Prepper Book Festival 13: Aquaponic Gardening

Avatar Gaye Levy  |  Updated: July 3, 2019
Prepper Book Festival 13: Aquaponic Gardening

Lately, you may have noticed a recurring theme here on Backdoor Survival.  Gardening and food preservation are on my mind and for good reason.  I now own an acre of land with a decent growing season and plenty of sun.  I may even have room for a modest aquaponic gardening setup.

Today’s Prepper Book Festival title will help me do just that.  Let me introduce you to Aquaponic Gardening: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Vegetables and Fish Together.  This book is going to show you how to raise vegetables and fish together when failure is not an option.

Prepper Book Festival Aquaponic Gardening | Backdoor Survival

Aquaponic Gardening by Sylvia Bernstein is a great how-to book.  It addresses the “hardware” such as fish tanks, plumbing, and water, then moves on the “software” such as the fish, plants, bacteria, and worms.  Worms you say?  Who knew?

The beginning of the book is devoted to a broad introduction to this method of raising vegetables and fish together.  Since my goal is to educate, today, with permission,  I share with you Chapter 1, “What is Aquaponics”.

In addition, I have three copies of Aquaponic Gardening up for grabs in a giveaway.  Enjoy the read then be sure to check in below to learn about the giveaway.

What is Aquaponics: An Excerpt from “Aquaponic Gardening” by Sylvia Bernstein

What is aquaponics? So what is this crazy, addictive gardening technique?  Here is one attempt at a definition:

Aquaponics is the cultivation of fish and plants together in a constructed, recirculating ecosystem utilizing natural bacterial cycles to convert fish waste to plant nutrients. This is an environmentally friendly, natural food-growing method that harnesses the best attributes of aquaculture and hydroponics without the need to discard any water or filtrate or add chemical fertilizers.

— Aquaponic Gardening Community, November 2010

The above was the result of a month-long online effort to define this thing called aquaponics. It is an excellent starting point for describing what it is that separates aquaponics from any other growing system available today. Let’s look under the hood at the individual components of this definition:

1. “cultivation” — This is a system of agriculture for growing the plants and fish we want to consume, rather than a description of a wild, uncultivated environment.

2. “fish and plants together” — These four words describe the heart of aquaponics. Without fish and plants being grown together, you don’t have aquaponics.

3. “ecosystem” — The dictionary defines an ecosystem as “a system formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment.” Aquaponics is an ecosystem of plants, fish, bacteria, and worms.

4. “constructed ecosystem” — This eliminates plants being grown on the shores of a lake or pond from the definition of aquaponics. While we are centering on a notion of an ecosystem, it must be an ecosystem that is constructed for the purpose of growing fish and plants together.

5. “recirculating ecosystem” — This constructed ecosystem must also retain its water by recirculating it rather than allowing it to drain off into the water table. This is why aquaponics uses so little water compared to the systems that spawned it.

6. “utilizing natural bacterial cycles to convert fish wastes to plant nutrients” — This speaks to the key mechanism that enables aquaponics to work. Without the nitrifying bacteria that convert the fish waste into plant food, the fish would soon die in their own waste, and the plants would starve for lack of nutrition.

In other words, aquaponics is a system where plants and fish are grown together symbiotically. The waste product from the fish provides the food for the plants, and the plants, in turn, filter the water that goes back to the fish.

This is an environmentally friendly, natural food-growing method that harnesses the best attributes of aquaculture and hydroponics without the need to discard any water or filtrate or add chemical fertilizer.

The second part of the definition focuses on the key benefits of aquaponics and introduces the notion that it is really the combination of two other sophisticated cultivation techniques: hydroponics and aquaculture. Both of these techniques require more intervention than an aquaponics system.

Aquaculture has to ensure that the waste from the fish is removed before it builds to toxic levels, or the fish will die. Hydroponics requires a constant replenishment and manual balancing of the chemical nutrients, or the plants die. By combining the two systems, aquaponics transfers much of the responsibility for reaching equilibrium between the filtration of the fish waste and the nutrient needs of the plants to Mother Nature.

The second part of the definition also asserts that in combining these two techniques, the major problems of each are solved while the major benefits are retained. That is an incredible assertion. Before we go there and decide whether or not it is valid, we should take a moment to talk about hydroponics and aquaponics.


