Aquaponics is a system of cultivation that is starting to become much better known, both in terms of commercial agricultural production and the smaller scale of the permaculture gardener. It is appealing to both because it is a system that requires very little input in order to function well, and produces two types of food product – plants and fish.
Aquaponics uses a linked system of fish tanks and vegetables beds. The only inputs needed are food for the fish and a method to pump water around the system (gravity can be used one way in some circumstances, but even then a pump will be required to complete the cycle). The basic system involves pumping the water from the fish tank, complete with the droppings of the fish, into the vegetable beds. The plants use the nutrients from the droppings that are in the water, and in doing so filter the water so that it is clean enough to go back into the fish tank. There are three major forms of aquaponics systems
Media Beds
The media bed aquaponics system is probably the easiest to set up on your permaculture plot. It consists of garden beds filled with small porous rocks – typically clay pellets – into which the vegetables are planted (this is a no soil system). Water from the fish tank is either pumped or drained via gravity, depending on the specifics of your site, into the beds so that the plants can access the nutrients. The rocks are porous to allow them to hold water for longer for more efficient nutrient uptake, and to remain aerated. The rocks also serve to filter out biological organisms such as parasites to prevent them going back into the fishes’ water, as well as any solid material (plants take up nutrients in a dissolved, soluble form, so any solids would not be used and hence contaminate the water if they returned to the fish tank). The clean water drains into a container below the garden bed, and is then pumped back into the fish tank.
The garden bed can either have a continuous flow of water moving through it or is alternately flooded and drained, using a siphon to drain the water when it reaches saturation point. The media bed system can be used on a small or large scale and provides good plant support. The major disadvantage is that the rocks used to fill the beds can be quite and expensive initial cost. Permaculture gardeners choosing this system must also keep an eye on the pumps so that they don’t get blocked with fish waste, and ensure that with either the continuous flow or ebb and flow systems, no part of the garden bed becomes waterlogged, as this can cause it to become anaerobic and affect plant growth.
Nutrient Film Technique
The nutrient film technique involves siting a series of pipes adjacent to the fish tank and pumping water through them as a very thin film. The water moves slowly allowing plants, which have been placed in holes in the pipe, to access the nutrients within. When the water reaches the end of the pipes, it is pumped back to the fish tank. Because there is no solid material or surface of the water open to the air, extra filtration equipment is needed to clear the water of solid and biological waste before it is returned. However, the system is very efficient in its water use.
This system is probably best used in large-scale aquaponics system, and has the disadvantage of being unable to support larger, heavy plants, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, which can be utilized in the media bed system. It is primarily used to cultivate leafy greens and salad greens, which have small root systems and are relatively lightweight.
Deep Water Culture
The deep-water culture system is sometimes referred to as the deep flow system, and involves siting the plants on rafts through which their roots protrude and hang in the nutrient-rich water from the fish tank. The water must be filtered of any solid waste before reaching the plants, but aside from that, the equipment required is minimal and can be sourced cheaply. While commercial operations often use specially constructed channels to hold many rafts (allowing for ease of harvest, as well as capacity for higher yields) the system can easily be used in permaculture gardens. Simply punch holes in the base of a Styrofoam container, plant your crop through them, and float on the surface of the fish tank, with the filtrations system attached. Just ensure you stock your tank with fish species that are not voracious plant eaters, so they do not decimate the roots.
This system has the advantage of a more stable environment for both the plants and the fish. Because the water is not moved from the fish tank into other systems, it does not experience fluctuations in pH or temperature.
Whichever system you use, there are many fish species that you can choose to stock your aquaponics system with, from catfish and tilapia types of aquaponics systemsto carp and crustaceans. Set up costs can be minimized by using recycled containers for your fish tank (making sure they are thoroughly cleaned before stocking) and garden beds. You will also need to ensure that the water is oxygenated. Because a fish tank is a static body of water, it needs a pump to force air into it and provide the fish with sufficient oxygen. When sourcing food for your fish, try to ensure that it comes from an organic sustainable source. One of the major pressures on wild fish stocks is the use of small fish to make fish food for captive stocks. This not only throws wild ecosystems off balance, but it is an inefficient use of resources, with several grams of fish needed to make just one of fish food. Some enterprising permaculturists have combined livestock resources by sting their chicken coop above their fish tank, so the chickens’ dropping provide food for the fish, and the gardener only needs expend time and energy on the harvesting!

30 Responses

  1. I’ve got a peace lily in (on) a 3 gallon bowl with a single betta. Its not quite true aquaponics, cuz the plant isn’t edible, but its a start. I’d like to scale up to 10 gallons with edibles but need to figure out how to deal with my cold climate (even indoors, the betta is in water colder than he prefers).

