Hello fellow earth lovers and aquaponic enthusiasts!
Today is the day we get to know everything we need about what is aquaponics farming and how to setup your own indoor and backyard aquaponic systems.
I have always been very curious about this subject. I remember when I first started, a couple questions popped up in my mind.
“What is Aquaponics?”, “What are the benefits?” and “What is required for a home system?”.
Don’t worry, I understand your questions and doubts, I have been there too. That is why, today, we are going to cover it all!
By the end of this guide you’ll surely be able to fully understand how aquaponics work and what is needed to build an aquaponic system.
What Is Aquaponics system?
Well, for you to better understand what is aquaponics we must first acknowledge two other sectors:
Aquaculture: Also known as ‘aquafarming’, it is the farming of edible fish, molluscs, crustaceans and other aquatic organisms.
Hydroponics: Part of hydroculture, it is the method of growing plants without the need for soil, via water and mineral nutrient.
Basically, Aquaponics is the combination of these two farming systems, therefore creating one integrated system that grows both fish and plants.
This eco-system works perfectly. Plants can acquire their organic food from the fish’s own waste while working as a natural filter that cleans the water for the fish.
Last but not least, nitrifying bacteria. Yes, you read correctly.
These microbes are a key element in all the aquaponic cycle because they transform ammonia from the fish waste first into nitrites, and afterwards into nitrates. The latter is the form of nitrogen the plant requires to grow.
Aquatic animals excrete waste, bacteria transform the fish waste into nutrients for the plants and the plants clean the water by consuming the nutrients.
As you can see, this sustainable system is beneficial for both parties. Consequently, ideal for all us growers!
This combination of fish farming and soilless plant farming is a highly sustainable method of food production.
In a research study conducted by the Ohio State University of the United States of America and published online in 2014.
Researchers concluded most aquaponic home growers (around 52%) have less than three years of experience. This shows how recently people have begun to understand the benefits and potential of having a sustainable aquaponic farm.
Benefits of Aquaponics farming
Suistainable system which survives by recycying rich-water night and day.
Completely organic. No chemical pesticides, herbicides or of any other kind.
Farming routine is much less than other types of farming, due to the lack of chores once the system is up and running.
Fit and scale. You can choose to put your aquaponic system anywhere you see fit. The size of your garden is up to you, feel free to scale it whenever you find the need.
At first I wasn’t sure about the authenticity of these benefits. However, now, after five years of experience, I realize I should have even started sooner!
There are many benefits to growing aquaponically. But I must admit my favorite one is being able to have a full meal straight from our own garden. Both fish and vegetables, grown together at home. There isn’t anything more organic and ‘fresh’ than this.
No pesticides or herbicides, you get to see and live the entire farming process from start to fish, with the parks of not requiring much routine maintenance (once the system is set up and fully working of course).
Understanding the Principles of Aquaponics
A biogeochemical cycle which converts nitrogen into various chemical forms. Affects both primary production and decomposition. This cycle is what enables the existence of aquaponics and, of course, life itself. It is the key element in both sides of the Aquaponic cycle, production and decomposition.
Important phase in the nitrogen cycle. It is the biological transformation of ammonia to nitrite and then to nitrate. Ammonia is a precursor to food and fertilizers (source of nitrogen, something the plant needs). However, ammonia is harmful to plants, thus the need for nitrification.
First it converts ammonia into nitrites, but the nitrogen in this form is still bad for the plant, so it goes on a second conversion into nitrates. These nitrates are what the plant consumes. Thus, returning in clean and usable water for the fish.
Is the ‘back-bone’ of all the nitrification process. The third element that connects aquaculture and hydroponics. These microbes will multiply naturally, living in the grow trays, the medium and tubes. It is visible and is known as ‘biofilm’. The bigger your farm the more nitrifying bacteria your system will require.
Aquaponic System: Getting Started Checklist
First, you need to decide the size of your system, is it going to be small or big?
You need to do the math and calculate the meters you will need for your setup. It is important that you know this, draw your whole system in a piece of paper or on the computer. Once you know how much space it will require, it is time to find the proper location.
The garage? The basement? A greenhouse?
It is highly important that it has direct access to water and electricity, as those will be vital.
If you intend on having year-round crops, you will need light and heat as well. Your setup will also need a good circulation between grow beds and fish tanks, as this will be the core of your all operation. (I will publish an extensive and detailed article on “how to have a good circulation system” soon).
The type of hydroponic growing bed is highly important. Are you going for deep water culture (also known as ‘raft based growing’), media-based aquaponics, Nutrient Film Technique, or vertical aquaponics?
- Deep Water Culture uses a raft (hence the alternative name) that floats in a channel with filtered water containing nutrients. The plants are in holes and the roots are dangling freely in water.
- Media-based Aquaponics is growing vegetables in inert planting media (see topic 3. Media).
- NFT Systems consist in rich-water flowing through pipes or tubes. Plants are, as the Deep Water Culture, in holes with the roots absorbing the nutrients from the flow of water.
Your media must not decompose, must not change Ph water levels, and must have a size that provides good drainage and space for good bacteria to grow.
The quality of your aquaponic grow media will have a big influence on the efficiency of your system. There are two types of material, the rock and particle size.
To beginners we advise a media between 8mm and 16mm; we consider it the ideal size and most common to use. Beginners should go for a hydroponic expanded clay to avoid picking a rock with high levels of limestone and high Ph minerals.
It is essential that your media does not lock out the nutrients or destabilizes de Ph.
We recommend expanded clay because it is very light, pH neutral, and it’s easy to plant, clean and sterile. However, it is a more expensive solution.
So it’s up to you and your budget if you pick expanded clay or a local rock such as river stone and shale. Don’t use materials with limestone or other high Ph rocks.
What are the Best Plants for Aquaponics?
You can grow almost everything through this method depending on your setup. However, some plants vegetables perform better than others in different environments. For example, for carrots, pumpkins, and watermelons you need to have an especially deep growth media.
On the other side, floating raft-type setups are ideal for tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, strawberries, among others. Cultivate only what your setup is best fit to, otherwise you will be growing weirdly shaped carrots.
Best Fish for Aquaponics
These are the three most common species used in aquaponic systems. When comes down to choose the species of the fish it is important to take the following factors into consideration: local climate, available supplies and do you want to edible fish or not.
In a cooler climate you could opt for Trout, warmer areas may opt to grow Tilapia or even Barramundi. You must also consider how regular you are going to stock your system with new fish.
Eventually the fish will start breeding, but in the beginning, it is important to have a source of fish nearby.
Tilapia: is one of the most popular species for Aquaponic systems. It is a fish that breeds easily, grows quickly and can withstand poor water environments. They are edible and require warm water to grow.
Trout: is great for cooler waters, they also grow very fast and are excellent meal.
Barramundi: is mainly a great for if you intend on eating your fish. They provide amazing meals, especially when grown in aquaponic systems.
There are other great species such as Goldfish, Carp, and Silver perch. There are other animals that are a great integration to any aquaponic system such as mussles and prawns as they will help clean the water.
Now that you have a good foundation on what is aquaponics it is time to start thinking about How to Build My Own Aquaponic System?
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Lindsey Hyland grew up in Arizona where she studied at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center. She furthered her gardening education by working on various organic farms in both rural and urban settings. She started UrbanOrganicYield.com to discuss gardening tips and tactics. Whether it’s succulents and houseplants or vegetables and herbs, growing and caring for just about anything in a garden gets her excited. She is especially passionate about sustainable ways to better run small-scale farms, hydroponics, urban farming, and indoor gardening.