“Hey, is it weird having chickens in your backyard, just clucking around?”
My son Carter shook his head while he thought about how he would answer.
“It seems like they have always been there. I was 3 or something when we got our first egg, right? I don’t remember not having them.”
For a city boy like myself, it is hard for me to put myself in my son’s shoes. Sure, we live in a city here in Richmond, Virginia but the population is about half that of the COUNTY that I grew up in!
One of our biggest goals in prepping these days is radical backyard food production. We have done this many ways from meat rabbits to goats and just on our horizon are the processes and methods of hydroponics and aquaponics.
These two methods are both great ways to produce food and they are very interesting because they use soil, nutrients, and ecosystems that work hand in hand to produce food. Growing lettuce and greens without dirt is something that will blow your mind.
We are going to take an in-depth look at both aquaponics and hydroponics to see which of these might be the best for you.
What Exactly is Hydroponics?
There are levels to everything, even lettuce.
In the basement of a Wilmington restaurant called 821, I was first introduced to local hydroponic lettuce. This was around 2008 and I was working with an incredible team of chefs putting out innovative food to a receptive clientele.
The white cardboard boxes were sprawled out atop a stainless steel table and when the sous chef lifted the lid I saw the vibrant colors from a variety of lettuces. Red leaf, arugula, baby romaine that were still rooted in the growing medium.
This hydroponic lettuce felt more like the feathers of a hen than the wilted salad greens we are accustomed to. There was some strength, vitality, and flavor in this lettuce that I had never experienced before.
Hydroponics is the process of growing plants, without soil, in a nutrient solution that can be absorbed into a small growing medium that allows the plant to root and stabilize.
Hydroponic growing is a very effective means of growing food and is used to produce all kinds of foods that you eat all the time. You might be eating hydroponically grown lettuce each week and not even know it!
The reason hydroponics is popular among both home growers and large scale food producers is that plants come to maturity, in a hydroponics system, 25% faster!
Hydroponically grown plants also produce 30% more food than those that are grown in the traditional soil garden. If your ultimate goal is yield than hydroponics are a great option.
Hydroponics also scale really well, which makes them great for the backyard gardener and the large scale producers. These systems can be made from a collection of 6ft pipes in the backyard or they can span the full length of a warehouse!
While hydroponics gives you the ability to grow food indoors, you still need sunlight or simulated sunlight. Hydroponics systems do great outside and if you bring them inside you are going to need a grow light that can support your system
Growing food in a hydroponics system offers up a lot of advantages. Growing more food and growing it faster is enough to make even the most ardent raised bed gardener have a moment of pause.
Nothing is perfect, though. There are some disadvantages and risks that go along with operating a hydroponics system.
Hydroponics is going to outpace your traditional garden in cost as well as output. You will have to spend more money to set up and operate a hydroponics system than you would that backyard garden.
If you add grow lights to the mix you will also be spending more money on your electric bill.
A hydroponics garden is a hands-on system that requires you to pay attention to things like the PH and quality of water in your system. These systems will take longer to set up and will require more of your time.
The biggest risk is in the operation of the system itself. If your pump goes bad you could lose all your plants in a matter of hours. The growing medium is not designed to hold water like soil does, so all the plants in your system will die if your pump dies and you are at work or not paying attention.
What Grows Best?
One of the most interesting parts about using hydroponics to grow food is the wide variety of plants that grow well in a hydroponics system.
Of course, the structure and support you use to grow these types of plants will vary but you will be able to have success with all of these kinds of plants.
To begin your hydroponic system you are going to need a collection of materials. Now, you don’t need to DIY your system but a list of the necessary materials is always good to have on hand.
This list will make up all the items you need for your own hydroponic system.
- PVC Pipes
- Lumber for building your stand
- Hydroponic Water Pump
- Circle Saw Drill Bit
- Plant Nutrient
- Growing Medium
- Growing Cups
- Tool for Measuring PH
As we mentioned in the disadvantages of hydroponics there will be some upkeep that you need to handle on a regular basis. You will need to invest more time in your system than you will into your garden.
If you are committed to your hydroponics system it will pay you back dividends. Let’s look at what it will take to upkeep your system.
- Changing of nutrient solution every 2 to 3 weeks.
- Managing water temperature around 65 to 75 degrees. This can be a challenge in the heat of the summer. You might need to invest in a water heater or cooler.
- You want plenty of oxygen in your water so you will need to get a quality pump and use a pump stone to create plenty of air bubbles
- Your plant nutrient will come with instructions. Follow them to a T!
