Food is one of the must-have essentials for preppers, as without it, you will not survive for too long. Building stockpiles is a great way to ensure adequate food for short-term emergencies, but in the long-term, even the most robust stockpiles will run out. The best solution is to find a source of healthy food that will never run out – this requires growing your own food.
When contemplating growing their own food, most people imagine it requires lots of land, daily watering, laborious tending, and a constant battle with pests – generally, conditions and labor requirements most of us won’t have access to in a bug-out scenario.
There is an alternative to outdoor gardening and agriculture; it’s an option that can produce an endless supply of organic, chemical and GMO free food in any space with minimal labor requirements. This ‘magic’ system? It’s called aquaponics, and every prepper should ensure they are familiar with it.
What Is Aquaponics?
Aquaponics is an innovative combination of aquafarming and hydroponics. It involves creating a simple, self-sustaining ecosystem of plants and fish that yields an indefinite source of both fresh, healthy vegetables and protein for you and your family.
How It Works
The process works by virtue of the nitrate cycle. The waste from the fish is broken down in the water by nitrogen fixing bacteria and converted into nitrates and nitrites; too much nitrogen in the water will kill fish, but these particular forms of nitrogen are usable by plants as food.
The water from the aquarium is pumped into the hydroponic plant bed where the plants remove the nitrogen from the water; the filtered water is then cycled back into the aquarium. The basic premise is that the fish fertilize the plants while the plants clean the water for the fish.
The system is completely self-sustaining except for the requirement of adding food for the fish and the occasional water chemistry maintenance. The only other time you will need to interact with your aquaponic system is when it’s time to harvest all the ripened vegetables.
The best part about a home aquaponics system is that it can be built to any size to suit your living space and consumption requirements, so even in a small space your survival plan can include an option for growing your own food source. Once it’s set up, you can essentially forget about it; there’s no need to water as the water is constantly being cycled.
This also makes it a highly efficient system as both water and fertilizer are cycled and not lost back into the ground. Despite its low maintenance, an aquaponic system provides a high yield crop as plants are constantly receiving needed water and nutrients. It’s the perfect system for those with busy lifestyles or working families.
The following is a quick list of some additional benefits of home aquaponics:
- Easily alternate plants for added variety
- No weeding – the bed is raised above the ground and does not contain soil
- Produces organic, chemical-free, and non-GMO produce – much cheaper than buying organic at the supermarket
- Helps decrease intake of preservatives, artificial coloring and flavoring, and refined sugar with fresh fruits and vegetables available daily
- As a self-contained system, it is not susceptible to pollution, drought, or natural disaster, and does not affect or disrupt the natural ecosystem in the way that agriculture does
- Easier and less hassle than a traditional outdoor garden with no bending required to weed or harvest, no digging, etc.
When setting up a home aquaponic gardening system, you will need five basic elements: tank, grow bed, growth medium, plumbing, and power source.
The tank should be made from an opaque material, such as plastic, in order to block out the sun and prevent algae growth. For a small system, a deep Rubbermaid bin works well.
The grow bed can be built out of wood for structure and lined with plastic for water tightness.
The growth medium should be lightweight and have a good water-to-air ratio for water retention. The most commonly used growth medium is some form of clay formed into uniform pellets: Round pellets allow for air and water to circulate in the space between the pellets, with an 8-16mm diameter representing a good range.
Some brands come pre-rinsed and ready to use right out of the bag; look for those with a neutral pH as this will help prevent the growth of mold and fungus.
Another option is to use crushed rock, but be cautious of rock containing limestone as it will leach minerals, affecting the pH of your system. A rock medium is much less expensive than clay pellets, but also heavier, something to consider if you plan on moving your system around.
A combination of the two can be used to save costs and still reap the benefits of clay; simply use a layer of rock at the bottom of the grow bed and top it with a layer of clay for planting.
The water in your aquaponics system will circulate via an electric pump, through either pvc or vinyl tubing. Regulators adjust the flow to meet the biological needs of the system.
You will need a power source to power the plumbing system; this power can come from a traditional electrical connection or, for a completely self-sustaining system, from solar cells.
Setting Up Your Home Aquaponics System
The best part of any home aquaponics system is its versatility to fit any space requirement. If you start off small, you can always expand your system as your needs grow, or scale back if required.
When setting up your system, you will want the tank to sit lower than the grow bed, or directly below it, allowing water returning from the grow bed to be gravity-fed back into the fish tank. Rocks can be used as substrate, but stick to a large enough cobble that it will not interfere with the pump. Stay away from typical aquarium gravel, as it is usually too small and can clog your system.
For the garden bed, ensure you locate your system in a place that receives adequate sunlight to support the plants. Remember, it is a drought-resistant system as the plants have constant access to water and nutrients, so full sunshine is fine.
As a contained ecosystem, you can set-up your aquaponic system anywhere that is convenient. If you live in a mild climate, it’s feasible to keep your system outside year-round on a deck, patio, or lawn. For colder climates, an outdoor system can survive winter in a climate-controlled greenhouse to continue food production through the colder months.
Small systems can function well indoors as long as they receive sufficient sunlight – either natural or using a grow light. There are even countertop systems available; these are great for growing herbs in the kitchen.
