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Ultimate Guide to Growing Home Aquaponics Strawberries

aquaponics strawberries

One of the many important decisions you’ll need to make when starting aquaponics is the species of plant you chose to grow. Whilst many beginners, and experts alike, tend toward leafy greens over fruiting plants, another fantastic choice is strawberries. Home Aquaponics Strawberries can be a great option for aquaponics since they survive well in soilless setups, they’re small, produce delicious lighter weight fruits that have a high market value, and furthermore, they also thrive in both commercial and home aquaponics systems.

Table of Contents

Why Grow Strawberries in Aquaponics?

Strawberries are one of the one of the most tastiest fruits in the world, and although the super sweet berries may not be as versatile for cooking savoury dishes as the more citrus-based options, they are a top choice for sweet, delicate desserts, and are of course, extremely mouthwatering to eat on their own.

Like most fruits they offer a several health benefits when consumed as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. Strawberries contain vitamin C, folate (vitamin B9), manganese and potassium, and are packed full of other antioxidants that can reduce inflammation, regulate blood sugar levels, and combat heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, stroke, and even cancer.

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Advantages and Disadvantages of Growing Strawberries in Aquaponics

Advantages

Delicious: It’s no secret that strawberry is a fruit and flavor loved by many.

High Market Value: As well as being extremely tasty, the berries also have a high market value.

Size: Strawberry plants are smaller than many other fruiting plants, which makes them ideal for aquaponics systems.

Weight: Plants that produce fruits also produce extra weight, and this can become a problem, as they get too heavy to support themselves. Strawberries however produce smaller fruits with less weight, and this can make it easier to support the plant as they grow.

Companion Plants: In addition to being ideal fruiting plants for NFT aquaponics, strawberries also make for a great companion plant, except for those in the cabbage/brassica oleracea family.

Disadvantages         

Time: Unlike other popular, quick growing, aquaponics plants such as those from the leafy green family, strawberries can take years to produce the first harvest. So, whilst the task of growing strawberries may not be more challenging in theory, the longer time till harvest does mean more time for things to go wrong.

Potassium: Strawberries require potassium to begin fruiting, so you’ll need to adjust for this when the time comes. You can add potassium to your aquaponics system either by applying a solution directly to the water, or by spraying it on the plant leaves. You can also adjust the composition of the fish feed so to increase levels, or use alternative sources such as seaweed extracts.

 

Best Aquaponics Systems for Growing Strawberries

Strawberries can be grown in several types of aquaponics setups, but are typically most suitable to grow in Nutrient Film Technique systems and Vertical Aquaponics.

NFT: NFT systems are typically utilized by commercial operations since the straightforward setup allows for simple, and fast harvesting.

Vertical Aquaponics: Vertical aquaponics utilize the same concept as NFT setups, however the vertical configurations saves floor space, which makes them more suited to smaller, home aquaponics systems.

Media Beds: It’s also possible to grow strawberries in grow media beds. The grow media can make it easy to install support for the plants should the berries become too heavy to support the plant.

Best Species of Strawberries for Aquaponics

According to the United States Department of Agriculture there are 103 different species and subspecies of strawberry. Whilst many of these may be suitable to grow in aquaponics, there are generally 4 species that are used, these include:

  • Albion: A species pioneered for the sunny California climate, these quick-growing strawberries are sweet, juicy, grow up to 12 inches and bare all the hallmarks you’d image of classic strawberry.
  • Ozark Beauty: This species of strawberry thrives in cooler climates. It’s one of the sweeter strawberry varieties and can grow up to approx. 12 inches.
  • Seascape: This perennial strawberry variety known for being sweeter and larger than most others. It can grow to a max height of 18 inches, and do best when the days are warm (65-75°F / 18-24°C) and nights are cool (50-60°F / 10-15°C).
  • Tribute: The tribute variety is a day-neutral species, which mean it begins to fruit no matter the length of the day/exposure to light. They typically grow over 12 inches and boast the classic glossy red color as well as the classic fruity taste.

