Aquaponics is a growing trend in sustainable agriculture that uses aquaculture and organic gardening to create a self-sustaining system. By using the proper balance of freshwater, fish, and plants, aquaponics allows you to grow your own food without having to worry about soil fertility or drainage. This innovative form of agriculture can help you to reduce your carbon footprint, save money on groceries, and provide you with healthy, sustainable food.
What is aquaponics?
Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics, Aquaculture is fish farming, and hydroponics is the art of growing plants. What makes aquaponics different is that both forms of agriculture occur in the same symbiotic setup.
In the simplest terms, aquaponics is the water cycle. In a standard freshwater aquarium, the fish create the waste, and the aquatic plants in the aquarium use up that waste to grow. In an aquaponics system, that cycle happens separated. The fish create the waste, and water is cycled through the grow bed, where the terrestrial plants use the waste to produce food. The fish, in return, get the water back clean, without the waste.
Aquaponics takes the power of aquaculture and elevates it to a whole new level. Fish and plants get along and grow together in an integrated, symbiotic relationship. Aquaponics systems are more efficient and cleaner than traditional farming systems because they don’t require as much water or added fertilizer.
In a standard farm, water typically has to be pumped up and over the crops, using lots of electricity, which accounts for a large portion of a farming system’s operating costs. Aquaponics systems have a natural water conservation method because plants and fish are in separate tanks and continuously recycle water. This recycling of dirty water into the clean, nutrient-rich water in the fish tank saves both water and money. Only minimal water needs to be added to the system to compensate for water evaporation in the plants.
Additionally, plants in an aquaponics system don’t require as much space as in a typical agricultural farm. Growing a single herb plant, for example, can occupy a mere 6 square inches in an aquaponics system, compared to 300 square feet for a standard farm of that same herb. Because aquaponics uses less space and is more efficient, the grower accrues both environmental and monetary benefits.
By providing a source of organic food for your community, aquaponics systems offer additional social benefits. The Aquaponics University of America highlights several advantages for farmers who use aquaponics systems, including that they help farmers connect to one another – aquaponics sharecroppers give each other a percentage of what they grow. Farmers share tips on how to run their businesses effectively.
In a traditional farming system, a farmer has to pay a fee for the seeds they use and a percentage of the food they sell, creating an antagonistic relationship. Aquaponics systems aren’t immune to this problem, but farmers are still more likely to rely on each other for help and support, strengthening their connections.
Aquaponics is an ideal method of gardening because it can be highly customized. You can choose which plants to grow and where to put them. Some systems only use one type of fish, while other systems include as many as 12 different species. You can choose any number of fish species to grow, from goldfish to tilapia. You can also decide how many plants you want to grow. You can grow the same variety of plants, such as lettuce, or a completely different sort, such as herbs. You can also grow multiple varieties of the same plant, like three lettuces, which will be entirely different.
Aquaponics is also a clean and sustainable energy source for community farms. It requires minimal power resources, and since it recycles the water that it captures, it doesn’t require as much additional power for pumping. Some people claim that an aquaponics system is almost entirely self-sufficient in terms of energy if you add solar or wind power to the mix.
Aquaponics also provides food security for communities that rely upon crops for income. A farm system can provide yields for an entire village, thereby eliminating food shortages and helping families who are hungry feed themselves.
Here you can find an example of a success story of an aquaponics farming setup in Jamaica
What are the Types of Aquaculture Systems?
Aquaculture systems are valuable for several reasons. They are incredibly productive, relatively simple to set up, and can be easily replicated and scaled for large volumes of fish. The proper selection of the system and the types of fish needed to feed that system depend on what species of fish you intend to raise and other factors unique to your geographical location.
There are various types of aquaculture systems available that function in many different ways. Here’s a breakdown of how they work.
Open Water Cultured Fish
Open water cultured fish like salmon and tilapia are raised in the water column rather than in specially constructed tanks. As with any other tank, you can choose one based on the size and environment you want the fish to live in.
For large-scale fish production, choose metal containers, but smaller fish like tilapia and other freshwater species can also be raised in plastic containers. However, keep in mind that you’ll have to compensate for any insulating properties that these plastic containers might have – plastic tanks tend to be cooler and therefore more conducive to the growth of plants, so you’ll have to place them next to a grow bed.
The amount of fish you can raise using open water cultured fish will depend mainly on the size of your fish and how successful they can be in escaping from the open water. If you’re planning on growing smaller fish like tilapia, you’ll need to have many ponds or lagoons to allow for safe swimming space for your fish. Otherwise, you’ll have to manage this problem with a containment system.
This can be accomplished in several ways. For example, you could employ netting and boxes to contain the fish. You can also raise the fish on long poles or raise the fish in net enclosures. While these methods are effective, they are not particularly space-efficient. Since they prohibit fish from moving about, they tend to reduce your fish’s biodiversity and growth rates.
