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Training Manual

By:
Lorena Viladomat
Philip Jones

Aquaponics training manual


By:
Lorena Viladomat and Philip Jones
September 2011

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialNoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative
Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA.

Acknowledgments
We would like to extend our gratitude to all who have helped us during the
development of this manual. Particular thanks go to all at Al Basma Centre, and the
workshop participants; to Lori Bryan, Yassir Hamdan, Chris, Kyle and Tim and the
Bustan Qaraaqa workforce for their assistance
We would like to thank Operation Blessing Middle East, ELSA Mex S.A de C.V, and
our families for much needed financial support and feedback, without which we
would not have been able to proceed with the project and produce this manual.

Contents

CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION

WHAT IS AQUAPONICS?
TYPES OF AQUAPONIC SYSTEM
1) FLOATING RAFT, OR DEEP WATER CULTURE
2) FLOOD AND DRAIN
3) NUTRIENT FILM (NFT)
AQUAPONIC SYSTEM COMPONENTS
WHAT CAN GROW IN AN AQUAPONIC SYSTEM?

1
3
3
3
5
6
8

CHAPTER 2: WATER QUALITY MONITORING AND CYCLING

WATER QUALITY PARAMETERS


THE NITROGEN CYCLE AMMONIA, NITRITE AND NITRATE
DISSOLVED OXYGEN (DO)
PH
ALKALINITY/HARDNESS
TEMPERATURE
WATER QUALITY SUMMARY TABLE
WATER QUALITY MONITORING
CYCLING AQUAPONIC SYSTEMS
CYCLING WITH FISH
FISHLESS CYCLING

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10
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12
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CHAPTER 3: ABOUT FISH

17

EXTERNAL ANATOMY OF A FISH


FISH LIFE CYCLE
CHOOSING FISH SPECIES
SPECIES INFORMATION
COMMON CARP (CYPRINUS CARPIO)
TILAPIA (TILAPIA SP. AND OREOCHROMIS SP.)
HYBRID BASS (MORONE SAXATILIS X MORONE CHRYSOPS).
CHANNEL CATFISH (ICTALURUS PUNCTATUS)

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CHAPTER 4: FISH MANAGEMENT

24

DETERMINING CARRYING CAPACITY


BUT HOW MANY FISH DO YOU STOCK?
STOCKING THE FIRST FISH
STOCKING MORE FISH
GROWTH MEASUREMENT

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CHAPTER 5: PLANTS AND SEEDLING MANAGEMENT

28

BASIC PLANT ANATOMY AND LIFE CYCLE


GROWBED LAYOUT
ENSURE CONTINUAL HARVESTS (TIME STACKING)
MAKE USE OF VERTICAL SPACE (PHYSICAL STACKING)
ENCOURAGE DIVERSITY
COMPANION PLANTING
STEPS FOR DESIGNING THE GROWBED LAYOUT

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Contents
STOCKING PLANTS
PLANTING STRAIGHT INTO THE GROWBEDS
USING SEEDLINGS
TRANSPLANTING SEEDLINGS

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CHAPTER 6: FISH FOOD

35

MANUFACTURED FEED
HOME-MADE FEED
DUCKWEED AND AZOLLA FERN
BLACK SOLDIER FLY LARVAE
WORMS
GRAINS AND DOMESTIC SCRAPS
BENEFITS OF HOME-GROWN FOOD

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CHAPTER 7: FISH HEALTH

39

FISH HEALTH PROBLEMS


WATER QUALITY
STRESS
PATHOGENS AND PARASITES
PARASITES
DISEASE

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CHAPTER 8: PLANT HEALTH

47

WHAT DO PLANTS NEED?


PLANTS AND PH
MACRONUTRIENTS
NITROGEN (N)
PHOSPHORUS (P)
POTASSIUM (K)
CALCIUM (CA)
MAGNESIUM (MG)
SULPHUR (S)
MICRONUTRIENTS
AQUAPONICS-SAFE FERTILISERS
PLANT BASED LIQUID/FOLIAR FEED
MOLASSES SPRAY
COMPOST TEA
WORM CASTINGS
PEST CONTROL
GENERAL CONTROL STRATEGIES
COMMON PLANT PESTS
SPIDER MITES
THRIPS
WHITEFLY
APHIDS

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CHAPTER 9: CONSTRUCTING AN AQUAPONIC SYSTEM

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HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS


CONSTRUCTION PROCESS

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Contents

CHAPTER 10: SYSTEM OPERATION AND MAINTENANCE

69

AQUAPONIC SYSTEMS OPERATOR SCHEDULE


DAILY TASKS
WEEKLY TASKS
MONTHLY TASKS
TROUBLESHOOTING

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CHAPTER 11: FRESH FISH SKILLS

73

KILLING FISH
BLEEDING IT OUT
DESCALING
TO DESCALE OR NOT:
GUTTING THE FISH
REMOVING THE GILLS
HANDLING FISH WITH SPINY FINS
FILLETING FISH
FIRST FILLET
SECOND FILLET
STORING FISH
FRIDGE
FREEZING
DEFROSTING

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APPENDIX 1: COMPANION PLANTING CHART

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APPENDIX 2: POPULAR AQUAPONIC PLANTS

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FAMILY: ALLIACEAE
FAMILY: AMARANTHACEAE
FAMILY: APIACEAE
FAMILY: ASTERACEAE
FAMILY: BRASSICACEAE
FAMILY: CUCURBITACEAE
FAMILY: CHENOPODIACEAE
FAMILY: FABACEAE
FAMILY: LAMIACEAE
FAMILY: MALVACEAE
FAMILY: POACEAE
FAMILY: ROSACEAE
FAMILY: SOLANACEAE
FAMILIY: UMBELLIFERAE (APIACEAE)

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Chapter 1:
Introduction

What is aquaponics?
Aquaponics is a water efficient method for growing both fish and plants in a self-contained
system. Aquaponics is a combination of two food production systems recirculating
aquaculture and hydroponics. The word aquaponics is made up from the words aquaculture
and hydroponics.
Aquaculture = Fish farming
Hydroponics = Growing plants without soil, using a nutrient enriched water supply
Aquaponics = Growing fish and plants together in one closed system
Intensive Aquaculture

Hydroponics

Aquaponics

Fish production

High densities, quick


growth

No

Plant production

No

High densities, quick


growth

High densities, quick


growth
High densities, quick
growth

Water efficiency

High

High

Very high

Wastes generated

Nutrient rich effluent


water, possibly
containing hormones
and antibiotics

Pesticides and
fertilisers in effluent
water

Wastes processed in
the system

Inputs used

Clean water, fish food,


antibiotics, electricity

Clean water, chemical


nutrient solutions,
pesticides

Clean water, fish food,


electricity

Why

aquaponics?
Efficiency:

Nutrient-rich fish
waste effluent

Aquaponics is water
efficient:
As it is a closed, recirculating
system, water is only added to
compensate for evaporative
loss and the water taken up
into the plants. Therefore it is
an ideal method of food
production in arid areas of the
world.

Aquaponics is space
efficient:
Plants can be grown at a high
density, as water and nutrient
availability is guaranteed at all
times. As no soil is needed,
aquaponic systems can be
constructed anywhere - from
gardens to rooftops.

Aquaponics is cost
efficient:
The inputs to an aquaponic
setup are fish food and a small
amount of electricity. Fish food
can even be grown on site for
free!
Continues on next page

Clean, filtered
water

Aquaponic systems combine the benefits of recirculating


aquaculture with those of hydroponic plant growth, while
mitigating the disadvantages of both. Fish are fed, and
produce nitrogen-rich wastes, which are carried in the water
to the plant growing beds. The growing plants, and the
medium in which they are grown, act as a bio-filter for the
water in which the fish wastes are converted to soluble
nutrients and then absorbed by the plants. The result is
vigorous plant growth, and clean water ready to return to the
fish tank. Thus, the waste of one biological system becomes
the nutrient source for another.

Types of aquaponic system

Friendly:

There are three main types of aquaponic system,


differentiated by the type of hydroponic plant-growing
component used.

Aquaponics is friendly to
the environment:

1) Floating Raft, or Deep Water Culture


Plants are grown in sheets of Styrofoam, which float on the
surface of water-filled growbeds. Water from the fish tank
is continually pumped into the growbeds, and continually
overflows back into the fish tank. The growbeds need to be
aerated at all times to prevent root rot. In addition, water
must pass through a separate mechanical and biological
filter prior to reaching the growbeds, to remove any
particulate matter that could otherwise clog the plant
roots.

Growing vegetable crops locally


reduces dependence on
commercial agriculture and mass
transportation, both of which are
unsustainable. In addition,
domestic fish production can
help relieve the pressure on ever
depleting populations of fish in
the oceans.

Aquaponics is friendly to
your body:
By growing on your doorstep,
you have ready access to totally
fresh produce. You also know
exactly what you are eating
aquaponic systems do not use
chemical pesticides or fertilisers.
Instead, they rely on completely
natural biological processes to
maintain a stable ecosystem.

Aquaponics is user friendly:

2) Flood and drain


Plants are grown in a medium filled growbed. The
substrate media serves two purposes as the biological
and mechanical filter, and as a support for the plants,
which can root in it much like in soil.

Yes, it is easy! Once a system is


well established, the natural
biological processes should take
care of most maintenance,
meaning that the operators
involvement is little more than
harvesting and re-stocking
appropriately.

4
The growbed is filled with water from the fish tank, and then drained. During the flood,
water and nutrients are brought into the plant root zone. During the drain, air is drawn into
the plant root zone, and the water returns to the fish tank.
The flood/drain cycle can either be controlled by running the pump on a timer, or by building
an automatic draining device, called an autosiphon into the growbed.
A variation on the simple
flood and drain setup is the
CHOP (Constant Height One
Pump) system. In a constant
height system, the fish tank
water level is higher than
the growbeds, and water
overflows from the fish tank
into the growbeds. The
growbeds then drain into a
separate sump tank (the
lowest part of the system)
from which water is
continually pumped back
into the fish tank. Constant
height systems offer several
advantages over simple
flood and drain systems: The water level in the fish tank stays constant at all times; the sump
tank receives only filtered water draining from the growbed, and so the pump is much less
likely to clog up with solids; there is a greater overall water volume, lending increased system
stability; and the sump tank may be used to rear baby fish.

Constant height flood and drain system

5
3) Nutrient film (NFT)
Plants are grown in pipes through
which a small amount of water is
continually flowing. Water is
pumped continually from the fish
tank to a separate mechanical and
biological filter (to remove any
particulate matter that could
otherwise clog the plant roots), and
then on to the growing tubes, which
continually drain back into the fish
tank.

Characteristics of different types of aquaponic system


Filtration
Plant support
Evaporation
Electrical failure

Maintenance
Biological and
thermal stability

Growbed options

Flood and drain


Provided by
growbed
Provided by
growbed
Medium
Plants have water
and air around roots
can survive for a
reasonably long
time
Medium
Low
Higher overall water Good
volume per unit
growbed area gives
greatest biological
and thermal
stability
Growbeds cannot
Growbeds cannot
be stacked
be stacked
Floating raft
Additional filter
needed
Tall plants need
wires/sticks
Very low
Plant death from
lack of oxygen

Nutrient film
Additional filter
needed
Tall plants need
wires/sticks
Very low
Plant death from lack
of water

Medium
Pipes with thin film
of flowing water can
cause significant
fluctuations in water
temperature
Allows for very
flexible
configuration,
including stacking
pipes vertically

Aquaponic system components


Fish tank: The fish tank can be made from many different materials, from lined ponds dug
into the earth, to custom-built fiberglass tanks. Whatever the fish tank is made from, it must
be food grade. For example, re-used plastic barrels are fine as long as they have not
previously held dangerous chemicals. Any material containing zinc should be avoided (such
as metal water tanks), as the zinc is toxic to fish.
The fish tank should ideally be wider than it is deep. The larger the fish tank (and thus the
total volume of water), the more stable the system will be in terms of temperature, water
quality and biology.
Sump tank: Not all aquaponic systems use a sump tank. However, they can be used to
ensure a constant water depth in the fish tank, and also increase the total water volume in
the system, thus increasing stability. In a flood and drain system, the sump tank must be
large enough to hold all the water in the growbeds should they empty simultaneously, plus a
little more to ensure the pump stays submerged when all the growbeds are full.

A diagram of a flood and drain aquaponic setup with a sump tank, also called a CHOP system (Constant Height One
Pump), constructed from liquid shipping containers called IBCs. Note the siphon standpipes in each growbed. The height
of these determines the maximum water depth in the flooded growbed.

Growbeds: Like the fish tank, the growbeds may be constructed from a wide range of
materials, but again they must be food grade. For flood and drain systems, the total volume
of the growbeds should ideally be double the fish tank volume.
Filter: In a flood and drain system, the growbeds act as the biological and mechanical filter,
as well as providing a support for the plants. In order to perform adequate biological
filtration, flood and drain growbeds should be deep enough to hold 30cm of growing
medium. In NFT and raft systems filtration is normally a two-step process: solids removal
(mechanical filtration) and nutrient conversion (biological filtration) happen in separate filter
units.

7
Pump: The pump is used to move water from the lowest point in the system (e.g. the sump
tank) to the highest point (e.g. the fish tank). The pump should be able to move the entire
water volume every hour. Because the pump has to move water vertically, which reduces the
rate at which it can pump, it is necessary to know both the maximum height difference
(head), and the total system water volume to be able to choose the correct size of pump.
Aerator: An aerator is not always necessary in some systems the movement of water to
and from the growbeds can provide sufficient oxygenation of the water. It is impossible to
provide too much oxygen, yet too little will cause serious problems. An aerator is an easy
way to ensure adequate oxygenation at all times.
Autosiphon: In flood and drain systems an autosiphon is a relatively easy way to ensure the
growbeds fill and drain correctly. An autosiphon allows the growbed to fill with water up to a
predetermined depth, at which point the water drains out rapidly, to empty the growbed. An
alternative to using an autosiphon is to use a timer switch to run the pump for just long
enough to fill the growbeds, and then switch off the pump while the growbeds drain. The
disadvantage of timer switches is that most pumps are designed for continuous operation.
Repeatedly stopping and starting will shorten their lifespan.

1: Growbed full. Water


overflows siphon standpipe
and starts to drain

2: Airtight bell tube creates


siphon, which drains all the
water from the growbed
until

3: Air is drawn in through


holes in bell tube, thus
breaking the siphon. The
growbed now fills up again

Plumbing: Various pipes, taps and joints are needed to connect the various components.
Wider bore pipes offer lower resistance to the flowing water, and are less likely to get
clogged with fish wastes than narrower pipework.
Growing medium: This is an incredibly important component in the flood and drain
aquaponic system. The substrate medium can be gravel, volcanic rock, broken pottery, or
specialised expanded clay balls. In all cases, the particles must be large enough to allow
efficient drainage (approximately 2cm diameter gravel pieces, for example). Another
consideration is that the substrate should not affect the water pH (see later in this manual),
and so materials such as marble or limestone should be avoided.

What can grow in an aquaponic system?


Fish: Aquaponic systems are great for growing fresh water (or fresh water tolerant) fish.
Suitable species include carp, tilapia, hybrid bass, sea bass, barramundi, European perch,
trout, jade perch, and catfish.
The main considerations for choosing which fish to grow are:

Water temperature throughout the year (e.g. trout need cold water; tilapia warm
water, and carp can tolerate a very wide range)
Tolerance of fish species to fluctuating water quality (tilapia and carp are the most
tolerant)
Diet preference of fish (e.g. carnivores such as trout and bass, or herbivores such as
carp and tilapia)
Speed of growth and ease of reproduction (e.g. tilapia are very fast growers and
breed readily)
Palatability/marketability

Throughout the world, tilapia is probably the most widely cultivated species in aquaponic
systems. This is a result of their extreme hardiness and tolerance of fluctuating water quality,
the ease with which they reproduce, their ability to eat a wide range of foodstuffs, and their
very acceptable meat. In some parts of the world (e.g. Australia, parts of the U.S.A.) it is
illegal to cultivate tilapia, as the very same reasons that make them great for aquaculture
also make them a very serious threat to local environments should they escape into natural
bodies of water.
Plants: Fish waste is predominately made up of ammonia, and so very nitrogen rich;
therefore, nitrogen-loving plants do especially well. All green leafy vegetables and herbs are
ideal for aquaponic production, e.g. lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, spinach, rocket, basil, dill,
coriander, parsley, celery, chard, and kale.
Fruiting plants require slightly different nutrients to leafy crops, but once an aquaponic
system is well established then they also can thrive. Examples of plants that do very well are:
tomatoes, chilli and sweet peppers, cucumbers, melons and watermelons.

Chapter 2:
Water quality
monitoring
and cycling

An aquaponic system can be looked at as a living organism, the water acting as its blood. The
pump is the heart of an aquaponic system; the growbeds become the lungs. The continually
flowing water carries away the wastes of the fish and in doing so delivers vital nutrients to
the plants; as the growbeds flood and drain, they breathe oxygen into the water, which is
then available to be used by the fish.
For this reason it is important that we understand our water, and learn a little about aquatic
chemistry and biology.

Water quality parameters


Pure water is H2O. However, almost all water contains a wide range of other chemicals and
microorganisms, which can significantly affect how it behaves, and the life living in it. The
concentrations of different chemicals and organisms in the water determine the water
quality, and each chemical or organism of interest can be called a water quality parameter.
In aquaponics we are interested in a relatively small range of water quality parameters.
Understanding the relationships and interactions between them is, however, of paramount
importance in maintaining a healthy, balanced system.
In this section we will learn about these parameters.

