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Many family homes have an aquarium. And many family homes have a backyard garden. Now, what if I told you that you could combine your love of gardening and fish into a sustainable, thriving ecosystem where plants and fish mutually benefit from the other? The practice is called aquaponics and it’s been around since ancient Egypt when farmers irrigated their fields with river water, complete with fish. The idea is simple: you feed the fish nutritional food; they digest and release nutrients into the water; a water pump brings the water to the plants that feed on the nutrient-rich water that in turn “cleans” the water that flows through filters back into the aquarium for the process to repeat again.
A Basic Aquaponics Set-up
At first, setting up an aquaponics system might sound complex, but it can be quite simple to set up. I know this first-hand, because aquaponics became my son and I’s COVID-19 project. He had been gifted an aquarium, and I love gardening and had just heard about aquaponics, so we decided to set it up in his room. Basically, the set up consists of a 10-gallon aquarium, a water pump, a garden bed with water filters and clay pebbles as growing medium, and an LED light. You’ll also need water, ammonia, pH adjusters and a series of different test kits to determine when the aquarium is ready for fish.
To get us started, I bought the AquaSprouts Garden, and in a single purchase I got the garden bed with filters, growing medium, light support, water pump and timer. And most importantly, it came with an instruction book and video that walked us through the setup process. I did buy the LED light separately, but there is an available model that perfectly matches the included light bar. If you don’t have an aquarium, you can pick one up at the local pet store for $10 (and don't forget the gravel and decorations)!
Adding the Plants
After initial set up, you can add plants right away (you can also start from seed). My son’s first choice was to plant lavender and rosemary (and I snuck in a basil clipping after a few weeks). The garden bed can easily fit four or five plants, but we wanted to start slow. The only nutrients the plants will get is from the ammonia (ammonia represents the fertilizer the fish will eventually produce) you add to the water to kick start an inhabitable environment for the fish. Plants can extract nutrients from ammonia, but they have to work hard to do so and can put stress on the plant.
Waiting for Bacteria
After time, bacteria will develop in the aquarium and will eventually turn the ammonia into nitrates, which the plants can absorb far easier. This can be a slow process and requires patience. We started a month ago and are still waiting for the ammonia levels to drop. It turns out I added way too much ammonia in the first week and the tests are still off the charts. I highly recommend that you add only a few crystals of ammonia to the water to get started. I thought I was being conservative by adding half of an eighth of a teaspoon - DON’T DO THAT - it was way too much and a month later the ammonia levels have still not dropped. I ordered some ammonia detoxifier to help out. I also went ahead and ordered a tap water conditioner as well to help clean the water (those items should show up next week). I did use a chlorine filter when I filled the tank, but I figured the more I can clean the water the better. After all, Max, my son, has made it very clear that no fish shall be harmed in this aquarium and that water conditions must be perfect!
So, basically, right now we have a hydroponics system until we can add the fish, which we’re hoping to do soon!