Strawberries As a Companion Plant

Herbs are a great choice as a companion plant for strawberries as some attract beneficial pollinator insects that can help the plant grow. Herbs such as borage, chives, sage, dill, coriander, thyme, are all a favorite of pollinating insects. Strawberries can also be grown along side onions and garlic.

Note:

Cabbages, and vegetables from the same family, known as brassica oleracea, which also includes broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, are incompatible with strawberries as a companion plant due to chemicals in the root that can hinder the grow of certain neighboring species.

Best Fish To Raise With Strawberries

As with most aquaponics setups, it’s generally advised to raise tilapia fish to help feed your aquaponics strawberries. However, there are several other species of fish that thrive along side these sweet delicious berries, and these include crappie, koi and carp.

Although strawberries do not require any additional care and attention compared with other aquaponics plants, it’s still a good idea to stick to the common fish species to give your system the best chances of survival.

How to Prepare For Growing Strawberries in Aquaponics

Strawberries do not necessarily require any additional preparation than other aquaponics plants, however, since it can take years to plant, grow and harvest the berries some growers choose to transplants seedlings, or cuttings, to reduce this time.

aquaponics strawberry

Cycling Preparation for Aquaponics Strawberries

The cycling process is essential to ensure enough beneficial bacteria are present in the system to effectively perform the nitrifying process required to feed the plants. It’s also advised to start growing strawberries in a fully established system to give the plants the best chances of thriving.

Beneficial bacteria, such as Nitrosomonas, Nitrosococcus, Nitrospina, Nitrobacter, Nitrospira, and Nitrococcus, are responsible for converting the toxic ammonia fish waster, into useful nitrates and nitrites for the plants to survive.

A complete cycles takes between 4-6 weeks for enough bacteria to grow and flourish, and can be done with or without fish. You’ll need to monitor the levels daily and adjust when necessary.

The presence of nitrates will indicate cycling is taking place, and the cycle is considered complete once ammonia and nitrite levels drop below 0.5 ppm.

If nitrification appears to be taking longer to reach desired levels, you can speed up the process by directly adding more nitrifying bacteria, increasing aeration, or by raising the temperature or pH. Just be sure to bring these adjusted levels back within optimal range prior to starting your grow.

NOTE: We can’t stress enough the importance of cycling aquaponics systems prior to placing fish and plants. It’s a step that cannot be skipped nor corners cut, so be sure to follow guidelines and only commence growing once the cycle is complete.

If you’d like to find out more about the nitrification process and cycling your aquaponics system, then head on over to our Cycling you Aquaponics System – How to get the balance right article to get a much more in depth look on this crucial process required for all aquaponics systems to function.

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How Long it Takes to Grow and Harvest Aquaponics Strawberry

The complete time it takes to plant, grown and harvest strawberries is perhaps the species biggest disadvantage since it can take up to 2-3 years. As noted, this period can be reduced by planting seedlings or cuttings, however, whichever way you chose to start your strawberries, you’ll still need to tender to them for quite some time before you’ll be eating their fruits.

The vegetation stage will be at least 6 months to a year, more if you started from seeds, after which the plants will begin to blossom. New leaves will emerge every couple of weeks and fruiting should begin after a 4-6 weeks.

How to Start Strawberries Seeds In Aquaponics

As it can take years to raise strawberries from seeds to harvest, most growers chose to plant seedlings or cuttings to reduce this long grow period.

However, if you’re looking to start your strawberries from seeds then you can proceed as you would germinating any other species; that is by planting a few mm into soil, or using a starter tray, and grow mix (optional). Keep the seeds moist, cool and provide light as it’s required for strawberry seeds to germinate. It can take anywhere from 14-56 days for strawberry seeds to be ready to transplant into your aquaponics grow system.

