Aquaponics: Gross or Totally Epic?
In the self-sustainability community, the search for low-cost, high efficiency systems of food production are always ongoing. Highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, supply lines of food, water, and other supplies are not guaranteed to hold. What should we do to ensure our families well-being? That answer may be aquaponic gardening.
What is Aquaponic Gardening?
Aquaponics is the method of combining plants and sea creatures in a mutually beneficial relationship to produce food. This process is a bit more complex than previously discussed growing methods, but with a bit of time, you can learn all about it!
To start, let’s examine the way the system functions. You have a large reservoir of water that serves as a home to the fish. Depending on scale, you need adequate space to allow the fish to thrive. The amount of gallons of water you need is dependent on the fish. Keep in mind that fish are living creatures with unique temperature, diet, and breeding requirements that may aid or prevent you from effectively using them. With that, let’s examine some common choices of water creatures for this method!
- Tilapia: Serving as one of the most popular choices, the tilapia fish is resilient to changing conditions. These fish are tough and will give you more leniency with mistakes. Their diet is less particular than other fishes, making them able to thrive on a wide variety of foods. Also, the tilapia meat is delicious! You can expect to harvest your fish in 6 to 8 months, making them one of the best aquaponic choices to farm. They do best in temperatures of 82–86 degrees Fahrenheit and a pH of 6.5–9. This is a great choice for folks who are new to aquaponics!
- Salmon: This is one of the most sought-after fish on the market due to their incredible flavor. Salmon can be a great aquaponic fish, as they are non-territorial and can coexist with other fish breeds. They take longer to reach maturity at around 2 years on average. These fish are cold hardy, and prefer temperatures of 55–65 degrees Fahrenheit. Their pH levels need to be between 7–8. Salmon are a great choice (especially if you run a mixed system with many types of fish) but are not necessarily ideal for those looking for fast harvest.
- Koi: The beautiful watercolor fish! A quick history lesson on the wonderful Koi: these fish were originally brought to Japan in 200 B.C. by the Chinese. Originally, these fish were black, and were found to have the different colored scales through genetic mutation. Seeing these mutations, the Japanese selectively bred the colorful fish to produce what we commonly see today. Pretty neat! Anyway, these friends are extremely ornamental, and have been a hallmark of aquaponics for some time. A major plus with Koi is their resistance to disease. They have natural resilience to parasites, as well! They prefer a temperature of 65–78 degrees Fahrenheit and a pH of 6.5–8. Koi live for a long, long time, clocking in around 20–35 years. While these fish are beautiful, they are not the best fish to eat. Keep this in mind if you are looking for a food source from your fish!
Now that we’ve looked at some popular choices for fish, let’s review the other important aspects of aquaponics!
Aspects of Aquaponic Gardening
While aquaponics seems simple on the surface level, there are some incredibly important things to remember when building your system. Let’s dive in to each part of the system!
The system consists of:
- The fish container
- The fish
- A root chamber for the plants filled with a medium (clay pebbles, lava rocks, etc.) and a net cup
- A pump that brings up the waste-filled water into the root chamber from the fish container
- A drain hole that lets the newly cleaned water flow back into the fish container from the root chamber
You may be wondering, how is it that the dirty, waste-ridden water can be used by the plants and cleaned so efficiently that it can be drained back into the fish container? This brings us to our next topic of aquaponics: Bacteria!
The most important aspect of the aquaponic system is actually invisible to the naked eye, but without this one component, everything will malfunction. This is the Nitrosomas and Nitrobacter bacteria. These little pals are so important to your success. Fish naturally produce a chemical called ammonia that is toxic to them in high quantities, along with the waste that excrete. However, we can use this to our advantage. Fish waste is an excellent source of fertilizer for plants on its own. It collects in the growing medium and breaks down over time. The ammonia undergoes a chemical change due to our lovely friends, Nitrosomas and Nitrobacter bacteria. They break ammonia down into nitrite, which is used as another source of fertilizer for plants. This is essential, as it forms an automatic fertilizer “machine” that will continue producing as you maintain the system!
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s look at some pros and cons with this system.
- Extremely efficient with resources: Only water waste comes from evaporation, all fertilizer is produced in house
- Very sustainable
- Producing two nutrient dense food sources at once (fish and veggies)
- Excellent producer of herbs, leafy greens, Asian greens, and collards
- Great for large scale farms and small scale homes alike
- Need a larger, more advanced system to grow plants like tomatoes, beans, strawberries, watermelons, and other plants that need large sums of nutrients
- Difficult to set up
- Larger set up cost than other hydroponic methods
- Controlling pH is tricky with aquaponics. You need to provide the correct pH for your fish, plants, AND bacteria. This means daily checks
- Need to buy fish food
With these pros and cons in mind, let’s see how aquaponics stacks up against hydroponics!
Aqua vs. Hydro
Folks may confuse these two methods together due to their naming (both are related to water). However, the two systems are quite different. Hydroponics does not have the ability of producing fertilizer. This aspect is unique to aquaponics, and makes it one of the most sustainable methods. However, the set up for aquaponics can be tricky. The price for purchasing a system is going to be high, so building one yourself is the best way to do it! Both systems work fantastically, use less resources than soil, and grow quickly. The main advantage you get with aquaponics is the fish harvest, the increased sustainability, and the decrease in resources used over time.
Now that we have compared the two systems, let’s look at how aquaponics can be utilized to help humanity!
Aquaponic Gardening: Real World Application
This series is designed to show all the options we have to cultivate crops at our fingertips. With issues in the world putting strain on the global supply chain, an aquaponic system may be a great idea for folks looking to have a reliable and sustainable food source in case of an emergency.
For people reading at home, consider the benefits of this system. Not only does it provide you and your family with a steady supply of fish and greens, but it takes little input after it has been set up. The biggest cost this system (after the setup) will be fish food. However, certain types of fish (like tilapia) can eat a wide variety of food. You could grow duckweed, for example, which is a fast-growing plant that can help supplement your fishes diets! Don’t let this part of aquaponics discourage you.
Lastly, aquaponics could have a giant role in replacing traditional farming. The larger you scale aquaponics, the more efficient and profitable it becomes. The average farmer spends around $115 per acre on fertilizer. Consider the immense savings and increased productivity that aquaponics would add to farming. This system self-fertilizes, so no cost for fertilizer there. You can grow vertically with this method, so the amount of yield you produce increases dramatically per acre.
Now, let’s get to the bottom of this. Is aquaponics gross, or totally epic?
Aquaponics: Gross or Totally Epic? SOLVED
Aquaponics is an interesting and unique way to feed your family. Personally, I can’t wait to try this! It has all the wonderful aspects of hydroponics, while adding its own flair of intrigue with its sustainability and self-fertilization upgrades. Due to these reasons, along with the practicality of the system for small and large growers, I believe aquaponics is absolutely, positively epic. Try it out today, and if you don’t love it, rest easy knowing there are plenty of fish in the sea!