What is Aquaponic Gardening?

Written by Brandon Garrett

Aquaponics gardening is a growing trend that allows families to create a self-sustaining environment that grows vegetables, fruits, flowers and more with as little maintenance as possible.

The first time I was told about aquaponics gardening, I thought it was going to be very dirty and moldy but was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t like that at all. Aquaponics gardens can be as small or as large as you’d like it to be. They create enough food in a small space and require very little maintenance. Below, we’ve outlined a few items to consider on whether an aquaponics garden would work for you.

AquaponicsBest of Both Worlds
The Aquaponic Gardening Community defined aquaponics as the following:

Aquaponics is a cultivation of fish and plants together in a constructed, recirculating ecosystem utilizing natural bacterial cycles to convert fish waste to plant nutrients. This is an environmentally friendly, natural food-growing method that harnesses the best attributes of aquaculture and hydroponics without the need to discard any water or filtrate or add chemical fertilizers.

Basically, aquaponics is a food production system. It combines aquaculture (raising animals such as fish, prawns or snails in water) with hydroponics (growing plants in water instead of soil). The goal of aquaponics is to create a fully self-sustaining system of food.

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Both aquaculture and hydroponics require a lot of intervention to maintain. For example, in aquaculture, you have to ensure that the waste from the fish is removed before it builds to toxic levels. In hydroponics, one has to continually replenish and balance chemical nutrients or the plant will die. With aquaponics however, the two systems balance each other out to create a self-sustaining environment.

How does it work?
Aquaponics isn’t that hard. Fish produce waste that turns into nitrate and ammonia. If this builds up too much, it hurts the fish. However, this nitrate and ammonia acts as a fertilizer for the plants and prevents the build up. As the plants suck up the nutrients, it cleanses the water for the fish.

Once the system is setup correctly, only small amounts of water are needed to keep the system going. When the water evaporates naturally, it needs to be replaced. The most common fish used in an aquaponics system is tilapia because they require very little maintenance and reproduce very rapidly.

Before You Get Started
Before you start gathering tanks, pumps and fish, there are a few things you need to consider:

Where. Where will your system be located? Many aquaponics systems are portable (might take you a whole afternoon to move it, but still portable) and are great for areas where outdoor gardening is prohibited by seasons. You’ll need to consider how large your system will be and where you can easily house it. Perhaps a greenhouse? A basement with lighting? On another property? All of this depends on how large your aquaponics system will be.

When. Many fish hatcheries won’t ship fish during the winter months. Some plants are hard to establish during colder times of the year. It takes some time to get the bacteria to grow in your aquaponics ecosystem. All of these are considerations on when you’ll be starting your aquaponics system.

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Who. Who will be in charge of taking care of the system? Will children be around the system? If so, this may impact how tall you create the system, if it has windows, how often you want to cultivate, etc.

Building the Structure
Before you buy any fish or add water, you’ll want to make sure that your system is built correctly. You can build a basic structure like the one below:

Aquaponic Basic Design

In this design, the grow bed is placed above the fish tank. Water from the fish tank is pumped up into the grow bed. The grow bed to fish tank volume ratio should be equal. If you decide to add another growing bed, you’ll need to add a sump tank with extra water like the image below:

Aquaponic Plus Design

There are a lot of great aquaponics designs out there that are quick, easy and clean. Feel free to share your designs below in the comment section.

Structural Requirements for Tank. When choosing tanks and other materials to build your structure, be sure to pick items that are waterproof and can handle a lot of weight. Gallons of water can add up quickly and weigh down a lot on your structure. Avoid plastic containers too.

You should also use non-toxic, food safe materials. Since you’ll be growing food in this structure, you don’t want to contaminate the food. This means using non-toxic and inert materials to create your structure.

Many people use large 50-, 30-, or 250-gallon tanks to house their fish and other aquaponics materials.

What Kind of Fish Will I Need?
There are a few different types of fish that work well in aquaponic environments. Here are a few:

Tilapia. Tilapia are the most popular aquaponic fish because they are easy to grow, like warm water and do not require high oxygen. They mature very quickly too.

Goldfish. Goldifish, like Tilapia, are very easy to grow and maintain. There are more commonly used by people who don’t eat their fish.