10
The Nitrogen Cycle ammonia, nitrite and nitrate
Ammonia, nitrite and nitrate are all nitrogen-containing chemicals, which occur naturally in
aquaponic systems. These three chemicals, and the processes that create them and break
them down, make up the nitrogen cycle.

Fish food
Plants get eaten

Fish eat
Fish excrete
ammonia (NH3)

Plants use nitrate


for growth

Bacteria convert
nitrite (NO2) to
nitrate (NO3)

Bacteria convert
ammonia (NH3) to
nitrite (NO2)

Ammonia (NH3/NH4+)

Ammonia is excreted by fish, and is by-product of breakdown of excess food


Ammonia comes in two forms: NH3 (ammonia) is extremely toxic to fish and other
organisms. Ammonium (NH4+), the ionized form of ammonia is much less toxic.
In a healthy aquaponic system, the ammonia level should be 0ppm (parts per million)
If ammonia levels rise above 0.02ppm it starts to have harmful effects. Some fish species
can tolerate ammonia levels as high as 0.5ppm for short periods (a few hours).
Ammonia is the most common cause of mass mortalities when stocking new tanks to
capacity too quickly.

Nitrite (NO2-)

Produced by Nitrosomas sp. bacteria from ammonia


Toxic to fish
In a healthy aquaponic system, nitrite levels should be 0ppm
Too much (above 0.5 mg/l) can cause brown blood disease and fish death

11
Nitrate (NO32-)

Produced by Nitrobacter sp. bacteria from nitrite


Fish can tolerate fairly high concentrations of nitrate
In a healthy aquaponic system, nitrate levels should be around 50ppm
Nitrate is taken up by plants as they grow
Too much nitrate means not enough plants!

Dissolved Oxygen (DO)


Living organisms need oxygen (O2) to live. Oxygen is produced by plants via a process called
photosynthesis, and consumed by both plants and animals in a process called respiration.
Oxygen also dissolves in water and this is how it can be available to aquatic life. There are
two sources of dissolved oxygen (DO) in aquatic environments:
1: Oxygen produced by photosynthesis of submerged aquatic plants
2: Atmospheric oxygen absorbed by the water at an air/water interface - usually the surface.
Oxygen transfers from air to water by diffusion through the surface. The rate at which
oxygen transfer occurs is dependent on the surface area of the air/water interface. Waves,
ripples or splashing water all serve to increase the surface area, thus increasing the potential
rate of oxygen transfer.
Artificial methods of water oxygenation also focus on increasing the area of the air/water
interface; For example, air pumps that blow bubbles into the water column each small
bubble creates a comparatively large surface across which oxygen can diffuse.
The amount of oxygen that can dissolve in water depends on the water temperature. Cold
water can have a much higher dissolved oxygen (DO) level than warm water, for example the
maximum DO of water at 0C is 14.6 mg/l, whereas at 30C water becomes saturated with
only 7.5mg/l DO.
As aquatic organisms respire, they use up oxygen, reducing DO levels. Therefore, in order for
organisms to remain alive the DO must be continually replenished. In an aquaponic system
we do not particularly want to encourage submerged aquatic plants it is better that the
nutrients are used instead by the crops we plant but we still need to ensure adequate
dissolved oxygen (DO) for the fish.

12
DO should never drop below 5mg/l in an aquaponic system. If
DO levels are too low, fish activity and growth slow down. Fish
may be observed coming to the surface to gasp at the air. If DO
drops even lower, the fish will die. It is also worth knowing that
the bacterial processes of the nitrogen cycle need oxygen. If DO
levels are too low, then the highly toxic ammonia is not broken
down but instead remains in the water, poisoning the fish.

pH
pH is a measure of how acidic or basic (alkali) a substance is. The
pH scale goes from 1 (very strong acid) to 14 (very strong base).
pH 7 is neutral neither acidic nor basic. An acid in solution
disassociates into two ions (charged particles). For example
hydrochloric acid (HCL) in solution becomes H+ and Cl- ions. The
pH scale is actually an inverse logarithmic scale measuring
concentration of H+ ions.
1----------------------------------------7--------------------------------------14
Acid
Neutral
Basic
Sulphuric acid

vinegar

pure water

limestone

Sodium Hydroxide

In an aquaponic system the ideal pH is 7 neutral, with an


acceptable range of 6.5 - 7.5.
Fish are generally able to tolerate a range of pH from 6 - 9; the
optimal pH for the bacterial breakdown of ammonia is slightly
basic (7 - 9). However, the plants prefer slightly acidic conditions.
In fact, if the pH is too high (above 7.5) the plants are unable to
absorb certain nutrients, and so manifest nutrient deficiencies
and stunted growth. This situation is called nutrient lock out. At
higher pH, dissolved ammonia is mainly in the toxic, unionized
form (NH3). At lower pH, dissolved ammonia is mainly in the less
toxic, ionized form, ammonium (NH4+).
The water source and choice of growing medium can both effect
pH. Most groundwater is slightly basic, with a pH around 8.
Rainwater is usually neutral or slightly acidic. Growing medium
with a lot of limestone or marble in it will also raise the pH to
around 8 or 8.5. For this reason, it is best to avoid these
materials and use a growing medium that will not affect pH such
as clay beads or volcanic rock.

Altering pH
Over time, the pH of an
aquaponic system tends to drop.
Respiration of the fish, bacteria
and plant roots produces carbon
dioxide, which dissolves in the
water to form acid; the nitrogen
cycle can also produce nitric acid
(HNO3). If the pH drops too
much, then base must be added.
If the pH is too high, then acid
must be added.
Sources of base

Crushed eggshells
Snail shells
Chalk
Limestone
All contain calcium carbonate
(CaCO3)
Dolomite (calcium magnesium
carbonate CaMg(CO3)2)
Lime (calcium hydroxide Ca(OH)2)

Sources of acid

Vinegar (acetic acid)


Lemon juice (citric acid)
Phosphoric acid (H3PO4 found in
garden centres)

If acid or base is added to change


the pH then it must be done
gradually. Changing the pH by
more than 0.2 points per day will
stress the fish.
Before adding anything to the
system, try it out in a 10L water
sample.

13
Alkalinity/hardness
Hardness and alkalinity are important water quality parameters in aquaponics. Basically, they
provide a measure of the pH buffering power of the water. Buffering refers to a solutions
ability to resist pH change. Water with higher alkalinity is more able to resist changes in pH,
which, assuming the pH is correct, keeps the fish and plants happy.
There are two types of hardness: general hardness (GH) and carbonate hardness (KH also
known as alkalinity). Hardness is expressed in parts per million calcium carbonate (ppm
CaCO3), which means that the hardness is equivalent to having that much calcium carbonate
dissolved in the water, though in actual fact the hardness may be caused by other dissolved
ions.
Water is classified in levels of hardness as follows:
0-75 ppm: soft; 75-150ppm: medium hard; 150-300ppm: hard >300ppm: very hard
The optimal hardness for an aquaponic system is in the range of 100-300ppm
General Hardness (GH) is the measure of calcium (Ca2+) and magnesium (Mg2+) ions in
the water. Incorrect GH can affect the uptake of nutrients and ability of wastes to pass across
cell membranes.
Carbonate hardness (KH) measures bicarbonate (HCO3-) and carbonate (CO32-) ions.
These ions can both combine with the hydrogen ions (H+) present in acids as follows:
H+ + CO32- ==> HCO3-

H+ + HCO3- ==> H2CO3

Thus, the amount of carbonate and bicarbonate in the water tells us how much H+ from acid
can be bound up by the water. The total acid binding capacity is called alkalinity. Therefore,
water with a high alkalinity is able to bind up a lot of acid.
In an aquaponic system, the acids resulting from respiration and bacterial processes could
cause the pH to drop rapidly. However, if the water has a sufficiently high alkalinity, then this
acid is simply mopped up by carbonate ions, and the pH does not change.
Again, the water source and choice of growing media can affect the alkalinity. Groundwater
typically has quite high alkalinity; rainwater has low alkalinity. Inert growing media such as
clay beads and volcanic rock have no effect on alkalinity. Limestone or marble chips on the
other hand will act as pH buffers by slowly dissolving to bind with any acids present.
Over time, the buffering capacity of the water is used up, and needs to be increased. Adding
crushed eggshells, snail shells or limestone to the system can achieve this.

14
Temperature
In general, biological processes happen faster at higher temperatures. This stands true in
aquaponic systems. As fish are cold-blooded animals, their metabolic and activity rates
depend on the temperature of the water. In warmer water, fish are more active, eat more
and grow more quickly than in cold water. However, each species of fish has its ideal
temperature range, and if the water is either too hot or too cold then the fish will begin to
experience stress and their growth will slow down significantly. Therefore, the ideal water
temperature for an aquaponic system really depends on the species of fish being grown; for
example tilapia prefer high temperatures, 24-28 C for optimal growth, whereas trout prefer
15-18C, and will die if the water temperature rises much above 20C.
The temperature also affects the bacterial processes in the growbeds. Ammonia removal is
optimized in the temperature range 21-27C.
A fact to consider is that higher temperatures increase fish and bacterial metabolism
feeding and growth rates. This in turn increases their consumption of oxygen. However,
warmer water has a lower maximum DO (oxygen content) than cooler water, highlighting the
benefits of additional aeration.

Water quality summary table


Parameter

Ideal value

Safe range

Ammonia (NH3)

0 ppm

<0.5 ppm

Nitrite (NO2-)

0 ppm

<0.5 ppm

Nitrate (NO32-)

50+ ppm

10 150 ppm

Dissolved Oxygen (DO)

5+ mg/L

>2 mg/L

21-27

Depends on the fish species

6.5 7.5

100-300

100-300

Temperature
pH
Hardness (GH and KH)

15

Water quality monitoring


So now that you know what acceptable water quality
parameters are, how do you measure them?
Aquarium test kits: These have been specially designed to
test water quality in fish tanks, and so are ideal for
aquaponic systems. Test kits are relatively inexpensive, can
test a range of parameters (Ammonia, Nitrate, Nitrite, DO,
pH, GH and KH) and are simple to use exact instructions
depend on the brand.
Aquarium test kits come in two forms:
Dipsticks, which are simply dipped into the water,
and a colour change indicates the result.
Dropper kits a water sample is collected in a test
tube, and a few drops of the chemical reagent
added. A colour change indicates the result.

Water quality
and cycling
The key parameters to watch during
cycling are ammonia and nitrite. The
following pictures were taken on
consecutive days during system
setup, fishless cycling using goat
manure and fish food as ammonia
source.

Ammonia levels (left) are falling.


Nitrite levels (right) are very high.

Electronic meters: Faster, more accurate and much more


expensive than the aquarium test kits, electronic meters
can be used to measure DO, pH and temperature.
Water testing should be carried out every day for the first
two months. Once the system seems to have stabilised,
then it should only be necessary to test once a week, or
any time the system is altered or disturbed (such as
stocking or harvesting heavily, overfeeding, water
changing)

Ammonia (left) almost 0 ppm. Nitrites


(middle) still high.

Cycling aquaponic systems


Cycling is an essential process when starting an aquaponic
system. The purpose of cycling is to allow the bacterial
populations in the growbeds to grow large enough that
they will be able to process all the fish waste once the
system is fully stocked. Failure to cycle correctly will result
in fish deaths from ammonia poisoning.

Ammonia (left) 0 ppm. Nitrites falling.

Once an aquaponic system has been constructed, the


growbeds filled with growing medium, and the system
filled with chlorine free water, cycling can commence.

Ammonia (left) 0 ppm. Nitrites


(middle) 0 ppm. Nitrates (right) 40ppm.

16
The basic process of cycling is that ammonia is added to the system, and then ammonia,
nitrite and nitrate levels are monitored on a daily basis until ammonia and nitrite levels have
both peaked and returned to 0, and nitrate levels start to climb. This shows that both
Nitrosomas and Nitrobacter populations have established themselves, and the ammonia has
been converted first to nitrite then to nitrate. There are two methods for cycling an
aquaponic system:

Cycling with fish


The most obvious ammonia source is live fish, which excrete ammonia. To cycle with fish add
a small number of hardy, non-valuable fish (goldfish are a good choice!) at a rate of roughly
1g fish per 2 litres of fish tank volume. Feed the fish sparingly, and they will start to produce
ammonia. Test ammonia, nitrite and nitrate every day. If ammonia levels exceed 1ppm, stop
feeding until it has dropped again to avoid killing the fish. Ammonia levels will spike and then
drop. A few days later, nitrite levels should spike and drop, and some time after that nitrate
levels will start to rise.
The whole process can take 4-8 weeks depending on water temperature. There is no need to
add bacteria to the system they are naturally present in water and the atmosphere, and
will happily establish themselves in the growbeds on their own. However, it is possible to
kick-start the bacterial populations by adding a bucket of water from an established system.

Fishless cycling
It is possible to speed up the cycling process to as little as 10-14 days by using a different
source of ammonia and not having fish in the system at all. Ammonia levels can be
maintained at what would be lethal to fish if they were present up to 5ppm. This means
that there is much more food available for the bacteria from the outset, enabling faster
growth. Alternative sources of ammonia include:
Pure ammonia: Add carefully until up to 5ppm in the aquaponic system.
Animal manure (chicken/goat): Place a handful in a mesh bag suspended in the fish tank.
Urine: Preferably aged for a few days. Add carefully to give a maximum of 5ppm in the
aquaponic system.
Dead fish, frozen shrimp, fish food: A couple of dead fish, 6-8 king prawns or a good handful
of fish food suspended in a mesh bag in the fish tank will start to decay and give off ammonia
in a few days.
The ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels need to be monitored daily, and again the bacterial
populations can be given a boost by adding a bucket of water from an established system.
Once cycling is complete, ammonia and nitrite levels are 0 and nitrate levels are climbing, the
system pH can be adjusted as necessary and then the plants and fish stocked.

17

Chapter 3:
About fish

A fish is an aquatic vertebrate animal that is covered with scales, and equipped with two sets
of paired fins and several unpaired fins. Most fish are "cold-blooded", or ectothermic,
allowing their body temperatures to vary as ambient temperatures change.

External anatomy of a fish


Spiny
rays

Nostril

Mouth

Dorsal fin
Soft rays
Lateral
line

Eye

Gill cover
Pelvic
fin

Pectoral
fin

Caudal fin
Anal fin

18
Fins: Used for swimming.
Mouth: Used for feeding, and to pull in water that is then passed over the gills.
Gills: The fish respiratory system. The gills absorb oxygen dissolved in the water and excrete
carbon dioxide, ammonia and other waste.
Nostril: used for smelling or tasting food in the water.
Scales: allow a smoother flow of water and avoids drag while swimming. Also protect the
skin.

Fish life cycle


1: Spawning Eggs from a female fish
are fertilised by sperm from male
fish. Depending on the species,
fertilised eggs can hatch in about 3
days.

2: Larvae: Larvae are either free swimming,


adhere to the substrate or are brooded by the
parent fish. The larvae feed from a yolk sac.

3: Advanced larvae: As the yolk sac is


absorbed, the larvae start to feed on
small plankton while body finishes
developing.

4: Fry: The yolk sac has been


completely absorbed. Once
fry reach about 3cm, they
are called Fingerlings. Fry
and fingerlings eat plankton
and algae; as they grow they
eat larger organisms.
5. Adult fish: Fingerlings become adult fish once they mature.
6. Broodstock: Selected adult fish of good size and in good condition can be used as
broodstock, to produce new eggs.

19

Choosing fish species


Although a wide variety of fish species are grown in aquaponic systems around the world,
there are some species that are better suited to aquaponics than others. Which fish is best
for you depends on a variety of factors:
Temperature: Different fish prefer different temperatures. For example, Tilapia species
prefer warm water, trout need cold water, but carp can tolerate a wide range of
temperatures.
Growth rate: Faster growing fish will reach harvest size sooner, potentially increasing
profitability. A fast growing warm water species such as tilapia has the advantage of reaching
harvest size during the warmer months of the year; cold-tolerant carp may take over a year
to reach harvest size, but can be left in to overwinter.
Diet: Fish can be herbivorous (eat only plants) omnivorous (eat plant and animal based food)
or carnivorous (eat only animal based foods). Omnivorous fish are the easiest to feed, as
they will accept a range of foodstuffs. Herbivores and omnivores can both be easily fed on
home grown food. Carnivores, however, need a steady supply of animal based food, which
can be expensive or difficult to procure.
Water quality requirements: Easy species like tilapia are much more forgiving of
inadequate water quality than trout, for example.
Palatability (or marketability if it is a commercial project): Catfish grow fairly quickly, and
tolerate low water quality, but many people just dont like to eat them!
Availability: Some fish species are just not available everywhere.
Ease of reproduction: If you want to be self-sufficient and breed your own next generation,
then you need to choose a species that will breed well in captivity. For example, although sea
bass grow well in fresh water, they only breed in salt water.
Legality: Some fish species can become aggressively invasive if they escape into the wild in
their non-native habitat, and are consequently illegal in some parts of the world. A good
example is tilapia, which is forbidden in Australia and parts of the U.S.A.

20

Species information
Common carp (Cyprinus carpio)

Common carp probably originated in Eastern Europe, in the watersheds of the Black, Caspian
and Aral seas. However, they have been introduced around the world for aquaculture
purposes, starting with the Romans over 2000 years ago. Common carp are now almost
globally distributed.

