Need a Aquaponic Garden? Here’s How You Can do It – cheap, easy and effectively…

This is an entry in our current non-fiction writing contest  By B

A few months ago, I learned of the practice of Aquaponic Gardening. As a homeschooling parent of a bunch of very active kids, I am always looking for multifaceted projects that can enhance my kids’ educational experience while being true to my prepper ideals. Aquaponics fit perfectly. My hope is produce both edible plants and fish to feed my family. It is true that this system, because of our geographic location, will always require a source of power to be successful – but the promise of locally grown food overrides this downfall. When SHTF, I guess I will learn how to make lots of dried fish quickly.

Here is how an aquaponics system works… The fish in the aquarium eat the fish food, duck weed and sometimes even table scraps. They excrete ammonia through their gills and they poop. The fish waste and water are pumped up and floods the grow bed several times an hour. The compost worms in the grow bed munch on the waste and the beneficial bacteria changes the ammonia to nitrites and then to nitrates. The plants use the nitrates and grow. The clean water is dumped back into the fish tank and the system starts all over again. Salad greens can be ready to eat in less than 6 weeks. Tilapia fish can go from fingerling size to plate size in about 9 months.

Living parts of the system:

  • Fish, beneficial bacteria, compost worms, duck weed and plants
  • Non-living parts of the system: 1/2 and 3/4 inch pvc plumbing pipes and elbows, grow bed, fish tank, platform for grow beds
  • Electrical components: Grow light, pond pump, heater, air pump

Below is my experience in setting up a system.

When I began to research Aquaponics on the internet, many blogs recommended the book “Aquaponic Gardening” by Silvia Bernstein. I bought the book and spent many hours reading, thinking and making notes. One thing that I felt was missing from the book was a basic ordered list of things to do. There will be variations in this order depending on how and where you are setting up your system, but you will get the basic idea of what needs to be done when from the list.

1. Read and re-read Aquaponic Gardening, read everything you can find on the internet and try to find someone with a working system that you can visit.

2. Decide where your system will be located (inside, outside, greenhouse, basement). There are advantages and disadvantages to each.

3. Determine the size of your working space and source out your grow beds and fishtanks to fit your space. There are many options to choose from. Be sure to leave space for a tank to grow duckweed for your fish.

4. Build frames if necessary to hold the grow beds.

5. Now you will need to make decisions regarding – a) lighting (artificial or natural)

  • b) plumbing (how big or complicated your system will be)
  • c) grow media you will be using
  • d) type of fish you want to raise
  • e) increase the number of electrical outlets if you grow indoors (you will need to plug in the light, pump, heater and aquarium air pump)

6. Make and a bell syphon for your system – these are great fun to make and the kids still think they are magic!

7. Fill the fish tank with water, attach the bell syphon and the rest of the plumbing and watch the waterworks carefully to determine the fill/empty times of the growbed – adjust as necessary.

8. Begin testing water daily for pH, ammonia, nitrites, nitrates

9. Fill the grow beds with the grow media

10. Decide on type of cycling – with fish or without fish –

11. Plant seeds or plants in grow bed,

12. When nitrates appear in system, add fish to the tank and compost worms to the grow bed

It took me from January to the end of March to get my system to the point where I was ready to add the fish. Watching the setting up of systems on youtube makes me feel a bit embarrassed as they complete the whole system in about 20 minutes – BUT, they don’t have a farm, 7 kids, homeschooling, lack of aquaponic experience and hour and half drive to a big city to source out each the different components.

We are proud of what we have done and are looking forward to our first meal of fish and vegetables.


This is a bell syphon. There are lots of great tutorials on YouTube for constructing one.

Water is pumped up to the grow beds from the fish tank

Water is pumped up to the grow beds from the fish tank

Water returns to the fish tank after passing through the grow bed

Water returns to the fish tank after passing through the grow bed

Hydroton clay  supports the plant roots in the grow bed.  The white powder is hard water deposits.

Hydroton clay supports the plant roots in the grow bed. The white powder is hard water deposits.

After about 10 days,  the beans, lettuce,  kale,   radishes and tomatoes are all up and doing well!

After about 10 days, the beans, lettuce, kale, radishes and tomatoes are all up and doing well!

M.D. adds : Here is a great PDF Simplified Aquaponics Manual that is free to download that will provide even more info on this subject…

Prizes for this round (ends May 24 2014) in our non fiction writing contest include…

  1. First place winner will receive –  A $150 gift certificate for Hornady Ammo  courtesy of LuckyGunner, a Wonder Junior Deluxe grain millcourtesy of Kitchen Neads, a one year subscription to the Personal VPN service courtesy of unspyable and Three Survival Seed Vaults courtesy of LPC Survival.
  2. Second place winner will receive – Brand New, Sealed Case of Military MREs (Meal, Ready-To-Eat)  a $119 value courtesy and a Survival Puck  courtesy of Innovation Industries.
  3. Third place winner will receive – a copy of my book ”31 Days to Survival: A Complete Plan for Emergency Preparedness“ and “Dirt Cheap Survival Retreat” courtesy of a copy of “The Survival Medicine Handbook” courtesy of and a copy Herbal Antivirals and Herbal Antibiotics .


  1. Petticoat Prepper says:


    This is a great beginner article. I have thought many times about trying this and once I’m ‘re-grouped’ I think I’ll give this a try! Thanks for a wonderful primer!

  2. Thanks for the article. I’d just like to ask: how much monitoring and adjusting do you find the water needs? Is it essentially self regulating, or are you constantly having to tinker with stuff?

