How to Be a Future Farmer

Aquaponics is an up-and-coming method of growing that is great for our New Mexico desert climate, considering its efficient use of water. I have been growing using this technique over the past half year and would like to introduce you to the processes and practices of aquaponics.

Aquaponics originated as a spin-off from the hydroponic growing technique. Hydroponics uses grow beds in which the plant roots are fully submerged in water for periods of time and have complete access to oxygen the remainder of the time. The water is supplied with nutrients and is pumped into the grow beds; when the water hits a certain level it begins to drain, allowing the plant roots to access all of the oxygen they need. Aquaponics differs from hydroponics in the way the plants get their nutrients. A hydroponic system requires nutrients and fertilizers to be purchased and added manually into the water, whereas an aquaponics system generates all of the plants’ nutritional needs with a closed loop system. Believe it or not, the plants in an aquaponics system get all of their nutrients from fish waste, and the system produces plants and sustains the fish simultaneously.  Aquaponics is an ancient idea but its modernization is happening slowly and only recently are gardeners recognizing this method as a more efficient way of gardening.

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The aquaponics system. Photo credit: Chad Otoski

To become an aquaponics grower, you must first have a functioning system with a grow bed and a fish tank. Aquaponics doesn’t use soil, and the grow bed that you choose can be filled with a variety of media. I luckily was able to obtain my set-up from an old co-worker. He had built a small aquaponics system and sold it to me for $100. (You can find a system to purchase or easily build your own.) My system uses a media of tiny clay pebbles that you can buy in any gardening store. The media provides a base for the plants’ roots in the grow bed and allows it to be filled and drained of nutrient-rich water.

Your fish tank and grow bed must be nearby and to make for an easily draining system I recommend having the tank directly below the bed. Your system will also need a pump so the water can enter the grow bed and submerge the roots completely. Be sure that your pump will not overfill the grow bed with water. If the water rises too high it will leave the base of your plants prone to mold, which is not healthy for the ecosystem in the grow bed. I use a bell siphon that automatically drains water in the grow bed back into the fish tank once the water hits a certain level. The bell siphon uses only the power of gravity, which makes it a valuable yet simple part of your system. Once you have your system organized you should test it out to make sure everything runs smoothly. Once it does, you can buy some fish!!

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The grow bed filled with media. Photo credit: Chad Otoski

In an aquaponics system the plants and the fish have a mutual relationship: the fish, through their natural functions provide the nutrients the plants need, and they keep the water circulating and clean. Just like growing in soil, you want a variety of nutrients feeding your plants. Fish waste is a perfect fertilizer. Since starting my aquaponics system, I have grown basic herbs. It is important to remember that it takes time for the nutrients in your grow tank to develop. It is good to start off growing plants such as salad greens and herbs that require low levels of nutrients. Eventually the buildup of nutrients in your grow bed will provide for nutrient-rich foods like tomatoes and peppers.

Fish are the most important component of aquaponics and making sure they are healthy ensures that your plants are healthy. You can choose from many different kinds of fish to fill your tank.  Depending on the size of your fish, you should have one fish to every 5-10 gallons of water. Remember, your fish will grow. My tank holds almost 20 gallons of water and has three medium-sized goldfish. You want to make sure to feed your fish the best food possible. It is important not to overfeed them; in the end it will harm both your plants and fish.

The final stage of becoming an aquaponics gardener is to choose your plants! Even if you just put some seeds on top of the grow bed there is a high likelihood that they will sprout in a couple days. Have fun!

-Posted by Emily

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