Temperature: Carp can tolerate water temperature ranging from 0 to 37C, though 18-24C
is ideal for fast growth
Growth rate: Depends on temperature. From egg to table size (600g 1kg) can take 12
months in a warm climate, or over 2 years in a temperate area. Carp can live for up to 50
years, and grow to 50kg
Diet: Carp are bottom-feeding omnivores they eat bottom dwelling organisms and rotting
vegetation
Water quality: Carp are fairly resilient fish. Ideal parameters are presented below:
Parameter
DO (ppm)
Ammonia (mg/l)
Nitrite (mg/l)
pH
GH (mg/l CaCO3)
KH (mg/l CaCO3)

Ideal value
>5 (minimum 2)
0 (maximum 1)
0 (maximum 0.1)
7-9
50-300
20-300

Palatability: Carp are one of the most important fish species in aquaculture, and popular in
Eastern European and Middle Eastern cuisine, where they have been farmed for centuries.
Availability: Common carp are so globally distributed that it is usually easy to find a supplier
of fingerlings.
Ease of reproduction: Common carp breed readily in captivity
Legality: Common carp are classed as a dangerous invasive species in parts of the U.S.A and
Australia.

21
Tilapia (Tilapia sp. and Oreochromis sp.)

There are several species of fish generally known as tilapia. Tilapias are cichlid fish native to
East Africa and the Levant but now can be found worldwide, primarily in aquaculture but
populations have also managed to establish in natural water bodies to the detriment of
native fish populations. Tilapias are the 5th most important fish in global aquaculture.

Temperature: Tilapia will die in cold water. Although the different species have slightly
different tolerances, anything below 11C can be considered lethal. 25 - 30C is ideal for fast
growth.
Growth rate: From egg to table size (600g 1kg) can take 6 12 months. Tilapias rarely
exceed 2kg maximum weight.
Diet: Tilapias are mid-water omnivores that naturally consume zoo and phytoplankton.
Water quality: Tilapias are fairly resilient fish, and are able to grow in both fresh and
saltwater. Ideal parameters are presented below:
Parameter
DO (ppm)
Ammonia (mg/l)
Nitrite (mg/l)
pH
GH (mg/l CaCO3)
KH (mg/l CaCO3)

Ideal value
>5 (minimum 0.5)
0 (maximum 1)
0 (maximum 27)
7-9 (extremes 5-10)
50-300
20-300

Palatability: Tilapia has firm white flesh that is popular with consumers worldwide.
Availability: Thanks to their popularity in aquaculture, tilapia fingerlings are usually easy to
locate in areas where the climate is suitable, and they are not outlawed.
Ease of reproduction: Tilapia will breed prolifically. For this reason it is normal to grow only
males. They are mouth-brooders the mother incubates the eggs in her mouth, and for
several days after absorbing the yolk sac the advanced fry will take refuge in her mouth.
Legality: Tilapia can become dangerous invasive species and so are illegal in some parts of
the U.S.A., Australia and South Africa.

22
Hybrid bass (Morone saxatilis x Morone chrysops).

The hybrid bass is a hybrid of two North American bass species the striped bass (Morone
saxatilis) and the white bass (Morone chrysops). Hybrid bass are more tolerant of warm
water and lower DO than striped bass, and show a high growth rate.

Temperature: Hybrid bass tolerate a temperature range of 4 - 30C, though 23-27C is


optimal for fast growth.
Growth rate: From egg to table size (500g) takes about 9-12 months. Hybrid bass can grow
up to a maximum weight of about 10kg.
Diet: Bass are predatory fish. Juveniles eat zooplankton, and will switch to a diet of small fish
at a young age if suitable fish are available. They can be fed fishmeal containing pellet feed,
and may accept worms and insect larvae.
Water quality: Bass are able to grow in both fresh water and saltwater up to a salinity of
25ppt. Ideal parameters are presented below:
Parameter
DO (ppm)
Ammonia (mg/l)
Nitrite (mg/l)
pH
GH (mg/l CaCO3)
KH (mg/l CaCO3)

Ideal value
>6 (minimum 1)
0 (maximum 0.1)
0
7-8.5
>100
>100

Palatability: Bass have pure white meat; firm but tender with a light, delicate taste.
Availability: Bass are not available everywhere, but hybrids are produced in the USA and
Israel, among others.
Ease of reproduction: Hybrid bass are made by crossing two species of bass. The hybrids
themselves may be able to reproduce, but the offspring will not be like the parents, and will
not necessarily be a strong or good strain.
Legality: Hybrid bass are legal in many areas.

23
Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

Catfish are native to North America, but have been introduced around the world for
aquaculture purposes.

Temperature: Channel catfish tolerate a temperature range of 10-32C, though growth is


optimal between 26-30C.
Growth rate: From egg to table size (500g) takes about 18 months. Channel catfish can grow
up to a maximum weight of about 23kg, and live for up to 40 years.
Diet: Catfish are bottom feeding omnivores, with a preference for live, meaty foods like
worms, snails and maggots. Large specimens will eat other fish and even small birds.
Water quality: Catfish are freshwater fish. Ideal parameters are presented below:
Parameter
DO (ppm)
Ammonia (mg/l)
Nitrite (mg/l)
pH
GH (mg/l CaCO3)
KH (mg/l CaCO3)

Ideal value
>4 (minimum 1)
0 (maximum 0.1)
0
6-8
>100
>100

Palatability: Catfish meat is gaining in popularity around the world; their delicious flavour has
made them one of the most widely cultivated fish in the USA.
Availability: Catfish have been introduced to many countries for aquaculture purposes, and
so are becoming increasingly readily available.
Ease of reproduction: Channel catfish can breed in captivity, though this usually requires
individuals between 3-6 years old.
Legality: Catfish are legal in many areas.

24

Chapter 4:
Fish
management

The total weight of fish that can be kept in an aquaponic system is called the carrying
capacity. Aquaponic systems work best when maintained close to their carrying capacity.
However, the more heavily stocked they are, the more care and attention has to be given to
their management and maintenance. Also, at high stocking levels additional aeration is
essential.

Determining carrying capacity


This maximum weight of fish is determined not so much by the volume of the fish tank, but
by the volume of the biofiltration system media filled growbeds, or biofilter and
NFT/floating raft growbeds.

The growbeds are able to process only a certain amount of fish waste each day.
Based on the assumption that food in = waste out, the fish can only be fed as much as the
growbeds can process.
For good growth rates, adult fish should be fed 1-2% of their body weight per day.
The maximum weight of fish is therefore 50 100 times the daily feed weight, depending
on the desired feed rate.
Different plants and different growbeds require different nutrient levels; for example:
o NFT/floating raft growbeds with solids removal and additional filtration can
process 60g/m2/day fish food if only leafy greens are grown or 100g/m2/day if
only fruiting plants are grown; mixed growbeds need around 80g/m2/day.

25

o Media filled growbeds, 30cm deep, have a


lower feed requirement as all solids removal
happens in the growbed (thus more nutrition is
available to the plants). Feeding ratios should
be reduced by about 50%.
For an excellent system design tool for calculating
growbed and filter volumes for different aquaponic
systems, visit: www.aquaponic.com.au/backyard.htm.

But how many fish do you stock?


The example on the left gives us a carrying capacity of 24kg
of fish, but how many fish does this mean we can put in
our system?
If fish are to be harvested at 500g, then the system has
enough filtration for 48 harvest size fish (24,000g 500g =
48). However, the same 48 fish when newly stocked could
weigh under 1kg altogether a fraction of the carrying
capacity. Stocking at this low density would seriously
reduce the potential for plant growth.
Given that individual fish grow at different speeds, and
that it is normal for a small percentage to die, it is possible
to stock more heavily In this example 100 fish could be
suitable as long as fish are harvested continually as soon as
they reach an appropriate size (500g), and that planting in
the growbeds is done gradually to increase the nutrient
demand as the fish grow and start to produce more waste.
Ultimately, a system of this size could operate with
staggered size classes; for example: 25 fish in each class
50g, 200g, 350g and 450+g. The large fish would be
harvested as soon as they reach the 500g mark, and 25
new juvenile fish stocked in their place. By managing the
fish population in this manner, the system is always
running close to its carrying capacity, and never
experiences the sudden changes in biomass (and thus
nutrients for the plants) that would happen if all the fish
were harvested and replaced with the same number of
small fish.

Example
calculation
Growbed: 6m2, media filled. Planned
for mixed fruiting and leafy crop
production
Feed rate in NFT: 80g/m2/day; feed
rate for media filled growbeds
therefore 40g/m2/day (80 2)
Total feed weight per day = 40g x
6m2 = 240g/day
If fish are fed at 1% body mass per
day, then the system has enough
filtration for 24kg fish.
(240g 1 x 100 = 24,000g)
Returning to the basic rule of 2:1
growbed volume to fish tank
volume, then we can work out the
volume of fish tank needed for this
system.
Growbed volume = 6m2 x 0.3m deep
= 1.8m3
Fish tank volume is half growbed
volume: 1.8 2 = 0.9 m3

3 +2 =?

26

Stocking the first fish


Before stocking any fish, ensure that cycling has completed and the populations of beneficial
bacteria have established themselves by performing water tests. Check for 0 ammonia, 0
nitrite and increasing nitrates.
Locate a reputable source of baby fish (fingerlings), and arrange to buy as many as you need.
Fish need to be transported in oxygenated water. The most common method for oxygenating
water for fish transport is to half filling a strong, plastic fish transporting bag with water,
putting in the fish and filling the rest of the bag with pure oxygen. To seal the bag, twist the
top closed and secure it with rubber bands. The bag should then be placed in a box so it stays
dark this helps reduce the stress on the fish. Fish should be transported as quickly as
possible, and not allowed to overheat.
Once you have your fish, you need to check them for obvious signs of disease and parasites.
A quick visual inspection will suffice. Look out for open sores, red streaks in the fins and any
suspicious spots or worms on the body.
A good method to reduce the risk of introducing parasites to the aquaponic system is to give
the fish a salt bath before putting them in. The process for this is fairly simple:

First, float the bag of fish in in the aquaponic fish tank until the water temperatures have
equalized. You can check this by feeling with your finger. Be careful not to let any water
from inside the bag enter the aquaponic system.
Once the temperatures have equalised, fill a large container with water from the
aquaponic system (40L should be enough for 100 fingerlings).
Place an aerator in the container to keep oxygen levels high during the salt bath.
Add salt at a rate of 20g per litre of water. Sea salt is best; if you use other salt it must be
non-iodized.
Using a net, transfer the fingerlings from their bag to the salt bath.
Leave the fish in the salted water for 20 to 30 minutes. Watch them carefully if any
show signs of distress (gasping, floating oddly, not moving) then they should be removed
from the salty water.
Carefully remove the fish with the net, and add them to the aquaponic system.
Discard the salty water do not put it back in the aquaponic system!

27

Stocking more fish


If new fish are stocked into an already running aquaponic system, the process is the same as
the initial stocking. However, it is best to have a separate tank to put new fish in and
quarantine them there for two weeks before adding them to the aquaponic setup. This way,
any diseases or parasites that fish may have will become apparent, and you will not have
risked infecting the main fish tank. If necessary, fish can be treated in this separate tank and
not put in the main tank until they are definitely healthy. Again, when transferring fish from
tank to tank the same process of temperature equalisation and salt baths should be used.
Remember, the sump tank and fish tank are connected they are not separate tanks! If the
sump tank has been used for reproduction, and has new baby fish in it, these may be moved
directly to the fish tank with no need for quarantine.

Growth measurement
It is useful to be able to monitor the growth of the fish so that you know when they are ready
for harvest, and so you can ensure you are feeding the right amount.
The best way to monitor growth is to weigh the fish.
When the fish are fed they usually come up to the
surface, and can be easily netted and weighed. Ideally all
the fish will be netted and weighed. Another method is
to net 10 fish, weigh them, and thus estimate the total
weight (by multiplying by 10 if there are 100 fish in
total). The problem with this technique is that some fish
get smart, and will avoid the net. The older, wiser and
bigger fish can always avoid the weigh-in, and you will
actually have a much higher total weight than you think!
To weigh fish, either suspend the net from a spring
balance, or place fish in a bucket of water (from the
aquaponic system) on a weighing scale.

Fish being weighed

28

Chapter 5:
Plants and
seedling
management

Before going into detail about planting an aquaponic system, lets learn some basic facts
about plants.

Basic plant anatomy and life cycle


Shoot tip
Flower

Leaflet, making up
compound leaf

Seeds
Fruit
Cotyledons
Primary root
Lateral root

29
Seed: an embryonic plant.
Germination: The process in which a plant emerges from a seed and begins to grow. The first
leaves to appear are called cotyledons.
Seedlings: Young plants.
Flowers: The reproductive organs of plants.
Fruits: Seed carriers develop after the flowers have been fertilised.
Some plants complete their life cycle germinate, grow, produce seed and die within one
year. These are known as annuals, and have to be re-planted every year. Maize, lettuce,
melons, peas and beans are examples of annual crops.
Other plants do not die after one year. They may die back to the ground, but remain alive in
the soil, or just slow down their growth in the winter. In the spring, these plants, known as
perennials, bounce back to life. Perennial plants include aubergine, artichokes and potatoes,
chives, lavender, thyme, oregano, rosemary, mint and sage. Tomatoes and peppers are also
perennials, but are usually grown as annuals and cut down and re-planted every year.

Growbed layout
Before starting all your planting choose wisely which
plants you want to grow. It is a good idea to carefully
design the layout of the growbeds on a piece of paper.
It may take you a couple of days, but it will be worth it.
It is important that the growbeds always have roughly
the same quantity of plants growing in them. This
means that they can always process the same amount
of fish waste. It is also nice for you to always be able to
harvest food! To achieve this, bear in mind the
following:

A growbed planting map

Ensure continual harvests (time stacking)


Some plants produce fruit or leaves that can be harvested continually, or at least for a long
time (e.g. some lettuce varieties, coriander, parsley and basil, tomatoes). With other crops
the whole plant is removed at harvest time (e.g. most lettuces and beetroot).
Therefore, when designing the growbed layout, mix continually harvesting plants and one-off
yield crops. Also, dont plant everything at once! Staggering planting at weekly intervals
means that the harvests can also be a week apart with crops like lettuces.

30
You can also plant rows of early bloomers like salads between long term crops like peppers.
That way you can harvest the salads before the peppers get big, thus maximising growbed
space.

Make use of vertical space (physical stacking)


Some plants take up a lot of space in the growbed lettuces, for example. Others, like
climbing tomatoes or cucumbers can be trained up and away from the growbed, leaving
more planting space available. Poles or strings are usually employed for climbing plants, but
it is also possible to exploit vertical aspects of plants themselves! Maize grows tall and
straight, and beans like to climb the beans can be trained to climb up the maize rather than
needing extra poles.

Encourage diversity
Despite the fact that there are over 20,000 species
of edible plant in the world, only 20 species supply
about 90% of all our plant foods. Admittedly not
everything can grow in an aquaponic system, but
experiment and have fun even try to find seeds
of crops you cant buy in the vegetable shop! In
general green leafy plants do very well, but tubers,
woody plants and plants that dont like much
Sowing a variety of seeds
water do not do well. Be careful with big rooted
plants and mint: they can grow so vigorously in
aquaponic setups that they end up taking over the growbed and the roots can clog up the
plumbing.
Another good reason to encourage diversity is that all plants are susceptible to some kinds of
disease and parasites. Imagine you grow only cucumbers, and they succumb to a fungal
infection. The plants die, and there is nothing to take up the nutrients in the fish waste, so
the fish can also suffer from poor water quality. In a diversely planted growbed, however,
even if all of one species die off from a disease, other plant species will not suffer at all so
there will still be demand for the fish waste.

Companion planting
All plants produce natural chemicals that they release from leaves, flowers and roots. These
chemicals may attract or repel certain insects, or can enhance or retard the growth rate and
yield of neighbouring plants. It is therefore worth being aware of this when designing a
growbed layout some plants when planted close to each other will benefit each other;
other combinations are best avoided. This is known as companion planting; some of the
known benefits are listed below:

31
Trap cropping or sacrificial crop - Sometimes a neighbouring crop may be selected because it
is more attractive to pests and serves to distract them from the main crop.
Symbiotic nitrogen fixation Legumes have the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen for their
own use and for the benefit of neighbouring plants via a symbiotic relationship with the
rhizobium bacteria.
Biochemical pest suppression some plants exude chemicals from roots or aerial parts that
suppress or repel pests and protect neighbouring plants
Nurse cropping tall or dense-canopied plants may protect more vulnerable species through
shading or by providing a windbreak.
Beneficial habitats Companion plants can provide a desirable environment for beneficial
insects and other arthropods, especially ladybirds, lacewings, and hover flies.
When trying to use companion planting, do not worry much about good companions; focus
more on not planting bad companions. Companion planting has been practised for years and
has evolved from historical observation and horticultural science. Do your own observations
and see what works with you. In appendix 1 you will see a companion planting table.

