One of our goals here on our half-acre homestead is to grow more of our family’s food. Since we already own indoor aquariums, we decided to set up some simple home aquaponics systems geared toward beginners, and test them out. We chose the easiest, least-expensive, and smallest aquaponics setups for beginners to be able to replicate in their own homes, while still having good results.
Table of Contents
What is aquaponics?
Aquaponics is a method of growing plants in water rather than soil, similar to hydroponics. The difference between aquaponics and hydroponics is the addition of fish to create nutrients in the water that the plants can use. The plants help reduce the frequency of water changes needed by the fish, resulting in the plants and fish benefiting each other. Some aquaponics systems are very large, and are used to grow not only plants to eat, but fish to eat! The systems we’re using right now are just for pet fish, and are far too small to hold a fish that would grow big enough to eat.
A large-scale aquaponics system could grow entire crops of vegetables and hundreds of pounds of fish per year. Tilapia, sunfish, catfish and trout are popular choices for those big set-ups. Today we’ll only be talking about goldfish, bettas, and loose-leaf lettuce.
Why did I chose these systems?
The reason I chose the systems I’m showing you now are probably the same reasons that led you to this article in the first place – I don’t have much counter space, I don’t have much spare time, and I don’t have a lot of money. The most expensive system I used for this experiment cost me about $75 (including a 10-gallon tank and gravel), and the least-expensive one cost me about $15. If you’re looking for a budget-friendly way to see if aquaponics is for you, try one of these simple home aquaponics systems that won’t break the bank.
What plants can I grow?
There are quite a few options for growing plants in indoor aquaponics systems. Strawberries, herbs such as basil, sage or parsley, leafy lettuces, miniature greens such as baby bok choi, and other leafy veggies like watercress and Swiss chard are all good options. Cut-and-come-again varieties of greens (the kinds with loose outer leaves that can be harvested while new leaves continue to grow from the inside) are excellent choices. While there are many other edible plants that do well in aquaponics, not all of them do well in small setups like these. For this experiment, I’m using a leafy lettuce mix.
If you don’t want to grow an edible plant, there are decorative plant options, too. My first aquaponics setup, years ago, was a large glass vase, a female betta named Chowder, and a peace lily. (It worked great until Chowder eventually died of what I assume was old age.) Arrowhead plants, pothos and lucky bamboo are attractive choices as well.
How should I prepare my plant?
There are two ways you can prepare your plant for introduction to the aquaponics system. The first way is very easy – buy an appropriate plant that’s already established, and very carefully rinse away all the dirt, perlite and growing medium that is attached to the roots. When the roots are clean of dirt and debris, carefully thread the roots through the holes in the bottom of the growing container. I’ll discuss some different types of growing containers in a moment. Some containers don’t have holes to thread the roots through (such as the AquaDuo filter discussed below), so follow the instructions for those systems. Once the roots are through the holes, add enough rinsed and soaked expanded clay pebbles to prop the plant up out of the water. Only the roots should be in the water – not the plant itself – or the plant might rot and die. Add more clay pebbles around the plant to support it, and you’re good to go.
Another way to prepare a plant for aquaponics is to start some seeds in rockwool. Soak the rockwool plug in water, and insert the seed into the rockwool plug’s hole, using a toothpick to press the seed to the bottom of the hole, and pinch the hole closed. Keep the rockwool damp by watering sparingly every couple of days or spritzing with a water bottle. When the seeds have sprouted and are an inch to inch-and-a-half tall, you can transfer the seedling, rockwool and all, into your growing container.
What fish should I choose?
I have a huge soft spot in my heart for fancy goldfish, and my larger tanks (one aquaponics; one not) are home to several of them. For the two jar-type aquaponics setups I chose male bettas. Bettas do just fine in smallish environments and can produce enough bioload for one plant, or perhaps two if they’re not very big plants. Goldfish are notorious for being big poopers, so I put three fantail goldfish in my big aquaponics tank that contains several plants. If bettas and goldfish aren’t your style, there are other options. Guppies, tetras, and gouramis are good choices too.
Mason Jar Aquaponics
The very least expensive way to get started in aquaponics is to use a large mason jar. You will also need a plastic container used for starting plants, some expanded clay pebbles for growing medium, a suitable plant, and a fish.
Mason jars come in lots of sizes, but I don’t recommend going with a jar less than a half gallon in size. I’m using a decorative gallon mason jar. If you reuse a jar that previously held pickles or other stinky foods, please be sure the jar is entirely clean and free of smells before adding your fish!
I had some clear plastic pots on hand from some flowers I bought at the local nursery, and they fit perfectly in the top of my jar. This is a makeshift, extremely budget-friendly idea, especially if you bought your aquaponics plant in a container like this and want to reuse it. A better option (especially if have a larger aquarium and you’re going to put several plants in your aquaponics setup) is to buy “net pots.” These have more holes for your plant’s roots to grow through. They’re not actually made of net, but the plastic structure is very open, allowing the plant’s roots to have many ways to reach the water and stay properly wet.