    • Petticoat Prepper says:

      Yes, good question. Is this something one could leave for maybe a weekend or do you have to make a number of trips out to make it all work?

      • Remember that I am pretty new to the system myself so I am going to tell you what I have learned so far, what I have read online, and what I’ve been told by others with an aquaponics system…

        Getting started (this is from personal experience) requires understanding the properties of your water supply. Initially, I filled my tank with well water – the pH was very high and it would have taken a whole lot of tinkering to get it back to neutral. It occurred to me that the 6 feet of snow in my yard could be melted and used instead of the well water. To fill the 110 gallon tank with snow water was labour intensive but is finally complete. If the weather was warmer, I could have used rain water or pond water.

        Next step is waiting for the nitrates – this can apparently take up to 6 weeks. As soon as the waterworks are functioning, you can plant your grow beds. Some people add sacrificial fish right away and some start the ammonia to nitrite to nitrate chemical reaction with a bit of purchased ammonia (this is what I did). I used a Fresh Water Master Test Kit to check pH, ammonia, nitrites and nitrates every day for about 2 weeks. When the nitrates appear, you know the bacteria needed is present and the plants can get enough nutrients to survive and therefore clean the water for the fish.

        Now that my plants are growing, I feed the fish (guppies until next Tuesday) once or twice a day, eat a lettuce leaf and admire my handiwork. Every once in awhile, I test the water -but it should apparently stabilize unless a big fish dies and is decomposing (spike in the nitrates). In Silvia Bernstein’s book, Aquaponic Gardening, she suggests
        Daily: Feed the fish, check the tank temperature, check the pumps and plumbing.
        Weekly: Check pH, check ammonia levels, add water if necessary (evaporation), check for insects on plants
        Monthly: Clean out pump and pipes

        Fish care would be similar to any household aquarium.

  3. Happy Camper says:

    Aquaponics is an awesome way to grow food. I have currently got two test systems going. Identical in every way except one is aquaponics and one is hydroponics.
    The hydroponics is having much better results so far. However I think aquaponics is defiantly more beneficial when done correctly, B has obviously done all the right research, and great job on getting the kids involved.
    My aquaponics tank, is different to yours in that I’m growing directly over the fish tank, as in the plant roots are growing into where the fish are. So my balance of turning the ammonia to nitrates with vermiculture is non existant. But I’m trying to develop a portable system.
    The growth rate in my aquaponics tank is however exceeding a traditional earth garden, and my fish are just goldfish not anything that is edible from the system.
    Please keep us informed on your progress.

  4. You mentioned the possibility of doing this outside–what conditions would be necessary to place this outside? And can it be placed in ground like a fish pool? Thanks for the great article & idea.

    • Inside or outside?
      short answer: You are limited mostly by your climate and available space..If your plants can grow outside, you can find a species of fish that will survive also. I’ve seen lots of examples online where the system is set up in a green house. If you live where it is warm year round, you are laughing – no aquarium heaters, no grow lights – only a pump to move the water.

      I’ve read a bit about pond pools (natural swimming areas that are deliberately cleaned by plant roots are mechanically aerated to keep the system healthy.

    • I guess I have to consider what our temperature will be like in the future. We live in Southeast Tennessee almost Georgia & North Carolina, but this last year we had the coldest winter ever. One day we had 1.2 degrees F. Very unusual! Normally we had 30’s at the lowest. Supposedly we are entering a cold weather cycle. So much for global warming!! Thanks for the info.

  5. Joe Mitchell says:

    I live in central Fl and built a aquaponics system out of a water cube it’s compact and pretty cheap to make about 200.00 dollars total. I have 110 blue tilapia and 30 plants. It’s low maintenance and the kids enjoy eating the vegetables we grow. Once built it’s a lot less work then a ground garden.

  6. My husband and I did a aqua ponics-garden in Colorado, years ago, when I first saw the Idea on a PBS garden show. We used 3 layers of plastic, and had bunnies on the ground to help heat.
    We could have meat, and vegetables year round. I loved it, Once set up, it didn’t take much care. Today, if I was to re-do, I’d do it in a
    Geodesic dome greenhouse, where there would be room to move around a bit, sit and enjoy the warmth on the zero degree days.
    I have an small hydroponics garden in my basement. never needs heat, but it does cost a fair amount to artificially light. I haven’t had much success growing carrots in my garden, so this year am trying them in soda bottles. We’ll see how this works. I usually don’t do anything in plastic soda bottles as the plastic leaks, but I live in a high altitude area, and we get only about 6 weeks of ” summer weather”.
    I wish I could find something to cover the inside of the plastic with, that would help it not to leak the chemicals into the soil, so any suggestions, would be appreciated.
    Thanks for the article.

    • Janei -I wonder if you could grow carrots in old glass jars if you put stones on the bottom to help with drainage????

  7. Great article.

    When I researched aquaponics, I found out that I can’t raise Tilapia in my county in CA. Apparantly, the State considers them an invasive species.

    Then I found that I would have to get a license to raise fish for consumption, even if it was only me consuming the fish.

    I guess California is worried I would be raising “assault fish” and they believe fresh, cleanly raised fish are worse for me than the mercury and radiation tainted wild harvested fish they sell in the grocery store.

    • Happy Camper says:

      Same in Australia, but I’m still considering it an option. Whilst I consider the environment before my own practices, I don’t see how there is a threat if Talapia are raised within a closed system not near a threat to waterways.

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