Steps for designing the growbed layout


Make a list of all the plants that you would like to put into your growbeds. Remember
that there are some things that do better than others in aquaponic setups.
Assess the space requirements of each plant and respect it.
Use as much vertical space as you can. You can provide support for climbing plants, or
plant climbers next to tall plants like maize. Try to put climbers at the back or in the
corners so that they can be trained away from the growbed.
Try and accommodate the plants using continual harvest methods.
Remember that harvest access is very important so try and plant the high crops at the
back and the one-off crops like lettuce at the front, that way you dont forget to eat
them, and they are accessible for repeated harvesting and re-planting.
Try to use companion planting to avoid bad plant combinations.
See appendix 2 for a summary of plant requirements for popular aquaponic crops.
Be creative!

32

Stocking plants
When stocking the growbed with plants you can do this in different ways. You can plant the
seeds straight into the growbeds, or transplant seedlings that have been germinated
elsewhere; either purchased from a garden centre or grown at home.

Planting straight into the growbeds


To plant straight into a flood and drain growbed you have to make sure that the seed is large
enough that the water movement wont wash it away. In general, seeds of plants in the
melon or squash family (like butternut squash, watermelon and cucumber) and beans do
fine. It is possible to sow small seeds directly into the growbeds by removing some gravel to
reach the humid layer, laying down a thin layer of cotton wool, sprinkling the seeds on top
and closing with another thin layer of wool and the gravel.

Chive seeds being planted directly into the growbeds using a layer of cotton wool

Smaller seeds are better germinated in a seedling tray and grown on until they are large
enough to be transplanted. Seedlings that have been grown in a seedling tray for easy
transplanting are known as plugs, and are readily available in garden centres.

Using seedlings
Preparing seedling trays
Get a seedling tray from your local garden centre; make sure you get the ones with the
bigger holes. Alternatively, use egg boxes.
Find a plastic tray (or egg box lined with a plastic bag) to place underneath the seedling
tray. This will help retain water, and so the seeds will germinate faster.

33
Buy some compost and the seeds that you
want to plant.
In order to have a continual harvest, do not
plant the entire tray at once - you would end
up with more plants that you can eat!
Depending on your system size and how many
plants you want to harvest at a time you can
get an idea of how many seeds to sow of each
plant. As an example, sowing 7 lettuce seeds
every week would give you staggered lettuce
harvests a week apart i.e. one lettuce every
day, for ever! Not every seed germinates
though so plant a few more; say 10 not 7.

Watercress seedlings in an egg tray


with compost

Planting seedling trays


1. Fill each hole with moist compost. Press the compost down lightly to firm it up a bit,
make sure that there are no large pebbles blocking the drain hole.
2. Put one seed per hole; if the seed is large enough, place it on its B axis (lying down) and
gently cover the seeds with more compost. The seed should be covered with twice its
depth of compost.
3. Place the seedling tray on the plastic tray.
4. Gently water all the newly planted seeds.

Planting seeds in vermiculite an


alternative to compost.

Floating seed trays in water an alternative


to using plastic trays

5. Place the tray in a nice airy, shady place and ensure that the compost is always moist by
watering gently once or twice a day. Covering the seed tray with plastic or glass to keep
moisture in.
6. Label all the rows of seeds so you dont get confused when they germinate. Cut long,
thin pieces of plastic (from milk bottles, yoghurt pots) or use plastic knives and wood
sticks to label every row of seeds. Make sure you write with a pencil or permanent
marker! You could also draw a map on a piece of paper.

34

Making labels for seedling trays

Mapping of seedling trays

Things to remember
Read the seed package for additional information.
Do not feel bad if not all your seeds germinate, this happens!
Swap seeds with friends.

Transplanting seedlings
Seedlings are ready to transplant when at least
two sets of leaves have emerged after the
cotyledons. If you buy plugs from the garden
centre, they should be ready to transplant
immediately. Buy plugs that look healthy and
have a thick main shoot. Do not get plants that
have insect damage or have a very long and
thin shoot with few lateral stems.
Before transplanting seedlings into the
growbed, rinse the soil from around the roots
thoroughly this prevents them getting
waterlogged and rotting in the growbed.

Transplanting watercress seedling

Now transplant the plugs according to the layout that you designed. Make a hole in the
gravel deep enough to completely cover the roots, place the seedling in the hole, and
carefully put the gravel back around it - just like planting in soil! It will take a week or so for
the roots to establish and the plant to acclimatize to its new home before it really starts to
grow.
Remember to look after your plants and to give them lots of love!

35

Chapter 6:
Fish food

The only major input to an aquaponic system is the fish food. The quality and nutritional
makeup of the fish food is very important therefore, as it not only feeds the fish, but also
provides the nutrients for the plants and ultimately ends up feeding you. There are two
options regarding fish food purchasing manufactured feeds, or making your own.

Manufactured feed
Commercially manufactured fish food is a high protein (30-50%) foodstuff that has been
developed to provide fish with the nutrients they require to be healthy and grow quickly.
Manufactured feed usually comes in pellet form, and the pellets are available in different
sizes for different sizes of fish. Small pellets designed for very young fish might even have a
slightly different nutritional composition to pellets designed for adult fish, reflecting the
different nutritional needs of fish at different stages of their life. However, it is also possible
to crush or crumble large pellets so that they become bite-sized to tiny mouths.
Manufactured feed does however have some disadvantages:
The primary source of protein in pellet feed is fishmeal a product of the hugely
unsustainable marine fisheries industry.
Pellets contain all the nutritional requirements of the fish. However, in an aquaponic
system we must also consider the nutritional needs of the plants, and pellet feed
typically does not contain sufficient potassium, phosphate and trace nutrients needed
by fruiting crops. This means supplemental plant nutrition must be added.

36

The manufacture and transport of pellet feed is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, again
demonstrating the unsustainability of this source of fish food.
Pellet feed decays very quickly if left uneaten in the fish tank, and produces a lot of
ammonia. Therefore it is important to know the correct quantity to feed the fish, and
remove uneaten feed after about 3 minutes.
It costs money and can be difficult to find in the quantities required.

Home-made feed
The healthy, organic, economic and sustainable option is to give the fish home-made, or
rather home-grown, food.

Duckweed and Azolla fern


Duckweed (Lemna sp.) and Azolla sp. are tiny floating plants that make excellent food for
omnivorous or herbivorous fish; they contain a good range of nutrients, including a high
protein content of around 25-45%.
Both duckweed and azolla fern are very easy to grow, and in the right conditions they can
grow very quickly doubling the population in 24 hours. Duckweed grows best in still water
over 20C, so even if the fish are not eating much, harvest as regularly as you can to store it
for the colder months. Duckweed can be dried or frozen to preserve it.

Bathtub for growing duckweed


and azolla

Azolla and duckweed plants

37
To feed duckweed to fish, simply throw a handful into the fish tank. If you over-feed, the
duckweed simply remains on the surface and will get eaten later. As it is still alive, there is no
danger of it rotting and giving off ammonia.
All that is needed to grow this excellent fish food is a container of standing water with a large
surface area, such as an old bathtub, which is placed in a moderately sunny spot. Throw in
some fertiliser such as a handful of animal manure, and then throw in a handful of
duckweed. Once the surface is covered with duckweed, remove half to three quarters to
either feed directly to the fish, or to freeze for later.

Black soldier fly larvae


Black soldier fly larvae (BSF) are a great source of high-protein fish food that can be easily
grown at home. Unlike duckweed, these make suitable food for carnivorous fish as well as
omnivores.
BSF larvae grow in kitchen scraps, leftover food, garden waste - they eat anything organic and the best thing is they harvest themselves! Black soldier flies are only active in warmer
weather from about April onwards but once they have started to hatch the larvae can
consume a phenomenal amount of food waste every day, turning it into excellent fish food
and good quality compost for the garden.

Black soldier fly harvester

When the black soldier fly larva hatches


from its egg, it spends about a week
eating and putting on weight. When it is
ready to pupate, it climbs up and out of
the food supply. It is at this stage that
they can self-harvest; if a ramp ending
in a collecting pot is provided for the
larvae to climb up, then they will use this
to leave the compost pile. The collecting
pot can then be emptied in the fish tank
or into a tub in the freezer to store the
larvae for later.

BSF harvesters should be located in a relatively shaded spot, and care should be taken to
ensure fresh food is added daily, larvae are harvested daily, and the composting material is
kept moist. Also, the digested compost will need to be removed periodically give it to
plants in your garden!

38
Worms
Worms, like black soldier fly larvae, can also grow on food scraps, converting waste into
compost and fish food (worms). Worms make great food for larger carnivorous or
omnivorous fish. To feed them to small fish, the worms may have to be chopped up.
While BSF larvae will eat fresh household waste, worms prefer things that have already been
partially digested animal manures or slightly older compost. Worms also need a fairly cool,
dark and moist environment in which to live.
A simple worm farm can be constructed from a plastic bucket with drainage holes in the
bottom. The bottom is then lined with wet cardboard, and suitable worm food added on top
(compost from a BSF harvester, horse manure or partially rotten kitchen scraps) to a depth of
about 30cm. The pile is topped with more wet cardboard or newspaper, and the bucket
covered with a lightproof, but not airtight, lid. To maintain the worm farm add food
periodically, and check that it is moist every day. Pour in some water if necessary. Worm
farms should be constructed in shaded spots, maybe even slightly dug into the ground to
keep the temperature more stable.
The worms can be harvested by sifting through the pile, or by gently watering the top they
should rise to the surface. Every so often, the compost should be removed and given to
garden plants to make space for new food.

Grains and domestic scraps


Fish can be also be fed on grains and domestic scraps rice, barley, oats, leftover salad
leaves and bread, for example. However, this is not ideal for two reasons:
Feeding the fish with something you could eat yourself is quite wasteful.
It is hard to accurately gauge the amount of food when feeding irregularly produced
domestic scraps better to convert the scraps to BSF larvae or worms!

Benefits of home-grown food

Provides the complete nutritional requirements for both fish and plants
Provides the fish with a diet closely resembling what they would eat in nature
You know exactly what the fish are eating
Completely sustainable no need for fishmeal or fossil fuels
Uneaten natural foods do not immediately start to decay and produce ammonia
they can be left in the fish tank, and the fish simply given less food given next time.
Reduces domestic waste production

39

Chapter 7:
Fish health

Like all animals, fish can get sick. Due to the fairly high stocking densities used in aquaponic
systems, illness can spread rapidly between fish, potentially risking the whole harvest. The
good news is that in the majority of cases diseases and health problems can be avoided
simply by maintaining the fish in a healthy and stress-free environment.

Happy fish = healthy fish


Fish health problems
Water quality
Maintaining good water quality is very important for fish wellbeing. Good water quality
means well oxygenated, filtered water - the parameters must be well within the safe range
for the fish species being cultured. Prevention is always better (and easier) than cure. A
cycled aquaponic system with well-stocked growbeds and adequate aeration should not
encounter many water quality problems. However, care should be taken when re-stocking
fish or harvesting plants. Also, it is important to be aware of seasonal temperature changes
and check water quality regularly. Overleaf is a summary table of key water quality
parameters, the safe range of each parameter and actions to be taken to prevent or treat
problems should they arise.

40
Problem
Insufficient
oxygen

Danger
zone
<3-5ppm

Signs

Effects

Prevention

Treatment

Fish gasp for air at


the water surface

Stress
Slow growth
Death

Supply adequate
aeration
Dont overstock

Increase
aeration
Reduce
stocking density

Maintain
adequate
filtration and
aeration
Dont overstock
Dont overfeed
Dont stock too
rapidly
Test water
regularly
Maintain
adequate
filtration and
aeration
Dont overstock
Dont overfeed
Dont stock too
rapidly
Test water
regularly
Maintain
adequate
filtration and
aeration
Grow plenty of
plants
Test water
regularly
Insulate/shade
fish tank
Select
appropriate fish
for temperature
range

Lower pH to
6.5-7
Change up to
50% water
(dilute)
Increase
aeration
Reduce
stocking density

High
ammonia
(NH3/NH4+)

>1ppm

Fish gasp for air at


the water surface
Purple or red gills
Fish is lethargic
Loss of appetite
Fish lies at the
bottom of the tank
Red streaking on
the fins or body

Stress
Organ damage
Death

High nitrite
(NO2)

>0.25 ppm

Fish gasp for air at


the water surface
Fish hang near
water outlets
Fish is lethargic
Tan or brown gills
Rapid gill
movement

Brown blood
disease
Immune
system
damage
Stress
Death

High nitrate
(NO3)

>100ppm

Slowed growth in
young fish

Stress

Incorrect
temperature

Beyond
safe range
for the fish

Loss of appetite
Fish is lethargic

Stress
Death

Temperature Greater
than
swings
2/day
pH swings
Changes in
pH greater
than 0.2
per day

Stress
Death from
ammonia
poisoning

Ensure adequate
buffering capacity
(KH)

Change up to
50% water
(dilute)
Increase
aeration
Reduce
stocking density

Plant more in
the growbeds,
or add extra
growbeds
Change up to
50% water
(dilute)
Insulate/shade
fish tank
Use a water
heater

Add buffer to
the water.
Slowly re-adjust
pH to ideal
range

41
Stress
Just as in humans, stress is an important factor in fish wellbeing. Although stress may not kill
fish directly, a stressed fish has an impaired immune system, and so becomes more
susceptible to parasites and illnesses.
Stress can be caused by a range of factors, and can be classed either as acute or chronic.
Acute stress could be caused by a sudden change in pH or temperature. Chronic stress may
be caused by prolonged exposure to elevated, but not lethal, ammonia levels. Both types of
stress are dangerous to fish.
Sources of stress:
Water quality problems (see above)
Excessive handling or fish tank disturbance
Insufficient hiding places/shade (or too much light)
Imbalanced diet or overfeeding
Transportation of fish
Overcrowding
Unless fish can be produced on site, they must be transported from hatcheries to the
aquaponic system. Transportation is always stressful to fish as it involves netting and
handling, sudden changes of water, overcrowding, high ammonia levels and low oxygen
levels. Transportation stresses increase as the size of the fish increases. It is not unusual to
suffer mortalities during, or just after transporting fish. To reduce transportation stress, try
to move only small fish and ensure adequate oxygenation en-route, ideally by using pure
oxygen. On arrival, it is important to maintain high filtration and high aeration in the fish
tank.
In general, it is better to prevent stress than to cure it. However, the steps necessary to
prevent and cure stress are almost the same:
1) Identify and remove sources of stress (e.g., improve water quality; stop handling fish)
2) Ensure adequate aeration in the fish tank
3) Ensure adequate filtration check that the growbeds are flooding and draining
correctly
4) Shade the fish tank, and provide refuges for the fish

42

Pathogens and parasites


A pathogen is a microorganism that causes disease or illness to its host; a parasite is an
organism that lives on or in an organism of another species (the host), from the body of
which it obtains its nutrition. It is not unusual for healthy fish to harbour some potentially
pathogenic organisms; other pathogens and parasites may be naturally present in the water.
However, clinical signs of disease may not occur as long as the fish remain unstressed. Once a
fish experiences stress, its immune system weakens, and an outbreak of disease or parasites
may occur. In aquaponic systems, the chances are that if one fish is stressed, the others will
be too, and so outbreaks can spread rapidly to infect all the stock.
Many commercially available medicines and treatments will have a detrimental effect on the
health of the microbial communities in the growbeds and on the plants, and so it is always
important to select the most appropriate treatment method for sick fish.
Prevention is always better than cure. Most diseases and parasites can only take hold when a
fishs immune system is suppressed due to stress or poor water quality. Infectious organisms
can also be introduced as new fish are stocked, and so it is important to quarantine new fish
effectively.

Parasites
White spot/Ich (Ichthyophthirius multifiliis)
White spot disease is caused by the ciliated protozoan Ichthyophthirius multifiliis. It is a
common parasite that can infect most freshwater fish species, and can be fatal if not treated.
The mature parasite (trophont) leaves the fish, and settles on the bottom where it produces
a gelatinous cyst (tomont), and divides and reproduces. Eventually this cyst breaks open
releasing up to 1000 new individuals (tomites)
into the water, which must find a host within
24-48 hours. The whole life cycle takes 2 -14
days depending on water temperature.
White spot disease manifests as small white
cysts (up to 1mm) covering the fish, giving the
appearance that the fish has been sprinkled
with grains of salt. Fish will often rub against
objects in an attempt to remove the parasite,
and may display lethargy and reduced
appetite.

A fancy goldfish breed with white spot disease

43
Treatment
Performing adequate quarantine procedures on new stock should prevent the introduction
of white spot. Also, a fishs natural defences should be able to ward off infection if the fish is
not stressed and the water quality remains good.
There are several commercially available medicines for treating white spot. It is also possible
to use formalin, potassium permanganate or salt if the fish will tolerate raised salinity.
However, all these treatments are detrimental to aquaponic growbeds, and so the fish tank
must be isolated, or the fish removed to a separate hospital tank to be treated.
All of the treatment options are only able to kill the free-swimming tomite stages, and so
treatment must last for several days, allowing time for tomonts to release tomites. Infected
fish can be given a salt bath (20g per litre for 20-30 minutes) and returned to a hospital
tank/isolated fish tank containing salt at 1-2g per litre for 1 week. During this time, any
tomites emerging in the aquaponic setup will fail to find a host in time, and will also die.
Anchor worm (Lernaea cyprinacea)
Anchor worm is actually a copepod crustacean and not a worm at all. It can infect many
species of freshwater fish, on which it parasitizes mainly the skin, particularly around the
bases of the fins.
The head of anchor worm
has four sharp horns, which
anchor the parasite into
the skin of the host fish.
The
mouthparts
are
located in the head. The
anchor worm feeds on the
hosts body fluids. Only
females are visible to the
naked eye, and appear to
be pale worms, up to 8mm
long, trailing from the
anchor site on the hosts
body. Sometimes a pair of
egg sacs can be visible on
the tail end of the parasite.

