Aquaponic Gardening

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Our “I’m in over my head” CHOP2 system. (long version) Do over

A little back ground and the construction:

Being that Jenny (wife) and I are both Vegetarians we decided to start a garden a few years ago. Just before we got started with the project along came TJ (son) who is 2 years old now and what started out to be a simple few plants in the dirt turned into a 2 year project of research, saving money and building what we have today.


Since we don’t trust what we’re buying in the market, we decided to grow all our own food and planted a bunch of fruit trees, blueberries, blackberries and avocado trees around the property. Next on the list… the Aquaponics system from hell.


 The Greenhouse is 16x24 and took me months to build. Between work and the kid, this thing dragged on forever. As I was building and researching I fell across and finally found the 8 grow beds I wanted. Not easy to find really nice ones in the USA!  Thank you to Sylvia and Alan for putting up with me until I finally placed my order. Of course if you’re going to do it… do it big… I ordered 4 more grow beds for a total of 12.


 That done (and not doing the proper research) I ordered a 700 gallon Fish Tank and a 300 gallon Sump for my CHOP2. The Tank is 6’ long, 5’ high and 40” wide. The size was due to the limited space I was trying to get it into. I cut a port hole into the side so TJ can see the fish and planned to bury the Tank ½ way into the ground. As it arrived I realized there was no way to get a 40” wide Tank through a 32” wide doorway! So tear out the front of the green house, stuff the tank in, rebuild, 2 more days gone. That seems SO FAR to be the only real issue we’ve had.


 Buried the sump and tank, built the stands, plumbed it all up and fired up the pump to marvel in what we built!


 Well….maybe not. I knew the (Bull Frog?) pump was oversized at 3000gph, but it only drew 130 watts and pretty much has a 99% non-failure rate running 24/7. Of course I got two just in case because I always get the 1% that fails. To make sure I was covered I ran 2, 2” drains back to the sump. Well that wasn’t enough. The water came over the top of the tank within minutes. Besides that, the Fish Tank is actually a HAZMAT containment tank so it couldn’t handle the weight of the water and the top bowed out 2 feet from where it started! So replaced all the 2” drains with 3”, built a bar to skirt around the tank and filled it all up again. Seemed to do the trick although its right there at the drain back capacity.


 So as of last night (05/26/11) the system up and running again. We are now letting the chlorine go away and this weekend we will start the fishless cycling with the starter kits we got from Sylvia. You can see by the pictures, we filled on the one side (7 beds) with Hydroton and the other side we will fill with ¾ River Rock as that is all our left over budget can handle. Going to run by the local nursery that has several huge Koi ponds and ask them for some rocks to put in our grow beds and see if that doesn’t speed up the process. Fish for now will be Red Comet Gold Fish when ready until we learn the system and we will replace them with Tilapia. Even though we wont eat them, I’m sure I’ll have no problem finding takers when they out grow the tank.


 Don’t think he’s on this Forum, but I do want to say a special thank you to Mike Shambarger for all his time answering my endless emails and putting up with my stupid questions. Seems like all the research in the world is nothing like doing it yourself and learning by doing. Like not needing an auto filler on a constant height Fish Tank. Shade cloth in So.California is a must after it hit 110 degrees (without the fans on) and it was only 90 outside. 


 Next comes the 5 strawberry/herb hanging towers (building the stand now) and about 4 wicking beds to grow potatoes, brown onions and such.


 Haven’t looked into it yet, but any thoughts on clams/mussels in the sump to help keep things clean? Alright, open minded for any criticism or help to make this a successful outcome for my family. Jeff

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Hi, Yes they are aphids and whitefly. Also have a look to see if there are any ants around. Ants farm aphids just like you are farming fruit and veg. As for the white fly get hold of some EM. (Effective Microorganisms) It will control white fly. It is well worth a google search and a read. If I can help with this subjuct please ask. I have been using Bokashi for my system for more than three years now. It will also help as a leaf spray.

Hi Jeff,

It is a good idea to not touch the PH. till all has cycled. As Aquaponics is a compromise. You need high PH. for bacteria to grow and reproduce. Once all has cycled then you can slowly bring down the PH. Another point is when you are using town water they add a buffer to it that is why the PH. is so hard to lower. I use a container that I balance PH. before I add it to the main system. It may in some cases take a few days to bring down the PH. The reason I use a seperate container is one day the Council may change the rate of what ever they add to the water and you could lose a full system. Yes it did happen to me. Ho Hum. I will not add water strait to the tank from the tap. Regards, Barry.

Hi Jeff,

I just wanted to say thanks for the great Photos. You have built a great System. That will feed you your family and friends forever. We need people in this world that care enough about the well being of our family, friends and our earth. Aquaponics is something that should be shared between every one. If your photos and your system influance just one person to start up an Aquaponic system then this is a very good thing. If any one would like to start up a system then read here and on other forums. you can start up a small system. There is no need to have a big setup. There is nothing better than freeeeeesh veg. Regards, Barry.

