Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (water-based plant growth). The fish and plants feed off each other, providing vital nutrients in a constant cycle that allows them both to thrive.
“Isn’t this a very complicated process?” This is the most common question I’ve answered when explaining aquaponics. Believe it or not, it’s one of the most simple plant setups there is. It’s self-sustaining and runs almost entirely on auto-pilot after the initial setup.
What Exactly is Aquaponics?
Plants are raised in a grow pad, and fish are held in a fish tank. The fish waste-contaminated water from the fish tank is fed to the grow bed, where billions of naturally occurring beneficial bacteria break down the ammonia into nitrites and nitrates. Nitrates and other nutrients are absorbed by plants to aid their development.
The plants, in exchange, disinfect and filter the system’s water. The water is then recirculated back to the fish tank, where the loop repeats itself.
I’m sure you’re wondering how you could ever replicate this in your backyard. In the next section, I’ll show you precisely what you need to develop your own aquaponics system.
Creating Your Own Aquaponics System
Before you begin constructing your setup, there are two important decisions you need to make. The first is the type of fish you’ll be using. You can choose between edible ornamental. As the name suggests, Edible fish will be available as a food source along with the vegetables you are growing. Ornamental fish, however, will be solely for boosting the ecosystem and for show.
Goldfish and koi are common species used for ornamental fish. Catfish and tilapia are favorites for edible fish species.
The second decision you need to make is the type of food you are going to grow. There are several types of food that are more beneficial for use in an aquaponics scenario.
Other species such as strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash, can also be used but may require supplemental fertilizers.
What You’ll Need Before Starting
For this tutorial, we will be using the Media-Based Aquaponics system as an example. This system uses media-filled (clay, rock) beds. The plants are in these beds, and the rocks are used to filter water to the plants. This is the most common type of aquaponics system used for the average backyard gardener. This is also known as the Flood and Drain system. There is also a raft system and the Nutrient Film Technique, which can be more complicated.
For our Media-Based Aquaponics system, we will need the following materials.
- Laundry rack or old metal rack
- A fish tank
- Water pump with a timer
- Plant bed
- PVC pipe
- Aquarium filter floss
- LED light
I’ve found a multi-level laundry rack or kitchen rack works well. You know which ones I’m talking about. The old metal ones that look like they are made out of the same metal as shopping carts. Those work perfectly, and you can find them at pretty much any outdoor store. If you are comfortable with the durability, you can even use a plastic one made for plants. Make sure the surfaces are open and not solid so you can pass pipes through them. The plant bed will be on an upper level, and the fish tank will be right beneath it, but you need to connect them.
Step 1: The Plant Bed
The plant bed will contain your plants. Eventually, you’ll fill it up with your rocks or clay, and your plants will grow from this. The stones will act as a filter to get water to your plants as a constant flow runs through the roots.
The plant bed will be installed above the fish tank. A long window pot works best. However, any long, plastic container should do the job. Make sure it is durable but not too heavy.
Step 2: The Pump
This is where we install the pump. Install the pump in the corner of the fish tank. We want it to be set up so that it pumps water up to the plant bed. Use your PVC pipe as an extension to your pump, so it reaches the plant bed.
This is why I mentioned using a metal rack. The shelves have tiny cracks in them, so it makes it easy to feed your connections through. If you are using a plastic frame that doesn’t have openings, you can cut your own holes.
Step 3: The Drain
Before your fill your plant bed with your desired medium, a drain needs to be installed. Make a hole in your plant bed on the opposite side of where you put your pump.
User another piece of PVC pipe and attach it beneath the hole, running downwards into the fish tank. Put your media guard on top of the hole in your plant bed, directly above the PVC pipe.
We want this to drain the water back into our fish tank. The media guard stops our rocks from falling into the fish tank. This completes our constant cycle of water.
Step 4: A Waste Filter
You’re going to want to prevent any solid fish waste from making its way into the medium your plants are in. A simple waste filter will do the job here. If there is no waste filter, these solid pieces can easily make their way up through the pump and into the plant bed.
The pipe end that dumps water into your plant bed needs to be wrapped in the aquarium floss you acquired. This should be sufficient enough to stop any solid waste from entering your plant bed.
Step 5: The Timer
This part is pretty self-explanatory. Anyone who has ever owned a fish tank should complete this part in a few minutes.
Add a timer to the pump you’re using on the fish tank. You’re going to want to set the pump to 20 minutes. This dictates how often the water will flow through our grow bed. We don’t want it on a continuous flow because this will flood our plants. This creates a steady flush and allows the nutrients to cycle as we need them to.
Step 6: The Light Source
Add your LED light to the fish tank. You may also add any additional components to the fish tank, such as a timer for the light or other accessories.
Depending on what type of food you’re growing and the light source in your room, you may have to add a grow light above the plant bed. Personally, I like keeping them next to a larger window or in a sunroom. I’ve gotten the best results from natural sunlight.
Step 7: Starting and Maintenance
Turn the pump on and let the system flow a few times just to prime the filter. Assure that everything is operating correctly before you add your fish and plants. Check for leaks and drips.
Assuming everything is operating correctly, you can add your fish and plants of choice. These systems are designed to have a high level of self-sufficiency. Depending on your level of filtration and power of the pump, routine cleaning may be needed. Make sure the fish tank stays clean and free from algae or contaminants. You’re going to have to regularly feed the fish. Otherwise, you can sit back, relax, and enjoy watching your food grow.
This setup can be built on any sized scale. If you’re going to use an indoor design, obviously, you’re going to use ornamental fish. Smaller fish tanks only allow for minimal growth, and you’re not going to get a sizable meal out of most indoor tanks.
If you decide to scale this up and create an outdoor setup, you can use larger plastic bins or ponds to house your fish. Once you step up to this level, you can start thinking about using more giant species of edible fish.
Keep in mind that if you decide to grow food beyond the leafy green vegetable type, you may have to add extra nutrients to allow them to grow to their full potential.
I thoroughly hope you enjoyed reading this tutorial. It gives me a sense of fulfillment to be able to share methods of growing my own food. Passing on the ability to be self-sufficient really adds value to the lives of those who read my content.
It’s essential to complete all the steps as suggested and not use shortcuts. Before building your system, it’s also vital that you consider your amount of space, what type of vegetables to grow, and what kind of fish you want to use.
This is only a start and shows the most basic ways of building an aquaponics system. I’ve experimented with more extensive and alternative methods, and I encourage you to do the same. There are hundreds of ways to complete your build to suit your living situation.
There are also other valuable resources and components that you may find useful.
Experiment with different builds and kits. Try other plants and various types of fish. Find out what works for you and run with it!