Generally speaking, an aquaponics system is self-sustainable and can take pretty much any kind of plant. It can take fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs. Obviously, different plants come with different needs, and they are more suitable for particular types of fish. Now, what are the best plants for aquaponics? Which ones are alright in terms of nutritive requirements? Which one can adapt to such a system?
What to consider before deciding on the best plants for aquaponics
Some plants are very picky and require specific conditions, while others are more forgiving. If you know precisely what you want for your system, you need to meet its requirements. If you are just starting your system and you have no clue where to begin, knowing what to look for will work a very long way and can prevent unexpected surprises.
The system you use
There are more types of systems out there, such as raft, NFT, or media-based systems. They are directly responsible for the structure of the roots, meaning they can limit your choices in terms of plants. A plant without a sophisticated rooting structure will thrive in a floating raft. On the other hand, if you go for veggies, stick to a classic grow bed.
Different plants have different needs, which you seriously have to consider upfront. Ideally, you should find a proper balance between fish and plants – similar requirements in terms of pH and temperature. The better they match, the more successful you will be. On the other hand, some plants have special requirements, too, such as certain amounts of light or more nutrients.
The environment consists of multiple things. For instance, rain is an important consideration, as well as the total amount of sunlight your system gets. The temperature is just as important for both your plants and fish. If you set your system outdoors, you need plants that are suitable for the climate and environment you live in.
There are people out there who will overlook this aspect. At the end of the day, you could always come up with an indoor system or use a greenhouse. However, the light will be limited – not too much direct sunlight, but artificial light. You need plants that can accept such conditions. Ideally, you should choose something suitable for your climate because maintenance costs are lower.
Plants like beets, cabbage, carrots, herbs, onions, potatoes, or winter squash can thrive in cold weather conditions – no freezing temperatures, though. On the other hand, chives, garlic, parsnip, and sludge would rather grow in a warm climate. There is also the possibility to use an occasional greenhouse a few months a year.
As a general rule of thumb, you are more likely to look after your aquaponics system and expand it later on if you do it with passion. In other words, this venture will go much better if you grow plants that you actually like, enjoy eating, or using. After all, you do need some goals and purposes before you even start your system – only then you can decide on the best plants for aquaponics.
This is not necessarily about the available space in your backyard, for example. It is about the size of your aquaponics system and the space for plants. Some plants can grow together and even overcrowd. Some others require plenty of space. You have to consider the height and size as they are mature. You might be able to fit a few plants in it, as well as dozens of them.
The amounts of fish
How many fish do you have? How many are you planning to get? There is a ratio you need to keep up with, and this ratio depends on the species of fish, as well as the plants you choose. If you plan on having plenty of fish, you will inevitably need to add proportionally more plants in order to get all the nutrients from fish waste.
These are the main considerations when not sure about the best plants for aquaponics. At this point, you have to research your favorite plants or just find something suitable for your fish. Everyone has one thing or another in mind – the fish or the plants. If you can find the right balance to benefit from both categories, maintenance becomes a piece of cake.
Peppers are quite common in an aquaponics system. In theory, they are easy to grow – but not as easy as in a traditional garden. They are quite picky regarding the amounts of water and sunshine they require – make sure you give them plenty of light, or they will not reach the ideal size. The good news is they are quite easy to look after.
In an aquaponics system, being able to control the temperature makes growing peppers very simple. Also, ensure you optimize the nutrient levels as well. Interested in more hotness from your peppers? Give them even more heat, and they will go even hotter. The flood and drain system is the best choice for peppers – you will need a bell siphon for such a system.
Lettuce is one of the best plants for aquaponics because it is easy to grow and grows surprisingly fast. Leafy lettuce loves water because it is mostly based on it. As for the actual temperature, anything between 70 and 74 degrees F will help it thrive. There are not too many requirements and no special demands either.
You will have to determine whether you want to begin this venture from scratch – germinate seeds – or start directly with seedlings. At the same time, if this is the first time you deal with an aquaponics system, lettuce makes a great choice for beginners. Even if this is not your main goal, at least it will help you understand how the system works.
Cauliflower is another excellent choice for beginners. The plant is hardy and requires little to no maintenance at all. It is quite good against diseases and bugs too, meaning you are less likely to get it infested. With these benefits in mind, cauliflower will teach you how to look after the system and find the right balance.
