Betta fish for tabletop aquaponicsCredit: By Fancibaer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

I received an AquaFarm tabletop aquaponics system as a gift this year. As a good permaculture student I started thinking about how I could get the most out of this system. Aquaponics works because the bacteria in the growing media and gravel turn the ammonia from the fish waste to nitrite and then to nitrate, which is then used by the plants.  Through this process the waste becomes a nutrient for the plants.  It's a simple system, but since a small capacity tank such as the AquaFarm can get out of balance quickly, it's important to watch and make corrections if needed.  The AquaFarm comes with a pump and planting pots, wheatgrass and Genovese basil seeds, a coupon for a betta fish, gravel and growing media, beneficial bacteria starter, fish food and a few other items to care for your fish and tank.  The instructions are simple, but there are ways to increase success.

Tweak your set up

Cycle your system

The instructions say setup takes 20 minutes with 25 minutes waiting time. The instructions also say that the water may be cloudy for a few days and take up to a week to "cycle", or to develop the beneficial bacteria populations.  Instead of introducing the fish and plants right away, follow a standard aquarium set up procedure to establish the bacteria before introducing the fish. 

Upgrade the pump

The pump has a sticker on it calling it a "starter pump".  Users confirm that the pump sometimes fails within a few weeks to months.  Take this as an opportunity to buy a stronger,  quieter pump.  AquaFarm includes a list of recommended pumps in the product literature.  

Use a reputable fish dealer

The coupon for a betta fish at Petco may be expired.  Mine had expired nine months ago and another user review confirmed that her coupon was expired. This may not be a big loss as a local specialty dealer will likely have healthier stock.

Do regular maintenance

While the aquarium is self-cleaning to a point, some maintenance will still be required.  As the system matures the aqua farmer may need to remove algae from the sides of the aquarium, or may need to change out some of the water periodically.  

Play with it

Despite these considerations, I'm looking forward to playing with this. I have lots of ideas about adding components to increase the productivity, but it’s best to start with the simple setup and make changes from there. Others have maximized their AquaFarm for beauty and function by adding backgrounds, aquarium decorations and more species.  One family added a heater along with bottom fish, shrimp, and aquatic plants. It will take some learning to keep the water chemistry, fish, plants and bacteria in balance, but should be a fun introduction to aquaponics.