An anchor worm that has just been removed from a fish with
tweezers. Note the barbed head used for attachment to the host.

Anchor worm can cause stress to the infected fish, and secondary infections may establish in
the wound caused by the head.

44
Only the adult female anchor worm is visible; all other life stages are very small and
planktonic including the males. The life cycle, from egg to mating, takes about 25 days at
20C. If the free-swimming larvae do not find a host within a few days, then they will die.
Both eggs and mature females on a host can overwinter. Reproduction does not occur in
water below 15C.
Treatment
Anchor worm are fairly resistant to many chemical treatments, and so eradication is difficult.
However, performing adequate quarantine procedures on new stock should prevent their
introduction. Also, a fishs natural defences should be able to ward off infection if the fish is
not stressed and the water quality remains good.
Salt water can kill anchor worm. Unfortunately, in an aquaponic system salt water will also
kill the plants. However, anchor worm are large and thus easy to see and remove.
Net all the fish and visually inspect each one, removing any visible anchor worm with
tweezers. Then treat the fish to a salt bath (20g non-iodized salt per litre for 20 to 30
minutes) to help clean the wound and prevent secondary infection. Repeat every couple of
days. As this process removes mature females and eggs, then over time it should be possible
to eradicate the infection.
Other parasites
There are several other parasites that may infect fish skin and gills lice, flukes, Costia
(Ichthyobodo) and Trichodina. Aside from lice, it is not uncommon for fish to host these
parasites in small numbers throughout their lives. However, if a fish becomes stressed, or
water quality deteriorates, then the fishs immune system can no longer control the parasite
numbers, and they can become a problem. As they are so small, accurate diagnosis is only
possible with a microscope. In general, salt bath treatments can be used to treat other
suspected parasite infections.

Disease
Bacteria
Bacteria are naturally present in aquatic ecosystems. Indeed, some are essential for
biofiltration and the conversion of ammonia to nitrate. However, some bacteria can become
pathogenic to fish, and cause health problems. Bacterial problems generally appear if the
fishs immune system has been compromised in some way (e.g. through stress). Also,
wounds caused by abrasion or parasites could become infected by bacteria.
There are four main types of bacterial infections to be aware of:

45

Fin rot usually resulting from environmental stress


Bacterial body ulcers open, shallow to deep, lesions on the fishs body
Bacterial gill disease in which the gills are the primary target
Systemic bacterial disease in which bacteria invade the fishs body and damage
internal organs.

Accurate diagnosis of bacterial disease requires laboratory analysis. Typical signs of bacterial
disease are listed below, though these signs are not exclusive to bacterial disease and could
instead be indicative of other conditions from poor water quality to parasites:

Red and inflamed areas on the body and fins, raised scales, skin ulcers, exophtalmos
(pop-eye), dropsy (swollen abdomen), fin rot. Additionally, affected fish may be
lethargic and anorexic
Internally there may be lesions or haemorrhages in internal organs and/or a build-up
of often-bloody fluid in the abdomen (ascites).

Treatment
The first step in treating bacterial disease is to identify the causes most probably stress and
water quality problems and rectify them. This means that the fishs immune system will be
better placed to fight the infection on its own. It is possible to give fish baths in potassium
permanganate solution to shock the bacteria, giving the fishs immune system more
chance to work.
To prepare a potassium permanganate bath, dissolve potassium permanganate in distilled
water (bottled water will suffice if distilled is unavailable). The concentration should be
2mg/litre for a four hour bath, or 10mg/l for a 30 minute bath. After the bath, be sure to
rinse the fish before returning it to the fish tank.
For serious infections it may be necessary to feed medicated food to the fish, or inject
antibiotics. Alternatively, the infected fish may be euthanized using clove oil:

Firstly, move the fish into a bucket


Put 3 drops of clove oil into 500ml of water and shake very well, so the oil and water
make an emulsion.
Add the mixture to the water that the fish is in (4 litres of water should be more than
enough) and stir it around slowly with your hand. The fish should become lethargic
and sleepy.
Add another mixture of 2 to 3 drops of oil in water. When the fish goes "belly up" it
is asleep - not dead.
Then add 3 more drops of clove oil. The fish feels nothing; it is very peaceful and
humane.

46
Fungus
Water moulds (Saprolegnia) normally feed on dead organic matter fish wastes, uneaten
food etc., however, they can also act as opportunistic parasites and colonise damaged or
stressed fish.
Water moulds are visible as
a tangled mass of fine
filaments (hyphae), which
form mats known as
mycelium. The mycelium is
clearly visible with the naked
eye. Saprolegnia reproduce
by releasing thousands of
spores into the surrounding
water. These spores are
resistant to drying and
chemical attack, and so are
present in all ponds. Fungal
growth is encouraged if
there is a lot of rotting
material in the fish tank.

A fish with a severe fungal infection

Fish mucus contains fungicides that, under normal circumstances, prevent fungal growth.
However, if the fish have open wounds or are stressed then this ability is weakened. Fungus
can also attack fish eggs. On a fish, fungus appears as grey/white patches, later developing
into cotton wool like tufts. As it spreads, healthy tissue can be destroyed and fungal infection
can be fatal if not treated efficiently.
Treatment
Treatment of fungal infections is difficult, and fungus can never be eliminated from a system.
It is important, therefore, to ensure that optimal conditions are maintained during and after
treatment, and that any predisposing factors (e.g. parasite infection) are treated at the same
time.
Fungus can be treated with salt baths (up to 20g per litre for up to 30 minutes every other
day, or in a hospital tank salted with 1-5g/l until the fishs health improves)
Alternatively, potassium permanganate baths can be used (3-4mg/l for up to 4 hours) every
4th day. In severe cases, potassium permanganate can be made into a paste and rubbed into
the lesion.

47

Chapter 8:
Plant health

What do plants need?


Plants are living organisms that need air (both carbon dioxide (CO2) and oxygen (O2)) water,
nutrients and light to grow. In addition, each plant occupies a certain amount of space, and
needs some root support often provided by the growing medium. In an aquaponic system,
the growing medium also provides a surface area for the bacterial conversion of fish wastes
to minerals and nutrients that can be taken up by the plant roots.
Light and air: Plants use light energy to change raw materials - carbon dioxide from the air
and water - into food substances (sugars). This process of food production is called
photosynthesis:
CO2 + H2O -------> C6H12O6 + O2
Respiration, the reverse process of photosynthesis, uses sugars and oxygen to generate
energy. Plants respire to generate the energy they use for growth. Plant respiration is higher
overnight, when there is no light available for photosynthesis.
Water: is essential to all life on earth. No known organism can exist without water. Plants use
water to make sugars during photosynthesis, and also to carry nutrients from the roots to the
leaves, and sugars from the leaves back down to the roots and fruits.

48
Space: Plants must have space in order to grow; dont forget that the roots need space too! If
there is not enough space, the plants will be small and stunted. Large plants need a large
space for their roots and branches. Therefore it is important to think about the space needs
of each plant when designing growbed layouts.
Nutrients: Plants need many different nutrients to grow and develop healthily. Those needed
in the largest amounts, and which form the largest fraction of plant tissue, are referred to as
macronutrients. Plants also need trace nutrients or micronutrients. Trace nutrients are not
major components of plant tissue, but, for example, make up key components of vitamins. If
plants suffer a shortage of any nutrient in particular, it is called a nutrient deficiency. Signs of
deficiencies of different nutrients are often very similar and hard to diagnose accurately.
There are many parasites and diseases that can attack plants; just as with fish, stressed
plants are far more susceptible to these problems. The first step in combating plant disease
therefore, is to ensure they receive the correct nutrition and environmental conditions. In an
aquaponic system, the pH is of paramount importance, as will be discussed below.

Happy plants = healthy plants = tasty plants


Plants and pH
A very high or very low pH will affect the plants ability to take up nutrients, even if the
nutrients are present in high concentrations. This is called nutrient block-out and will cause
the plants to show signs of nutrient deficiencies. It is important to note that not all plants
have the same pH preference, but the ideal range is between 5.0 and 7.0. Very few plants
can tolerate a pH higher. If your pH is too high or too low, the first thing that you should do is
correct it (see chapter 2: water quality). Some issues associated with incorrect pH include:

Toxic Sodium levels: Alkaline soil (high pH) collects salt and sodium carbonates, which
affect a plant's ability to develop roots. Stunted plant roots have difficulty absorbing
nutrients and water.
Mineral deficiencies: Iron and manganese react in highly alkaline soil, changing into
forms that make them unavailable for plant use. Plants with insufficient iron and
manganese produce fewer and poorer crops.
Inaccessible Phosphorous: With high pH, the phosphorous (P) in soil becomes an
insoluble solid, which is unusable to plants. In order for P to be available for plants,
soil pH needs to be in the range 6.0 to 7.5. If pH is lower than 6, P starts forming
insoluble compounds with iron (Fe) and aluminium (Al) and if pH is higher than 7.5 P
starts forming insoluble compounds with calcium (Ca).

49

Chart showing nutrient availability at different pH levels.

50

Macronutrients
Nitrogen (N)

Nitrogen is part of all living cells and is a necessary part of all proteins, enzymes and
metabolic processes involved in the synthesis and transfer of energy.
Nitrogen is part of chlorophyll, the green pigment of the plant that is responsible for
photosynthesis.
Helps leaf and stem growth, increasing seed and food production.
Deficiency signs: Yellowing of old leaves; new leaves and stem often pale green.

Phosphorus (P)

Phosphorus is also an essential part of the process of photosynthesis.


Encourages root growth and germination.
Involved in the formation of all oils and sugars.
It aids with the transformation of solar energy into chemical energy.
Deficiency signs: Leaf tips look burnt, followed by older leaves turning a dark green or
reddish-purple.

Potassium (K)

Aids with the production and transportation of sugars, building proteins, ripening of fruit
and reduces diseases.
Deficiency signs: Older leaves may wilt and look scorched. Interveinal chlorosis begins at the
base, scorching inward from leaf margins.

Calcium (Ca)

Is an essential part of plant cell walls which strengthen the plant, it also contributes to
root development, primarily that of the root tips.
Deficiency signs: New leaves (top of plant) are distorted or irregularly shaped. Causes
blossom end rot.

Magnesium (Mg)

Magnesium is part of chlorophyll and essential for photosynthesis.


Activates many plant enzymes needed for growth and a healthy leaf structure.
Deficiency signs: Older leaves turn yellow at edge leaving a green arrowhead shape in the
centre of the leaf.

Sulphur (S)

Essential for production of protein, chlorophyll, enzymes and vitamins.


Improves root growth and seed production.
Helps with vigorous plant growth and resistance to cold.
Deficiency signs: Younger leaves turn yellow first, sometimes followed by older leaves.

51

Calcium: New leaves misshapen

or stunted. Existing leaves remain


green.

Nitrogen: Upper leaves


light green, lower leaves
yellow, bottom leaves
yellow and shrivelled.

Iron: Young leaves are


yellow/white with green veins.
Mature leaves are normal.

Potassium: Yellowing at tips and


edges, especially in young leaves.
Dead or yellow patches or spots
develop on leaves.

Manganese: Yellow spots


and/or elongated holes
between plant veins.

Phosphate: Leaves
darker than normal.
Loss of leaves.

Magnesium: Lower leaves


turn yellow from inwards.
Veins remain green.

52

Micronutrients
Boron (B)

Aids production of sugar and carbohydrates.


Helps in the use of nutrients and regulates other nutrients
Essential for seed and fruit development
Deficiency signs: Terminal buds die, witches brooms form.
Copper (Cu) Important for reproductive growth.
Aids in root metabolism and helps in the utilization of proteins.
Deficiency signs: Leaves are dark green; plant is stunted.
Iron (Fe)
Essential for the formation of chlorophyll.
Deficiency signs: Yellowing occurs between the veins of young leaves.
Manganese (Mn) Functions with enzyme systems involved in breakdown of
carbohydrates, and nitrogen metabolism.
Deficiency signs: Yellowing occurs between the veins of young leaves. Pattern is not as
distinct as with iron. Reduction in size of plant parts (leaves, shoots, fruit). Dead patches.
Molybdenum (Mo) Helps in the use of nitrogen.
Deficiency signs: General yellowing of older leaves (bottom of plant). The rest of the plant is
often light green.
Zinc (Zn)

Essential for the transformation of carbohydrates.


Regulates consumption of sugar.
It is part of the enzyme systems which regulate plant growth.
Deficiency signs: Terminal leaves may be rosetted, and yellowing occurs between the veins
of the new leaves.
In aquaponic systems, the best way to ensure that plants do not suffer from nutrient
deficiencies is to maintain the correct pH (7-7.5), and to feed the fish a diet containing a full
nutrient spectrum such as soldier fly larvae and duckweed. If plants still show nutrient
deficiencies then it will be necessary to add the missing nutrients. This may be achieved
either inorganically (for example, phosphorous can be added in the form of phosphoric acid
(used to lower pH), and iron can be added in the form of chelated iron); or organically in the
form of a foliar feed, compost tea or worm castings (see below). It is also possible to use
inorganic, micronutrient-laden plant fertilizer, but first check that it contains no ingredients
that could be harmful to the fish, and add it gradually to the system.

53

Aquaponics-safe fertilisers
Plant based liquid/foliar feed
A homemade liquid feed is a very good way to boost plant health. It is usually applied as a
spray to the leaves, in which case it can be called a foliar feed. Foliar feeds can also help in
pest control, both by boosting plant health, and acting as a deterrent to pest organisms.
The best-known liquid feed is made from
fermented plants; stinging nettles (Urtica
dioica) and comfrey (Symphytum species)
are ideal choices, though many common
weeds may be used. Be careful when
picking weeds to use though, as some
plants
actually
have
insecticidal
properties and can kill beneficial insects
as well as pests.
How to make it: Pull up the plants you
will use roots and all and fill a
bucket/barrel/rubbish bin with the plant
Urtica dioica Stinging nettles
materials. Then fill up the remaining
space with water, and close the lid. Keep the lid sealed for at least a week. After the week,
re-open the barrel. NOTE! It will STINK! Pour the contents of the barrel through a fine sieve
or cheesecloth to remove all the solid matter; keep only the liquid. The resulting liquid
should be a greeny-brown colour, and is a very concentrated source of nutrients. To use,
dilute to a ratio of 1 part stinky liquid to 10 parts water, and spray onto plant leaves. Observe
how the plants respond, and adjust the ratio accordingly.

Ready to use stinging nettles foliar feed

54
Molasses spray
Molasses (unrefined cane sugar syrup) contains a
range of macro and micronutrients as well as sugars.
not only benefits the plants, but also the
microorganisms on which the plants depend.
Molasses can be used as a foliar feed, and also deters
pest organisms. Dissolve one tablespoon of molasses
a cup of warm water, dilute with water to make up
one litre, and use this as a foliar spray. If using to treat
severe pest infestation you can also add one
teaspoon of a soft liquid soap.

Compost tea

It

in
a

Spraying molasses

Compost tea is not just a fertiliser. In fact, it is a soup of beneficial microbes that work with
the plants to protect them, and to help them take up all the nutrients they need. Compost
tea can be applied as a foliar feed or a liquid feed. It would also be beneficial to add compost
tea while cycling an aquaponic system.
How to make it: Take a few handfuls of well-rotted compost, and tie it in a mesh bag
weighted with a rock. This provides the source of beneficial microbes. Suspend this bag in a
20L bucket full nearly to the top with de-chlorinated water. Take a small aquarium air pump
and position the air stone underneath the mesh
bag so that the bubbles agitate the contents. The
aeration is very important to prevent anaerobic
fermentation occurring, which could produce
harmful microbes. Add 2-3 tablespoons of
molasses, a food supply that allows the
beneficial microbes to grow and multiply rapidly.
Leave the mixture to brew for 2-3 days, making
sure that the air pump is always on. Stir/squeeze
the bag every so often to keep things well mixed.
To use, first strain the liquid through a fine cloth
and then apply either as a foliar feed or liquid
fertiliser to plant roots.
Brewing compost tea

55
Worm castings
Worms provide us with one of the best sources of plant nutrition known to man their
castings (excrement). In fact, worm castings stimulate plant growth more than any other
natural product available.

Worm castings and worms

Worm castings contain a highly active biological mixture of bacteria, enzymes, remnants of
plant matter and animal manure, as well as worm cocoons (while damp). The castings are
rich in water-soluble plant nutrients and minerals that are essential for plant growth, such as
concentrated nitrates, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, calcium, manganese, copper,
zinc, cobalt, borax, iron, carbon and nitrogen. The minerals in worm castings are in a form
that is immediately accessible to plants; animal manures and chemical fertilisers first have to
be broken down in the soil before plants can absorb them.
How to use them: There are several ways to benefit from worm castings in an aquaponic
system. The first (and simplest) is to add a handful of worms to each growbed. This ensures
that the fish wastes and old plant roots get swiftly converted back into nutrients that plants
can absorb. Worms also help to distribute nutrients evenly within the growbed.
To get extra benefit from worm castings, they may be used as a foliar or liquid feed for
plants. Take 1 cup (250ml) of worm castings, and add them to 4 litres of water. Mix well and
leave for one week. Strain the liquid through a fine cloth before spraying on plants. It is also
possible to brew worm casting tea using the same technique as for compost tea.

