We all want our aquaponic gardens to thrive under our care, which can sometimes feel easier said than done. Choosing the right plants and fish for your aquaponic garden depends on the specific application of your system. If you’re new to aquaponics and want to start with some basics:
– What is Aquaponics, and How Does it Work?
– Hydroponics vs. Aquaponics: Which is Best for You?
– 11 Best Fish for Aquaponics Systems
At its core, aquaponics is a method of agriculture that uses tanks with soilless plant culture, as opposed to traditional soil-based gardening or farming.
This is known as hydroponics. Aquaponics takes hydroponic gardening a huge step closer to sustainability by replacing the water-based nutrient solution with a fish-producing aquaculture farm.
Aquaculture: the cultivation of aquatic plants and animals for use as food
Hydroponics: the process of growing plants in a nutrient-rich, soilless medium.
Aquaponics is similar to hydroponics in many ways, with the main distinction being the soilless plant culture. In hydroponics, healthy plants are raised by providing them with a water-based nutrient solution. In aquaponics, the organically fertilized “fish-tank water” is recirculated through a hydroponic garden (or gardens).
The plants and their medium, in turn, help to purify the water for the fish by filtering
making an aquaponics system a truly sustainable farming or gardening application.
In fact, there are a number of families, and even entire villages, that feed themselves year-round from their aquaponics farm. There are even commercial operations that produce consistently profitable harvests, year after year.
“From a media bed unit start-up in Bangkok to a fully developed 120 households deep water culture (DWC) unit in Ethiopia, aquaponics is showcasing its true potential to produce sustainable food anytime, anywhere.”– Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO-UN)
Aquaponic gardens have become popular for families interested in producing their own organic food and living sustainably, and have become profitable for commercial indoor farms, as well. This wide range of practical applications are a big part of why it is so important to know what you want to get out of your aquaponics system – before you even build it!
The best plants to grow in aquaponics
For clarity’s sake, we are going to break down aquaponics systems into two distinct categories:
– Residential (Hobbyists, DIY farms, Educators, etc.)
– Commercial (Greenhouse Farmers, Missions/Food Banks, Microgrowers, etc.)
While there is no official division between these two within the aquaponics industry in general, factors such as physical space and equipment costs can increase the challenges of scaling up by several orders of magnitude (unlike most hydroponic growing setups).
Therefore, what we really mean by residential is “non-commercial,” but it muddies the water to label the binary non/commercial, and a discussion of any length could get confusing quickly. The real distinction, then, is profitability.
If a system is designed to learn, to teach, or to demonstrate, it is most likely what we are calling a residential system, more accurately a noncommercial operation. Conversely, if the system has been designed for the purpose of producing a consistent, repeatable surplus, then it is almost certainly a commercial operation.
Of course, if a highly lucrative species of plant or fish were selected, even the smallest, most rudimentary of systems could still be considered profitable. Perhaps moreso, if the minimalist designer brings the right balance of resourcefulness and productivity to the operation.
For this reason, aquaponic farms have become incredibly popular with mission work. Churches, universities, non-profits, and other such institutions can absorb the initial investment of installing an aquaponics farm in 3rd world indigenous villages, where the populace is often more than willing to do the work necessary to see the farm succeed.
That being said, as with soil or hydroponics, or any other methods of agricultural production, there are certain crops that are inherently more profitable than others.
This can be due to any number of factors, including (but not limited to) the:
– challenges of growing a given strain or species
– rate of growth and total duration of time from harvest-to-harvest
– H2O/fertilizer needs of certain plant species
– temperament and contribution of different fish species to the system
– culpability of fish/plant species to fungal infection or other forms of illness
You can see how quickly a “what-if?” list of things that potentially impact profitability can grow. All this means is that you need to choose the right species of plants and fish if turning a profit on that initial investment is the main goal.
Profitability can even be the objective driving certain charitable and nonprofit ventures, as counter-intuitive as that might sound. These institutions have a collective interest in aiding the development of these extremely impoverished communities of people. In the past, sustainability was a recurring obstacle to the profitability of any investment in these communities, but the sustainability that is inherent in an aquaponics farm has the potential to render such obstacles to profitability obsolete.
Top 15 Plants for Aquaponic Gardens
Heirloom Rattlesnake Pole Bean Seeds, also called Preacher’s Beans
Burpee California Wonder’ Heirloom Sweet Red & Green Large Stuffing Bell Peppers
2000+ Baby Bok Choy Seeds for Garden Planting, Non-GMO Organic Heirloom Green Vegetable Seeds
250 Broccoli Seeds | Non-GMO | Fresh Garden Seeds
250 Golden Acre Cabbage Seeds
Cauliflower Seed, Snowball Y, Heirloom, Non GMO, 25 Seeds, Large, Delicious and Healthy
David’s Garden Seeds Cucumber Slicing Diva 2198 (Green) 50 Non-GMO, Open Pollinated Seeds
Herbs (basil, mint, chives, etc.)
