Simple aquaponics projects for beginners (or anyone). Get a quick crash course in Aquaponics 101 and DIY tutorials for backyard projects.
Aquaponics are excellent for growing food for your homestead, or just as a backyard project for the family.
If that term is not familiar to you, stick around, you’re about to get a crash course and walk away with enough knowledge to build your own aquaponics system.
Aquaponics may sound like some foreign Latin dialect but really it’s a mixture of two words, aquaculture and hydroponics.
It takes the age old aquaculture ideas of raising fish in tanks or ponds and combines it with hydroponics, which is another age old practice of cultivating plants in water.
This symbiotic system works perfectly together because the fish fertilize the plants (via their waste) and the hydroponic system feeds the plants as it cleans the water for the fish.
Why Combine The Two
While it takes more work (and time, and money) to start, aquaponics takes the downsides of each system and utilizes them together to create one of the most perfect growing relationships known to man.
Aquaculture requires excess nutrients removed from the system while hydroponics needs nutrients to feed the plants. The two systems offer what the other lacks, 24/7 on demand.
Not to mention that it is an incredibly conservative system, as an aquaponic system only uses about 1/10th of the water compared to growing plants in the soil and about the same electricity as running a couple of light bulbs. You can forget about weeding or fertilizing your plants too, it’s all taken care of.
How It Works
The two main components of aquaponics are the aquaculture (fish) system and the hydroponic (plant) system. The aquaculture system lets off effluents that sit in the water. Effluents can include uneaten feed and other wastes from the animals (lots of ammonia-rich urine usually, you wouldn’t believe how much fish pee).
Without removal these excess byproducts slowly becomes toxic to the fish, and they cannot handle such high levels. This is where the hydroponic system comes in, it plays an important part filtering out the ammonia that would be toxic to the animals while at the same time feeding plants the nutrients they need to grow.
This continuous cycle of cleaning the water and oxygenating it continues for as long as the water pump is running and it enables both the plants and the animals to grow faster, healthier, and more productive than if they were separate systems.
What You Can Grow
Nearly any non-root vegetable can be grown in a hydroponic system. However, the best and most proven plants include cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers, okra, and their related families. Root crops such as carrots, potatoes, and onions are not suitable for beginner aquaponics systems.
Since most plants have different growth stages and will use various minerals and nutrients along the way, it’s best to stagger your planting times until you learn your system. If your plants start suffering from lack of nutrients you cannot simply add fertilizer or compost, so take things slow until you know what to expect.
You can also grow your own duckweed or spirulina to feed yourself and your fish, but it is difficult trying to balance a completely closed system where there is zero input so I highly recommend waiting until you have a couple of years of experience under your belt before trying to grow your own fish food.
Animals that do well in an aquaponics system include most freshwater fish, and also freshwater crayfish and prawns. Tilapia are the staple among backyard aquaponics users but just about any fish will work including catfish, trout, bluegill, brim, or even goldfish. Check with your local government regulations before purchasing any fish.
Before we get deep into DIY systems, check out this quick video with a basic homemade system walk-through of an actual working system. If you still have some doubts or questions keep reading, I’ve added several more videos and articles that demonstrate the basics in the DIY section too.
The Next Step – After you read this post, check out Aquaponic Gardening: A Step-By-Step Guide to Raising Vegetables and Fish Together for an in-depth look into aquaponics that will take you from a beginner to an expert ready to build their own system.
DIY Beginner Aquaponics Systems For All Budgets
Below are several DIY aquaponics projects for every level of experience. DIY aquaponics systems are naturally cheap and all the ones below are budget friendly, but we still included several very cheap setups (including one for just $10) for users just getting started or experimenting.
A mini aquaponic system is an excellent setup for those who want to get their feet wet (pun intended) in aquaponics. They have instructions for building a small system that is ideal for someone new to aquaponics, a teacher, students or hobbyists.
CHOP Aquaponics Setup
CHOP stands for Constant Height One Pump and is by far the most popular system for beginners. This system uses the fish tank overflow to fill the grow beds. This allows you to use one pump for the entire system which makes you even more sustainable and less reliant on electricity.