  2. It’s trendy right now but very high input – you need containers for the plants, pumps, water holding pipes, electricity, and Somebody had to put all of those plants in those trays. Planting in the ground is much more sustainable and much less likely to get “off” chemicals in the food – did you know lettuce can absorb enough nitrogen from fertilizler to make it toxic with nitrates?

  3. I have an aquponics unit off my kitchen. It’s nice to get fresh tomatoes when it’s -19 outside, as for planting all those plants , how do you grow in the ground with out transplanting and such. Iv grow food for 50 + years and this is the easiest thing Iv ever done. The cost was /is minimal. I don’t have to have a tiller , shovels, rakes , hoes, dragging hoses watering. By the way my water consumption went from 1600 gal a month to 600 gal. Twice the out put or more + fresh fish and crawdads. I can spend as little time as 2 min a day or every other day . All my materials were repurposed . Iv got about $1200 in it totally. Including building. Cost of the actual garden $564.00.less than a good tiller. And I never have to fertalize. No fuel belching monsters. You see it’s getting a wind generator this winter that I’m making in my shop.

  4. Aquaponics???? LMAO!!! You guys suck hydroponics just rippen people off think you know something new???? LOL Message me and tell you all about it how real horticulturalists do it with no strings and bullshit

  5. The soil is so complex and that complexity is critical to growing nutritious plants that I can understand how aquaphonics can grow plants but how can they have the same nutritional value as plants grown in the soil.

  6. Seems we can find at least one in most every crowd. Rick is apparently a bit miffed over the new “feel” of an age old system. Like herbology, it has been around since early man. Maybe not cultiveted by mankind…but certainly observed and used in nature since early man. Aquaponics is a very viable set of systems, especially where water is limited. A good filter sytem for Tilapia and other prolific poopers is needed as well as the pumps mentioned above. A solids settling tank is a good thing. BTW, one can market the settled out poop dry it down and pakage it. Solid fertilizer ! I for one….Love Aquaponic systems, I have and do use others too. All organic. Namaste

  7. I read a lot of articles about aquaponics with an eye to maybe building one. I’d really like to know more about it. But I’m stymied. All these articles have;
    Lots of glowing enthusiasm. Lots of general information. Lots of highly technical information and advice. Lots of pretty pics.
    Simple statements of actual use and production, the sort of info a newbie really needs?? None, nada, Zero, zip, Zilch.
    Some articles include a few scattered clues, maybe three out of 8 numbers, never enough to put together a complete set of numbers on ANY non-commercial system I have ever seen described.
    I have NEVER seen the sort of simple statement that any 7th grader would know to include in a report
    “This pic shows my 50 gal drum and the 3×5′ growbed mounted under 2 100W bulbs, which raises 12 table-size tilapia and 10 tomato plants in a year.”
    Does anybody know why that is so hard to say? Is it just that they forget, or don’t want to commit themselves to anything resembling science? It’s so frustrating.
    It sure would be nice to find at least one article on aquaponics that offers at least a ballpark estimate of what one can do with a small system. I find estimates for 1000 gallon tanks, and advice that 200 gallons is the minumum to grow fish for table, then articles showing a 50 gal drum in a home system. So, a 40 gallon aquarium? 50 gal drum? Bathtub? Sunlight or Grow lights? How many fish? How much fish food? What square footage of growbeds? HOW MANY spinach or squash plants? Equivalent to ?? foot garden row? Some sort of clue, anyone?

  8. If you are still looking for it to be simple: I was asked to get involved with friends at Dimension One Aquaponics. My first response was I’d have to experiment first with a system in my basement all year round (only artificial sunlight) and plant some seeds (never gardened before) and see how it works. They have treated me like any other customer and walked me through the entire process. I will be putting water in the 60 gallon tank on Monday. Started some seeds two weeks ago, and now that I have learned how (50% grew), will plant more. Two grow beds approximately 4′ X 2′. One will produce 26 lettuce plants on what is called a floating raft (chemical free Styrofoam) and I plan to experiment with herbs and watercress in this one. The second is called a media bed and I am going to start with 2 tomato plants, 1 lemon cucumber, 1 radish, cilantro, basil, parsley, watercress, arugula, pepper, broccoli and bean. If they end up not fitting in one bed, I’ll do things differently! lol. In a system this size you would use 12-15 fish. You start out slowly and need to supplement with a seaweed fertilizer for the plants until the fish start producing. There is misinformation about the health of the plants at first and when the fish are larger. It is simple. You test for ph, ammonia, temperatures daily for the first 6-8 weeks until the system is what is called cycled – which means you start producing natural bacteria. This is when it becomes almost 100% self-sustaining other than fish food. The Dimension One website has all the details.

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