What is Aquaponics?
There's More than One Way to Garden....
Aquaponics is a method of growing vegetables and raising aquatic animals (namely fish and crustaceans) together in a closed system. Aquaponics, a word that is derived from the Latin ‘Aqua-ponos’ or ‘water-labour’, works in a harmonious, cyclical way where the selected flora convert the fish waste by-product into nutrients to feed and maintain the plants, whilst also filtering and cleaning the water which is then returned to the fish to repeat the process.
This approach, which creates something known as the nitrogen cycle, uses less water than other more traditional methods, eliminates waste and reduces the need for harmful fertilizers and chemicals that are so common in today’s food supply.
Clean and green and packed with positives and potential for both gardeners and the environment, it’s no surprise that Aquaponics is a beloved method the world over.
Aquaponics System Types
There are primarily 3 types of aquaponics system designs;
- Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)
- Media Bed
- Deep Water Culture (DWC)
Each of these aquaponics systems comes with its own benefits, drawbacks, practicalities, and cost. They all rely on the same principles of the nitrogen cycle while also minimizing water usage. Using a ‘closed’ system that is feeds and waters itself. Aquaponics is beneficial for the individual, environment, and the planet.
Who can benefit from Aquaponics?
A growing system that is potentially as old as the Aztecs! Modern aquaponics has come a long way since then. Combining the best parts aquaculture and hydroponics while reducing the drawbacks such as chemicals used and the potentially toxic water waste products inherent in these other types of methods.
Aquaponics is a great option for anyone who is interested in growing their own fresh and tasty vegetables, raising fish as either a food source, an additional income stream or for show. Totally organic and mirroring natural processes, creating your own aquaponics system can help anyone who is looking to be more self-sufficient, who wants to add another element to their garden or is looking for a hobby that can put food on the table.
Home and commercial aquaponics systems have been gaining in popularity for decades and people from all walks of life are usings the systems. Schools and community programs, individuals, and commercial organizations all over the world are using aquaponics systems for teach, learn, earn, and grow.
Starting from small fish tank setups, aquaponics kits to backyard barrel systems, IBC packed greenhouses and whole aquaponics farms (you can even do it from your bathtub!) There is an aquaponics system or setup that can suit everyone’s situation.
What to grow and raise in your Aquaponics System?
So, you have decided to invest in an aquaponics system. Now it’s time for the fun part – to decide what plants to grow and what aquatic species to raise.
Broad ranges of fish species and practically anything that grows on land can be grown in your aquaponics system.
Not all fish and fruits are created equally however, and considerations have to be made to account for various other factors such as: light, space, temperature, and environmental conditions.
Whether pursuing aquaponics to feed your family, grow herbs to sell or just to improve your green thumb there will be a perfect combination for you. Tilapia and tulips? Or carp and chard? See below for more information on plants and fish for your aquaponics system.
Fish and Shellfish
Fish play a crucial role in in the nitrogen cycle. The ammonia in the waste they create is what the beneficial bacteria turn into bioavailable plant food. Choosing a fish (or shellfish) species can seem overwhelming at first, so it’s a good idea to have an overview of some of the more popular species used in aquaponics.
Hardy, tasty and easy to care for. These fish are one of the most popular in aquaponics systems.
Another adaptable fish. Carp handle temperature fluctuations better than most and are a great option for beginners and aquaponics experts.
Koi, a type of living art. These beautifully coloured animals have long been bred for stunning arrays of colours and make for a great ornamental fish.
Characterized by their cat-like whisker appearance. These diverse bottom feeding fish get along well with others and can be mixed in with different fish species.
Various species of bass can be a great addition to your aquaponics system. Be sure to double check which ones you buy though. A smallmouth bass gets up to about 3 pounds whereas a largemouth can tip the scales at 30 pounds.
Easy to grow and prolific organic matter eaters. Rotten roots, insects that have sunk to the bottom they love it all. Prawns would make a great addition to any aquaponics system. Be sure to keep them separate from any predatorial fish however.
Natural filter feeders, these molluscs are as good to eat as they are helpful in maintaining clean water in your aquaponics set up.
Doing their bit in the nitrogen cycle by absorbing converted fish waste as nutrients, plants play a vital role in the aquaponics process. Whether its beautiful bouquets you are after or killer crops. Deciding on which plants to grow is an essential step in your aquaponics system.
Juicy, ripe luscious red tomatoes. These are great addition to your aquaponics set up. Thirsty for nutrient rich water, they are great for beginners.