- After every growing cycle, you should plan to flush the entire system with a product like Clearex
What Exactly is Aquaponics?
We learned many lessons at our home thanks to the pandemic. The most powerful of all was about protein. It was clear that we were not far enough down the path when it came to backyard protein sources.
Eggs are our only true option for viable animal protein outside of trapping and hunting which, considering the substantial development in our immediate area, is getting better by the day.
Still, it became clear very quickly that in a year’s time we would need to be better prepared to source protein from the backyard than we were in March. This brought my attention to many options. Aquaponics being one.
Ryan Buford, the host of The Next Generation, has some serious success with aquaponics on his property and had the entire roster at the Prepper Broadcasting Network thinking about taking the plunge.
Aquaponics is a closed system that combines hydroponic growing with aquaculture or the keeping and raising of fish. This system runs a nitrogen cycle that is created from fish waste and pumping water. Your plants love nitrogen and they eat that up. They also filter the water for the fish and you have a system where both species work together to meet some of each others’ needs.
Think of the hydroponics setup up we described earlier and add a fish tank or basin to the mix. While the stars of the show might appear to be the fish and plants but to be honest this system relies on the microscopic bacteria that help transform the fish waste into plant food. These wastes which are mostly nitrites and ammonia are filtered and turned to nitrates which the plants can use as food.
All of the benefits of hydroponics apply. Your plants will grow bigger, faster, and be organic. We will mention a few others that pertain to fish and a broader spectrum of benefits that apply to aquaponics, too!
- No need for artificial fertilizers
- Fish production
- Fish for baiting traps or fishing lakes and rivers
- Fish as fertilizer for your dirt based gardens
- Less damage from pests and disease
- No Weeding!!
Aquaponics is a serious system that requires balance to operate effectively. Now you will have to focus on pH both for plants and fish. Because of this type of systems requirements, there can be some serious downsides.
- Expensive setup costs
- Constant system monitoring
- Simple failure can create massive loss of fish and plants
- Fish food is required
- Cannot grow root crops
- You should invest in a greenhouse to maintain climate
What Grows Best
I guess the only thing better than growing 30% more food 25% faster is raising fish in the same system! So what are the best fish and plants to grow in a system like this?
- Trout in cold climates
- Various ornamental fish species
To start up an aquaponics system you are going to need all of the equipment necessary to start a hydroponics system. The pipes, tubing, pumps, and growing medium.
- Fish Tank or Basin
- Sump Tank
- Electronic Monitoring System
- Backup Systems
- Filtration System
- Fish Food
As you can imagine, growing plants and fish together in a symbiotic system while maintaining the PH and overall health of both species can require some upkeep.
Anything with a worthwhile payout is worth the effort. Aquaponics is no different. There are a list of things that you should do on a regular basis to assure your system is up to part for the long haul.
Unfortunately, aquaponics is not one of the more forgiving ways of growing food. You have to stay on top of things.
Feeding is a daily activity but you want to be sure not to overfeed the fish and quickly remove and fish feed that has not been eaten. This will cloud your water and effect the health of the whole system.
Temperature is a pretty big factor when it comes to your aquaponics system. You will fight temperature in the extremes of seasons. That is just how it goes. A good monitoring system and some heating and cooling equipment go a long way
The big thing is to know where your system stands by monitoring temp on a regular basis.
Check the stems and underside of leaves for insects. While your plants will be less prone to diseases and infestations from the soil, you still need to be mindful of insects.
The measuring of pH weekly is vital as it dictates the health of your fish, the ability of your plants to uptake nutrients, and the health of the bacteria in your water.
Nitrate and Ammonia Levels
A sudden rise in ammonia levels could mean you are housing a dead fish! A weekly check on these levels will assure your system is working properly. High nitrate levels likely mean that you need to add plants to your system. Nitrate readings can be taken monthly.
At least once a year you should disassemble and deep clean your whole system. This means you will have to kill off your fish, eat or freeze them unless you have an alternate tank to keep them alive in.
Food production is one of the best ways to take back the freedoms we have handed over to convenience. Using a number of methods for food production is a great way to hedge against things like drought and disease.
There are as many ways to garden as there are vegetables to grow! Hydroponics is a very interesting method and one of the only ones that can be done inside!
If you are concerned about your garden being damaged or stolen from in some kind of unrest or SHTF situation, there might be some value to growing food inside.
There are a few ways that urban and suburban people can raise protein in the backyard. The aquaponics system is a great way to just fill the freezer with fish.
If you have some startup costs stowed away and you can keep up with the measuring a few different things in your system, you might the type of person who would benefit from a hydroponic or aquaponics system.