What is Aquaponics?

Aquaponics is the fusion of aquaculture, the process of raising fish, with hydroponics, the practice of raising plants without soil. The fish tank is connected to the plant bed, and friendly bacteria convert the fish waste in the water into available nutrients for the plants, creating a symbiotic relationship!

Aquaponics systems can provide a number of benefits over traditional in-soil gardening. It has been demonstrated that in some plants, including leafy greens such as lettuce, that increased nutrient availability can greatly speed the growth of plants. Furthermore, due to the recycling of water within the system, waste is minimized and overall water consumption is drastically reduced. Weeding is also non-existent in aquaponic systems, as there is no soil.

The basics: fish, plants, and systems

When it comes to fish, aquaponic systems are commonly run with fish raised for consumption. Common species choices include tilapia, carp, and bluegill. However, if you would like to operate the setup without consuming the fish themselves, fear not! Aquaponics is also often run with ornamental fish, such as Koi. If this is a priority for you in your aquaponics setup, consider building your fish tank with materials that offer good visibility to create an aesthetic addition to your horticultural environment. 

While specifics on aquaponics systems can differ at a larger scale, most home or amateur growers use a type of system called a “media bed”. This form uses a medium, usually gravel or lightweight clay balls, to provide support to the plants in the same way traditional soil would, allowing the growing of large rooted plants such as vegetables, fruits, and root vegetables. It is possible to use other types of aquaponic systems, such as those that feed rows of plants through gutter pipes, called the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) or in large pools of floating water, called deepwater cultures (DWC), but these systems are often only used at a larger scale, and cannot accommodate plants with larger roots such as cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, or most non-leafy vegetables. 

A visual overview of the chemical foundation of aquaponic growing. (Image Credit: User “Friendlyaquaponics”, Wikimedia)

Aquaponics in Philadelphia

Aquaponics can also be a great way to drive engagement between a community and its garden or orchard, especially among children! The Overbrook Environmental Education Center, a POP partner, recently created an aquaponics system at their location to drive student STEM engagement and environmental learning. Students from Philadelphia area high schools worked in their shop class to design metal racks for the water tanks, make prototype systems, and learn about alkalinity and pH by testing the systems’ water, a crucial step for aquaponic systems. While their system is at a larger scale than most personal setups, their engagement could easily be replicated between families, friends, and community members through aquaponics. Other local organizations get involved with aquaponics as well, Temple University’s Ambler Campus offers both credit and non-credit courses studying aquaponics, which originated out of a grassroots effort to incorporate the process in their horticultural education in 2013.

Students engage with Overbrook Environmental Education Center’s aquaponics system. (Image Credit: Overbrook Environmental Education Center)

If you are interested in learning more in depth about aquaponics, please check out some of the following websites!

How To Aquaponic

Permaculture Research Institute

Farming Aquaponics

Kodama Koi Farm (Resources specifically for Koi Aquaponics)

This Blog Post was written by POP Intern Joe Dizenhuz

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