As Australia’s drought drags on and water restrictions are tightened, our farmers are the worst affected. Crop fields are drying up and livestock are either being sold off or fed and watered with supplies that have been trucked in if their owner is lucky enough to be able to afford it.
If this doesn’t scare you, it should.
Initiatives like Buy A Bale are doing everything they can but we need to do our bit at home as well. One of the best ways to do this is by reducing our water usage as much as possible. This will allow us to keep our water supplies for drinking, agricultural purposes and protecting our food security.
While we unfortunately can’t make the heavens open for our rural friends, we can suggest a DIY option for those who want to grow their own food at home, but still reduce their household water consumption: Aquaponics.
An aquaponics system is a contraption designed to grow fish and plants harmoniously. Functioning as their own ecosystem, these types of set up facilitate the establishment of a symbiotic relationship between aquatic life and whatever you decide to plant in the system.
Aquaponics systems need just one tenth of the water required to keep vegetation healthy in traditional gardens, and, despite pitfalls with powering commercial systems, home set ups can be highly energy efficient when set up correctly (more on that later). Plus, they’re entirely customisable and scalable. Any water body that holds fish or aquatic life, from that little aquarium in your lounge room, through to the largest dam you can think of, can be used as the water component of an aquaponics system. You can even use an old water dispenser if you’re feeling particularly creative.
Another interesting thing about aquaponics, is that you don’t need soil or fertiliser to grow the plants within your system. They either float freely or are planted in special beads or gravel.
This allows beneficial bacteria to inhabit your grow beds, which is how the organic waste your fish produce is turned into sustenance for your plants. And it also means that you can have an aquaponics system pretty much anywhere – even in a tiny apartment or on a balcony.
Plus, fruit and vegetables grown in aquaponics systems mature between three and ten times faster than their soil grown counterparts, so you’ll be able to enjoy the benefits even sooner.
This means that with a little patience, an aquaponics system can provide many benefits for your family and the environment. Not only will you have your very own sustainable vegetable patch (or collection of decorative flowers), you will also be able to grow happy, healthy fish that can go straight from your system to your plate if so desired, or simply spend their days swimming about providing entertainment for your family and food for your plants.
This is thanks to the way in which aquaponics systems function, whereby the fish provide vital nutrients for the plants and the plants filter nitrates and other detrimental elements out of the water. This allows them to exist in near perfect harmony and produce top quality fish meat and veg.
And don’t worry, the filtration process doesn’t harm your plants, they need nitrates and other things that are harmful to your fish to thrive, so you should not be concerned about the quality or health of your vegetation being affected by growing it in this way.
What Plants Can I Grow In An Aquaponics System?
Both edible and decorative plants will happily grow in an aquaponics system, so you can plant pretty much anything that you would normally grow in your garden.
The exception to this would be cacti, succulents, and other plant species that prefer dry conditions.
It is also important to remember that you will need to keep your grow beds fairly full and productive since they are, in many cases, the main source of filtration for your fish.
Indoor set ups offer a lot more flexibility in planting as you won’t necessarily have to stick to standard seasonal rotations, but it is still a good idea to have a plan for what you’ll be planting throughout the year.
Suburban Farmer have a wonderful little article full of tips for how to give your new plants the best start to life so we suggest heading over there before you start digging into things.
What Fish Can I Have In An Aquaponics System?
Most larger aquaponics systems feature edible fish varieties, but you can also have just as successful of a system with pet or ornamental fish.
We recommend that all aquarium and small pond aquaponics systems be stocked with pet fish as space constraints will most likely prevent edible species from comfortably growing to a decent size anyway.
Ornamental Goldfish and Koi make great choices for pond aquaponics systems that are on the smaller side as they happily deal with colder water and will provide plenty of delicious nutrients for your plants.
For aquariums, you can generally quite happily just keep your preferred mix of compatible community fish.
In larger ponds and dams, you can start looking to grow edible species such as Silver and Golden Perch, Freshwater Catfish and Trout. Note that, apart from Freshwater Catfish, these fish will very rarely breed in dams so if you intend on fishing them out to eat, you’ll need to restock regularly.
All fish in dams require aeration and appropriate parameters to live happily. For further information, check out this blog by Love My Pond on raising happy, healthy fish in dams.
How Can I Set Up A Home Aquaponics System?
The way you set up your new aquaponics will vary greatly based on what type of system you’re looking to have:
Small systems attached to fish tanks often simply require the addition of a grow bed over the top of the tank and a pump to flood said bed with.
You can buy or build fancy designs if you’d like to but you can also have a super simple DIY grow bed set up like this one, but remember that you fish will still require adequate filtration and aeration.
While plants do help filter water, the addition of a grow bed will not supply sufficient filtration alone and your new plants can very quickly deplete oxygen levels over night. Always ensure that you run a suitable aquarium filter and air pump paired with quality airstones.
If you have a bit more room, you can also attach an aquaponics system to your pond.
Pond aquaponics is generally one of the easiest set ups to create, since you’re probably already moving water to an external filter. This means that all you really need to do to get started is establish your grow bed and attach it to your pond.
In terms of getting the plant portion of your system set up, you can shop around online for a grow bed that suits your needs, or simply DIY it. Bought grow beds will come with instructions for set up and connection but if you’re looking to create your own, follow the basic guide below:
Grow beds can be built in pretty much any watertight container as long as you have the ability to add hose or piping. Remember that your aim here is to irrigate the roots of your plants before having the water drain back into your pond. This means that at least one of your connections will need to be near the base of your container, and that your grow bed should ideally be up hill from your pond.