Hydroponics is a method for cultivating plants without soil, using only water and chemical nutrients. The “ponics” in “aquaponics” comes from hydroponics. The term “hydroponics” literally means “water working”. Much of the greenhouse tomato, basil and lettuce production in North America today is done using hydroponic growing techniques, but you might have also heard of it because it is the favored growing method of marijuana producers.

Aquaponics is a hydroponic growing method in that it requires no soil. In both methods, the plants’ roots

are constantly bathed in highly oxygenated, nutrient-rich water, and both see growth rates far above those found in soil-grown plants.

Aquaponics also borrows from many of the classic hydroponic system types. The flood and drain (also known as ebb and flow) style of growing on which this book focuses comes from the hydroponic world, as do NFT (nutrient film technique) and DWC (deep water culture or raft) styles.

This is where the similarities end, however. Aquaponics is an improvement over hydroponics for the following reasons:

1. Expensive chemical nutrients are replaced by less expensive fish feed.

Hydroponic nutrient solutions are expensive, and are gradually becoming more expensive as some ingredients are becoming over-mined and increasingly difficult to acquire. A gallon of hydroponic nutrient solution costs $30–60, and a few tomato plants will easily go through that during their productive lifetime.

Meanwhile, a 50-pound (23-kg) bag of tilapia feed costs about the same amount, and at a 1.3 feed conversion ratio will give you 38 pounds (17 kg) of mature tilapia and simultaneously support about eight tomato plants.

2. You never dump out your nutrient solution.

Water in hydroponic systems needs to be discharged periodically, as the salts and chemicals build up to levels that become toxic to the plants. This is both inconvenient and problematic, as the disposal location of this waste water needs to be carefully considered. In an aquaponic system, rather than having these problems with chemical imbalance, you achieve a natural nitrogen balance that is the hallmark of an established ecosystem. The water in your system is a critical component that you nurture as part of that balance.

In aquaponics, you never replace your water; you only top it up as it evaporates and transpires (evaporates from the leaves of the plants). This saves both water and time.

3. Maintaining an aquaponics system is significantly easier.

I’ve spent years running both system types, and I can assure you that once cycling (starting the system by building the bacteria base or biofilter) has taken place, an aquaponic system is significantly easier to maintain than a hydroponic system.

Hydroponic gardeners are instructed to check the EC (electrical conductivity) with a special meter daily, or at least once every few days. In aquaponics testing, this frequently just isn’t necessary. Because an aquaponic system is a natural ecosystem, it will tend to move into a balanced steady state. You will need to check pH and ammonia once a week and the only other check — for the nitrate level — can be run monthly.

4. Aquaponics is more productive.

A university study by the Crop Diversification Centre in Alberta, Canada (Savidov, 2005), has shown that after six months, when the aquaponic biofilter is fully established, a grower will see faster and better growing results with aquaponics than with hydroponics.

5. Aquaponics is completely organic.

Hydroponics is growing in a sterile, man-made environment. Traditional hydroponic systems rely on the careful application of expensive nutrients made from mixing together a concoction of chemicals, salts and trace elements.

In aquaponics, you create a natural ecosystem where you rely on bacteria and composting red worms to convert the ammonia and solid waste from the fish into a complete plant food. It is a necessarily organic process. If pesticides are applied to the plants, the fish will suffer. If growth hormones or antibiotics are given to the fish, the plants will suffer. Aquaponics relies on nature and is rewarded through better growth, less maintenance and lower disease rates.


The “aqua” in “aquaponics” means “water” and refers to the aquaculture side of the aquaponics equation. The dictionary defines aquaculture as “the cultivation of aquatic animals and plants, especially fish, shellfish, and seaweed, in natural or controlled marine or freshwater environments.” Clearly, aquaponics has a foundation in aquaculture in that the nutrients for the plants come

from fish. Many of the early pioneers in aquaponics come from aquaculture academia, such as Dr. James Rakocy, who were initially interested in aquaponics as a way to solve the problem of fish waste disposal. (Bernstein, 2010) The history of aquaculture actually dates all the way back to the ancient Chinese back in the fifth century BC. They would capture young fish in wild habitats then transfer them to an artificial environment to grow. The Romans were known to have cultivated oysters (are you surprised?) and there are even Egyptian hieroglyphs that are thought to represent intensive fish culturing. (Batis n.d.)

