How to: Start Small Scale Aquaponics, Part 1

Posted on Feb 15, 2012 in - Food & Recipes, Emergency Preparedness & Survival, Urban Gardening, Farming & Homesteading

Kevin Hayden –

Source: Doom and Bloom, by Dr. Bones & Nurse Amy

I recently added a vegetable grow bed to my existing fish and water lily pond.  Good, healthy bacteria grow within a balanced fish pond in order to help break down fish waste.  This bacteria is important to the entire aquaponics system.

If you are starting a new pond or system, add “pond starter” to help boost the bacteria population. It is a good idea to add more bacteria every few weeks as there are no downsides to recharging the bacterial environment. 

Hayden’s Note:

This is for new ponds.  Established ponds should have a healthy balance and cycle already in place, or means for natural bacterial regrowth.  Also, I would recommend “larger-than-fish tank type” diameter pebbles or rocks to be used in your aquaponic beds.  The more surface area that bacteria can attach to, the better!  About 1/2″ or even 3/4″ should work well!  Also, be sure to check out the related aquaponics articles at the end.

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The grow bed I used is a simple “under the bed” storage container, and I placed it on the edge of the pond. A proper aquaponic system requires drainage back into the pond or fish container after the water moves through the grow bed.

I drilled 1/4 inch holes into the lower side side of the container, which you can see in the lower left side of the picture, by the wheel. A pump was placed into the bottom of the pond with tubing attached for water movement into the grow bed. I placed a “faucet” on the grow bed side of the tubing for water flow control. The faucet is shown in the top right of the picture. A stone tile holds the faucet in place.

Inside of the grow bed is a bottom layer of coconut coir , the next layer is water plant gravel, and the top layer is fish tank gravel and small round stones. The stones and gravel hold down the coconut coir so it does not wash into the pond water, or clog up the drainage holes. Coconut coir is an excellent media for aquaponic grow beds.

As an initial test for the system, I have planted 4 strawberry plants, 4 hot peppers, 2 brocolli plants, and 4 red cabbage plants. I added some humic acid liquid to the pond water to enhance the plant growth. We are soon adding 50 tilapia fish to the pond when they arrive from the nursery. The balance of fish and plants are critical. I have several water lillies growing in the pond which will draw waste from the water and keep toxins from building up.

In a perfect system, the fish wastes will be utilized by the plants as fertilizer, which cleans and oxygenates the water for the fish to use. I would check your water levels with a test kit to help you keep an eye on the balance. The pond bacterial cultures will help reduce toxic waste build up and act as an extra layer of safety.

Aquaponic systems use electricity, so if you plan to continue the system in a “what if?” or grid-down scenario, an alternative power source will be needed. Small, easy-to-install solar panels would solve this problem. Just remember that eventually, all technology will break down.  Anything you can do to simplify and remove your valuables from the grid will help provide some food insurance during a “what if” situation.

For questions, you can email Dr. Bones and Nurse Amy at

Joseph Alton, M.D. is a medical doctor and Fellow of the American College of Surgeons and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. He writes about medical preparedness for times of trouble, and is, along with his wife Amy Alton, a nurse-midwife, the co-author of The Doom and Bloom(tm) Survival Medicine Handbook, and well as a contributor to Survivalist, Backwoods Home, and other magazines related to survival and homesteading. Together they host the Doom and Bloom(tm) Hour radio show on the Preparedness Radio Network, as Dr. Bones and Nurse Amy.

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