This will help reduce energy needs and make it easier to maintain your new system in the long run.
Once your grow bed container is set up, simply fill it with your preferred growing media.
We’ve heard from some of our customers that Matala Filter Media Sheets are perfect for this use but you can also use aquaponics specific clay grow balls, gravel or even pebbles in some cases.
The good news is that this is as far as your purchasing needs extend if you’ve already got an established pond. As long as your current pump is up to the increased workload, you can do this by simply running some extra hose or piping off your existing pond filter pump set up.
If you’re looking to start from scratch, your investment is obviously going to be higher, but this does mean you can design everything to work in perfect harmony rather than matching your system to your pond. In this case, we strongly suggest checking out the pond construction section of the Love My Pond blog before getting started. You can also check out their Ultimate Pond Construction Starter Pack if you’re looking to get everything you need in one go (and for a great price).
Note: As with aquarium-based set ups, the addition of an aquaponics grow bed does not negate the need for suitable pond aeration and filtration. We strongly recommend the use of a biological filter and a sub-surface pond aerator for maximum fish and pond health.
Sidenote on using your pond to grow food:
If you’re not quite ready to add a complete aquaponics system to your pond, but still want your garden to reap the benefits of nutrient rich water, check out this article on how your pond can help you grow fresh fruit and veg. Neither suggestion in this article requires the addition of any extra equipment and you can get started right away.
Dams are also well suited to being transformed into home aquaponics systems. They’re particularly ideal for those who want high producing set ups, as large water bodies can easily support multiple grow beds while housing a decent amount of fish for eating.
Grow beds can be established on any part of the bank which is stable enough to support to them and can be set up in an almost identical manner to those that you would create for transforming a pond into an aquaponics system.
Irrigation dams are particularly well suited to this transformation as all pumping equipment will already be established, you will simply need to divert some of the water from your sprinkler system to your grow beds.
This can also help improve overall water quality as your dam will benefit from the filtration provided by your plants. However, this should not be relied upon for the support of your ecosystem.
Our recommendation is always to have an appropriate dam aerator and biological treatment plan, especially if you are keeping fish or using your dam water to grow food.
We would also suggest the addition of a Matala Pump Defender to your irrigation intake pipe or foot valve strainer. This will help boost the biological filtration of your dam while also helping to protect your irrigation system from plugging. You can find out more about Pump Defenders and their other uses here.
If you require assistance with establishing your irrigation channels either for standard crop watering or for your aquaponics system, feel free to get in touch with the Love My Pond team. They have a collection of in-house specialists who can assist with any water quality queries you may have and can work with their irrigation partners to get you set up properly.
What Maintenance Is Required To Keep My Aquaponics Healthy?
Aquaponics systems should be maintained in the same way you maintained your fish tank, pond, or dam before turning it into a food source.
This means ensuring sufficient filtration in aquariums and ponds and having suitable aeration for all water bodies. You should also make use of biological water treatments if you want to provide the best home possible for your fishy friends.
General cleaning of your water should still be undertaken as required and larger seasonal cleans should still be a part of your routine.
If you require assistance with pond cleaning and maintenance, the LMP team of maintenance superstars can come out and get things done for you. Our friends at Water Quality Solutions can also help our with maintaining dams and other larger water bodies.
As for the grow bed side of things, you will need to remove any sick or dead plants as symptoms appear and ensure that you keep the area at a minimum of 50% of capacity.
Note that when growing with aquaponics, all treatments that come into contact with any part of the system MUST be natural. This means that you will not be able to use any form of pesticide of repellent so if you are worried about bugs munching on your vegetables, we suggest having a tent, net or similar device to protect your crops.
Are Aquaponics Systems Just For Home Growing?
As noted at the start of this blog, aquaponics systems are fully scalable.
While they’re perfect for growing your own food in your backyard or on your balcony, they can also be created for commercial use.
The ABC has a wonderful article about Max Gray, a primary producer in South Australia who provides fresh veg, fish and herbs to the local community. His aquaponics farms supplies the nearby hotel and the chefs (and their patrons) love the freshness and quality of his produce.
Aquaponics farms can also be even larger and provide a viable solution for feeding a significant population. Although many commercial systems are still optimising things, and we’ve got a long way to go before this type of growing can hold a larger portion of market share, expansion is happening rapidly.
Superior Fresh are touted as the largest aquaponics farm in the world and you’ll see from this article on The Fish Site, they’re powering forward and expanding as well.
This is great news for areas that don’t have the best water security and could provide a solution to some of the issues that farmers like our own are facing in dry climates.
Although it is doubtful that aquaponics will ever fully replace traditional farming, it can provide a boost to the agricultural industry that may help many save their farms, and improve the world’s overall food security.
So, Are Aquaponics Systems The Future Of The Backyard Veggie Patch?
We think the answer here is both yes and no.
In areas where it was previously highly impractical to try to grow your own food, aquaponics systems provide a viable option for households looking to. But in place where traditional vegetable patches can still happily exist it will come down to personal preference.
We may be a little biased, we do work with ponds after all, but we think that growing food with aquaponics is a wonderful option for the production of sustainable, organic, crops.
Let us know what you think in the comments:
*This article was originally posted by Love My Pond and has been reproduced and adapted with permission.