Nice looking system Jeff,  I build Koi ponds and I use a hose filter to get rid of  chlorine/chloramines  ... seems to work really well ... here is a link to an online pond store that I buy products for ponds..


I am just getting into Aquaponics ... so will be watching how yours produces and to see what other adventures it creates for you and your family.

TCLynx said:

Don't stress too much about the pH, moving it slowly is the proper way to do it and once you get down into the mid 7 range.  Like 7.6, you could probably go ahead and start the fishless cycling process.  Once the system cycles up, it will naturally bring pH down provided you can pre-prep your tap water for future top-ups (deal with chlorine/chloramine and pH before putting it in the system.)

Well as noted the pH has dropped.  You don't want to let it drop too low since that can also hinder the bacteria.  I like to take action to buffer my pH if it drops below 6.5 (since I use the API pH test if the pH gets down to 6 it could actually be way lower and I'd never know it from the test kit.)  Most people seem to agree that a pH around 6.8 is good.


Do be careful with any mixtures with soap or oils in them when treating your AP system since too much of either of those getting into your system water can suffocate fish and bacteria.  Definitely don't do the mixing on the grow beds where something could spill.  And be careful not to over apply or over spray in any manner that would allow excess to get into your system water.


Yellow sticky cards or traps are a good measure to add against white flys in a greenhouse.


Aphids can simply be sprayed off the plants with water but they will be likely to come back regularly, especially if they are being farmed by ants.

Diatomatious earth might be a good method against ants it it stays dry.

Thanks to some of the advice here, the bug population is back under control. I need to post a picture (in my spare time), but things are growing GREAT!

 My ammonia is still off the chart high so my guess is the PH down stuff I used did some serious damage. On the other side of that, the plants are taking off better than I though they would. So my question is, since I have no fish yet can I just let the ammonia level go for now and just add Maxicrop to suppliment the plants? Will the ammonia eventually go down on it's own once the plants use it up? I forgot the real numbers, but the nitrites are low and the nitrates are finally coming up so I'm going to ASSUME something is starting to work. I can suck it up and do a 50% water change I just hate to stop anything that seems to be happening in the right direction.

As always I thank you all for your advice! This is becoming fun again!


I would recommend doing a dilution test to find out exactly what your ammonia level actually is so that you can track it for a few days and see if it is coming down or not.  It is possible for an extremely high ammonia level to stall things out but if the ammonia level is coming down on it's own, I would not want you to do a water change since that can often mess things up pretty bad too.


The plants are not likely to be using much of the ammonia directly unless you have pond plants going on.  Some water plants like duckweed will use ammonia directly but most veggies need it converted by soil bacteria (bio-filter bacteria) into nitrates for them.


You probably don't need to be adding much maxicrop if you have already used some.  It should only be small amounts occasionally.  If you are seeing some nitrates showing up then there is some bio-filter action going on and there is food for your plants.


Best bet is keep testing and see what happens.  Patience.

DAMN!!!!!! Did a dulution test as recommended.... I had no idea how big my problems were. Looks like a 100% water change is coming.... maybe 50% at a time for 4 times???? Everything is growing so well I hate to do anything, but I need to face the facts. Here is where I stand last night:

Water temp 83.8, PH 6.81, Nitrite .25ppm, Nitrate 5ppm, and AMMONIA 32ppm!

Here are some of the latest pix on what's happening in the green house.


Well, do you have some large containers for storing water?  So you can prep your water change water?  And perhaps pull out your current ammonia rich water and save it for use in the garden, compost, and putting back in the system as things even back out?


You might wait a day or two and do another dilution test to see if the level of ammonia changes significantly seeing as it can take a time to prep the water change water anyway.  If you see a large change in your water test numbers (major drop in ammonia over a couple days) then you might not need to do as much water changing as all that. 

You might get one of those cheap kiddie pools from k-mart and put your ammonia rich water out in it to grow algae or duckweed to use up some of that ammonia and allow you not to have to waste all the water.

Jeff IMO I would dump the whole system. You have some bacteria in your media at this time. I would not use that water in my system due to the citric content period. Your system will recover faster with a complete flush. Even when you flush your system of all the water and refill your ammonia will still be high due to its in the bottom of the media beds which dont completely drain. My vote is flush and dont use it in your system. I had some off the chart readings and the water didnt move for over 2 weeks. I flushed the system 2 times and it got the Ammonia to 4 and then the system cycled shortly after.
The only reason I haven't been pushing Jeff to flush it all is I had gotten the impression that his source water (city water) was pretty terrible to start with and having to do a complete flush and needing to counteract the treated water to me personally seems so terrible (I'm lucky with good well water and don't have to worry about chloramines or salt or flouride or any of those other nasty things in city water.)

Hi Jeff,

Faster and easier for you to do a total dump, however, I still believe that some nutrients can be saved from your system water although you may have to get rid of around 75% of the stock water volume, this can be done because from your readings you still have some nitrification taking place.

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