How to Transplanting Seedlings/Cuttings

Transplanting strawberry seedlings is done in the same way as most other plants. Simply move your seedlings from the starting tray into your net pots after around 3 weeks; or once the seedlings have reached maturity.

The seedlings will then need a little time to acclimatize to the new environment. If your system is operating in colder climates you’ll need to expose seedlings to the colder temperatures and direct sunlight simultaneously, conversely, if you’re operating aquaponics in warmer climates then expose the seedlings to shaded areas close to the operating temperature.

Optimal Levels For Growing Strawberries in Aquaponics

No matter the type of aquaponics setup, plant or fish species you chose, there are many factors you’ll need to monitor, maintain and adjust to ensure the system runs at optimal levels. These include:

Water Cleanliness: Since most of what you’ll monitor is contained within the water it’s a good idea to start out with the cleanest source possible. You’ll need to make sure the water is dechlorinated, which can be achieved by adding sodium thiosulfate or sodium bisulfite, or by letting water sit long enough for the chlorine to evaporate.

Water Temperature: Too low or high a water temperature can hinder the beneficial bacteria from performing the natural processes required to keep the system alive. Too high a temperature can promote the growth of algae, which is also detrimental to these natural processes, and if the temperature becomes too high, it can outright kill the plants and fish. Different species may do better in certain temperatures, however the generally accepted safe water temperature range for growing strawberries is between 60-80°F / 15.5-26.5°C.

pH level: The ideal pH level for strawberries is between 5.5 to 6.0. Higher levels can cause leaf burn and stunt growth, whereas too low levels also stunts growth and promote aluminum; a nutrient not required by plants, and harmful to humans.

Ammonia: Strawberries, like other aquaponics plants, are susceptible disease and death when exposed to high ammonia levels. Since ammonia can be extremely toxic to both fish and plants, be sure to keep levels below 0.5 ppm.

Nitrogen: Beneficial bacteria are responsible for the conversion of ammonia fish waste into nitrites and then nitrates, which the plants can consume as food. Strawberries typically enjoy higher levels of nitrates between 500-1500 ppm, however most fish prefer levels between 3-150 ppm. This is why tilapia is a great choice for strawberries since the species can tolerate up to 500 ppm.

Potassium: Like most fruiting plants strawberries require higher potassium levels than other aquaponics plants. Calcium, from hard water for example, can hinder the ability the roots ability to uptake potassium, so it’s also important to keep calcium levels within safe ranges to ensure this does not occur. You can add potassium directly to your system until levels reach approx. 1.6 – 2.5% or 16,000 ppm.

Dissolved Oxygen (DO): Strawberries typically require more dissolved oxygen than other plants, which is around 3 mg/liter – where nitrification, the conversion required to feed the fish, occurs. However, since the minimum requirement for fish is typically between 4-5 mg/liter, you’ll naturally be aiming for sufficient DO concentrations anyway. Should you need to add more DO to your system, you can either install air pumps and air stones, or design and build cascading waterfalls and/or fountains to help agitate the water surface to produce additional oxygen.

Light: It’s often stated that aquaponics strawberries require 12 hours of light per day. This is fine for day-neutral species, which will flower no matter the light/dark duration, but other species will begin to flower once exposure to light dips below 14 hours.

Plant Spacing: Strawberries are a relatively small fruiting plant, and typically prefer spacing between 12-18 inches. However, everbearing and day neutral species can be almost twice as close together.

Limiting Macronutrient and Micronutrients

Those new to aquaponics will have likely come across these terms, limiting macro and micronutrients. Depending on the context, the term may have been applied to one or more of the vital nutrients plants need to grow, e.g. N (Nitrogen), K (Potassium), etc., and this can be somewhere confusing.

In fact, the term limiting means just that, and can be applied to any nutrients once they reach levels that begin to ‘limit’ the survival of the plant.

Aquaponics Strawberry Maintenance

Once the seedlings have been successfully transplanted into the aquaponics system all that’s required from that point until harvest is to monitor levels and keep the system in check.

