What Are Backyard Aquaponics?

C. Mitchell

The term “backyard aquaponics” describes a method of gardening in which fish and plants are intentionally placed in a symbiotic relationship with each other in a residential setting. Aquaponics systems are essentially means of growing self-sustaining plants and fish by using the plants as water filters and the fish as nutrient providers. Backyard aquaponics systems are generally set up in greenhouses where the temperature can be regulated, but they can be integrated into backyard decor in more temperate climates.

Goldfish do well in aquaponics.
Goldfish do well in aquaponics.

Fish, shrimp, and other sea life cannot exist in captivity without regular water changes, owing in part to the waste that they naturally excrete and the general debris that tends to grow or fall into stagnate water. Plants, on the other hand, must regularly be watered to survive. Aquaponics strives to grow plants and fish together, using each element’s weakness to the other’s benefit.

Simple backyard aquaponics systems consist of a tray of plants situated directly above a fish tank or pond. The plants are never rooted in soil, as they are meant to grow hydroponically — that is, with their roots exposed directly to the water. Plant suck in the nutrient-rich waste excreted by the fish and in so doing act as filters, cleaning the water and using it to promote growth, then returning it to the tank. The result is perpetually clean water and healthy, mineral-enhanced plants.

Backyard aquaponics systems are desirable for many gardeners because they are low-maintenance ways for homeowners to grow their own food. Lettuce, herbs, and other edible greens are among the most popular choices for plants. Smaller systems typically use goldfish or decorative tropical fish, but larger setups can support edible fish like trout or even sea life like shrimp and crawfish.

There are several ways to set up a backyard hydroponics system. If the backyard design includes a pond or other enclosed waterway, this is a great place to start. Otherwise, a fish enclosure will need to be incorporated into the backyard layout.

Floating plants on small plastic trays atop the water is by far the simplest way to set up a system, but it is also the least controlled. Most systems involve filtration from a distance. In these cases, gardeners suspend planters lined with gravel or other coarse filter material directly above the fish enclosure. Pumps bring the water from the fish to the plants, which can trickle back down through the roots and drip back down into the source.

The most decorative backyard aquaponics setups showcase the fish prominently. Aesthetically appealing fish like koi or goldfish are often strategically placed to draw the viewer’s eye. More utilitarian systems focus more on production, often using base materials that optimize function over good looks.

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