As you can see, my lettuce plant is doing quite well, and my male veiltail betta is a happy little camper. Water changes will be infrequent due to the low poop output of the betta. Even with the long roots of the lettuce plant, the fish has plenty of room to move around.
The two big outer leaves of lettuce are ready to harvest and add to my lunchtime sandwich. The inner leaves are growing rapidly and will be ready to harvest in a few days, too.
This is something I really like about loose-leaf lettuces. When you need a little lettuce, you can just pick what you want and the rest will keep growing! No need to harvest an entire head at one time.
SIX WEEKS UPDATE: The lettuce got leggy after a while, reaching for the light due to not having a grow light near it, but I was able to harvest lettuce leaves from the plant, and the fish has grown and is even prettier than he was when I bought him.
I wasn’t too sure about this smallest setup, but I got a good bargain on this Nature’s Aqua-Ponic Planter and Fish Habitat by Penn-Plax, and decided to give it a chance. The aquarium, plant container, and a bag of clay pebbles are included in the box, so all you need is a fish and a plant. Although the manufacturer suggests only decorative plants for this setup, obviously I used lettuce plants in keeping with the rest of the experiment. Two of my lettuce plants were on the smallish side, so I put both of them in the container, but one promptly died – and that could have been my fault somehow. The other plant is only doing so-so, but it’s still alive and ready for a leaf or two to be harvested. (Update – the second lettuce plant died too, about a week later.) The male veiltail betta in this container is doing well, just as the other betta is in the Mason jar. He has much less room to swim in his smaller container though, especially with the plant’s roots hanging down in the water. This is a fairly attractive-looking setup, even though it’s very simple… It’s stylish enough to be welcome on any desktop but simple enough to blend into any decor. However, if I were to use this setup again, it would only be with very tiny fish like neon tetras and I would use a plant that will not grow much.
There is a bigger, 1.4-gallon version of the Nature’s Aqua-Ponic, and if I were to buy this brand again, I would definitely choose the bigger version over this tiny one. I’m not terribly unhappy with this small one, but I’m not delighted either. I think if it were larger, I would be happier with it.
SIX WEEKS UPDATE: For purposes of aquaponics and actually caring if my plant thrives, I don’t think this is a good setup. I decided not to keep it and passed it and the betta along to a friend who put lucky bamboo in the planter. She didn’t like it well enough to keep it either, and bought a new tank for the fish. The fish hadn’t appeared to be stressed in this tank and he seemed reasonably happy, but once he was moved out of it, his color vastly improved and he seemed much happier. My final thoughts on this one? Get the bigger version, or pass it up altogether.
For my third experiment, I chose the AquaDuo 10 by Elive. The AquaDuo 10 is aptly named – it is designed for 10-gallon tanks, and has two modes of use available. (I’ve noticed that sometimes the AquaDuo filters are difficult to find – there is also a 20-gallon version if you have a big enough tank to use it.) You can use the AquaDuo with the filter lid and filter pads as a regular aquarium filter. If you choose the aquaponics variation, you can remove the lid and pads, add the enclosed expanded clay pebbles and a plant, and you’re good to go. If you like to hear the sound of falling water, simply adjust the filter housing for waterfall return of the filtered water. If you prefer to run the filter quietly, simply adjust the housing for surface water return.
I didn’t have a spare 10-gallon tank, so I bought one and all the gravel I needed to put in it, which made this the most expensive of the three experiments. Being partial to fantail goldfish as I mentioned before, I bought three more little guys to put in this tank.
This is a really nice little filter. Setup is easy, adjustments are easy, and my lettuce absolutely thrived. I bought a second AquaDuo 10 at the time I bought the first one because I had a feeling I was going to like it, but it wouldn’t fit in my original kitchen aquarium because of where it’s located under a cabinet. Rather than set up yet another aquarium, I added the second AquaDuo to the new goldfish tank along with the first one. While the first one had lettuce started in dirt, I used seeds in rockwool for the second one. I did run it for the first day or so, but it was an awful lot of movement for the fish, so I turned it off and every other day or so I made sure that the little lettuce sprouts in the rockwool didn’t dry out. I don’t recommend using higher-volume filtration than the size of the tank you own; the fish can be stressed from the added agitation of the water.
The lettuces were growing the very best in the AquaDuo 10s, but that aquarium is in a room that doesn’t have the best light, so I did add a grow light above it.
SIX WEEKS UPDATE: I was going to give these systems to a friend when I finished with the experiment, but now I’ve decided I’m keeping them. I really do like these a lot, and now that my lettuce has grown and been harvested, I plan to put herbs in them to grow through the winter.
Of the three systems I tried out, I obviously liked the AquaDuo 10 the best. My fish are happy, water changes are needed only about once a month or less, and my lettuce grew quite well. As I mentioned earlier, they can be hard to find sometimes, so add them to your Amazon wishlist and check back often to see if they’ve been restocked. I showed mine to two friends who immediately wanted their own and haven’t regretted the purchase one bit. Simple home aquaponics for beginners? Yep, this is my choice.
Thank you for reading, and good luck with your own aquaponics adventure!
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