Maintenance will mainly consist of monitoring the system and making slight adjustments when necessary. Monitoring can be performed visually, using test strips, or dedicated devices designed to such as pH sensors and dissolved oxygen sensors.

strawberry aquaponics

Aquaponics Strawberry Monitoring

Once the seedlings have been successfully transplanted into the aquaponics system all that’s required from that point until harvest is to monitor levels and keep the system in check.

Maintenance will mainly consist of monitoring the system and making slight adjustments when necessary. Monitoring can be performed using test strips, or dedicated devices designed to such as pH sensors and dissolved oxygen sensors.

Tools to Monitor Aquaponics
In order to monitor your strawberries effectively, you’ll want to keep an eye on each and all levels, and adjust when necessary. In order to monitor water, temperature, pH Levels, ammonia, nitrogen, and dissolved oxygen you can use a 6 in 1 test strip, as well as a thermometer for temperature and DO kit for dissolved oxygen.

Pest Infestation
In addition to regularly checking levels you’ll also want to check for pests and signs of disease. Pests are often attracted when one of more levels begins to read outside of safe operating ranges.

To protect strawberries from bugs naturally you can spray the plants with solution made from water and garlic, hot peppers, blood meal or soap. You can also sprinkle salt around the base of to stop ants from getting to and eating your strawberries. If you already have a large infestation you can try using the larvae of aphid midges, know as Aphidoletes aphidimyza, ladybugs, or lacewigs.

Alternatively you can use neem oil or a citrus-based insecticidal oil to prevent infestations.

Light
This is typically taken care of during setup, either through choice of location, or by installing grow lights, and/or sufficient shade to protect from direct sunlight. Light is another factor that promotes the growth of algae, so if you’re utilizing sunlight, you’ll also want to monitor light exposure as the seasons change, and potentially install grow lights or additional shading depending on your location.

Note:

The importance of hygiene when handling plants. One important yet often overlooked, or simply misunderstood, factor in maintaining an aquaponics systems is the importance of hygiene when handling the plants, fish, or any part of the system for that matter.

Since the ecosystem itself wouldn’t necessarily be thought of as an immaculately clean environment when compared with human living conditions, you’d be forgiven for overlooking the fact that aquaponics systems that operates under ideal conditions are in fact cleanly homes for the living organisms inside.

So be sure to keep things clean, which also means yourself prior to any work you may carry out on the system. 

How to Harvest Strawberries in Aquaponics

Harvesting strawberries is straightforward as they can simply be picked from the plant once they are mature and ripe. Just be sure to handle the plants and fruit carefully to avoid damage and bruising respectively.

You’ll be able to tell when strawberries are ready to harvest as they’ll reach a deep red color just as you’d expect.

A great tip here is to keep a record of the levels throughout the grow, and note the duration of each phase, as this information can greatly help you fine-tune the process in the future. And for a process that can take up to two years, all the information you can gather will be invaluable.

In Conclusion

When it comes to aquaponics there is a huge variety of plants you can choose to grow, some are more suited to specific setups, others are chosen to function as perfect companion plants. As a general rule of thumb fruiting plants can be a little harder grow than leady greens due to the extra weight and nutrients required to fruit. Strawberries however, not only produce lighter fruits, they also thrive in soilless setups, which gives aquaponics a little head start and some leniency when compared with other fruits.

Aside from those who absolutely love eating strawberries, these tasty berries are also a great choice for those running any configuration of NFT systems, including vertical setups, and aside from being delicious; the berries are extremely popular and have a high market value.

Although growers typically utilize NFT based aquaponics for strawberries, the plants also do well in media-based setups, and whilst strawberries may take longer than other popular aquaponics plants, the satisfaction you receive when it comes to harvest will no doubt make it all worth the while.

With all these factors in mind, if you’re looking for the ideal fruiting plant for your aquaponics system, then strawberries might just be the perfect choice for you.

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