DIY Aquarium Gardens: An Introduction to Home Aquaponics

If you’ve ever wanted to combine your love of fish with your love of gardening, then aquaponics is exactly what you’re looking for.

That said, it’s also a great solution if you live in an apartment with no place for a garden, want a more efficient way to grow herbs, or forget to water your plants more often than you’d like to admit – or if you’re just looking for a new hobby!

What is Aquaponics?

Aquaponics is a hydroponic system (a soil-free garden) placed on top of an aquaculture system (a fish tank). Together, the plants and fish form an ecosystem that turns fish waste into plant food and keeps the tank water clean.

It’s a pretty neat setup that benefits both the plants and the fish – and adds life and visual interest to your home. Let’s take a closer look at how the system works, the benefits of aquaponics, and how to set it up in your home.

How Does Aquaponics Work?

Aquaponics is based on a symbiotic relationship between the fish and the plants. It’s a closed ecosystem wherein the nutrients from the fish tank are used to feed the plants and the plants purify the water for the fish.

Here’s how the cycle works:

  • Fish produce ammonia through their waste, which can become toxic at certain levels.
  • Bacteria that live in the water, air, and grow bed convert ammonia into nitrite and convert that nitrite into nitrate.
  • Water is pumped from the fish tank up to the grow bed.
  • The plants absorb the nitrates, getting nutrients and filtering the water in the process.
  • Gravity guides the nitrate-free water back down to the tank.

The only outside help the system needs is someone to feed the fish once a day and top up the water level when it evaporates.

4 Reasons to Dive into Aquaponics

1. Grow Your Own Vegetables (Even in the City!)

Anyone who lives in the city knows tricky it can be to grow plants on a balcony or indoors. With aquaponics, you don’t need a plot of land to start your very own garden. You can grow flowers, herbs, or even vegetables. Not only does this help you save on grocery costs and provide you with fresh organic produce, but you also get the satisfaction that comes with gardening without maintaining an actual garden.

Plus, aquaponics produce a higher yield than potted plants or garden beds. Since there’s no soil involved and the plants don’t have to fight for nutrients, they can grow closer together and still thrive.

2. Easy to Maintain (Once Mature)

Once the system is mature, there’s virtually no maintenance required. The tank is self-cleaning and the plants are self-feeding, so all you need to do is remember to feed your fish. About once a month you should replace 10-15% of the water in the tank. Since there’s no garden bed, you don’t have to worry about weeding or watering the soil.

3. Save Water

Since these systems are closed, they use less water than traditional gardens. It’s an efficient way to grow plants without watering and keep your fish tank clean without replacing the water. Aquaponics is also an attractive option for those who want to garden but live in places without frequent rainfall.

4. Make the Most of Every Nutrient

Another thing that makes aquaponics so efficient is that the nutrient-rich water leaving the fish tank is put to good use fueling the plants’ growth. In traditional fish farming, farmers typically have no use for this water so it ends up going to waste.

Hydroponic plants can use these nutrients to grow stronger and healthier. With aquaponics, you get the best of both worlds: happy fish, happy plants.

How to Set Up A Home Aquaponics System

Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

  • A grow bed for the plants. You can purchase one from an aquaponics supplier or improvise with a bucket or garden planter that fits on top of the tank. It should be at least 3” deep.
  • A growing medium like gravel, peat moss, or pebbles. This will hold the plant roots and retain moisture to keep them hydrated.
  • A fish tank. You can use an aquarium or plastic container, but it should hold at least three gallons of water.
  • Gravel for the tank. You’ll want around 2.5 lbs. for every 5 gallons of water in your fish tank.
  • A water pump and tubing. You can use a fountain pump or small circulation pump and will need enough tubing to move water from the tank outlet to the grow bed.
  • An air pump, air stone, and tubing. The pump size depends on the size of your fish tank.
  • Fish! Goldfish, koi, and betta fish are common ornamentals, while tilapia, trout, and perch are good choices if you want to raise fish for food.
  • Plants or seeds. Some of the easiest plants to grow in this type of system are leafy vegetables, like lettuce, spinach, and herbs, or houseplants. You can place seeds in the growing medium or take mature hydroponic plants and move them to the aquaponics system.
  • Scissors, electrical tape, and a drill.

Once you’ve got your materials, it’s time to assemble your aquaponics system!

Step 1: Wash the gravel and spread it evenly on the bottom of the tank.

Step 2: Drill tiny holes every few inches in the base of the grow bed – 1/8” will do. This will allow water to drip back into the fish tank. In one corner, drill one 1/2” hole.

Step 3: Put the water pump in the tank, place the grow bed on top, and feed the tubing through the 1/2” hole.

Step 4: Run the tube along the grow bed’s interior wall about 3/4 of the way up. Cut off any extra tubing, fold the end, and secure it with electrical tape.

Step 5: Place the growing medium in the grow bed. Fill it to just below where the tubing sits.

Step 6: Poke small holes every two inches in the tubing and cover it with more growing medium.

Step 7: Fill up the tank with water.

Step 8: Plug in your water pump and connect it to the air stone and tubing. Set the stone in the tank and plug in the pump. You’ll know it’s working when you see a stream of bubbles.

Step 9: Use a pH test or litmus paper to make sure your pH is above 6.8 and below 7.2. 

Step 10: Add a chlorine remover or wait 24 hours before adding any fish. Start off with only a few fish (1/2” of fish per gallon) so your system can adapt. Down the road, you can add more.

Step 11: For best results, you should wait a few weeks before adding your plants. As with the fish, start with a few and you can increase density once the system is more established.

Design Inspiration for Your Home Aquaponics System

Aquaponics systems can be quite beautiful. Whether you want to grow colourful house plants or fresh produce, there are flexible design options for every living space.

Depending on how much room you have and what the local climate is like, you can choose to set up your system indoors, on your balcony, or in your backyard.

Here’s some aquaponics design inspiration to help you imagine how it could look in your home or yard.

Home Aquaponics Systems

The Classic Tank with Garden Top

The Modern Fish Bowl


Source: Inhabitat

The Smart Garden

Backyard Aquaponics Systems

The Vertical Aquaponic Wall

The Repurposed Rain Gutter

The Backyard Oasis

Need help setting up your own aquaponics system? Find an Aquarium Specialist in your area today!

Featured image courtesy of AquaSprouts

Posted by Emily Bauer