Aquaponics: Get It In Your Garden

By Trista di Genova & Chris Simmons
The Wild East

We know it works. Aquaponics is booming in Australia at present because of the water shortage. By contrast, farm-raised fish are raping the sea environment…

A home aquaponic system.
A home aquaponic system.
Modern aquaponics started about 30 years ago, created by aquarists and their fish aquariums. They were dealing with plants in their aquarium for aesthetics, and someone thought that if water-based plants can grow, maybe also land-based plants can grow in these places.

Aquaponics has been going on for hundred of years; the first example might be in China, when traditionally they would use catfish in rice paddies. It helps fertilize the rice, and they eat insects.

Aquaponics on a larger scale
Aquaponics on a larger scale
About 30 years ago, people discovered the beauty of aquaponics: it solves two of the world’s biggest problems in two industries, by combining them. In aquaculture, fish farmers have to filter out fecal waste, as well as ammonia as it builds up in the water supply. This wastes a lot of water; 20 percent of it’s dumped regularly to maintain water quality. In deep water aquaculture, one square mile can produce as much waste as an average-sized city; this happens because the fish are force-fed an enormous amount of food, and since they are stationary this creates fecal waste that builds up in a localized area below the farm or can drift with ocean currents and damage the ecosystem in other areas as well.

In hydroponics, the main drawbacks are that plants require nutrients to be added into the water supply which is then provided to the plants. A lot of nutrients have to be purchased, and because plants use various amounts and types of nutrients throughout their life cycle, farmers can’t tell exactly when more are needed without the use of expensive equipment. Even with the equipment, the nutrient-rich water needs to be thrown out regularly, wasting water, nutrients and money. When these nutrients are thrown out, they strain city sewage treatment facilities or get into the groundwater as is true for normal agriculture, and put a huge burden on the environment and infrastructure.

But if you combine aquaculture and hydroponics, aquaponic plants extract the nutrients (waste) that the fish are producing out of the water through the nitrogen cycle that occurs in nature, and use them as plant food on site and can be used immediately to grow profitable, leafy vegetables, which work best. With aquaponics, you don’t have to waste water, or pay for nutrients. In this way, aquaponics is 80 percent more efficient than either aquaculture or hydroponics for water conservation. So the next biggest challenge is finding the right balance between plants and fish.

Different plants need different nutrients and quantities, and different fish live in different Ph levels, so this system is not fool-proof — you can’t grow everything at once. Size and type of the plant, and growth rate of fish must be taken into account. Lots of variables go into it, although everybody seems to have pretty good success with the leafies — lettuce, spinach, bok choi — the solutions take a lot of tweaking. You need knowledge of fishkeeping and hydroponics — and aquaponics.

As for growing fish, tilapia is the most common, and it’s also the world’s most consumed fish. It’s very hardy, and grows from 2 inches long to plate-sized in eight months; plus, they eat almost anything.

Today there are many aquaponics farms in Taiwan, although there are more in the U.S. that are run by the Taiwanese, especially growing orchids, a cash crop, a global industry that’s growing rapidly. The only problem they have is water lost through transpiration, or evaporation.

These same successful principles in aquaponics are not limited to leafy greens such as: lettuce, bok choi, spinach, basil, mint, watercress, but can grow other things as well such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash. The most enjoyable aspect is that you can add so many other components for the daily nutrients you need, and for the waste that you produce.

In aquaponics, your largest input will be fish food, but when you are also growing a garden that produces plant matter as waste, the waste products can be composted by the use of vermiculture -– using worms to speed up the decomposition process — and provide food back to the fish. The worms break down plant waste and fish excrement and grow to provide the food for fish helping to offset the fish food cost. Often, black soldier flies are also used, or duckweed as well (which are 30-40% protein), on top of worms to provide a more balanced diet for the fish. Once you calculate how much food the fish need, and how much is provided plant waste, you can calculate your fish food costs.

There are many ways to use your garden — you can grow rabbits, chickens, or most efficiently, Japanese quail for their eggs, which only need a small habitat. Any vegetables which has been attacked by insects or disease can either be fed to the worms, the animals, or the fish. Maybe the system is not fully self-sufficient, but it’s 80 percent so, and will be free of any outside contaminants, such as mercury, which is a problem in Taiwan.

Chris Simmons has been working with Kyle Sveinson and Zach Touzin on implementing several experimental aquaponics gardens in Taiwan.

