Aquaponic Setup Complete!

Aquaponics in action!
Our aquaponic growing experiment is complete! The seeds are planted, the light is on, the water is circulating, and the fish are doing what they do best—swimming around in the water, eating, hanging out, and fertilizing the tank system.

Here's a quick synopsis of how we got to where we are:

First, we consulted with a dear friend who works for Brooklyn Farms about how to set up our tank, what supplies we needed, and how the whole thing works. He started us out with these marching orders:
  • Purchase at least a 40-gallon fish tank, with two corner filters and gravel for the bottom
  • Fill the tank with water
  • Two days later, add fish. At first, only add feeder fish. Some will die—and when they do, leave them floating in the water. As the feeder fish break down, they'll be ammonia-based waste. Bacteria will slowly colonize and turn ammonia into nitrite (ammonia and nitrite are both toxic to plants). After that, more bacteria will colonize and change nitrite into nitrate, which is usable fertilizer.
Next up was letting the whole system grow into itself, so to speak. The water underwent weekly nitrogen and pH tests until everything was just right. Then it was time to pick up our grow bed, water pump, tubing, light and grow bed medium. The last two on that list came from the newly opened North Country Hydroponics in Watertown. With all the supplies at the ready, it was time to build the stand for our grow bed, borrowing from a design that utilized PVC tubing. We instead used wood scraps we had on the property:
Intern Director Jaci Collins, left, with Carl Frizzell and Noah Bogdonoff
Then we hooked up the pump and tubes so the water came up out of the tank and over the pea gravel in the grow bed (we also poked holes at one end of the grow bed so the water could drain back out into the tank):

Finally, it was time to plant the seeds. But how do you plant seeds directly into gravel? Here are some tips we gleaned online:
  1. Select your seeds. To grow directly from seed rather than seedling, use small seeds such as carrots, herbs, radishes, lettuce or other salad greens.
  2. “Broadcast” the seeds over your aquaponic system by gently tossing them on the growing surface -- in this case, the water of the growing beds. Allow the seeds to settle into the gravel at the bottom of the bed. Distribute the seeds as evenly as possible.
  3. Insert seeds into seed-starting media if you're attempting to grow larger plants such as beans, cucumbers, melons or peas. With your index finger, push seeds into the center of starting media such as rockwool or peat sponges. Distribute the media evenly throughout the growing beds.
  4. Clean young seedlings thoroughly under a water faucet, removing all dirt before attempting to plant them in your aquaponic system. Arrange seedlings evenly, gently securing their roots with the gravel of the growing beds.
  5. Keep the fish-to-tank volume ratio at about 2:1 as you grow your seeds. Feed the fish daily -- fish consume about 1.5 percent of their body weight each day. Maintain consistent water quality and pH levels, and clean your filtration system and tubing once a month. When plants appear, trim or harvest them as needed for each individual plant type.
(Tip: Seeds that require lots of acid, such as blueberries, generally don't perform well in aquaponic systems.)

Now we wait for the seedlings to appear. Stay tuned!

For more information on this process, click here.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.