56

Soft pesticide
recipes

Pest control
As we have seen before, in an aquaponic system the fish,
bacteria and plants all live in a symbiotic relationship, meaning
that they all depend on each other in order to live. Aquaponics
is all about creating a healthy ecosystem, and so it is normal to
have a range of insects and spiders living amongst the plants
too. However, there are some organisms that are plant
parasites, and can cause serious problems. If any pest organisms
appear in an aquaponic garden, then it is important to
remember all the beneficial organisms that keep the system
alive chemical pesticides, insecticides or fungicides must not
be used, as they will also kill off the beneficial organisms!
Thankfully there are many effective alternatives that can be
used not just in aquaponics, but also in soil gardening and
farming.

General control strategies


Quarantine and Inspection - Carefully
inspect new bought plants for any pest
activity. It may be worth quarantining
new plants until you are sure that
there are no pests present. Also,
inspect all plants regularly as early
detection of any pest is important. A
good way to detect and limit flying
pests like whitefly is to use sticky
yellow traps.
Sticky trap

Manual Control Treat all susceptible plants at the same time.


Trim, bag and remove heavily infested leaves and discard highly
infested plants. Periodically hose small plants with a strong
spray. Wipe leaves of larger plants with a soft, damp cloth.
Physically remove large pests (e.g. grasshoppers) and feed them
to the fish. Reapply these treatments regularly so that you can
keep the pest under control.

All the following recipes are for


foliar sprays. To use, spray
liberally onto the affected plants.
Remember to pay attention to
the undersides of the leaves, and
to spray in the evening to
prevent leaf-burn (caused by
strong sunlight striking droplets
on leaves).
Garlic spray 1: Put 4-5 cloves of
garlic in a food processer with
some water, and blend until they
have been completely pulverised.
Make up to one litre with fresh
water, and strain through a fine
sieve to prevent clogging the
plant sprayer.
Garlic spray 2: Put 4-5 chopped
cloves of garlic in a small bottle
of olive oil, and leave in the sun
for at least a week. Then, add 12 teaspoons of garlic infused oil
to a litre of water. Shake well
before use.
Essential oil spray: Add 3-4 drops
of the essential oil (e.g. neem oil)
to a litre of water. Shake well
before use.
Soap spray: Dissolve 1-2
teaspoons of soft liquid soap in a
litre of water.

57
Biological Control - Predators There are numerous insects like lacewings, predatory thrips,
bug eyed bugs and ladybirds that prey on plant pests. You can buy them or catch them from
the wild. When buying make sure that the predator does prey on the type of pest that you
have, as some predators are very specific.

Excellent predators: ladybird (left) and lacewing (right)

If predators are used, be very careful if you want to also apply soft pesticides or foliar feeds
as they could kill the predators as well as pest organisms.
Chemical Control - "Soft Pesticides"
Most pests can be controlled with insecticidal oils and
soaps like clove, garlic and neem oil. These soft
pesticides can be diluted and sprayed on leaves.
Remember that soaps and oils work by contact only.
Therefore, thorough coverage of the plant is
necessary for good control. Soap solution will add
salts and potentially other chemicals to the grow beds
so try to use the most natural soap available. It is also
possible to use regular foliar feeds or molasses spray
as a pest deterrent or plant cure.

Spraying garlic water to control


white fly

58

Common plant pests


Spider mites
Spider mites, as their name suggests, are closely related to spiders. They are very small
(0.4mm long when adults), have four pairs of legs, no antennae and a single oval body region.
They produce very fine silk webbing. Their colours range form red and brown to yellow and
green depending on the species; there are approximately 1,600 species. They generally live
on the under sides of leaves of plants. They can cause damage by puncturing the plant cells
to feed. This results in tiny yellow or white speckles. When many of these feeding spots occur
near each other, the foliage takes on a yellow or bronzed cast. Once the foliage of a plant
becomes bronzed, it often drops prematurely. Heavily infested plants may be discoloured,
stunted or even killed. Web producing spider mites may coat the foliage with the fine silk,
which collects dust and looks dirty. Spider mites are known to feed on several hundred
species of plant.

Spider mite and eggs (left) and typical spider mite leaf damage and web (right).

Spider mite species seem to be warm weather active pests. All spider mites go through the
same stages of development. They can develop rapidly during this time, becoming full-grown
in as little as a week after eggs hatch. After mating, mature females may produce a dozen
eggs daily for a couple of weeks. The fast development rate and high egg production can lead
to extremely rapid increases in mite populations. Most spider mite activity peaks during the
warmer months.
Control strategies
Manual control: Wash plant; remove and destroy infested leaves.
Biological control: Predatory mites Phytoseiulus persimilis, Neoseiulus californicus and
Mesoseiulus longipes
Chemical control: Neem oil, garlic oil, soap solution, molasses spray

59
Thrips
Thrips are very small, slender insects, about 1-2mm long. They are usually tan or dark
coloured. Immature thrips are white, yellow, or orange. They are difficult to see without a
hand lens, but may appear as threads on the plant. Adults can fly, jump, or run quickly.

Adult thrips (left) and immature nymphs (right)

Thrips have rasping mouthparts, and feed by


scraping leaves or flowers and sucking the fluid
that is released. Damaged leaves show small
silvery patches or streaks; damaged flower petals
turn brown and distorted. Black, shiny drops of
excrement may also be visible on leaves. Thrips
do not generally kill plants, but make them look
tired and unsightly. If they attack young emerging
shoots then leaves may be crooked and
misshapen. Thrips will parasitize virtually any
species of plant. There are more than 3,000
species of thrips worldwide, some of which can
also transmit viruses to plants such as tomato
spotted wilt virus.

Leaf showing thrips damage and black


excrement spots

Thrips have six life cycle stages including egg, larvae, pupae and adult. They prefer warm
temperatures and dry conditions; thundery weather can trigger their swarming.
Control strategies
Manual control: Wash plant; remove and destroy infested leaves, particularly silvery areas
where eggs are present.
Biological control: Predatory mite Amblyseius cucumeris and predatory bug Orius laevigatus
Chemical control: Neem oil, garlic oil, soap solution, molasses spray.

60
Whitefly
Adult whiteflies are white and moth-like and are just over 1mm long. Their wings and bodies
are covered with powdery wax. Whiteflies usually remain on the undersides of leaves and in
growing tips where they suck the sap of the host. When disturbed they flutter around in a
characteristic and noticeable way. The small, flat, oval nymphs, often called scales, also
inhabit the undersides of the leaves where they too suck sap. The nymphs are colourless and
virtually transparent until they pupate into thicker, white, wax-covered pupae.

Adult whitefly (left) and immature nymphs/scales (right)

Signs of whitefly infestation are yellowing and mottling of the foliage followed by stunting,
wilting and death if the plants are heavily infested. Sooty moulds and specks of honeydew
that the larvae excrete over the leaves make the plants unsightly. By the time that these
symptoms are apparent the plants will already be colonised by several generations of
whitefly.
Whiteflies generally reproduce by parthenogenesis (females lay eggs without being fertilised
by a male). Females lay about 200 - 250 eggs during a lifespan of 3 - 6 weeks. The total period
from egg to adult is about 27 days. Whiteflies hibernate over winter on any plants until the
following season.
Control strategies
Manual control: Washing
Biological Control: The white fly predator Encarsia formosa
Chemical control: Neem oils, plant oil extracts, molasses spray. At least three applications
sprayed once every 5 days are usually necessary.

61
Aphids
Aphids are easy to see. They are usually small (1-2mm long) with pear-shaped, soft-bodies,
conspicuous legs, and antennae. Aphids can be green, black, brown, grey, yellow, red, or
purple. Aphids tend to cluster on stems just below flower buds or on newly opening leaf
buds, as well as on flowers and the undersides of leaves. Aphids pierce plant tissue, suck sap,
and excrete sticky honeydew.

Rosebud infested with aphids (left) and detail of aphid (right)

There are 4,400 species of aphid worldwide, of which 250 are classed as serious agricultural
pests. They can migrate great distances some life stages are winged, and can fly or
passively ride the wind to find new plant hosts. Some species of aphid will only parasitize one
plant species; others can parasitize a wide range of different plants. Aphid infestation can
stress plants hugely by extracting a large quantity of vital nutrients from the plant. In
addition, aphids can transmit potentially lethal plant viruses to the host plants.
Aphids reproduce both sexually and asexually via parthenogenesis. They are viviparous,
giving birth to live young. They typically live for 20 to 40 days, and in some species the
parthenogenetic viviparous female has a daughter inside her, which, even before being born,
is already parthenogenetically producing her own daughter. Thus, one female hatched in
spring can produce many billions of descendants in a season.
Control options
Manual control: Washing, physical
removal/crushing.
Biological control: Aphid predators
include ladybird larvae and adults,
hoverfly larvae, parasitic wasps,
lacewings, aphid midge larvae and crab
spiders.
Chemical control: soap, neem oil, plant
oil extracts, molasses spray.

Ladybird adult (left) and larva (right) preying on


aphids.

62

Chapter 9:
Constructing
an aquaponic
system

As highlighted previously, aquaponic systems differ primarily in the type of growbed used for
the plants. In this chapter we shall look at how to build a simple, domestic scale, CHOP flood
and drain system. The flood and drain aquaponic system has many factors which make it
ideal for first time and small scale setups, not least its ease of construction and maintenance.

How the system works


As discussed in Chapter 1, the CHOP flood and drain system maintains a constant water
depth in the fish tank. Water flows from the fish tank by gravity to the growbeds. The
growbeds fill up with water and then flush by gravity into a sump tank, where the pump is
located. The pump returns the clean water to the fish tank.

63

Construction process
1: Select your site

Creative
alternatives

Rooftop, garden, greenhouse An aquaponic system can


be built almost anywhere!

Earthen pits lined with


plastic:

Wherever you decide to construct an aquaponic system


you will need to consider the accessibility of an electricity
supply and water for topping up the system. Rainwater is
the best option; if tap water will be used then it is
important to remove the chlorine. This can be done by
storing the water in a suitable, open container for a
minimum of 24hrs prior to use.

2: Design your system


Based on the site you have selected, decide on the size of
system you will construct. Remember that the growbed
area determines the maximum fish weight, and that the
total growbed volume should be approximately double the
fish tank volume. The sump tank must be large enough to
hold all the water in all the growbeds should they flush
simultaneously, plus enough water to keep the pump
submerged when all the growbeds are full.
For water to travel from the fish tank to the growbeds then
to the sump tank by gravity then there must be a height
gradient. The fish tank water surface should be about
15cm higher than the surface of the growbeds, and the
bottom of the growbeds should be about 15cm above the
surface of the sump tank. To achieve this, either construct
a support to raise the growbeds up from the ground, or
build the growbeds at ground level and excavate a hole for
the sump tank.
Consider which materials are readily available locally. Premade growbeds and fish tanks designed for aquaponics do
exist, but a little exploration and ingenuity can save a lot of
money!

Recycled blue barrels:

Vertical growbeds great


for strawberries!

64

Practice
Calculations
Tank volumes and
growbed areas
Imagine that you have:
3 Growbeds
1m x 1m x 30cm each
Total volume = 3x1x1x0.3 =
0.9m3
Calculate fish tank volume:
Growbed to fish tank volume
ratio: 2:1, so fish tank volume is
0.9 2 = 0.45m3 (450L)
Calculate sump tank size:
Water volume held in growbeds
40% of 0.9m3 is 0.36m3, or 360L
Sump tank must hold:
360L + pump depth
Pump is 10cm high:
And the sump tank measures
1m x 1m, so the pump needs
100L of water to remain
submerged.

Once the approximate system volume and suitable


components have been selected, the exact sizes required can
be calculated using the following key points:
Fish tank sides should extend at least 10cm above the
maximum water level to prevent fish jumping out.
Growbeds should be deep enough to hold 30cm of
the growing medium.
Calculate 40% of the total growbed volume this is
the maximum amount of water that they can hold
simultaneously. The sump tank needs to be able to hold this
volume of water PLUS the minimum depth needed to keep
the pump submerged.
Remember that the general ratio of total growbed volume to
fish tank volume is 2:1. For example: a fish tank of 0.5m3
(500L) would require a total growbed volume of 1m3(1000L).
As the growbed is 0.3m (30cm) deep, then the total growbed
area should be 3.33m2. An aquaponic setup may use either
one large growbed or several smaller growbeds to achieve
the desired area. It is the growbed area that determines the
total weight of fish that the system can hold; refer to chapter
4 to calculate carrying capacity based on growbed area.
When designing the system layout, be sure to consider access
to all parts of the growbeds and plumbing so that repairs and
maintenance can be carried out easily.

3: Gather and prepare materials


Go shopping! If you choose to use
recycled containers such as
plastic tanks and barrels, be sure
to clean them thoroughly before
use any contamination in them
will end up in your food!

Total sump volume


Must be at least 460L
(360L+100L)
Sump depth
Assuming the sump tank
measures 1mx1m, the minimum
sump tank depth is
0.46m3 (1m x 1m) = 46cm.
Growbeds made from white
tanks, or IBCs

The growing medium must be


rinsed before use. This removes
fine clay and silts that may
otherwise clog the system and
suffocate plant roots.

65
4: Prepare site
Mark out the area where the aquaponic system will be
constructed. Level it, and dig holes as necessary.

Siphon standpipe

50mm to 32mm PVC adapter


32mm PVC pipe
32mm to 1 thread adapter
Completed assembly extends
25cm into growbed
1 L bend connects on outside of
the growbed
25mm pipe connector enables
easy connection of drain pipe

5: Assemble components
Position the fish and sump tanks,
and build the support structures
for the growbeds, ensuring that
the surface is level. Check that
the height differences between
components is correct about
15-20cm
height
difference
between water surfaces (fish
tank/growbed surface, growbed
bottom/sump tank surface) will
ensure adequate water flow by
gravity.

The
autosiphon

Laying out the growbeds

Growbeds and autosiphons


Drill a 1 hole in the bottom of each
growbed. This is where the
siphon/drain pipes will connect.
Prepare the autosiphon standpipes
(see side panel), and connect the
standpipe through the hole in the
growbed to an L bend. Use a sealant
glue to reinforce the joint, as you
dont want any leaks. It is also
possible to use a wall connector (or
bulkhead fitting) of the same
diameter as the standpipe, and
connect both the standpipe and L
bend to this.

Siphon assembly

Installing the standpipe

The growbed can now be put into place, and the growbed
drainpipe connected to the vacant side of the L bend. This
drainpipe must run horizontally from the siphon standpipe
to the sump tank.

Siphon standpipe (left)


Bell siphon tube with airtight cap
(centre)
Shroud pipe (right)

66

Pipework

T-junctions and ball valves used to


regulate the water flow to individual
growbeds; 32 mm PVC pipe fittings.

Around the standpipe we need


the bell siphon tube, which
should be approximately 2 times
the diameter of the standpipe.
The bell tube needs to be sealed
at one end (the top) with an
airtight cap. The bottom of the
bell tube needs to have some Detail of the holes at the
holes drilled or cut to allow bottom of the bell tube
water flow. Two 25mm holes opposite each
other at the bottom (open) end of the siphon
bell tube should suffice. These holes allow
water to flow up and into the siphon. In
addition, drill one small (8mm) hole 4cm up
from the base of the bell tube. This hole sets
the minimum water depth in the growbed - as
the water drains from the growbed, and the
depth decreases sufficiently, air is sucked into
this hole and breaks the siphon, causing the
growbed to stop draining and to start filling up
Lowering the bell
again.
This bell tube is simply lowered on top of the
siphon standpipe, and stays in place by gravity.

tube onto the


standpipe

A shroud should be placed around the bell tube. This is simply


to prevent growing medium and plant roots entering and
clogging the siphon and drain pipes. The shroud can be made
of a wider diameter pipe (4 drainpipe) with many holes
drilled in it to allow unimpeded water flow.
Internal fish tank plumbing for a
constant height system. The 50mm
wall connector (right) goes through
the fish tank wall at the desired
surface level, and connects to the
growbed supply pipes. The long
standpipe under the T-junction
draws water up from the bottom of
the fish tank.

Repeat these steps for the other growbeds; ensure the drain
of each one reaches the sump/fish tank.
Growbed supply pipes
The growbed supply pipes deliver water from the fish tank to
the growbeds. As they will also carry solid waste, it is
important to use wide bore pipes to prevent clogging.
Remember that the growbed surface should be 15cm lower
than the water surface in the fish tank, so these pipes will
also need to accommodate this height difference.

67
A final fact to consider is that the outlets to each growbed
need to be perfectly level with each other. If one outlet is
slightly lower than the rest, then all the water will flow
through it, leaving the other growbeds dry. It is a good idea to
use a ball valve on each outlet; that way it is possible to
regulate the flow to each growbed and compensate for slight
differences in height.
Drill a hole in the fish tank wall at the desired water surface
level. Put a wall connector through this hole and use a pair of
L bends on the outside to bring the pipework lower than the
outlet level. The pipe should then run horizontally, with as
few bends as possible, for the length of the growbeds. Each
growbed is supplied via a T-junction from this pipe.