Trista di Genova has developed a botanical garden on her Rooftop, and is hoping to soon put into place a fully self-sufficient aquaponics system.

A solar-powered aquaponics system
A solar-powered aquaponics system

9 thoughts on “Aquaponics: Get It In Your Garden

  • June 3, 2011 at 1:06 am
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    Hi,
    I really enjoyed the article. It was written very well. I have been experimenting with Aquaponics for the last 3 months now. I am using a combination of NFT (Nutrient Film Technique) and Grow Beds. I have been very pleased so far with the results. Although I am not raising fish yet for consumption. At this point I am just using goldfish and Koi. Lettuce, Boc Choi, Cabbage, Swiss Chard, Broccoli, and Tomatoes are all doing very well. I am even growing some tropical plants in the system called Bromeliad. I will be switching over to either Tilapia or Trout soon and raise to eat. The great thing about my system is that it is all indoors and in my basement. I am able to grow year round with no worry of insects, weather, or garden pests like deer, rabbits, and birds. I will be starting a raft system soon in a second system I am working on. You can follow along with my progress at

    Reply
  • September 4, 2010 at 7:41 pm
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    After reading this, I started watering my balcony plants by manually pumping water from the bottom of my aquarium into the watering can and stirring the gravel as I am doing so to get maximum fish poo. Then I just top up the aquarium with fresh water (not straight from the tap of course).

    My plants are much healthier and it’s good for the fish too. I also use the old non-biodegradable filter media as mulch, replacing it every time I change the filter media so the nutrients fertilize the plants and the mulch reduces evaporation and heating of the soil.

    Reply
  • March 28, 2010 at 4:21 pm
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    Thanks for your post! Can you pls. show how to raise tomatoes using aquaponics?

    Reply
  • January 21, 2010 at 6:31 am
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    The information presented is top notch. I’ve been doing some research and this post answered several questions. Thanks!

    Reply
  • January 4, 2010 at 5:04 pm
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    Dear Trista di Genova and Chris Simmons,
    how do I contact you guys off the website? I’ve been involved in the industry for a number of years and am now writing an article for a magazine on the state of aquaponics in Taiwan– would love to interview you guys for the article. (I might’ve met Chris– you know Barry of Bliss?)
    Please contact me at spicoli292@yahoo.com

    Great article by the way!

    Reply
  • November 24, 2009 at 8:34 pm
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    Jennifer Daniels in Florida is doing this:
    Basically, the concept is the use of hydroponics and algae as forms of food and energy. My research only addresses these concepts at the surface level, but I am hoping it can lead to further discussion and possibility.

    I am more than willing to adjust this image, if there is something more specific you would like to see. Also, please find the text that I included with the project, as it can describe my intentions and thought process a little more thoroughly–
    TEXT:
    The Problem:

    The increase of population – a strong argument for urban living- has required 1.2 acres of farmland per average person (to sustain dietary requirements). In addition, the equivalent to 1 acre is lost per person increase in population. This consumption of land will result in the devastation of arable land by 2050. What is the resolution? Can farm and city intersect? Can there be efficiency in this intersection?

    The categorization of program is not efficient unless each category can co-exist symbiotically. Two programs of function have fluctuated severely in opposing trends: agriculture and technology. By the 2050, the ratio of arable land to population for the US alone will be a third of what they were at the beginning of the century. This will have a severe impact on the landscape and diplomacy of programs.

    The Proposal:

    The City as a field project explores the compacting capabilities of a city. The very nature of an urban environment pushes the limits of density and necessity. Through its evolution, the city will be required to understand the limits of space, and re-determine its value and function. Through advanced developments in technology, plants will grow at a high efficiency rate, with little demand on resources. Through the use of hydroponic gardening, crops can grow up to 10 times the volume per space at the beginning of the 21st century. This method needs to be exploited as a means to limit space as our main resource.

    Through the use of stacked hydroponic gardening, algae will opportunistically grow underneath each layer from build-up of water, carbon dioxide, minerals and light. The algae will then be harvested to produce much needed biofuel for the city. The amount of algae needed to equal the amount of diesel consumed in the United States is equal to 0.5% of the farm land used in the country. By 2050, algae will be required to provide most, if not all, of all fuel consumed, and will be economically resilient.

    Reply
  • November 23, 2009 at 11:24 am
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    This is a great story, great reporting. Nice feature for one of the local papers, but you got it here first. Nice.

    Reply

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