As for harvesting it, cauliflower will need about three months. Keep in mind that frost can ruin it. Direct sunlight is not a good recommendation either. To prevent potential issues, cover it with its own leaves.
If you love the taste of fresh fruits, strawberries are some of the best plants for aquaponics and can be grown year round. There is a constant supply of water and nutrients, meaning your strawberries will have everything they need – be it in December or June. They usually grow during the summertime, but an aquaponics system can keep them going 12 months a year.
Plants do not produce too many strawberries, though, meaning you will need a heavy amount of them. Whether you love the taste or you want to sell them, make sure you have a large system. The good news is they do not require too much space, and they can grow in baskets, tubes, or floating rafts. You do not need to look after them either.
Suggested article: A Brief Guide To Growing Aquaponics Strawberries
Cabbage has simple and straightforward requirements – a temperature between 60 and 70 degrees F, as well as a pH level between 6.2 and 6.6. It does not require too much maintenance once you set these standards. If there is one problem that might affect it, that is the head split. Once the head splits, make sure no dirt gets in there, or it will be affected. Other than that, there is not much to be concerned about. As for harvesting cabbage, it is ready to go in nine weeks.
Cucumbers are excellent for aquaponics systems because they are easy to grow and require no care. Manage the environment, and cucumbers will flourish by themselves. They have small roots, so there is nothing to worry about – they will never invade siphons or pipes, so there are no blocking risks.
Cucumbers require more nitrogen than other plants, so they will grab it as soon as they get it. From this point of view, it may not be a good idea to mix them with too many plants. If you do, leave a couple of feet between plants. Start with a few plants and expand your system later on.
Watercress is hard and tough. It grows super-fast, and more importantly, it multiplies like there is no tomorrow. You can start with a single plant, and you will get plenty of them within a few months. While this is encouraging, it may not always be the most appropriate idea. After all, how much watercress can you eat? Besides, as it multiplies out of control, it may clog your whole aquaponics system.
Tomatoes have simple requirements and grow incredibly well in water-based systems. They get all the nutrients they require round the clock – more nutrients, larger sizes. They are juicy and grow fast. But then, they are not perfect. They love nutrients, so they may deprive other plants of them. At the same time, they require regular inspections, as they attract more pests than other plants. Once your system is infested, getting rid of pests could be a real challenge.
Suggested article: Aquaponics Tomatoes – Characteristics, Requirements & Other Details
Ginger is robust and less demanding than other plants. It is great in various cuisines and for a plethora of dishes due to its peppery aroma. But then, even if you do not like it, you can turn it into something else – beer or cordial. Do not expect too much from it though, as you will require lots of patience. Ginger is a very slow grower – still faster in an aquaponics system than in traditional agriculture.
With these thoughts in mind, you do not want ginger in your aquaponics system as the main plant. Instead, get a few cuttings, plant them in the corners and let them grow by themselves there. You may need to wait for a whole year. As for maintenance, trim leaves every now and then.
Part of the mint category, basil grows super-fast and will make an excellent addition to lots of different dishes. There are more types of basil out there, and some of them grow faster than others – for example, the Thai sweet basil is exceptionally fast and can complement any dish out there. It tolerates heat better than other herbs, but it also loves moisture – great for an aquaponics system.
If you grow it from scratch, seed germination will barely require five days. It is ready to harvest within the first month. In terms of maintenance, get rid of flowers as soon as they show up. Also, never remove more than just the tip – one third only. Otherwise, it may stop growing.
Kale is another superstar when it comes to aquaponics systems. Just like many other herbs, it grows very fast, meaning it can also overgrow and infest the whole system, so pay attention to it. While it can grow in all kinds of systems, it seems to prefer gravel growing media – nothing to worry about if you have a different system.
Kale requires a relatively high temperature – if you have cold winters, it might be a good idea to use a greenhouse for it. Find the right balance, as temperatures going too high will also harm the plant.