Aquaponic PlantsCatfish. In Florida, Tilapia are illegal. So, many people use catfish instead.

What Kind of Plants Should I Grow?
Most any type of plant can grow in an aquaponic environment. In fact, the only ones that don’t grow well in an aquaponic system are plants that require a pH environment much above or below 7.0. So, things like blueberries or azaleas won’t grow very well in a balanced pH environment.

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Things like carrots and potatoes will have a harder time expanding into a mature state with aquaponics. Items like salad greens, tomatoes, peppers and strawberries all grow very well in an aquaponics environment.

The plants are usually grown in a rocky structure with water flowing between the rocks.

Your Thoughts
So, what do you think? Have you tried creating an aquaponic garden in your home? Do you think it’s an option for self-reliant living? Comment below to tell us your thoughts.

Special thanks to Sylvia Bernstein, author of Aquaponic Gardening, for resources in this article.

You might also be interested in:
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Updated February 22, 2013

22 Comments

  1. Raymond wrote:

    The Ready Store comes up with such great ideals. After reading about the aquaponics gardening my thoughts are it is a great ideal and is a very good for anyone and self reliant living.

    February 23rd, 2013 at 4:35 am
  2. Dawn Rodriguez wrote:

    I am in the process of fine tuning my mini system that my son designed. I have had limited results, but I did actually get some things to grow and finally some if the fish begin to thrive.. I am only using a 10 gallon tank, but finally have things balanced.

    February 23rd, 2013 at 7:40 am
  3. Rosalind Duckworth wrote:

    Thank you for publishing this article on the Aquaponic Gardening. I have been wanting to learn more about this kind of gardening now for about 5 years.
    Rosalind Duckworth

    February 23rd, 2013 at 8:33 am
  4. Alice wrote:

    Disney has an extensive hydroponic exhibit in Florida. You can take a tour via a tram. The also offer a 4 hour course. It is amazing. Well worth the investment. They also sell books.

    February 23rd, 2013 at 10:24 am
  5. Angelie wrote:

    Although this sounds highly attractive and I would very much love to entertain this idea and put it to work, I was wondering if anyone had any ideas as to how to prevent this set-up from becoming a mosquito breeding ground in the spring and summer months of the Southern US?

    February 23rd, 2013 at 11:08 am
  6. gary carbaugh wrote:

    I have a three thousand gallon water garden with Koi. It is 10’x25’x 3’deep. Can I have a floating bed on half of the surface space. Pumping water in the top of the bed and allowing it to filter through the bottom?

    February 23rd, 2013 at 11:26 am
  7. Chris wrote:

    I have just been reading up on hydroponics and aquaculture and was discouraged due to the apparent high maintenance. All of a sudden you print an article on aquaculture, low maintenance, perfect timing. Thank you so much.

    February 23rd, 2013 at 2:43 pm
  8. Tom Wallace wrote:

    Does the water run continuously between the fish tank and the grow bed? Or do you need to attach a timer to the pump to run for a certain period of time…then shut off for awhile?

    Thank you.

    February 23rd, 2013 at 3:27 pm
  9. Bobby Clark Jr wrote:

    I have a small system almost working! I have found that the gravel systems clog very easily and will be changing to deep water raft systems as described at friendlyaquaponics.com Thanks for bringing way of gardening to us. Bobby

    February 23rd, 2013 at 6:53 pm
  10. Aquaponic Gardening wrote:

    I loved your article you gave a excellent overview of aquaponic gardening and while Yes aquaponics is the wave of the future I think but its not as easy as getting some fish and plants. A major issue in these farms is “cycling” which is basically turning the fish waste into usable nutients for the plants you touched on this process briefly,here is a more detailed article on cycling that might be helpful http://gardening-x.blogspot.com/2013/02/reasons-your-aquaponics-system-may-not.html

    February 23rd, 2013 at 7:02 pm
  11. Gail wrote:

    I would think breeding Mosquitos is not a problem due to the fact that the water is moving across the bed and the fish should eat any larvae that was in the fish tank portion.

    February 24th, 2013 at 5:50 am
  12. Jackie Allen wrote:

    I would like to be able to BUY a ready made system that just needs to be put together.

