Gardener's Guide: Tips For Aquaponics

What is aquaponics? Read on to see if you are interested in trying this at home...

What is aquaponics? Aquaponics is a combination of growing fish, or aquaculture, and growing plants without soil, or hydroponics. Variations of aquaponics have existed for over a thousand years, originating in China. Aquaponics started coming into it's own during the 1970's, with a wave of research that continues on to today. The concept behind aquaponics is to grow plants and vegetables using the water from fish ponds as the growing medium for the plants. Simply speaking, water from fish ponds is pumped into holding bins of plants, providing nutrients to the plants. After the plants "clean" the water of nutrients, the water is pumped back to the fish. Ultimately, both the plants and fish are sold into their appropriate markets. Very little water is lost in the process, and since no soil is devoted to growing the plants, more land is available for other uses. Aquaponics is even more environmentally friendly because it does not use any chemical fertilizers, as it uses fish waste in the water to produce nutrients to feed the plants.

What can you grow in an aquaponics system? Leafy vegetables like lettuce and spinach do very well. Herbs such as chives, mints, and basil are also happy growing this way. Some people are also able to grow flowering plants, including zinnias and marigolds. And while commercial growers work with fish such as tilapia or bass, home hobbyists can start their systems using koi, goldfish, or even tropical fish.

You can set up an aquaponics system in your own backyard or by using an inside-the-house aquarium. The basics of what you will need are fish, water, a holding container or aquarium for your fish, an air pump, one or two water pumps, and tubing. You will need a growing medium for your plants, such as pea gravel, perlite, or peat moss, a holding container for the growing medium and plants, and seeds or seedlings. You might also buy a grow light if you are planning on growing your plants inside your home. If you are going to use tropical fish in an aquarium, make sure that you get a heater and gravel.

How does it work? Water from the fish container is pumped into plant container. Fish wastes in the water include ammonia, which, if accumulated in high enough quantities, will kill both fish and plants. However, over a period of time, ammonia loving bacteria establish themselves in the plant growing medium and in any gravel that is in your fish holding tank. These bacteria chomp up the ammonia, turning it into nitrites, and finally into nitrates. As water flows slowly through plant containers, the plants suck up nitrates for food, and the water is ultimately cleaned. To complete the cycle, the clean water is returned back to the fish holding tank using pumps or gravity, resulting in movement on the surface of the water in the fish tank. This surface movement will help dissolve oxygen into the water for the fish to breathe.

Needless to say, setting up a system like this does not happen overnight. If you are starting from scratch, container water must be aerated for a time before fish can be introduced. Fish should only be added a few at a time so that bacteria can grow that will handle wastes. This process can take several weeks or more. Then there is experimenting with plants as the ecosystem in the fish container is established"¦

If you are interested in detailed instructions on setting up a hobbyist aquaponics program at home, go online and get more information on the "how to's" by going to your favorite search engine and typing in "aquaponics." You will find instructions on how to build a simple system by yourself or information on where to buy an aquaponics kit. Whether you choose to build or buy, trying an aquaponics system at home will be both challenging and rewarding.

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