For a fantastic, informative video series on building and maintaining your own aquaponic system, click here.
Customizing Your Aquaponic Garden
Choosing Your Fish
When first starting a system, you may want to use feeder fish, such as goldfish, to establish the water chemistry as they are inexpensive to replace. After establishing the correct water chemistry, you can then upgrade to edible varieties of fish.
The ideal fish should be a species that breeds well in captivity, grows to a decent size, is edible, and something your family will enjoy. Also, your chosen fish needs to be a freshwater fish as a marine environment is not suitable for plants and the water will be shared.
When stocking your tank, very young fish called ‘fry’ are cheapest but will take longer to nutrify the water as they produce so little waste; fingerlings, fish that have developed scales and working fins, are more expensive but will take less time to balance the water chemistry.
There are many types of fish that will work well with a home aquaponic system. Goldfish and koi are hardy, ornamental, cold-water fish that breed well in captivity but are not particularly desirable to consume. It’s probably best to stick to species that are edible – and enjoyable – as this will provide maximum enjoyment for your family.
Tilapia: A popular choice as they breed well in captivity, are large in size, and hardy in terms of water conditions. They typically prefer warm water, so you may need to set up a heat source in the tank. Tilapia eats plants and duckweed, which can be grown right in the tank, or high quality fish food can be used. Nile tilapia are commercially farmed and produce a white meat with a mild flavor that is low in fat; they typically reach plate size in four months.
Crappies: These are good-tasting, smaller fish, that are hardy and easy to raise. However, it will take two years for them to mature to reproductive age and the tank cannot be stocked with larger fish as they will eat your crappies.
Trout: These fish have a fast growth rate, are suited for cold water, and follow a carnivorous diet that includes insects, molluscs, worms, and feeder fish (you can choose to breed these yourself or purchase pelleted food). The downside for trout is that they are less hardy and require very pristine tank conditions.
Catfish: The channel catfish (pictured above) and blue catfish are the most common varieties used for consumption, as they are fast-growing and a good source of vitamin D; however, catfish must be skinned before eating as they do not have scales. As they are bottom-feeders and large enough not to be prey, they typically cohabitate well with other species.
Carp: These fish are adaptable to environmental changes and breed well in captivity. Typical species raised in fish farms for consumptions are the bighead carp, grass carp, mud carp, and crucian carp (pictured above).
Largemouth Bass: These hardy, cold-water species are popular as gamefish. The flavor of the younger (smaller) fish is preferable to larger fish due to the difference in diet; this means that they can be consumed before they are fully grown. A carnivorous fish, the largemouth bass feeds on shrimp, insects, and small fish.
Compatibility / Multiple Varieties
When it comes to mixing the variety of species in your aquaponic system, be aware that some species of fish can co-habitate while others prefer a monospecies environment. When cohabiting, be sure to choose fish with the same requirements for temperature and water conditions.
Choosing Your Plants
You should choose the plants for your system based on their nutritional benefits and your family’s tastes, as well as their compatibility with your water conditions. Plants that require a pH much higher or lower than 7 are not suitable, as highly acidic or basic water does not support fish life.
Leafy plants, such as lettuces and herbs, do quite well in aquaponic systems and are the easiest to grow. Fruit-bearing plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, and beans, will require a higher nutrient concentration and therefore do best with a well-stocked aquarium.
Subterranean plants can be grown, however, the hydroponic substrate makes it difficult for the root vegetable to achieve typical shape. The end result is that you can grow healthy potatoes and carrots but they may not look as you would expect them to!
Balancing the plant-to-fish ratio in your system is the biggest challenge; it is essential that you have the right amount of plants to filter the waste for your fish, as well as enough fish to supply adequate nutrients to your plants. The water ratio is 1:1 for water in the grow bed and water in the tank. The general ratio of plants-to-fish is four plants for every pound of fish, but this may need adjusting depending on the species of fish and types of plants.
In order to properly maintain the water chemistry and achieve a healthy system, a water testing kit is a must. Once you have it figured out, the system can be expanded to increase the food supply by simply adding another grow bed and adjusting your tank water volume. You can also add multiple tanks of fish for variety.
Different Types of Aquaponic Setups
There is no ‘right’ way to set up a home aquaponics system; in fact, a successful system can be set up in many different ways. The following are examples of different types of setups you can try yourself, or use for inspiration to create your own:
Need Help Getting Started?
Aquaponic systems can be daunting for beginners; they sound complicated and many first-timers find it difficult to know where to begin. Setting up your own home system is actually quite easy if you start out with the right knowledge.
Click here for a complete guide on everything aquaponics – it will teach you how to get started, how to maintain your system, and how to make crucial improvements and adjustments to accommodate your family’s changing needs.
A home aquaponic system is a viable, sustainable solution to an endless food supply and a positive step toward developing a self-sufficient home. The versatility of the system, along with its efficiency, make it a good choice for any household as it can provide a dependable source of food (both protein and vegetable) in almost any space and climate.
While the concept may seem daunting at first, many resources and studies exist to help get you started and maintain your system. Once it’s up and running, you’ll have a dependable, cost-effective source of food you can rely on.
Do you have experience growing food with an aquaponic system? Do you have any questions about home aquaponics gardening? Let us know in the Comments section below, thanks!