An aquaponic system that involves tilapia or perch (up to 10,000 fish in the 5 ft deep tank), watercress and tomatoes. The water is drawn up through one pump and gravity fed through the potted plants (which remove the nitrogen from the fish waste) and back into the tank where it re-oxygenizes the tank water

An aquaponic system that involves tilapia or perch, watercress and tomatoes. The water is drawn up through one pump and gravity fed through the potted plants (which remove the nitrogen from the fish waste) and back into the tank where it re-oxygenizes the tank water. (Photo: grifray/Flickr)

Aquaponics is a farming method that marries aquaculture, (raising aquatic animals such as fish), with hydroponics, the cultivation of plants in water, to produce food efficiently and sustainably in just about any environment. Unlike traditional farming, it doesn't require soil or much land. You can grow food aquaponically on your kitchen counter.

Aquaponics proves that everything old is new again. This symbiotic approach to growing food was practiced by ancient peoples like the Aztecs, who used chinampas to grow tomatoes, peppers, beans and maize.

If you're having trouble processing how aquaponics systems work, picture your vegetable garden growing over a fish tank and you have an idea. The waste of fish, usually tilapia (the most popular for home and commercial systems), is broken down and feeds the plants, the plants process and clean the water, which is then returned to the fish tanks.

The most common misconception surrounding aquaponics systems is that you're growing food in fish "poop."

aquaponics fish tank"Fish waste is actually ammonia, that through an aquaponics system, gets broken down into nitrites and then nitrates. The nitrates is what the plants love and are constantly taking up as food," says Nikhil Arora, one of the founders of Back to the Roots. "So you're not really growing your food of fish waste, but rather nitrates."

You may be familiar with Back to the Roots as the company that helped popularize mushroom growing kits, but the company recently launched the AquaFarm after a successful Kickstarter project. And the company's tabletop aquaponics system is proving to be popular with families who are using the system to teach kids the benefits of growing their own food.

Perhaps it's the allure of the fish, but aquaponics systems are spawning a new generation of gardeners. "We get everyone; from businesses that grow and sell food, to young people and students working on science projects," says Tom Trilla, one of the owners of Chicago Roots, a hydroponics supply shop in Chicago that sells everything — minus the fish — that you'd need to build an aquaponics system at home.

Dive into aquaponics

The easiest way to test the waters of aquaponics is to buy a kit like the one recently introduced by AquaFarm and available at Whole Foods, Petco and Nordstrom.

One great thing about aquaponics systems is that they are perfect for the DIY enthusiast. In a weekend you can make your own system designed for your space — indoors and outdoors — and have a year-round food production system going for little money compared to traditional farming and vegetable gardening.

Aquaponics systems are ideal for contaminated areas where the ground can't be used to grow food. In this video, Eric Maundu, whose background is in robotics, explains the basic and benefits of aquaponics and demonstrates an Arduino-based aquaponics system in an industrial area of Oakland, Calif.

Desktop aquaponics system

Another great thing about this method of growing your own food is just how open and free the community of enthusiasts is with sharing information about building an aquaponics system. For instance, people like Robert Brennan post tutorials and videos on making your own system. In this video below he turns an old desk into a hydroponics system.

Proving that aquaponics systems can be attractive, ELIOOO is a manual created by designer Antonio Scarponi for building stylish aquaponics systems using parts and components you can buy at just about any IKEA store. But there are also many free plans available for DIY aquaponics systems at Instructables that you can follow.

"With so many issues arising around processed foods, GMOs, etc., consumers are itching for something that's good for their health and the planet at the same time-while tasting good," says Arora.

For many who cannot build traditional gardens, aquaponics systems that can be scaled to fit any need — and may scratch that itch.

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