Other plants that make good choices for an aquaponics system
You can grow virtually any plant in an aquaponics system. The best plants for aquaponics depend solely on your ultimate goal and purpose, meaning you do not necessarily have to stick to this list. If you feel a bit adventurous and want to explore other options, here are some of the less common veggies and fruits that can grow in such a system:
- Micro greens
- Swiss chard
- Dwarf citrus trees
While they are generally easy to look after, they are quite strict about the environments they grow in. You need to become familiar with their temperature, pH, and spacing needs before bringing them in.
Plants that require lots of nutrients in an aquaponics system
Some plants can be quite needy and require more nutrients than others. You can still mix them with other plants. You can still get plenty of them, but it is essential to compensate with a higher amount of fish. They are more suitable for rich and well-established environments – sure, if you are experienced enough, you can also bring them in straight away. Apart from high level of nitrates, such plants also require electrical conductivity.
- Citrus fruits
If you run an aquaponics system for business purposes, it pays off separating these plants from other plants. The higher the demand for nutrients becomes, the higher the electrical conductivity will be as well. A high electrical conductivity is not suitable for plants that require no nutrients – such as lettuce.
At the same time, if you spend a lot of time looking after your system, it may not be a bad idea to mix hungry plants and less demanding plants.
Plants that hate growing in an aquaponics system
Some plants will find it difficult to thrive in an aquaponics system. They are not impossible to grow though. However, given their demands, they would rather prefer their natural environment. Again, they can be grown, but it might be a good idea to avoid them if you are a beginner.
So, you want some flowers in your aquaponics system. You find something you like, and you are ready to begin this venture. If you truly love chrysanthemum, you may find these flowers a bit sketchy in such an environment. It is not necessarily because they cannot grow, but they have some pH issues. Simply put, they want the pH levels higher than seven. While this is not always bad, mixing them with other plants could be a problem because most plants will prefer a lower pH.
But then, if this is your main goal and you only want an aquaponics system for its aesthetic purpose, go ahead. You will find it difficult to mix chrysanthemum with other plants, but you might as well stick to these flowers only.
You will be surprised to find out that many aquaponics systems are based on blueberries, yet these fruits are demanding and less likely to thrive without the right level of attention. The pH tolerance is extremely low. In other words, make sure you keep it as they want it, or they will be small and sour. The pH should be less than seven. It may not necessarily be an issue, but most fish will not like it that low – not to mention other plants in the system.
Last, but not least, mint is a bit confusing. It is said to be one of the best plants for aquaponics. In fact, many plants in its family are commonly grown too. It makes a good choice because it grows super fast. Start with a plant, and it will multiply incredibly fast. While this is a good idea in general, it could also be a massive problem if you fail to look after the system.
Overlooking mint will let it grow so fast that it will clog the system. It will keep growing later on too, preventing anything else from developing roots or growing. Even after you take everything out, there will still be some leftovers that will restart growing. You will spend plenty of time ripping roots out again and again. You can start planting something else only when everything is cleared.
Planting tips and tricks for aquaponics systems
If you are new to aquaponics and you are starting with a fresh grow bed, focus on seedlings and ignore seeds for now. Seedlings will simply work faster because they start drawing nutrients from the water as soon as they are in.
When it comes to preparing the actual seedlings, simply get a few cups of liquid seaweed and water in a bucket. Seedlings do not necessarily enjoy being transferred and can be stressed about it. The seaweed will become a buffer for the stress, so the plants can settle much easier in its actual environment.
It also pays off structuring the timing. You do not want to harvest everything at the same time. Instead, you want consistent crops year-round. Therefore, based on the actual harvesting times, you need to plan everything with different times in mind. You can also mix plants – slow growers and fast growers altogether. This way, the grow bed is always full of plants that will ensure a proper balance by absorbing nutrients round the clock.
Bottom line, aquaponics systems do not represent a new innovation. However, they have gained huge notoriety over the past years. They allow you to grow any plant you can think of, whether for personal uses or for business purposes. The environment can be easily kept under control, while its scalable purpose allows some flexibility in the long run.
Even if you are only after choosing the best plants for aquaponics, the truth is the setup will prepare you for future growth. Aquaponics provides lots of opportunities. As you gain experience, you will diversify your plants and come up with unique combinations. No matter what your longterm goal implies, start small with a few plants at home and expand later on.
When it comes to choosing the right plants, some options are better than others, especially for beginners. Aquaponics involves trial and error, so get ready to experiment, fail, learn and succeed in the long run.
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