Growbed supply pipe detail

On the inside of the fish tank, attach a T-junction to the wall connector (not an L bend, or all
the water will siphon from the fish tank!) with a pipe extending vertically almost to the
bottom of this fish tank. This is so that the water going to the growbeds will be drawn from
the bottom of the fish tank, drawing with it any solid waste. It is a good idea to screen this
pipe to prevent small fish being sucked up into the plumbing. An easy way to do this is to cap
the end, and drill a lot of 8mm holes in the cap and bottom few centimetres of the pipe.
Pump
Make sure that the pump is the right capacity for your system
measure the total height difference from the floor of the sump
tank (where the pump will sit) to the top of the fish tank (where
the water will discharge). This height is the head. Now estimate
the total volume of water the system will hold this is the
volume the pump should be able to move every hour. Check
that your pumps flow rate at the given head is sufficient to
cycle the whole water volume every hour.
Place the pump into the sump tank and connect it to a pipe
leading to the fish tank. It can be useful to put a T-junction and
ball valve in this pipe to enable direct water return to the sump
tank. In this way, the flow rate to the fish tank can be controlled.
Again, use as wide a bore pipe as is possible, and try to avoid
sharp direction changes; this helps to minimise resistance, thus
increasing the pumps efficiency and lifespan.

Pump, pipe to fish tank


and ball valve for water
return to sump tank.

68
6: Fill with growing medium and water
Once the construction is finished you are ready to fill the system with growing medium and
water. Whichever growing medium you choose to use, it is important to rinse it well first so
as to avoid introducing fine silts to the system. Put the washed medium into the growbeds to
a depth of 30cm, making sure that the siphon pipes do not get dislodged (putting a brick on
top of the pipes helps). Then fill the system up with fresh water.

7: Switch on the pump


Make sure that the electric connections are located in such a way that they will not get wet,
plug in the pump and switch it on.

8: Check everything
With the pump running, check the system for leaks, ensure the siphons function correctly,
and adjust flow rate as necessary using the ball valves feeding the growbeds and returning to
the sump/fish tank.
It is normal for the water to run a bit cloudy for the first few days you can never rinse all
the dirt from the growing medium.

9: Cycle the system


Cycling is the term used for getting an aquaponic system biologically ready to hold fish and
plants. Please refer to chapter 2 for details.

A completed aquaponic system ready for cycling

69

Chapter 10:
System
operation
and
maintenance

Once an aquaponic system is up and running, the day-to-day operation and maintenance is
pretty straightforward and should not be too time consuming. In fact, it can be as simple as a
quick daily inspection while feeding the fish and harvesting any plants that are ready.
Obviously to maintain the system in good health it is important to invest a bit more time
every so often, but with a well planned activities schedule, operation of an aquaponic system
does not need to place excessive demands on your time or energy.

Aquaponic systems operator schedule


Daily tasks

Visual inspection check that the pump and aerator are working; check that water is
flowing properly into each growbed; check that the sump tank water level is OK;
check that the autosiphons are flowing properly (either siphoning or stopped not
trickling for more than a minute or two).
Feed the fish make sure not to overfeed. If feeding pellets, then remember to
remove uneaten food after three minutes. It is best to feed twice a day morning and
evening.
Check the plants for pests and diseases just a quick look. If you find any large pests
like crickets, catch them and feed them to the fish!
Harvest anything that is ready
Check and record water pH

70
Weekly tasks
Once a week, try to devote a little more time. Perform all the daily tasks a little more
thoroughly than normal, and in addition:
Harvest, prune and support plants as necessary.
Transplant seedlings to replace whole plants harvested (e.g. lettuces removed).
Plant new seeds to replace seedlings transplanted.
Check and record all water quality parameters (including pH and KH).
If necessary, add acid or base to modify pH.
Harvest fish as necessary.
Top up aquaponic system if necessary.
Apply foliar feed or safe pesticides such as molasses spray to all plants if necessary.

Basil harvest

Monthly tasks
Once a month it is a good idea to clean the plumbing, as otherwise plant roots and biofilms
can develop inside the pipework, increasing resistance to the flow of water, this
compromising the pumps efficiency.
Check siphon shroud pipes for plant roots, and if necessary clean them by running a
knife around the inside.
Clean all the pipework (growbed supply pipes, pump to fish tank pipe). To clean the
pipes, remove them and pull a large bottlebrush through them. Rinse them off and
re-assemble. The gunk that you clean out makes great fertiliser for your garden!
Net some fish for a visual health check.
Stock new fish if necessary.
Check buffering medium (eggshells etc.) if used, and add more if necessary.

71

Troubleshooting
PROBLEM: Pump not running.
CHECK: That it is plugged in, and that the electricity cable is also connected to the mains.
Check that there is not a power cut. If the pump is broken, buy a new one immediately. The
pumps are not very expensive in comparison to the value of all the food being grown, and so
it could be a good idea to buy a spare pump to use in emergencies.
PROBLEM: Growbeds not filling; pump not running or running very slowly.
CHECK: Is the water level in the sump tank too low for pump to operate? If so, top up
immediately with stored water. To top up with exactly the correct amount, remove siphon
bell tubes and let each growbed fill right up. Once every growbed is full with water, top up
sump tank with enough water to completely submerge the pump plus a little bit more;
replace siphon bell tubes, leaving a few minutes between each one to stagger flood/drain
timings. If water level was ok, check pump and plumbing for obstructions; clean pump and
pipework to restore flow rate.
PROBLEM: Pump running, but one or more growbeds not filling.
CHECK: Growbed filling taps may have moved out of level, or been adjusted incorrectly. Relevel outlets and adjust ball valves to the correct position. If this does not help, check for
obstructions and clean the pipework.
PROBLEM: Plants not growing well, looking unhealthy; parasite infestation.
CHECK: Apply foliar feed or aquaponics-safe pesticide if infestation is suspected. Test pH,
ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels. If nitrates are low, stock more fish or increase feeding. If
pH is wrong, correct it (see below).
PROBLEM: Fish looking unhealthy or dying.
SOLUTION: Test pH, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate. Visually inspect fish for parasites and treat
accordingly.
PROBLEM: pH too high or too low.
CHECK: Test KH, GH and pH.
If pH is too high, add phosphoric acid each day until pH reaches 6.8-7.5, being careful not to
change the pH by more than 0.2 points per day.
If pH is too low, top up system with stored groundwater (because groundwater is usually
high alkalinity and high pH) OR add a mesh bag of crushed eggshells/limestone chips.

72
PROBLEM: Ammonia or nitrites too high.
CHECK: Check air pump and pump are working, check that the growbeds are flooding and
draining properly. Stop feeding and remove uneaten food, test ammonia and nitrite every
day till back to normal, resume feeding and continue testing the water for a couple of days
more. Additionally you can exchange up to 50% of the water or harvest some fish.
PROBLEM: Nitrates too high.
CHECK: Have plants been harvested/removed and not replaced? Transplant more seedlings
to growbeds immediately; plant more seeds in seedling tray.
PROBLEM: Algae bloom water turns green.
CHECK: Ensure that the system is shaded from excess light. Construct a lightproof cover for
the fish and sump tanks; lightproof the sides of the tanks and growbeds with cardboard.
During an algae bloom it is common to get very low ammonia, nitrite and nitrate readings
because the plankton takes up all available nutrients. By removing the light source, the
plankton will die. Be vigilant for water quality problems, as a mass plankton die-off will
liberate these nutrients and can cause very high ammonia levels. Plant more plants to take
up available nutrients.

73

Chapter 11:
Fresh fish
skills

Now that you have your very own fish farm, you need to know how to deal with the fish; i.e.
how to kill, clean, prepare and store fish ready for eating. This chapter details a few useful
techniques for preparing fish for eating or storing. It is always preferable to eat the fish right
away, but if you choose to store it then store it in the form that you will eat it i.e. if youll
want fillets next month, fillet the fish and freeze the fillets.

Killing fish
Once you have chosen the fish that you would like to eat, you should catch and kill it without
delay. It is important to kill fish swiftly and humanely to minimise bruising of the flesh and to
prevent a build-up of stress hormones in the fish, which can alter the flavour. The most
effective and humane way to kill a fish is by striking it across the head with a solid stick - it
can be wood, metal or solid plastic - something like a broomstick, rolling pin or steel pipe, for
example.
Grab the fish with a towel to avoid slipping and place it on a hard, firm surface, then
strike it over the head as if you were hammering a nail. One strike should be sufficient, but if
you miss then do the second strike as fast as possible. The fish may flap for a few moments; if
it continues to do so for more than half a minute then another good strike is needed!

74

The tools of the Bleeding it out


trade

Once you have dispatched the fish, its heart will still beat for
a couple of minutes and the blood continues to circulate
through its body. This is the perfect time to start bleeding out
the fish, so you only have approximately 2 minutes from the
strike to the head.

Remove the gills from both sides of the head you can use
some scissors or a sharp knife. You should see the blood
starting to flow out from the gills almost immediately.

Descaling

A set of filleting knives

Fish scaler

If you would like to eat the skin of the fish then you will need
to remove its scales. Scales grow in overlapping rows from
head to tail. To remove them just scrape the fish firmly from
tail to head. There are tools specially designed for this or you
can use the blunt side of a knife or make your own fish scaler.
See sidebar for some pictures.
Remember that it is
easier to descale a
fish when it is at its
freshest! Do not
leave it in the fridge
for days, as the
mucus tends to dry
and can glue the
scales together.

To descale or not:

Keep the scales on if you want to take the skin off


Keep the scales on if you intend to barbecue your fish or
bake it in salt crust
Take the scales off if you want to eat the skin

Fish net

75

Gutting the fish


All round-bodied fish have a visible anal vent. This is where you should start your cut, ideally
with a short sharp knife. Hold the fish with one hand keep the anal vent facing towards you
and the knife with the other. Insert the blade in the anal vent and slice the knife all the way
up in a straight line to its jaw. The cut does not need to be deep, it just needs to split the
flesh. If you go too deep you will slash the guts.

You need to get all the guts


out. For this you will need to
use your hand and pull
everything out. If something is
too firmly attached to the fish
(this happens mainly in very
big fish) dont force it or you
could tear the flesh. Instead,
cut it carefully with the knife.

76
Once you have gutted the fish, rinse it thoroughly under
a running cold-water tap. Use your thumbs to scrape all
the blood from the spine and close to the head.

Removing the gills


The gills are the feathery pink disks found immediately
behind a fishs head, and can be pulled or cut out.
Again, rinse the fish thoroughly with cold water, dry
inside and outside with a tea towel or kitchen paper
and your fish is ready to be cooked, kept in the fridge or
frozen.

77

Handling fish with spiny fins


Some fish like tilapia have very spiny fins, which makes it difficult and painful to handle them.
To avoid spearing yourself while handling the fish you can either wear gloves or simply snip
all the spines off first with scissors. To do this effectively always cut from the tail towards the
head.

Filleting fish
The main aim of filleting a fish is to get the
most substantial portions of a fish from its
skeleton. Remember that you can use all the
rest of fish for a wonderful fish stock. Filleting
a fish is not an easy job, so be patient and
keep on practising!
The technique of filleting is quite a refined art;
it consists of a series of careful cuts, focusing
on following the natural bone lines of the fish
in order to maximise the fillet portion and
minimise the waste. You will need a very sharp, long, flexible knife to fillet well.

First fillet
1. Remove the head: Cut diagonally from just behind the gill to the top of the head.
2. To make the first cut, place the tail of the fish pointing towards you, hold the knife

parallel to the worktop and start the cut where the top of the head was. Slide the
knife from the top end all the way down to the tail, just above the dorsal fin. This cut
does not need to be very deep - about 2cm is usually fine - it is just a guide to start
locating the spine.

78
3. Once you have found the spiny bones
and the vertebrae, make clean strokes
with the knife from the head towards
the tail. Lift the fillet as you release it
from the bones and guide the knife
along the bones. Once all the spiny
bones are released, you will get to the
backbone. Leave this for a minute.
4. You have released the thick dorsal part
of the fillet, now you have to release
the tail. Keeping the knife parallel to
the worktop, insert the blade at a right
angle to the spine of the fish so that it
penetrates right through the body from
the dorsal side to near the anal vent.
Now cut towards the tail, using the
spine as a cutting guide.
5. Guide the knife around the ribcage
cavity by making a series of delicate
slashes, releasing a few millimetres of
the fillet with every slash. With luck
you will get a tidy, boneless fillet!

Second fillet
6. Turn the fish over and this time start your cut from the tail of the fish to the head.
Make the cut along the back on the upper side of the dorsal fin. It will be easier if the
head is pointing towards you.

79

7. Detach the tail of the fish in the same way as step 4, and proceed around the ribcage
in the same way as with the other fillet.
8. You now have your two fish fillets! Take a look at them and do the last trimmings;
maybe there are some spiny bones left which you can remove with tweezers.

80

Storing fish
The best way to store your fish is to eat it straight away! There is nothing nicer than fresh
fish. If you do want to store it, you can put it in the fridge or freeze it. Never leave your fish
out in the heat for long and always cover from flies or other animals.

Fridge
Dry the fish well, wrap it in a plastic bag and put
it on a plate in the fridge. Do not keep it for
more than five days in the fridge.

Freezing
When you freeze fish make sure that it has been
properly cleaned, and freeze it as you would like
to eat it; i.e. if you want fillets, freeze the fillets;
if you want it without the scales, remove the
scales before freezing.
Dry your fish well and carefully double wrap it in
plastic bags. Make sure that the plastic bags are
not broken and that the fish is perfectly sealed.
Do not freeze large amounts of fish together.
Pack fish in serving portions.
It is better if you label and date the fish, this way
you will know for how long your fish has been in
the freezer. Try to avoid leaving your fish for
more than 6 months in your freezer.

Defrosting
Do not rush the defrosting process of your fish. Do not use warm water or hot air to defrost,
if you do these the outer layer will defrost and cook slightly while other parts of the fish are
still frozen.
The best way to defrost a fish is to put it in the fridge overnight. To do this take the fish out
of its bag and place it in a colander inside a large bowl or on a tray so that it doesnt absorb
the melted water. Another good way is to immerse the fish completely in cold water. If you
use this method, keep the fish completely sealed inside a plastic bag, dont expose the flesh
to the water or it will start to absorb it and will become soft and fragile.

81

82

Appendix 1: Companion planting chart


COMPANION PLANTING CHART FOR HOME & MARKET GARDENING
(compiled from https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/viewhtml.php?id=72)
CROP
COMPANIONS
INCOMPATIBLE
Asparagus
Tomato, Parsley, Basil
Beans
Most Vegetables & Herbs
Irish Potato, Cucumber, Maize,
Beans, Bush
Onion
Strawberry, Celery, Summer Savory
Onion, Beets, Kohlrabi,
Beans, Pole Corn, Summer Savory, Radish
Sunflower
Cabbage
Aromatic Herbs, Celery, Beets, Onion
Dill, Strawberries, Pole Beans,
Family
Family, Chamomile, Spinach, Chard
Tomato
English Pea, Lettuce, Rosemary, Onion
Carrots
Dill
Family, Sage, Tomato
Onion & Cabbage Families, Tomato,
Celery
Bush Beans, Nasturtium
Irish Potato, Beans, English Pea,
Maize
Tomato
Pumpkin, Cucumber, Squash
Beans, Maize , English Pea,
Cucumber
Irish Potato, Aromatic Herbs
Sunflowers, Radish
Eggplant
Beans, Marigold
Lettuce
Carrot, Radish, Strawberry, Cucumber
Onion
Beets, Carrot, Lettuce, Cabbage
Beans, English Peas
Family
Family, Summer Savory
Parsley
Tomato, Asparagus
Carrots, Radish, Turnip, Cucumber,
Onion Family, Gladiolus, Irish
Pea, English
Maize, Beans
Potato
Beans, Cabbage Family, Marigolds,
Pumpkin, Squash, Tomato,
Potato, Irish
Maize, Horseradish
Cucumber, Sunflower
Pumpkins
Maize, Marigold
Irish Potato
English Pea, Nasturtium, Lettuce,
Radish
Hyssop
Cucumber
Spinach
Strawberry, Faba Bean
Squash
Nasturtium, Maize, Marigold
Irish Potato
Onion Family, Nasturtium, Marigold,
Irish Potato, Fennel, Cabbage
Tomato
Asparagus, Carrot, Parsley, Cucumber Family
Turnip
English Pea
Irish Potato

83

Appendix 2: Popular aquaponic plants


The following plants have been shown to grow well in aquaponic systems. This is not an
exhaustive list of all plants that can be grown in aquaponic systems, but a popular selection.
For each plant, the ideal pH and temperature ranges for growth have been given, along with
some information about the plant and its cultivation.

Family: Alliaceae
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)

pH: 6 - 7
Plant spacing: can be sown densely
Temperature: 15 35C
Notes: Native to Europe, Asia and North America.
Chives are hardy bulb-forming perennials, growing up
to 3050 cm tall. The bulbs are slender, conical, 2
3 cm long and 1 cm broad, and grow in dense clusters
from the roots. Chives are easily propagated by seed;
to sow directly in an aquaponic system it is best to
sow the seeds on a thin layer of cotton wool as the seeds are quite small. Chives are also
easily propagated by division after the first signs of growth in early spring. In cold regions,
chives die back to the underground bulbs in winter, with the new leaves appearing in early
spring. Chives starting to look old can be cut back to about 25 cm. When harvesting, the
required number of stalks should be cut to the base. During the growing season, the plant
will continually regrow leaves, allowing for a continuous harvest.