Home Aquaponics System has one of the best and most simple setups for a beginner and it’s perfect if you want to try your hand at aqua-gardening without going in deep. Using a plastic garbage bin as your fish tank cuts the cost down dramatically.
Pro Tip – Want a simple plug-and-play setup that works right out of the box? AquaSprouts Garden has came out with a new system that does just that.
The AquaSprouts Garden is a self-sustaining aquarium & garden system in a box that transforms any 10-gallon aquarium into an aquaponics system that can grow just about anything.
Plant Starter (or Leafy Greens) System
If you’re on a tight budget you can’t go wrong with this setup. You will have to play with it a bit and your growing space is limited, but it doesn’t get any cheaper. It makes a great seed starter aquaponics system too.
IBC’s, the big white plastic and metal totes, are used to make the most popular beginner aquaponics systems. The guys at Urban Fish Farmer showcase several methods, including ones that only require one pump and/or one ICB tote. They also have several example how-to’s that are great for a greenhouse since they do not take up much space.
Indoor Desktop Systems
With an indoor system you can continue to grow fresh food during the winter months. This first of many video series greatly details the construction of such a system. Not only that, but it looks good too. Many indoor aquaponic systems look pretty terrible in your house, but this system looks like an expensive water feature compared to others.
As Easy As It Gets – The highly rated EcoQube Aquarium is the most popular and highest rated beginner tabletop aquaponic system because it’s as easy as taking it out of the box and plugging it up, and it really works.
It’s simple design will teach you the basics of balance on a small scale and kids love it so it’s a great way to teach them about aquaponics.
Amazing 300-Gallon Aquaponics System
Roe Sie, from the King’s Roost in Los Angeles, gives a tour of his shop’s aquaponics demo unit. Expandable to more than eight grow-beds, plus 40 pounds of tilapia, this system has an attractive, elegant, and effective design, with a surprisingly small footprint– about 9 x 12 feet, or the size of a prefab greenhouse.
If you’re interested in getting FOUR TIMES the yield of traditional in-ground gardening, using 90% LESS water and no fertilizers or pesticides, check this out. You don’t even need a big yard or lots of space. It’s perfect for urban farmers who crave organic produce and clean, safe, sustainable raised fish.
Mini Aquaponics Herb Garden For $10, Built In A Day!
Cheap, easy to build, works well, and looks great – that’s some words you hardly ever see together in DIY aquaponic projects but this one manages to pull it off. Not only is it perfect for herbs but you could essentially grow anything that a regular aquaponics system could grow. The only disadvantage is it is top heavy and will need tying off to a wall if you want to grow something tall and heavy like tomatoes.
We have several favorite books that we consider an absolute must read for anyone who is starting out in aquaponics or wants to try their hand at some DIY projects. They’re also highly recommended for anyone that is serious about aquaponics or that wants to do something on a bigger scale.
Aquaponic Gardening: A Step-By-Step Guide to Raising Vegetables and Fish Together – The definitive guide. If you can only get one book make it this one! The nearly 500 reviews on Amazon speak for themselves, and you’ll never find a better step-by-step book for DIY aquaponics.
The Bio-Integrated Farm: A Revolutionary Permaculture-Based System Using Greenhouses, Ponds, Compost Piles, Aquaponics, Chickens, and More – Wow. Just wow. This hidden gem is by far the best book on large scale aquaponics that exists. Coined “the twenty-first-century manual to farming”, it earns its name with example after example of a modern food growing system that is the future of the food supply. Every page is full of ideas and innovation, and most can be applied at any scale.
Aquaponics: Everything You Need to Know to Start an Expert DIY Aquaponic System from Home – This book is full of step-by-step instructions that are very easy to understand for even a beginner who knows nothing about aquaponics. The plumbing and parts needed are laid out in this book much better than others.
Aquaponics: The Ultimate Aquaponics Guide From Beginner To Expert – This is a great all-in-one primer. The biggest reason you should get this book is because for $2.99 you’re getting about $29.99 worth of information. You could easily start your own projects in a weekend after reading this single book.
Aquaponics: How to Build Your Own Aquaponic System – This is a great guide for beginners. It thoroughly explains the basic knowledge you need to know before starting your setup and shows the best combinations of fish-plant-bacteria and the advantages of each of them.