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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Didn't take it as being smart, just some advice that I decided to FINALLY follow! I'll be spraying tonight.
Once you regain control you might think about a fan in the greenhouse for air movement.  And oscillating fan could help with the corn pollination as well as deterring some of the pests a bit.
So... fish are doing great and growing fast! Next problem now comes up (see pictures) all the bottom leaves are dying on all the plants and the peppers are getting black spots on what's left?

Have you dosed with seaweed extract?  A foliar application of seaweed extract, aerated worm tea or potassium bicarbonate might take care of a few issues with one method.

I'm not too worried about the bottom leaves dieing but I'm seeing some upward curling which can be from potassium deficiency and it looks like you might have a bit of sooty mold or something as well which might also benefit from any of the above sprays.  Make sure to spray when it will be cool for many hours after the application and provide as much ventilation as possible, dilute sprays properly since too heavy an application of anything can burn plants.

I have used vinagar for dropping ph in the PH as  as well as  wood and leaves  ( yep  I am a tight wad  but it worked)

Hi, Good for you John. One of the best and most natural way also to drop the PH. is to drop a branch from a grape vine in there. "Tight Wad" NO you are not this is what Aquaponics is about. Keeping every thing as natural and organic as possible.


Regards, Barry.


Next queston... why would my Ammonia and Nitrates keep slowly climbing?  The system holds over 1000 gallons of water and has plenty of growbeds and turnover of the water. Very little algee with clear water. We have 65 Talpia about 3"+ long and I only give them 1/2 cup of food so they eat it all in seconds. These are the latest readings. Ammonia 1.0, Nitrite 0, Nitrate 30ppm, PH 6.7, water temp 84.

Thanks all. Jeff

Hi Jeff,

Nitrates come from the conversion of ammonia by bacteria. These nitrates are the end product of a healthy biological system and are needed for plant growth. Nitrates can be as high as 200ppm safely in AP systems. Test the ammonia early in the morning and at noon, if you are getting a reading at both times up to 1 ppm then you have to regulate it by decreasing your feeding.The bacteria will convert ammonia over time but you can prevent spikes. You can regulate ammonia spikes by managing your feeding regime. At these high temps you want to keep an eye on ammonia. to deal with high ammonia readings i divide the feeding into three parts feeding morning, noon and afternoon. If you must feed all at once you have to decrease the amount you'd normally feed.

Jeff, what's your pumping schedule?  Does it pump all the time and use siphons?  Or are you running timed flood and drain?

If you are running timed, then you might want to increase your pumping and see if that helps bring the ammonia down.  Many people who usually do timed flood and drain with stand pipes will go to constant flow constant flood for a while when ever water quality is suffering.

Hi Jeff,

To be honest I don't like when I can't see how much water is going into a grow bed or how much is flowing out of each individual grow bed. Point 2 The out flow should be in the middle of the grow bed not at one end. This causes a wave effect on the out flow of water. Also dead zones at the further-est end from the drain. Jeff with the grow beds you have there is a flow problem only not the feeding as they eat the food in less than 1 minute. Feeding only becomes a problem if the food just lays around the fish tank not eaten. 3 Do not turn your pumps off ever. You must have a constant flood and drain for this system "eg" there must be a constant flow ether in or out. It only takes 30 to 45 minutes of no water flow to start killing off Aerobic Bacteria. Especialy at the temperature your tanks are at. It is not just Aerobic Bacteria that is needed in the system you also need Fungi. Fungi is what starts breaking down more of the solids. At this point I must add the Aerobic Bacteria it's self does not feed the plants. They carry the nutrients for the plants. The nutrients they carry are not released till the Aerobic Bacteria is consumed by other organisms. So Please don't think it is just Ammonia Nitrite them Nitrate end of story that is only 2/3 of it.

Regards,  Barry.

you may like to have a look at I just finished drawing it for you Jeff.

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I love this setup , functional and attractive. I have these 3 questions.........

Is your fish tank water level higher or the same as your grow beds?

Is there one pump in the sump ?

What are the ratios to help determine the size of the sump in comparison to the water everywhere else ?

Sorry all, been off the grid for a month as things at work are CRAZY right now. It's a good thing, but I'm working 13 to 14 hours a day 7 days a week. Luckily this "work project" will end on Oct 2nd and I can go back to life as I once knew it and will be back in sync with our aquaponics project.

 JANE to answer your questions: The top level of the fish tank is even with the grow beds. There was no reason other than being easy to get to the fish. 1/2 the tank is buried. I use a CHOP2 type system so there is only one 750 gallon fish tank, one 300 gallon sump and one 3000gph pump in the sump running the system on a flood and drain type set up. As far as the sump sizing goes.... it was a guess and I got lucky.

  Everything seems to be working GREAT right now. The pests are under control, and all the plants are beautiful in color and production. This has been a learn by doing for me. The biggest problem I came across (besides aphids and spidermites) was starting this project just before summer hit with a green house that needs more venting in the 100+ degree valley of Southern Calif. I learned you can't plant everything you want in the dead of summer in a greenhouse without A/C.

 The water issues also seem under control and thanks to the great people of this Forum, I'm learning to suppliment the plants with the food they were lacking and be patient while the system cycles up. Now the PH is stable around 6.7 the Ammonia doesn't seem to go over .25, nitrites always at 0 and nitrates stay at 160. Next month when life goes back to normal I will be looking into Barry's suggestion (post above yours) and start planting my fall/winter crops.

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