear it produces healthier, tastier vegetables in the bargain. For all the complicated science behind it, though, aquaponics is relatively easy to set up and get started with – even a new practitioner could be enjoying homegrown aquaponic vegetables within weeks of setting up their first tank.
While some of the equipment used in aquaponics is fairly self-explanatory – you will need a tank (a 100 gallon aquarium works well), for one, and aquaponics systems should still have conventional filters as a backup – people setting up their first aquaponics system will also have to set up the actual system itself. The most common beginner aquaponics set-up is called an ebb and flow system, which pumps waste-filled water from the bottom of the tank up to the plants on the top, where the roots remove all the nutrient-rich waste and allow the newly filtered water to flow back into the tank. These systems are relatively easy to build yourself, or they can be purchased premade.
Choose Fish and Vegetables with Care
Not all vegetables are created equal when it comes to an aquaponics set-up. Some, including leafy greens like kale, spinach, and lettuce, have shallow root systems that make them ideal for aquaponic cultivation. Even larger vegetables like tomatoes can thrive in an aquaponics system, but it is important to match the needs of the fish with the needs of the plants in order to fully reap the benefits of aquaponics. That means finding pairings that are compatible in terms of their water temperature and pH needs, as well as choosing fish whose waste is high in the nutrients a specific plant requires – tilapia pair well with watercress, for instance, or trout with tomatoes.
Plan Beds Carefully
The dangers of monocultures apply to tiny home aquaponics setups just as much as they do to industrial agriculture. Which is to say – the more diversity, the better. Planting a wide variety of plants will provide protection against the potential disaster of a parasite or disease wiping out the entirety of an aquaponics setup in one go. (From a culinary perspective, it will also give you a wider variety of fresh ingredients in the kitchen.
Stagger Plantings to Maximize Efficiency
Another advantage of planting a diverse array of plants is that it allows for a staggered harvest, meaning there will always be plants growing in the system to use up the wastewater and filter it back to the fish. Planting a mixture of fast- and slow-growing plants with differing harvest times and growth periods will help keep the system running steadily throughout the year. Since aquaponics systems are usually indoors and not weather-dependent, traditional planting times can usually be disregarded, allowing for a rich array of vegetables and herbs all year round.
Vigilance and Maintenance are Important
One of the key appeals of aquaponics is its hands-off nature in comparison to traditional gardening. After all, aquaponics systems require neither weeding nor watering, two of the biggest and most monotonous time sucks in gardening. However, that does not mean someone with an aquaponic garden can simply set it and forget it. In addition to the careful and frequent surveillance of both the fish and the plants required of any pet owner and/or gardener, owners should also watch their aquaponics systems for things like pump malfunctions or a blocked filter, which could prevent the system from operating properly and harm or kill either the fish, the plants, or both.
Overall, getting started with aquaponics is easier than it sounds. While it will be more straightforward for someone with either fishkeeping or gardening experience (or both), anyone with sufficient motivation and patience can fairly quickly start using aquaponics to produce healthy, sustainable vegetables and herbs, as well as cultivating a beautiful aquarium full of happy, healthy fish.
David Woods is a carpenter, outdoorsman, and author with more than 30 years of professional woodworking experience. He is the author of best-seller How to Build a Log Home and has educated more than half a million people on how to build a log cabin via his blog, Log Cabin Hub. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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