Culinary Herb Seeds Garden Collection | Deluxe Assortment | 12 Non-GMO Seed Packets: Basil, Dill, Oregano, Mustard, Cilantro, Sage, Rosemary, Thyme, Arugula, & More
Kale Vates Blue Curled Great Heirloom Vegetable Seeds by Seed Kingdom 1/4 Lb Seeds
Eastern Sun Asian Microgreen Seeds Mix | Contains Mizuna, Pak Choi, Cabbage, Mustard & Radish Sprout Seeds | Non GMO Heirloom Seeds
David’s Garden Seeds Squash Summer Early Prolific Straightneck SL1149 (Yellow) 50 Non-GMO, Heirloom Seeds
Strawberry Seeds 100 Sweet Organic Beauty Red Strawberry Fruit Climbing Seeds
David’s Garden Seeds Tomato Cherry Supersweet 3981 (Red) 25 Non-GMO, Hybrid Seeds
Big Pack – (20,000) True Watercress Upland Cress Seed – Nasturtium officinale Seeds, Open Pollinated Seeds – Non-GMO Seeds
Lotus Flower Seeds for Home Planting Ornamental, Mixed Pink & Red Flower
French Marigold Sparky Mix Seeds, Over 5,000 Seeds
Desert Rose Seeds to Grow | 10 Pack | Highly Prized Multicolored Flowering Bonsai | Adenium Obesum
David’s Garden Seeds Sunflower Tall Branching Stem Ring of Fire 7151 (Multi) 25 Non-GMO, Open Pollinated Seeds
Burpee Perennial Tulip Mix | 20 Large Flowering Fall Bulbs for Planting, Multiple Colors
Outsidepride Purple Hyacinth Bean Red Leaved Plant Vine Seed – 100 Seeds
Most Profitable Plants and Fish for Aquaponic Gardens
These are the plants you will see most often in commercial aquaponics farms. Grown aquaponically, these species grow twice as fast and are already well-known for their flavor and nutrition. Check prices at your local Farmer’s Market, or consider sourcing local restaurants with sustainable gourmet ingredients
– All leafy lettuce varieties
– Pak choi
– Swiss chard
– Blue gill
Do plants grow faster in aquaponics?
Because most aquaponics systems are designed to grow 24 hours a day inside a climate-controlled greenhouse, most plants will grow up to twice as fast!
This accelerated rate of growth applies to most commercial aquaponics operations, as they have generally invested in the lighting, irrigation, greenhouse infrastructure, etc. necessary to provide non-stop plant growth.
Around-the-clock growing has more to do with the overall nature of an indoor garden designed to operate 24/7, than anything related specifically to aquaponics. Indoor hydroponic gardens, for example, enjoy the same accelerated growth. Aquaponic gardens do offer other exclusive benefits, such as increased sustainability and more organic fertilization of your plant farm.
Can you grow root vegetables in aquaponics?
Root vegetables can certainly be grown in aquaponic gardens, although they can be more challenging than leafy green vegetables. One trick is to use a grow bag as a wicking medium, which is placed within the chosen hydroponic bed’s medium.
Depending on the medium used, the vegetables you harvest might not be shaped like those in a grocery store, but will taste just as (if not more) delicious! The reason for the growth irregularities is due to uneven distribution of external pressure on the tuber as it grows. The reason for all the bumps and curves and even changes in diameter are usually caused by the plant following the path of least resistance as it grows.
Some root vegetables that have seen success in aquaponic systems are:
For an in-depth guide, check out How to Grow Hydroponic Potatoes.
The Dutch Bucket method, also called the Bato Bucket method, is probably one of the easiest and most affordable ways to add root vegetables to your setup. This way you can easily experiment without changing (or compromising!) the entire system.
On that note, we advise you to stay away from coco coir in aquaponic growing. While it is an amazing medium for hydroponic growing with chemically controlled nutrition, its constant lowering of pH and tanning of the water are known to cause major headaches.
Can you grow flowers in aquaponics?
Flowers will grow beautifully in an aquaponic garden, and are a popular choice for STEM classroom exhibits and office aquaponic arrangements. In fact, with the right aquaponic design, you could grow both soil and water-loving species.
This opens the door to a wide variety of aquatic lilies and hyacinths that provide unique and vibrant blooms. Most aquaponics systems prefer to grow these kinds of plants to help give their fish a more natural habitat, and stick to edible plants on the hydroponic side, however.