The first known example of “modern” aquaculture occurred in 1733 when a German farmer successfully gathered fish eggs, oversaw their fertilization and hatching, and then raised them to maturity. These techniques were exclusively focused on freshwater fish. Later the practice of creating farming “pens” off ocean shorelines for raising saltwater fish was developed.

The most recent development in aquaculture has been recirculating aquaculture systems or RAS. This is a technique where fish are raised in large, densely stocked tanks. A big advantage of RAS is that it does not require natural bodies of water, so RAS systems can be set up anywhere, even in urban centers. Rather than shipping tilapia or perch thousands of miles across the country, they can now be raised near those who want to cook them for dinner.

Another big advantage is that because of advancements in aquaculture science, fish can be raised very densely in RAS. Stocking densities as high as one pound of fish per gallon of water have been successfully achieved.

On the other hand, RAS is capital intensive, energy intensive and risky. The risk stems from the high packing densities and the derivative need for oxygen-rich water. Aeration depends on systems powered with electricity. Because of the high packing densities, there is little time to act should the power fail. Millions of fish can be killed from lack of oxygen in less than an hour.

The main disadvantage of RAS is the amount of waste the fish pro- duce and, more importantly, the waste disposal process. Fish produce waste through their respiration process, mostly in the form of ammonia, which they excrete through their gills. They also produce solid waste through their digestive process. Another source of waste in an aquaculture operation is the excess, uneaten food that sinks to the bottom of a fish tank.

Current filtration methods — be they mechanical, chemical or biological — all rely on extracting the waste from the fish tank and disposing of it as a harmful byproduct.

While aquaponics got its start in aquaculture, it fundamentally departs from the earlier form in a very important way — what is a waste product and a problem in aquaculture is a treasured input in aquaponics. This is a significant shift in aquaculture philosophy.

What is Aquaponics? Conclusion

So while a gardener might describe aquaponics as organic hydroponics, an aquarium or pond hobbyist might think of it as an aquaculture system with natural filtration. Both are correct, and both are insufficient.

Aquaponics is truly a unique system unto itself. One where nature has stepped in and helped relieve some of the burdens inherent in each system.

The Giveaway

New Society Publishers has reserved three copies of Aquaponic Gardening in this newest Book Festival Giveaway.

A special word about the giveaway question/comment:  Please read the question and respond accordingly, even it the answer is “I don’t know”.  This week’s question is:

What gardening topic would you like to learn more about it 2017?

The deadline is 6:00 PM MST Tuesday with the winners notified by email and announced on the Rafflecopter in the article.  Please note that the winners must claim their book within 48 hours or an alternate will be selected.

Note:  Due to customs requirements, this giveaway is only open to individuals with a mailing address in the United States.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Final Word

I started out by sharing my own keen interest in starting a garden on my land this summer.  I also hope to get some regionally appropriate fruit trees planted so that I can begin canning fruit for the winter months.  Coming from someone who has mostly gardened in pots these last ten or so years, this may (or may not) be a huge undertaking.

Will aquaponics follow? Time will tell but at the very least, I will have a modicum knowledge to get started.  For more information about the books in this latest book festival, visit Prepper Book Festival #13: Books to Help You Prepare.

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!

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Spotlight:  Aquaponic Gardening: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Vegetables and Fish Together

Aquaponics is a revolutionary system for growing plants by fertilizing them with the waste water from fish in a sustainable closed system. A combination of aquaculture and hydroponics, aquaponic gardening is an amazingly productive way to grow organic vegetables, greens, herbs, and fruits, while providing the added benefits of fresh fish as a safe, healthy source of protein.

On a larger scale, it is a key solution to mitigating food insecurity, climate change, groundwater pollution, and the impacts of overfishing on our oceans.Aquaponic Gardening is the definitive do-it-yourself home manual, focused on giving you all the tools you need to create your own aquaponic system and enjoy healthy, safe, fresh, and delicious food all year round.

Aquaponics systems are completely organic. They are four to six times more productive and use ninety percent less water than conventional gardens. Other advantages include no weeds, fewer pests, and no watering, fertilizing, bending, digging, or heavy lifting—in fact, there really is no downside!

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A frequent question I get on Backdoor Survival has to do with healthcare matters when there is no doctor around. This is the definite source of survival medical information for all Prepper’s and is my go-to bible for survival medicine.

Survival Medicine Handbook 2016

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