Those of you who know me know that I am passionate about aquaponics, the system of growing plants and fish together symbiotically to produce food. You also know that not everything has gone according to plan with my aquaponics system, and that I have made several mistakes along the way. I have identified my top nine blunders, and they are detailed below for your enjoyment and edification. Please don’t do any of these things that I have done.
- Believing the myth that all you do is combine fish and plants and everything else will work like magic – Let’s start here, with the granddaddy of all aquaponics myths, the idea that if you add fish to water and then add some plants everything will “just work.” Wow – that is a fish story if I ever heard one. The truth of the matter is this: Aquaponics is tricky and exact. Aquaponics is a system that is driven by pH, is impacted by temperature, and obeys the rule of “Most Limiting Nutrient” meaning that if your system is low in a single nutrient the entire system will suffer. Add to that the difficulty for the layperson to identify any/all of these factors and you have a frustrating situation for the average aquaponics user.
- Not stirring the hydroton in the flood-and-drain bed – Hydroton is known for not packing down and having great surface area for nitrifying bacteria growth, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore it. Anaerobic conditions can develop in pockets in the hydroton, causing plant mortality and rot. Stir your hydroton every few months to prevent dead zones.
- Refusing to use pesticides to control bugs in greenhouse (even OMRI approved pesticides) – Aquaponics has been nick-named “Organic Hydroponics” due to the mistaken belief that all you need to make plants grow is fish (see above). This attitude creates resistance to the idea of using pesticides to control bugs in your greenhouse, even pesticides made from neem oil and sanctioned by the Organic Materials Review Institute. This reluctance on my part has led to infestations, plant damage and destruction, and crop loss.
- Ignoring algae growth in, on, and around the fixtures in my system – Algae is a natural result of nutrient rich water and sunlight, so what’s the problem? Algae growth can cause pH swings in your aquaponics system, and that my dear reader is a problem.
- Only feeding my fish once a day – Oh boy do I still struggle with this one. I have heard fish feeding schedules as frequent as every 45 minutes. My fish are doing well if they eat once a day, which is bad. Part of the problem is the hassle of getting fish food to the greenhouse – it must be safely stored in a separate building because of the bear problem in our neighborhood. So to feed the fish I have to trudge to the barn, grab some food, head to the greenhouse, feed the fish, and the reverse trip back to the house. In an eight hour day that adds up to almost eleven trips, which would consume nearly an hour of my time each day. No wonder I suck at feeding my fish.
- Trying to lower the pH in my system rapidly - There is so much emphasis placed on pH that us aquaponics folks verily obsess over this one metric. When your pH is sitting high in your system the inclination is to lower the pH using a pH lowering chemical. In a word, don’t. The pH of your system will drop on its own over time due to nitrification, and that gradual drop is safe for your fish. Quick, dramatic drops are death for your fish, as I can personally attest.
- Ignoring signs from plants that they’re nutrient deficient (see #1) – If the popular theory goes “Add fish and everything will work like magic” then why would I worry about some plants not looking well? If I just keep doing what I am doing the plants will get with the program and snap-to, right? Wrong! Plants are your barometer regarding the health of the system. If your plants are struggling something is wrong with your system, and nutrient deficiencies are a good place to start looking. My system has been suffering from a potassium (K) deficiency since it first cycled; I could have saved myself a lot of headache over a year ago had I just paid closer attention to my plants.
- Using tap water to top-off my system - Tap water is really all I have access to (no well water and it is illegal to catch rain water in Colorado), so tap water is what I have used. Now, I aerate the tap water for several days to off-gas the chlorine, but it is still tap water. If you have a better water source than tap water use it, including a reverse osmosis machine if you live in a region with high enough humidity rates to warrant it.
- Allowing water temperature to vary greatly from season to season (by as much as 40 degrees) - I am a firm believer in reducing my personal use of energy (coal, natural gas, propane, petroleum). For that reason I do not heat my greenhouse in the winter, and will only slightly heat my water, just enough to keep the water temperature during the winter season above 45 degrees. Water temperature impacts pH, the amount fish will eat (thereby impacting nitrate levels), the activity level of nitrifying bacteria, and plant growth. If you want to keep your aquaponics system perpetually confused and in constant adjustment, varying the temperature by 40 degrees or more from season to season is a great way to do it.
Well there you have, the nine most effective ways I have found to destroy an aquaponics system, based on my own personal experience. I hope you got a good laugh and learned something along the way, because I know I sure have!
Have you made an epic aquaponic blunder? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below – there is always so much more to learn and sharing your mistake could help others avoid it!
“It’s always helpful to learn from your mistakes because then your mistakes seem worthwhile.” ~ Garry Marshall