Highly nutritious and fast growing. This green leafy vegetable goes well in salads (or just on its own) adding some watercress to your aquaponics system is a great idea.
Versatile, easy to grow, low maintenance and high yields. Lettuce comes in so many colours and varieties. From peppery rocket to that luscious fresh crunch of iceberg. Lettuce is another all round, fan favourite of the aquaponics community.
Basil (and most other herbs for that matter) are yet another great option to consider when deciding on what to plant in your aquaponics system. Great for making fresh pesto or tossing throw a salad, you cant go wrong adding some basil into grow bed.
One for the spice family. If grown in a media bed to support its roots, aquaponic grown ginger can provide some staggering yields.
These lovely ornamental flowers are easy to propagate and care for. Trimming them from time to time will help keep their growth in check.
Excellent for both indoor and outdoor. These dark green plants don’t need much to live, however if left alone too long their growth can get out of control.
Aquaponics vs Traditional Soil Based Gardening
Nothing brings a picture of a garden to mind quite like, well, a garden. Soil based gardening has been at the forefront (at times at the back, by the garden shed) of human civilisation for millennia. From medieval vegetable patches to Mediterranean orchards all the way up to our modern back yard patches, community gardens and commercial farms – we have been putting seeds and saplings into soil for a long time.
Aquaponics and conventional gardening both produce the same end product, that is, fruits, plants and vegetables. While both can help you grow amazing, fresh and organic things to eat, it’s good to have an understanding of key similarities and differences for each type of growing process.
Soil based gardening involves, that’s right soil. It provides support, nutrients and a home for worms and other beneficial organisms. An aquaponics system has the option of using various types of inert media to provide the structure and stability for plant support and filtration.
Both types of setups use water, although in slightly difference ways. Traditional soil-based gardening uses a lot more than a well operating aquaponics fish system. With more surface area to cover and water, a significant amount of liquid evaporates into the atmosphere. Some studies suggest up to 90% more water is used on a soil-based garden than an aquaponics system.
While an aquaponics set up may use a lot of water initially to fill up the tank, the wastage after that is quite minimal. As the water doesn’t leave the tank (the fish needs somewhere to live after all) very little is wasted, apart from some natural evaporation, the only water being used is being absorbed through the beautiful fruits and vegetables you will be able to grow.
The time requirement for the upkeep, beatification and harvesting of both of these options really depends on the scope and size of what you are looking to achieve. Practical or a centrepiece? Hobby or side hustle?
Generally speaking, a traditional garden is much easier to set up. Soil + seed + water = garden. Upkeep requires regular weeding, watering, pest removal and fertilizing.
Aquaponics on the other hand has a higher upfront cost in time and money. It takes a little bit longer to get going (although this can be very rewarding in itself – check out our articles on the DIY approach) Additionally, there is a bit more to understand regarding pH and the nitrogen cycle. However, once these skills are learnt and the initial time is invested, upkeep will mainly involve keeping the fish fed, checking the pH once a week and periodically cleaning some pipes.
Again, this really depends on where you are and what you are looking to achieve. Apartment, townhouse, detached suburban house or rural settings will all have different space options and restrictions. You might have a hard time fitting a 1000 litre IBC in a 1-bedroom apartment and it doesn’t make much sense to buy 100 fish tank set ups to fill in your backyard.
Luckily, whatever space you have, and as you are interested in starting your own little self-sufficient journey, there will be an aquaponics system for you.
Last, but by no means the least, are fish. The most obvious differential between aquaponics and most other horticulture branches – these aquatic delights are crucial to an aquaponics set up, but not needed at all for a traditional based garden.
Adding fish adds an extra layer to your experience. Yes, it can be an extra layer of complexity, But in can also be an extra food source, another income stream or even a hobby for goldfish enthusiasts.
So, which one?
There are a lot of instances where aquaponics may be better suited then traditional, soil base gardening – and visa-versa. There isn’t necessarily a one size fits all, while aquaponics has great benefits and – plants in soil aren’t going away anytime soon – both can be a great option. Having a vision of what you are looking to grow, raise or a achieve will help decide on your best options. If your still stuck be sure to check out our great article which covers everything you need to know.
