You may remember back in the 90s when everyone had a peace lily in a vase with a betta fish chomping on the roots. While it's known now that bettas are carnivorous fish that need more than roots and more than a small vase of water to survive, as the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine explains, the shared habitat of plants and fish can help you imagine the concept of aquaponics.
The practice has come a long way since then, and setting up your own small aquaponic plants and fish system to grow herbs or leafy greens is within your reach! Here's the scoop on how this type of gardening works, which fish are appropriate for aquaponics, which plants you can grow, and how this system may benefit your environmental footprint.
How Aquaponics Work
In aquaponic systems, fish produce ammonia in their waste that beneficial bacteria transform into nitrate, which the plants then feed on, as the London Aquaponics Association explains. The roots of the aquaponic plants also act as a filter and clean the water for the fish. Some systems use a pump to move water from the fish tank into a basin where the plants' roots sit in water along with the beneficial bacteria. At its most basic, an aquaponic system is a fish tank with a garden on top—but the beauty is that it's a closed, zero-waste system!
Benefits of Aquaponic Systems
Aquaponic systems are great for the environment. Having your own multi-season garden right at home cuts down on "food miles"—or the amount of space between where food is produced and where it's eaten. This type of gardening also requires no fertilizers or pesticides, as the Permaculture Research Institute explains, which makes it better for the health of our pollinators and our waterways. Aquaponic systems actually use less water than traditional farming, which is an especially important feature in the wake of increasing droughts worldwide. Large-scale aquaponics can produce food year-round, indoors, and in locations that get too cold for crops in the winter.
I met Nick of AquapoNicks last summer at my local farmers' market selling delicious microgreens, wheatgrass, herbs, and other sprouts. We chatted about his medium-scale system and how it works. Nick converted his sunroom specifically to house a fish and water garden where twenty three-pound tilapia live happily in two 100-gallon tanks (ten fish per tank). He feeds his fish a high-protein fish food that turns into a strong nitrogen fertilizer for his garden through their waste. Daily maintenance takes just ten minutes to feed the fish and check in on everything, and he refills water and takes water tests weekly.
Nick says that the chore that takes the longest time is harvesting and packaging his veggies, but aquaponic systems of any size can be successful. "This type of gardening can be as simple as a single basil plant growing by a window in a vase with a single goldfish in it. It can also be done up to fill a giant warehouse," he says. "It can be as simple or complex as one would want to take on."
How to Introduce Aquaponics to Your Home
There are many small-scale aquaponic systems on the market today. Many can convert an existing fish tank into an aquaponic system, while others are designed solely for gardening. You can garden with fish on your kitchen counter, in your living room, on your deck, or in a greenhouse. There also are tons of DIY options if you're looking for a custom size.
You can use many varieties of fish in your system, too. For bigger setups, tilapia or bass are commonly chosen, but many freshwater fish will be happy in the system—even goldfish, as Nick mentioned. However, these water gardens are not designed for saltwater fish or fish that are carnivores, such as bettas.
A countertop system or systems adapted for a medium-sized fish tank can easily grow herbs (dill, mint, cilantro, parsley, and more), small salad greens, and microgreens. A larger system on your deck, sunroom, or in a greenhouse can handle tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, and other veggies that you may normally grow in your summer veggie garden.
Once your system is set, theoretically, you won't have any maintenance beyond adding water, taking pH and temperature readings, and then making adjustments accordingly. Be prepared to spend some time tweaking your personal system, and know that your efforts will be worth the bounty!
What do you think? Will you take the plunge and start your own aquaponic system to grow greens or veggies at home? Tag @toms_of_maine on Instagram to show us how you're using aquaponics!
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Why It's Good
Creating an aquaponic system at your home is a big step up from your veggie garden. It's a thriving, self-sustaining, environmentally friendly ecosystem that can produce many kinds of greens and veggies!