Aquaponic Gardening

A Community and Forum For Aquaponic Gardeners

What is Aquaponics?

In 2011, This community came up with the following definition of aquaponics:

"Aquaponics is the cultivation of fish and plants together in a constructed, re-circulating ecosystem utilizing natural bacterial cycles to convert fish wastes to plant nutrients.

This is an environmentally-friendly, natural food growing method that harnesses the best attributes of aquaculture and hydroponics without the need to discard any water or filtrate or add chemical fertilizers."

Click here for a community based Glossary of Aquaponics Terms

In combining aquaculture and hydroponics, aquaponics capitalizes on the benefits and can eliminate the drawbacks of each.

The problems with traditional soil-based gardening -

  • The weeds

  • The amount of water required

  • The soil-borne insects

  • The heavy digging, the bending, the back strain

  • The deer, the bunnies, the raccoons

  • Knowledge required to know when to water, when and how to fertilize, and what is the composition of the soil


These issues are all solved with hydroponics, but hydroponics has problems of its own -

  • Traditional hydroponic systems rely on the careful application of expensive, man-made nutrients made from mixing together a concoction of chemicals, salts and trace elements. In aquaponics you merely feed your fish inexpensive fish feed, food scraps, and food you grow yourself.

  • The strength of this mixture needs to be carefully monitored, along with pH, using expensive meters. In aquaponics you carefully monitor your system during the first month, but once your system is established you only need to check pH and ammonia levels occassionally or if your plants or fish seem stressed.

  • Water in hydroponic systems needs to be discharged periodically, as the salts and chemicals build up in the water which becomes toxic to the plants. This is both inconvenient and problematic as the disposal location of this waste water needs to be carefully considered. In aquaponics you NEVER replace your water; you only top it off as it evaporates.

  • Hydroponic systems are prone to a disease called "pythium" or root rot. This disease is virtually non-existant in aquaponics systems.


The problem with recirculating aquaculture -

  • The tank water becomes polluted with fish effluent which gives off high concentrations of ammonia. Water has to be discharged at a rate of 10-20% of the total volume in the tank daily. This uses a tremendous amount of water. Again, in a well balanced aquaponic system you never need to discharge your water

  • This water is often pumped into open streams where it pollutes and destroys waterways.

  • Because of this unhealthy environment fish are prone to disease and are often treated with medicines, including antibiotics. Fish disease is rare in an aquaponics system.

How aquaponics changes the game

  • Waist-high grow beds eliminates weeds, back strain and animal access to your garden.

  • Reuse resources currently considered "waste". In aquaponics there is no more toxic run-off from either hydroponics or aquaculture.

  • Aquaponics uses only 1/10th of the water of soil-based gardening, and even less water than hydroponics or recirculating aquaculture.

  • Watering is integral to an aquaponics system. You can't under-water or over-water.

  • Fertilizing is also integral to an aquaponics system. You can't over-fertilize or under-fertilize.

  • Gardening chores are cut down dramatically or eliminated. The aquaponics grower only does the enjoyable tasks of feeding the fish and tending and harvesting the plants.

Instead of using dirt or toxic chemical solutions to grow plants, aquaponics uses highly nutritious fish effluent that contains all the required nutrients for optimum plant growth. Instead of discharging water, aquaponics uses the plants and the media in which they grow to clean and purify the water, after which it is returned to the fish tank. This water can be reused indefinitely and will only need to be replaced when it is lost through transpiration and evaporation.

Two primary methods of aquaponics growing are most widely in use today.

  • The raft based aquaponics growing system uses a foam raft that is floating in a channel filled with fish effluent water that has been through filtration to remove solid wastes. Plants are placed in holes in the raft and the roots dangle freely in the water. This method is most appropriate for commercial aquaponics.

  • The second method is called media based aquaponics because plants are grown in inert planting media (gravel, expanded clay pellets, coir, etc.) and is most appropriate for home use as it requires no pre-filtration.

History of aquaponics

  • Long before the term "aquaponics" was coined in the 1970s the Aztec Indians raised plants on rafts on the surface of a lake in approximately 1,000 A.D.

  • In modern times aquaponics emerged from the aquaculture industry as fish farmers were exploring methods of raising fish while trying to decrease their dependence on the land, water and other resources.

    • Traditionally fish were raised in large ponds, or in netted pens off ocean coastlines, but in the past 35 years much progress has been made in recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS).

    • The advantage of RAS is that fish can be stocked much more densely: up to ¾ of a pound of fish per gallon of water, thus using only a fraction of the water and space to grow the same amount of fish as
      pond or netting based systems.

    • The disadvantage is the large amount of waste water that quickly accumulates.

  • In the 1970s research on using plants as a natural filter began, most notably by Dr. James Rakocy at the University of the Virgin Islands.

  • The first large scale commercial aquaponics facility, Bioshelters in Amherst, MA, was established in the mid-1980s, and it is still in operation today.

  • Home based aquaponics owes its origin in the early 1990s to Tom and Paula Speraneo of S&S Aquafarms in West Plains, MO. The Speraneo's diligently refined a media bed growing technique that was more appropriate for smaller systems, and wrote a how-to manual that became a spring board for many home based systems build through-out the world.
  • In 2005, Travis Hughey wrote the Barrel-ponics guide and made it available for free on his Faith And Sustainable Technologies website. Since then thousands of barrelponics systems have been built in the U.S.

  • Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in Australia interest in aquaponics was taking off because aquaponics is a way to solve the drought and poor soil conditions that the Australians have to contend with.

    • Joel Malcolm led the movement by starting a popular forum (Backyard Aquaponics), writing a book on creating backyard aquaponic systems, and creating and selling aquaponic systems designed specifically for homeowners. Malcom currently operates a retail center called Backyard Aquaponics dedicated entirely to aquaponics in Perth, Australia.
    • At the same time, but on the other side of the country Murray Hallam built an aquaponics company called Practical Aquaponics, with it's own forum.  Murray also created 3 very popular aquaponics videos that have helped thousands learn what they need to know to grow successfully in media-based aquaponics.
  • Popularization of aquaponics has grown steadily through the past decade with the most noteworthy champion being MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" award winner Will Allen of Growing Power, who has integrated aquaponics into his ultra-productive, 2 acre urban farm in Milwaukee.
  • In September 2011, The book,"Aquaponic Gardening: A Step by Step Guide to Growing Fish and Vegetables Together" was released.  Authored by Sylvia Bernstein, published by New Society Publisher, and endorsed by Mother Earth News and 22 other industry professionals this book represents the first time that a comprehensive guide to media-based aquaponics has been available.  Within two weeks of being launched it was the best selling Gardening book on! It is now in it's fourth printing and has been joined by a companion online course called Aquaponic Gardening Online.
  • Also in September, 2011, the first annual Aquaponics Association Conference was held in Orlando, FL.  255 people came from all over the world to meet each other, learn about aquaponic developments, and create the new Aquaponics Association.  
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