In-ground aquaculture systems work in the same way as Open Water Cultured Fish, except that they allow you to manage the swimming space for your fish much more efficiently and control the water quality of your water column more precisely.
For in-ground aquaculture systems, containers must be of a sealed design to prevent escaped fish from harming your animals. Additionally, since in-ground aquaculture systems are typically constructed on lake bottom or flooded land, they flood faster than their open water counterparts, necessitating frequent water harvesting.
Additionally, because in-ground systems require a complete system to be created, installation can be considerably more labor-intensive, and the materials are more expensive. Because of this, they are usually only used for plants that require large amounts of water, like potatoes.
In-Tank Cultured Fish
In-tank cultured fish are also raised in tanks, but in tanks that have been designed with particular fish in mind.
For example, if you have decided to raise tilapia, you will want to choose containers carefully. While the containers you choose make a difference in the system’s functioning, the ratio of grow bed to fish tank will remain relatively constant, meaning that the size of your container isn’t nearly as important in determining the success of your aquaculture system. The height of the containers is also essential since shorter containers will limit your growing area.
As we discussed with open water cultured fish, the size of your container is essential. You’ll want a container of sufficient size to allow for a growing population and space to freely swim around without the threat of your fish escaping. Remember that larger fish will have larger swimming patterns, and you’ll want to place containers at a level that will allow your fish to be at their most active and not be subject to overheating.
As with open water cultured fish, the plumbing that you use for your in-tank cultured fish will also affect the ability of your fish to swim around freely. Think specifically about the flow of your pipes. You want the pipes to be wide enough to allow the fish to swim around, but you don’t want the water moving too quickly. Additionally,
How to Raise Fish and Plants with Aquaponics?
Aquaponics is growing fish and plants together in one system. The plants absorb nutrients from the fish, and the fish convert the nutrients from plants into food. All of this takes place in a self-contained ecosystem where fish and vegetables clean the nutrients from the water.
It might sound like a complicated setup, but it is relatively simple once you get the basics down. Here’s how it works.
First, you need somewhere to put your fish tank. Make sure it is sealed tight and level with the ground.
After you have the basic system set up, you need to plan out where your grow beds will be placed in how big they are.
The main grow bed will be where your vegetables (and eventually, herbs, flowers, and other plant food) are produced. Fill the grow bed with potting soil. Once the bed is filled, you’ll need to place it where your fish tank water can reach it. The fish tank water must be clean and clear, so be careful when positioning the grow bed.
After the grow bed is in place, you’ll need to place the grow media on top of the soil. Growers use various types of grow media, and the most common, by far, is clay pebbles. You can use stones (but they can sometimes damage your plants,) plastic containers, or gravel, but clay pebbles are the most versatile grow media. You can use them to add nutrients and minerals to your plants, and they also contain air pockets, which allow the bacteria in your grow bed to convert ammonia to nitrates for your fish.
In a second grow bed, grow your plants. Some vegetables like herbs, lettuce, and spinach can be grown in foam rafts suspended in the water. Most other vegetables, however, need to be planted into the soil. Either use floating rafts, plant them directly into the soil or grow them in a hydroponic system.
Tips for Making a Successful Aquaponics Project
If you begin your aquaponics project by taking stock of what you have available, you may already have some ideas on where you will do your setup. Do you have a spare room? Do you have a spot on the deck? Or is your preferred location a sunny spot in the yard? Consider where you think you will set up your aquaponics project and make a list of essential considerations.
You’ll also want to consider how the setup will impact your home and family. Will you be able to walk back and forth from the house to the aquaponics setup and from the aquaponics setup to other things you need? Will you have to keep your home spotless to prevent bacteria buildup in your aquaponics system?
Decide what ratio of grow bed to plant you will try and stick to. Too many plants aren’t usually a good thing – they take up too much space and require more maintenance than they’re worth. Consider less dense grow beds like single-layered or double-decker grow beds, and consider using plant food sparingly at first.
It is generally suggested that a 2:1 ratio of grow bed to plant should be the correct choice, but most beginners start with only 1:1. This ratio is usually quite forgiving and allows you to build up your system before increasing the grow bed ratio. However, you can always increase the grow bed ratio once you have established a successful aquaponics system – provided you’ve taken care of the other important considerations.
Water quality is another essential factor to consider. If you’re not sure about the water quality in your local water supply, it’s best to test the water quality.
When you start your aquaponics project, your first instinct may be to fill your grow beds up to the brim with plants. However, you risk developing large algae blooms if your water levels aren’t regulated correctly.
If you’re unsure if aquaponics is something for you, you can always start with a small setup like in the picture below to explore the basics before you go big.