Aquaponics: Grow Fish and Flowers!

This soil-less system puts produce and protein on your plate.

Fish Food: Three varieties of basil, plus sorrel, cherry tomatoes, parsley, dwarf bell peppers, thyme, beets and green beans grow on top of this aquaponic system while tilapia grow on the bottom.

Photo by: Photo courtesy of The Aquaponic Source, Inc.

Photo courtesy of The Aquaponic Source, Inc.

Fish Food: Three varieties of basil, plus sorrel, cherry tomatoes, parsley, dwarf bell peppers, thyme, beets and green beans grow on top of this aquaponic system while tilapia grow on the bottom.

Sylvia Bernstein, president and founder of The Aquaponic Source and author of Aquaponic Gardening: A Step-By-Step Guide to Growing Fish and Vegetables Together, came across the concept of aquaponics by accident. “I was trying to find an organic fertilizer for a hydroponic system when I came across some literature on aquaponics,” she said. “Then a friend showed me a crazy jungle growing in his basement on nothing but fish waste. I quit my job and started this business six months later.” 

Bernstein describes aquaponics as the marriage between aqua culture and hydroponics. “It’s an integrated, constructed eco-system where water is circulated between an aquaculture tank and a hydroponic or soil-less plant growing bed,” she says. “You can do it with a 10-gallon aquarium or a 5,000-gallon fish tank. We can now grow our own source of protein while gardening.” 

In aquaponics' symbiotic plant-fish relationship, fish excretions provide nutrients to growing plants, and the plants in turn clean the water of bacteria for the fish. 

Though it’s vastly different than traditional gardening, aquaponics has a lot of benefits for gardeners and the environment. According to Bernstein, aquaponics uses 10 percent less water than soil-based systems, is completely organic and weed-free and the grow beds are adjustable, which offsets all the bending and digging. “There’s less runoff because we never dump the water, plus watering and fertilizing is integrated into the system itself, so those two things go away,” Bernstein says. “And there’s fish!”

Bernstein, who has grown everything from tilapia and goldfish to orchids, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, lettuce and a dwarf Meyer lemon tree in her aquaponic system, says plants that require a non-neutral pH—like a blueberry bush—will be challenged, as will anything "deeply subterranean," like onions or potatoes. "It's a gravel bed, so they don't do well, but bulb plants that push themselves up and out of the soil like radishes and beets do fine." 

Ready to go fishing? Take Bernstein's 5-hour online course or read her book. She'll cover what's involved in the initial investment, including a fish tank, grow bed, pump and plumbing, and suggest reliable resources for fish. "You'd be surprised how many little hatcheries there are," she says. "But it's important to know the fish and game requirements about importing certain fish in your state." 

And join other aquaponic enthusiasts in The Aquaponic Gardening Community for stats, chats, additional resources and support.

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