That being said, most aquaponic systems are designed for sustainable living, and depend on both sides of the system for human nutrition. If you are an aquaponic hobbyist, however, your survival is less contingent on the crops you grow – meaning grow all the flowers you like!
Do you have to feed fish in aquaponics?
You absolutely have to feed your fish in aquaponics – but there are several ways for fish to be fed. Still, what your fish eat is directly related to the fertilizer you are using to grow your plants. You want to be sure the food you’re giving your fish isn’t passing harmful chemicals on to your plant garden as well.
Something like this is a safe solution:
AquaNourish Omnivorous Aquaponic Fish Feed – Stage 3 5lb
Another important thing to keep in mind as far as feeding your fish, is to simply pay attention to them. If they aren’t eating all of the food at regular feedings, widen the period of time between each feeding. Most species of fish can survive for weeks without eating, so waiting an extra day for healthier fish and cleaner water is often worth it.
What are some disadvantages of aquaponics?
It’s admittedly easy to get caught up in how beneficial aquaponic farming is. It is thought to be “the future of farming,” and it’s easy to imagine an aquaponic farm being the sole means of food production in a realistic Martian colony.
As long as it accommodates shrimp farming, anyway.
The technology of the future rarely comes cheap, however, and aquaponics has some fundamental requirements that must be satisfied to assure a healthy system. We have seen the hydroponics industry evolve to become both DIY and budget-friendly, and in many ways aquaponics has yet to enjoy such a boom in popularity.
The reasons are simple: for every amazingly beneficial characteristic that comes from an aquaponic farming operation, there comes a potentially major hurdle that can be overcome, but not ignored.
High Startup Costs
Because an aquaponic farm is more of a balanced, self-contained ecosystem, enclosing it within a climate-controlled greenhouse will better enable it to thrive. This also allows for year-round cultivation and harvesting of both edible plant food and fish protein. Unfortunately, it also presents what can be a significant investment that has the potential to dissuade many would-be aquaponic farmers.
It is also generally recommended to have your aquaponics system professionally installed, unless you have a high level of confidence in your layout and piping skills. An aquaponics system relies on multiple tanks and pumps, with repetitive piping that distributes the organically fertilized water throughout the system.
Using inadequate materials or improperly installing any of them increases the chance of a critical system failure, which will only add to your costs in the end.
When building a brand-new aquaponic farm, the cost of plants and fish to initially “stock” the farm can also be substantial. This, however, can vary depending on location, species, quantity, etc.
While the majority of the costs of an aquaponic farm are related to its initial startup, the electricity usage is something that need not be neglected. Recirculation pumps, aeration pumps, and lighting alone represent a significant draw of power.
Prior to more efficient solar technology becoming available (and affordable!), delivering power to the various pumps, lights, fans, and other equipment present in any level of aquaponic system, proved difficult at best.
Today, there are a number of innovative technologies that can provide more thorough sustainability to an aquaponic system; technologies such as:
– Solar (modern solar cells are more efficient, and automated panels are readily available)
– Wind (wind turbines have helped power farms and greenhouses for decades, and the technology has only gotten better and cheaper over time)
– Geothermal (location dependent; ideal for climate control in large greenhouses)
–Bio-Mass (growing corn for ethanol production, etc.)
– Micro-Hydro (creekside water mills; gravity-pressured rain collectors providing hydrostatic pressure, etc.; )
Once up and running, a well-managed aquaponic farm can be almost entirely self-sustaining, needing minimal investment to provide consistent farm-to-food resources.
Photo by Emile-Victor Portenart on Unsplash
Limited Crop Selection
And finally, aquaponic systems due see certain limitations on the crops they can grow effectively. This can be due to the hydroponic method used in the system, or even physical space limitations of the indoor growing area. All the totes and tanks in the world can’t help a garden with only one light.
Another important factor to consider is the regular monitoring of nutrient levels of the water being fertilized by the fish. It’s a good idea to get the fish tank stabilized first, and once you know what nutrition to expect, you can select plant species accordingly. This is especially important if you plan on growing some of the more temperamental species.
As we mentioned earlier, there are plenty of plants, both flower and vegetable, that can thrive in a well-run aquaponic garden. A proper plan, a little homework, and a lot of patience will see you growing anything you want to grow.
Well, this concludes our look at the best plants to grow in aquaponics. We hope you found it informative and insightful, and maybe even found what you were looking for!
We appreciate you stopping by – feel free to look around before you go. We look forward to seeing you back soon. Until then, stay safe and happy gardening!