Family: Amaranthaceae
Spinach (Spinacia oleracea)

pH: 6 - 7
Plant spacing: 40 50 cm
Temperature: 5 - 20C
Notes: Believed to have originated in ancient Persia. Spinach
is an annual plant (rarely biennial), which thrives in cooler
weather. It can take hot weather as long as there is some
moisture and shade. Spinach grows to a height of 30 cm; the
leaves are from 2 30 cm long and 1 15 cm broad. The
leaves taste better if the spinach is grown at a fast pace and
harvested young. Spinach should give a continual harvest for
most of the year as long as the plant is never allowed to flower. To plant spinach, sow seeds
into the growbeds. Do this weekly to ensure continual harvests.

84

Family: Apiaceae
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)

pH: 6 7.5
Plant spacing: 15 20 cm
Temperatures: 10 - 25C
Notes: Native to southern Europe, North Africa to
south-western Asia, coriander is a hardy annual
herb. Coriander is a soft, hairless plant growing up
to 50 centimetres tall. It bolts (produces flowers)
in very hot weather, if plants are too close
together or transplanted. For this reason we
recommend sowing straight into the growbed. It is
best sown at intervals to ensure a continuous
harvest and to get bolting at different times.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)

pH: 5 - 6
Plant spacing: 10 20 cm
Temperature: 22 - 30C
Notes: A biennial herbaceous plant in temperate climates
and an annual in sub-tropical areas. Parsley needs full sun to
flourish (partial shade is okay in very hot areas) and will
survive light frosts. Parsley can be harvested as needed as
soon as the plants start growing vigorously. The best leaves
are the ones picked before the plant flowers. If you do not
allow flowering, you should have delicious parsley all season.
You can plant them directly into the growbeds. Parsley is
susceptible to Aphids, whitefly and spider mite, leaf spot and
root rot disease.

85

Family: Asteraceae
Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)

pH: 6 - 7
Plant spacing: 15 30 cm
Temperature: 15 20C
Notes: There are many varieties of
lettuce, but most thrive in cooler weather,
so this is one of the crops you can plant
early in the year. Lettuce is generally an
annual crop. They are half-hardy plants
and will tolerate light frosts. Leaf lettuces
are best grown in the early season
because they like cool weather, while
head lettuce can tolerate more heat. In
warmer climates try to give your lettuce plants partial shade during the day. Hot, sunny, or
dry conditions may cause the plants to turn bitter and bolt. Be sure to give the plants plenty
of room - head varieties of lettuce require more room than leaf varieties. Many types of
lettuce will continue to produce for months, as long as you keep harvesting a few leaves from
each plant.

Family: Brassicaceae
Plants in the Brassicaceae family have a tendency to bolt in hot weather.

Broccoli (Brassica oleracea)

pH: 6 -7
Plant spacing: 45 - 60 cm
Temperature: 15 25C
Notes: Native to Italy. Broccoli has large
flower heads, usually green in colour,
arranged in a tree-like fashion on branches
sprouting from a thick, edible stalk. Leaves
surround the mass of flower heads. Broccoli is
a cool-weather crop that does poorly in hot
summer weather. Broccoli should be
harvested before the flowers on the head
bloom bright yellow.

86
Rocket/Roquette/Arugula (Eruca sativa)

pH: 6.0 6.8


Plant spacing: 20 30 cm
Temperature: 4 25C
Notes: Native to the Mediterranean region
from Morocco and Portugal to the east of
Turkey and Lebanon. Rocket is an annual plant
growing 20100 cm in height. It likes cool and
sunny weather; if the weather is too hot the
leaves taste bitter. Young leaves are best,
becoming more pungent as the plant nears
flowering. Flower buds are edible too. When
planting, it is recommended to do it as a
succession crop in order to get a continual
harvest.

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)

pH: 6 - 7
Plant spacing: 22 30 cm
Temperature: 15 30C
Notes: Native to Europe and central Asia,
watercress is a fast, low growing and trailing
aquatic or semi aquatic perennial plant and one
of the oldest known leaf vegetables consumed
by human beings. Watercress has hollow stems,
grows up to 15-60cm tall and produces small,
white and green flowers in clusters. It prefers a
temperate climate and is highly susceptible to
frost. Watercress prefers high light levels but
not full sun; too much sun will cause it to become bitter and tough. It can tolerate a good
amount of heat if it has shade to protect it. Cress can be harvested continually by simply
cutting off a few leaves or sprigs. Leave a few leaves on each stem for it to rejuvenate from.
Older plants can be cut back to encourage new growth - leave about 57 cm. After its flower
buds appear the leaves become unpalatable. Watercress also propagates through runners,
which can be harvested and eaten or left to grow into new plants. They are easily grown
from seed but you can propagate them by bits of stem which root easily on the growbeds. Its
season is from mid-autumn to spring.

87

Family: Cucurbitaceae
Cucurbits have separate male and female flowers, and so the female flowers require
pollination to set fruit. Normally this is performed by insects but to guarantee fruit
production it is best to do it manually. This is especially important if you are growing several
varieties of cucurbits they will easily cross-pollinate, producing bizarre fruit combinations.
Preferably plant only one species in a bed. Symptoms of inadequate pollination include fruit
abortion and misshapen fruit. Partially pollinated flowers may develop fruit which are green
and develop normally near the stem end, but pale yellow and withered at the blossom end.
Cucurbits are very susceptible to fungal infections if their delicate roots are damaged, so it is
better to plant them straight into the growbed. They are also highly susceptible to pests like
aphids, whitefly, and grasshoppers.

Butternut squash (Cucurbita moschata)

pH: 5.5 7.5


Plant spacing: 40 90 cm
Temperature: 21 35C
Notes: Butternut squash is an annual plant that likes full
sun; it will not survive frosts nor germinate in cold soils.
Butternut squash can require 100 days or more to
mature, so they must be planted in early summer in
order to be harvested before the first frost. The long
growing season of butternut squash like all winter
squash produces huge fruits that require plenty of
nutrients. Butternut squash also require plenty of room
to grow. It should be planted in a way that allows
enough space between plants to allow for trailing vines
and large fruits 45 to 90cm depending on the variety.
Try and plant it at the edge of the growbeds and keep
the vines trimmed and angled so that it does not affect
surrounding crops. Youll know its ready when fruits are between beige and light tan. If there
is still a greenish tint to the fruit, it's not ready yet. Ready-to-harvest butternut squash also
have shrivelling and drying stems and extremely hard skin. To remove them from the vine,
cut the stems about 2.5 cm up from the fruit. The fruits are often too heavy for the stems to
bear their weight, so do not handle the harvested fruit by the stem. When you harvest your
butternut squash, be certain to leave a little of the stem attached to the fruit if you plan to
store them.

88
Cucumbers. Cucumis sativus.

pH: 5.5 - 6.5


Plant spacing: 40 60 cm
Temperatures: 18 25C
Notes: Originally from India. Cucumbers are annual
plants. The plant is a creeping vine that grows quickly
and needs support. Its fruits are best picked not too big
and picking them regularly encourages new fruit
development. Cucumbers like full sun but not very high
temperatures. If cucumbers are grown in high
temperatures, the fruits will develop a bitter flavour.
Cucumbers require large quantities of nitrogen and are
very susceptible to frost.

Watermelon (Citrullus sp.)

pH: 5 6.5
Plant spacing: 60 100 cm
Temperature: 15 35C
Notes: Watermelon is thought to have originated in
southern Africa. It is an annual plant that likes warm
weather and will not survive frost. It requires at least 6
hours of sun each day and seeds will not germinate in cold
soil. That said, the seeds are big enough to plant straight
into the growbeds. Watermelons sprawling vines and large
fruits require plenty of space, so make sure you give them
enough space. You can plant them at the edges of the
growbeds and trail the vines in different directions. To
harvest watermelon you should tap its belly and it should
sound hollow when ripe; if it sounds hard then it is not
ready yet.

89

Family: Chenopodiaceae
Mangold/Swiss chard/Chard (Beta vulgaris)

pH: 6 7.5
Plant spacing: 15 - 20 cm
Temperature: 10 30C
Notes: Probably originated in the Mediterranean, Asia
Minor, the Caucasus, and the Near East. Chard is an annual
hardy leafy green that can survive hard frosts but requires
full sun in order to thrive (at least 6 hrs daily). Chard has
shiny green ribbed leaves, with stems that range from white
to yellow to red, depending on the cultivar. It has a slightly
bitter taste. You can start harvesting chards leaves (can be
eaten when small or large) and stems (can be steamed and
eaten like asparagus) at any time after the leaves form. This
is usually in the summer, though you may also be able to harvest chard in the autumn if they
did not overheat during summer (if they did, you can also replant in summer for an autumn
harvest). You can choose to cut the entire plant about 8 cm above the ground or just the
large outer leaves. By cutting just the large outer leaves, you leave the smaller leaves to
develop for future harvests. Raw chard is extremely perishable.

Family: Fabaceae
Peas (Pisum sativum)

pH: 5.5 6.5


Plant spacing: 13 18 cm
Temperature: 12 26C
Notes: There are many different species of pea. Wild peas are
native to the Mediterranean basin and the Near East. Pea is an
annual, hardy plant that can survive hard frosts. The pea is a
green, pod-shaped vegetable, widely grown as a cool season
vegetable crop. They do not thrive in the summer heat of
warmer temperate and lowland tropical climates. Peas can
easily be grown from seed planted straight into the growbed.
Plan according to the variety because there are vining and bush
varieties; vines generally giving a higher yield. Peas harvest
time depends on the variety, but in general, peas left on the
vine longer will have a thicker texture; peas picked earlier will
be more tender. Harvest peas regularly to increase production.
Pea may be affected by the following pests: aphids, nematodes, spider mites and thrips.
Diseases: root rot and damping off, ascochyta blight.

90

Family: Lamiaceae
Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

pH: 5.5 -6.5


Plant spacing: 25 -35 cm
Temperature: 18 30C
Notes: Native to India and tropical regions of Asia.
There are over 160 named cultivars available and
more new ones every year. Most common varieties
of basil are treated as annuals; some are perennial
in warm, tropical climates. Basil grows between 30
130 cm tall, with opposite, light green, silky leaves
311 cm long and 16 cm broad. Basil is very
sensitive to cold, with best growth in hot, dry
conditions. It behaves as an annual if there is any chance of a frost. Harvest the young tender
leaves. Avoid flower production by pinching off any flower stems before they are fully
mature as, if left to flower, foliage production stops, leaves become more bitter and stem
becomes woody. Picking the leaves off the plant helps "promote growth", largely because
the plant responds by converting pairs of leaflets next to the topmost leaves into new stems.
Basil can also be propagated very reliably from cuttings, with the stems of short cuttings
suspended for two weeks or so in water until roots develop.

Mint (Mentha sp.)

pH: 7 - 8
Plant spacing: 30 45 cm
Temperature: 15 - 26C
Notes: There are many species of mints and
hybridization between some species occurs
naturally. The genus Mentha has a wide
distribution, from Europe to Asia, Africa, Australia
and America. Mint is a perennial herb with erect,
square-section, branched stems up to 35 cm tall.
Leaf colours range from dark green to purple. Mints should be planted where they will not
encroach on other plants, as they spread so readily by extending a network of runners.
Unless curbed, they are likely to become a pestiferous weed. Some species can be hardy, but
mint prefers full sun, or partial shade in hot countries. Harvest mint at any time throughout
the growing season. Never let it flower or it will stop producing leaves. You should never strip
a mint plant of all of its leaves. Before winter trim back your mint plants to 3 cm above the
soil so that in spring time you get young and tender growth. Mint can be susceptible to
whitefly, aphids and spider mites.

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Family: Malvaceae
Okra/Ladys fingers (Abelmoschus esculentus)

pH: 6 7.5
Plant spacing: 45 60 cm
Temperature: 21 35C
Notes: Being native to Africa, okra likes a warm
temperate climate. The species is an annual or
perennial, growing to 2 m tall. The leaves are
1020 cm long and broad, palmately lobed with
57 lobes. It has beautiful flowers from 48 cm
diameter. The fruit is a capsule up to 18 cm
long. The seed is quite big, so you can sow okra
straight into the growbeds. Okra should be
harvested when young, when the pods are
about as long as your finger. If pods are left on the vines too long, they become stringy. Cut
the pods with a sharp knife or clippers and handle them gently, as they bruise easily. Be sure
to harvest regularly so that production doesn't stop.

Family: Poaceae
Maize (Zea mays)

pH: 5.5 7.0


Plant spacing: 20 25 cm
Temperature: 15 35C
Notes: Native to the Americas and cold
intolerant, maize has a shallow root system and
is therefore highly dependent on soil moisture,
making it perfect for aquaponics! There are
many different varieties of maize; the most
commercially grown has been bred for a
standardized height of 2.5 metres. The lower
leaves are like broad flags, generally 50100 cm
long and 510 cm wide. Under the leaves and
close to the stem grow the ears, which contain seeds called kernels. The ears are female
inflorescences - clusters of flowers arranged on a stem that is composed of a main branch or
a complicated arrangement of branches. The ears are tightly covered
over by several layers of leaves such that they do not show themselves easily until the
emergence of the pale yellow silks which are stigmas (cornsilk). The apex of the stem ends in
the tassel, an inflorescence of male flowers. When the tassel is mature and conditions are
suitably warm and dry, anthers on the tassel release pollen. Maize pollen is wind dispersed.

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Each silk may become pollinated to produce one kernel of maize. It is important to bear this
in mind when planting maize - it is recommended to plant in blocks not just lines. To plant
you can just put the seed straight into the growbed. When the maize is 10 cm high, you could
also add a pea seed. The peas will climb on the maize stem. Harvest the maize while the
stigmas are still tender and the ears have completely filled out.

Family: Rosaceae
Strawberries (Fragaria sp.)

pH: 5 6.5
Plant spacing: 30 70 cm
Temperature: 15 25C
Notes: Today's strawberries are the result of a
cross made in France 250 years ago between
fruits from North and South America.
Strawberries are hardy, perennial plants that will
survive hard frosts. If you do grow them from
seed, they can be transplanted into containers or
in a bed after they have grown three leaves.
Flowers must be removed in the first year to
ensure that all nutrients are directed towards the fruits after the plant is established. When
growing strawberries, do your best to avoid getting the fruits wet. It is very easy to plant
them at the edges of the growbeds and get the strawberries to just hang naturally.

Family: Solanaceae
Most crops in the Solanaceae are perennial, but often treated as annuals particularly in
cooler climates. They are susceptible to pests and diseases such as aphids, whitefly and
spider mites. They have complete flowers meaning they have male and female parts and
are usually self-pollinating.

Aubergine (Solanum melongena)

pH: 6 - 7
Plant spacing: 30 -50 cm
Temperature: 20 30C
Notes: Aubergines are native to India. They grow 40 to 150 cm
tall, with large coarsely lobed leaves that are 10 to 20 cm long
and 5 to 10 cm broad. The stem is often spiny. Aubergines like
full sun, and are highly susceptible to frost.

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Chilli pepper (Capsicum sp.)

pH: 5.5 6.5


Plant spacing: 20 30 cm
Temperatures: 18 - 35C
Notes: Native to the Americas. Chillies require a warm and
humid climate but have a wide range of adaptability. Pinch
out the growing tips occasionally to encourage them to bush
out. Pick peppers when they are green or coloured, as you
need them.

Sweet peppers/Bell peppers (Capsicum annuum)

pH: 5.5 6.5


Plant spacing: 30 40 cm
Temperature: 15 35C
Notes: Native to the Americas, sweet pepper is the
only Capsicum apart from the Capsicum
rhomboideum - that does not produce capsaicin
the chemical that gives you the hot sensation in
your mouth. They like warm weather and will not
survive frost. The colour can be green, red, yellow,
orange and more rarely, white, rainbow (between
stages of ripening) and purple, depending on when
they are harvested and the specific cultivar. Green
peppers are less sweet and slightly more bitter than
red, yellow or orange peppers. To get sweet fruit, allow them to ripen fully on the plant with
full sunshine. For maximum yield, pick them when they are green. Either way, the fruits
should be swollen and glossy. Remove the first flowers that appear on the plant till your
plant is strong enough to support nice juicy fruit.

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Tomato (Solanum lycopersicon L.)

pH: 5.5 6.8


Plant spacing: 40 50 cm
Temperature: 21 39C
Notes: Native to South America. Tomato plants do
not tolerate the cold. The plants typically grow to 13
metres in height and have a weak stem that often
sprawls over the ground and trails over other plants.
When planting your tomato you have to decide
whether you would like your plant to sprawl onto the
ground or if you want it to climb. A recommended
way of pruning tomato plants is when they are more
than 40cm tall to remove the suckers (side shoots
growing from the leaf nodes) with a sharp tool. The
suckers take a lot of energy from the plant. Also by
removing them you will make the plant more tidy
and it will be easier to make them climb. Tomato
plants are very susceptible to diseases like black
mould, curly top virus, white mould, early blight and
tomato spotted wilt virus.

Familiy: Umbelliferae (Apiaceae)


Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum)

pH: 7 - 8
Plant spacing: 20 30 cm
Temperature: 18 -25C
Notes: Native to the Mediterranean, fennel is a hardy
perennial plant composed of a white or pale green bulb from
which closely superimposed stalks are arranged. The stalks are
topped with feathery green leaves near which flowers grow
and produce fennel seeds. The bulb, stalk, leaves and seeds
are all edible. Harvest the bulbs when firm and solid. There
should be no signs of flowering buds as this indicates that the
vegetable is past maturity. Fennel like plenty of sun but can
withstand cold temperatures.