Home gardening is cool and all. Harvesting a fresh crop and carrying it a few yards straight to your kitchen is satisfying, especially when you have dinner guests over and you can coyly ask them, “How’s the salad?” When they tell you it’s the most delicious source of fiber they’ve ever munched on and start bribing you to confess where you bought the vegetables, you can lay them flat by yelling, “I BOUGHT NOTHING! I GREW EVERYTHING THAT’S IN YOUR MOUTH RIGHT NOW!”
But if you want to kick it up a notch, consider building a home aquaponics system. You’ll not only get fresh veggies without using so much as a speck of soil, but you’ll also be blessed with a regular harvest of fish. Bonus: you won’t even have to buy fertilizer for your pre-salads.
The way it works is actually ingenious.
What Is Aquaponics?
Aquaponics combines hydroponics (growing food and plants without soil) and aquaculture (farming aquatic life like fish, crustaceans, molluscs.) It’s a way to solve the biggest headaches in both systems. Hydroponic systems need to be constantly fed expensive nutrients. And aquaculture produces excretions that need to be cleaned out regularly. By Lego-ing these two farming systems together, hydroponics plants get nitrogen-rich nutrients from the aquaculture, and the aquaculture gets its excretions filtered by the plants.
It creates a beautiful symbiotic system that gives farmers fresh fish and vegetables so good you’ll never go back to eating those foreign-grown plants at your local grocery store ever again. The cool part is that people can even make their own DIY aquaponics system.
How it really works is a little more complex than that. By the time you finish reading this guide, you’ll understand how an aquaponics system works.
What Types Of Aquaponics Systems Are There?
Aquaponic systems range from complex systems used only by hardcore home growers to systems simple enough for a child to run. There are three main types of aquaponics systems: media-filled bed, nutrient film technique, and the raft technique.
In hydroponics and aquaponics lingo, “media” is the material you grow the plants in. Since you’re not growing in soil (and since scientists have yet to figure out how to grow plants in a matterless void), you’ll have to find something else to grow your plants in. In this case, we’re using a fish tank.
Water from your fish tank periodically floods the media bed, which then flows back the fish tank. All of the waste breaks down in the media bed. Occasionally, farmers will even include worms in order to speed up the waste breakdown (more on that in a bit).
This is the simplest form of aquaponics systems. The yield is smaller than in other systems, but it’s perfect for the beginning aquaponic farmer. If you want to dip your toe in the nutrient rich-aquaponics pool, this is where you should start.
Kinds Of Media
If you decide to go with a media bed, you’ll also have to decide what kind of media you should use. When choosing, you should consider expense and how it will affect the pH levels of your water.
Expanded shale is one of the most popular choices. It is pH neutral, usually comes from American quarries, and doesn’t have any sharp edges. That makes it easy to pack it when you’re building your media bed.
This is a popular material that usually comes from Germany or China. Lightweight and pH neutral, it’s a smart, well-rounded choice.
This is a heavier, but more affordable, material. Since it contains limestone, it might increase the pH level over time.
This is on of the pricier end of media. It’s also created from petroleum, which can be a problem if you are looking for a more natural grow bed. But it’s lightweight, easy to handle, and pH neutral.
Nutrient Film Technique
In the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), plants are grown in rows on gutters. Nutrient-rich water is constantly pumped through the gutter, supplying the plant’s roots with the nutrition they need to thrive. NFT requires a bio filter to remove matter than can clog pipes.
When you use this technique, you are limited in the types of plants you can grow. Leafy greens can work well. While it’s possible to grow a thriving garden with the NFT, this is less common than with other types of methods.
Reenacting scenes from Huckleberry Finn can be good for plants. In this method (also sometimes called the “deep water culture”), you literally float your plants on small rafts and allow the roots to soak in water. The rafts are usually polystyrene boards. Water from the fish thank flows through your filtration system, into a separate raft tank, and then back again.
Your aquaculture is the backbone of your aquaponics system. In addition to providing fresh sea life once it reaches maturity, your fish provides all of the essential nutrients your plants need to grow. Popular species for the fish tank include tilapia, trout, bass, catfish, and koi.
Aquaponics Cycling Systems
Aquaponics systems work because the water is constantly cycling between the fish tank to the plants and back again. There are a few ways this is accomplished.
“CHIFT-PIST” is an awkward acronym for “constant height in fish tank, pump in sump tank.”
This method requires a an extra piece of equipment (namely, the sump tank), but it’s popular among DIY aquaponics farmers. Water is pumped from the sump tank into the fish tank. As the fish tank overflows, water drains into the grow bed to hydrate and feed your plants. The water then drains back into sump tank.
Flood And Drain
This is also sometimes called an “ebb and flow” system. Like the name implies, it works by pumping water from the fish tank to the grow bed. After a certain amount of time, the water is allowed to totally drain, and the cycle starts all over again.
The “constant flood” system is similar to the “flood and drain” system. The main difference is that there isn’t a timer on the pump, so the grow bed is constantly flooded.
What Was That About Worms?
Right, the worms.
You see, it’s possible for fish waste to build up in parts of your grow bed. If this happens, they might produce gasses that are toxic to both your plants and the fish. Normally, you’d have to clean out your grow bed periodically to prevent this from happening. However, if you have a few worms wriggling around in there, then they can break up the solids. This allows you to cut down on the amount of maintenance you have to do.
Of course, this means that you’ll have to add an extra layer of complexity to your aquaponics system. You also have to prevent your worms from wriggling into your fish tank. That will just lead to fewer worms and fatter fish.
Getting Started With Storebought Or DIY Aquaponics
Ready to give aquaponics a shot? You have two options. If you don’t want to put in a lot of upfront work, buy a simple, all-in-one kit like the Aquasprouts garden. It’s not a huge, sophisticated system that will give you large yields, but it will get you up and running quickly.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can also go the DIY route. This gives you greater control over the size and complexity of your system, but it’s pricier — and there’s a greater danger of running into problems.
However, once you have a working aquaponics system, you can take pleasure in your very first harvest of vegetables and fish. And you’ll have a whole new reason to blow away your dinner guests.