    February 24th, 2013 at 7:38 am
  13. gamathers wrote:

    “I was wondering if anyone had any ideas as to how to prevent this set-up from becoming a mosquito breeding ground in the spring and summer months of the Southern US?” I think in an aquaponics environment mosquitos are known under a different name, “fish food”.

    February 24th, 2013 at 2:28 pm
  14. JOHN BIRCH wrote:

    WHERE CAN I BUY A READY MADE, OFF-THE-SHELF AQUAPONICS SYSTEM?

    February 25th, 2013 at 2:05 pm
  15. Chris wrote:

    Angelie – You don’t really need to be worried as an aquaponic system is constantly moving water. mosquitos breed in stagnant water. Although, if you are concerned with the possibility of mosquitos you would use mosquito fish to fight the problem with. There are just common minnows found here in Florida and eat mosquito larvae that sits on top of the water.

    March 9th, 2013 at 9:02 am
  16. Ray wrote:

    Can you have more than one variety of fish sharing the habitat–ie Tilapia and Catfish and minnows?

    Are the prawns grown in a fresh water habitat or salt water?

    June 13th, 2013 at 12:43 pm
  17. Rivenheart wrote:

    Murray Hallum an Australian has some videos and system examples on his website, this was my introduction to Aquaponics in my first system I raised bluegill and pumpkin-seed sunfish the system works the cukes were amazing and I harvested about a bushel per plant. I had set my system up in a greenhouse and I used the IBC “totes” for the fish tank and the grow beds This year we are going to try Tilapia.

    June 14th, 2013 at 7:17 pm
  18. richard mckinney wrote:

    when I was a fisheries student at Colorado statein the late ’80s, we did summers in central america doing a similar setup. every village had a pond, so we built chicken coops over one end. the chicken waste fell thru the wire mesh floor and other village detritus were fed to the fish .water from the pond was used as fertilizer. the villagers ate the fish and veggies, any scraps of fish etc were given to the chickens and the circle was complete.

    August 23rd, 2013 at 2:37 pm
  19. gsteph wrote:

    In the photo above…what is the large flat bright blue ‘tank’ made of? sure looks like some kind of plastic!

    September 28th, 2013 at 5:51 am
  20. Donald Stanley wrote:

    I have built and operated a hydroponic garden in the past. Made of 1X10’s and the use of an old waterbed liner and mattress. There were two boxes both had been lined with said vinyl from the waterbed. One box was 5 ft by 2 ft that was the bottom the other was 4ft by 2 ft the grow box the extra space up top had and opening to look down into the lower box and access the pump. The grow bed was filled with Pumilite I think that is the name. a form of vulcanized shale. Looks like pea gravel but 1/3 the weight. I created a PVC dam around the smaller PVC pipe that was the overflow. Timer came on once a day and as plant grew this was change to twice aday. There were other things needed to be done to the water ever couple of weeks but One tomato plant vine would grow 4 inches in 24 hours. I had to shut down the grow lamps or it would have taken over my apt. tomatoes were wonderful tasting even in Feb. Now added to the Aqua culture idea sounds wonderful. Just need the space to put it together. A store called Farm and Fleet and several others out there carry large Plastic water containers for live stock. These would seem perfect for the fish. Although I have seen very large ponds build for cat fish farming made of earth and plastic sheeting for the bottom.

    January 25th, 2014 at 4:47 pm
  21. Mark wrote:

    I don’t know if this article was a cut and paste or not. When I got to this point I stopped reading. If your Grow bed and tank are equal volume, your fish will run out of water. If you add enough to keep the fish happy and your pump fails, you will end up with water running out everywhere from the over flow. All this need to be considered. Honestly, I didn’t finish your article. At that point I lost confidence that the writer knew what they were talking about. Just my $.02

    January 27th, 2014 at 8:28 am
  22. Lori from So Cal wrote:

    The Internet is full of people showing you how to set up the systems. One thing I noticed is most used IBC totes cut in half which provided you with the water receptacle and the garden/rock bed. IBC totes are of food grade quality, which I’m guessing is pretty important if you plan to eat your veggies.

    January 28th, 2014 at 5:36 pm

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