Aquaponics vs Hydroponics
Hydroponics is another way in which to grow plants, particularly crops and medicinal varieties. Suspended in water and without the need for soil, both Aquaponics and hydroponics use water to bring the required nutrients to the root of the plants. Unlike aquaponics however, this method relies on added chemicals and fertilizers, where as aquaponics is set up in a way where the fish waste is processed for the plants nutrition
Year-round harvesting – As you can control and remove the limitations seasonal changes present to other types of horticulture, such as traditional soil based gardening, both Hydroponic and aquaponic systems allow you to speed up the growth process and reap the harvest quicker. Therefore enabling more crops to be planted in the same amount of time
Fast growth. Taking the soil away from the growing process allows more oxygen to the root systems, allowing for quicker absorption of nutrients and supercharged growth
Controlled environment – For similar reasons from the first point, as the growing environment is controlled and generally indoors, the issues of pests, bugs and weeds are lessened if not completely removed.
Increased Returns: Both aquaponics systems and hydroponics setups can grow higher yielding crops. With less insects and bugs, no other invasive flora and a consistent nutrient supply. The environment is perfect for quality growth.
Whereas aquaponics systems required a slightly higher initial cost, both in time and money. Hydroponics can have a higher ongoing cost as you are open to the supply and demand forces that can drive up the cost of chemicals.
Aquaponics systems are set up in a way that mirrors ecosystems found in nature, therefore requiring no chemicals – in fact, any added fertilizers can seriously jeopardize the system as it could harm or kill your fish. Hydroponics on the other hand requires chemicals and regular flushing of the water as the build-up of salts and chemicals can turn it toxic.
Set up and Maintenance
To get an aquaponics system up and running takes more time in the beginning. Cycling the water and allowing time for the bacteria necessary for the nitrogen cycle to grow, develop and stabilize can take weeks. Hydroponics has a similar set up process, the key difference is that it requires adding chemicals and fertilizers for plant nutrition, this can be done in a matter of days.
Additionally, as fish are involved, there is another element of care, knowledge and time needed for you aquaponics system
Aquaponics needs a neutral pH level – in the range of 6.8-7.0. Hydroponics requires the level to be between 5.0 – 5.5 which is slightly acidic.
Source of income
Raising fish whether that’s tilapia, catfish or shell fish for tasty meals or koi and goldfish for their aesthetic – enables an extra level of self-sustainability or extra revenue stream.
This is probably the biggest difference between the 2 systems. Hydroponics needs consistent amounts of chemicals, flushing and changing of potentially harmful water. A well set up and functioning aquaponics system effectively cleans it owns water, feeds its own fish and provides a lot of the same benefits of hydroponics without the extra chemical needs (and cost
So, who wins out?
There is rarely a decisive winner when talking about the best system to grow food. Different approaches, or a combination of types may be necessary to get the result you are after. Hydroponics is quick to set up and start growing. Potentially more costly in the long run for both your pocket and the environment. Aquaponics (our favourite) takes a bit more to initially set up as the water needs to balance correctly. However, aquaponics is generally easier to run and maintain over the long term as it doesn’t need to be flushed and drained periodically.Fifferences
Aquaponics and Aquaculture
Aquaculture is the controlled cultivation of aquatic organisms. These water farms can be onshore, nearshore, or offshore and grow sea life such as fish, shrimp, and molluscs. Modern fish farms and other various types of aquacultures, like algaculture – the growing of seaweeds – contribute significantly to the food industry that feeds the globes growing population.
Taking place all around the world, from poor and developing nations growing fish in streams and rivers to feed themselves to bigger international conglomerates owing vast on-water fisheries supplying well-known brands – Aquaculture plays a crucial role in feeding our ever-growing population and helps to take the pressure from our oceans to come up with enough calories to feed us all.
The title of this piece might be a bit of misnomer. Aquaculture is aquaponics, just without all the plants. While open to more interpretation and argument, this statement is effectively true. It’s not so much one is better than the other, it is that one is effectively the other just with addons.
The main drawback with aquaculture is the waste, stagnant toxic water – inherent in a process where the aim is to grow as much fish as practical – is not a great environment for most things, especially fish, to live in for extended periods. So, water wastage, treatment and associated costs is a big factor to consider when exploring anything to do with aquaculture.
This leads us to the main difference between aquaculture and aquaponics and the biggest advantage of the latter. When set up effectively an aquaponics system acts as a filtration device, cleaning the water for the fish while at the same time helping the breakdown and conversion of the waste into plant friendly, bioavailable nitrates.
Aquaponics combines aspects of both aquaculture and traditional gardening, that is fish and plants. While also reducing the higher wastage elements of each system: water, toxics chemicals, stagnant water and the like.
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