Before you start your aquaponic garden, it is best to understand completely what it is, and why it works. This way, you might save yourself some time and money and avoid some of the mistakes that we have made already.
First off, what is aquaponics?
Aquaponics is similar to hydroponics. In fact, aquaponics IS hydroponics, with the addition of aquaculture (fish farming). Hydroponics is the farming of plants using no soil, but instead, supplying the nutrients that your plants need through water. Aquaponics is the same as hydroponics, except that you are integrating the farming of fish into the system in order to create a symbiotic relationship between the plants and the fish where both benefit in the end. This method is chemical free because you will not need the liquid fertilizers that you need with plain hydroponics.
How does aquaponics work?
Aquaponics works by attaching a tank that contains your fish to a grow bed or PVC pipes so that the water from the tanks feed the plants in your growbed/pipes. Fish create waste that feed the plants and the plants filter the water returning clean water back into your fish tanks and helping to add oxygen to the water.
Why does aquaponics work?
In a aquaponic system, your fish drink the water and eat whatever food (if any) that you provide for them. Some people let the fish eat algae. In our system, we will be feeding our fish some simple pond fish food, since this year we are only growing goldfish or shiners. After drinking and eating, your fish will urinate and poop. This poop and urine contains ammonia that is then released into the water. Bacteria in the tank will convert the ammonia into nitrite. Nitrite is still a dangerous thing and will kill your fish if the levels are too high. Once the nitrite is in the water, another type of bacteria takes over and turns the nitrite into nitrate. Nitrate is good! Nitrate is what feeds your plants. Then the water that contains the nitrate is sent to the grow beds or pipes where the plants will filter it all out, picking up oxygen along the way and dumping back into the tanks where your fish are, providing them with clean and filtered water to consume and continue to grow and keep this circle going.
In order to get nitrates into your tank, the bacteria must find its way to your water. Whenever you touch a live fish, you might notice that the fish feel slippery and slimy. This slimy coat that the fish wear contains the bacteria needed to turn these wastes into plant food. However, this process could take months to get straight if you add your fish slowly to the tank from the beginning. We did this and had a fish tragedy the first few days. Now we are trying the fishless cycle method and will hopefully be able to add fish to our tank in the next couple weeks. I cannot stress enough how much you are going to want a test kit, especially in the beginning.