The Ultimate Guide to Aquaponically Growing Vegetables in Small Spaces: From Aquariums to Vertical Gardens


Welcome to the ultimate guide on growing vegetables aquaponically in small spaces! Aquaponics is the ingenious combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) into one integrated system. This sustainable method allows you to grow fruits, vegetables, herbs, and more in a limited amount of space by leveraging the natural nitrogen cycle.

In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know to set up your own indoor aquaponics system, no matter how small your living space. We’ll cover the history and benefits of aquaponics, provide tips for selecting the right fish and plants, walk through system designs and equipment, and much more. Let’s dive in!

What is Aquaponics?

Aquaponics is the symbiotic cultivation of fish and plants together in one recirculating system. Fish waste provides organic nutrients for the plants, while the plants naturally filter the water for the fish.

Diagram of Aquaponics Systems

This creates an efficient, closed-loop system requiring minimal inputs while maximizing outputs. Aquaponics allows food production with up to 90% less water usage than soil-based gardening.

Brief History of Aquaponics

While aquaponics has seen a resurgence in recent years, its origins date back thousands of years to ancient civilizations in Asia and Central America that cultivated rice paddies and raised fish alongside each other.

  • Ancient Chinese combined rice farming with fish hatcheries over 2,000 years ago.
  • The Aztec chinampas system used wetland agriculture with interconnected canals.
  • In the 1970s, researchers at the New Alchemy Institute and the North Carolina State University began scientifically studying aquaponics.
  • Aquaponics has grown commercially in the last 20-30 years, with technological advances making it more efficient and accessible.

Today, aquaponics is used everything from small indoor setups to large commercial greenhouses to maximize sustainability.

Benefits of Aquaponics

  • Grows food sustainably using minimal water
  • Recirculates nutrients to minimize external inputs
  • Allows year-round production with indoor systems
  • Maximizes growth in small spaces via vertical gardening
  • Provides fresh, local food without relying on long supply chains
  • Teaches STEM skills and self-sufficiency

Getting Started with Aquaponics

Starting an aquaponics system follows a simple process: set up the fish tank, establish plant beds, link them together, add fish and plants, and let the ecosystem thrive! Follow these steps to create your first system:

Choosing a Location

When selecting where to set up your aquaponics system, consider:

  • Indoors vs. Outdoors: Outdoor systems allow larger builds but require protection from temperature swings. Indoor systems work well for small spaces but require grow lights.
  • Space Requirements: Make sure to account for the full footprint of tanks, plumbing, and grow beds.
  • Accessibility: The system should be easily accessible for daily maintenance and harvesting.
  • Electricity: Indoor systems need outlets for lighting, water pumps, and other equipment.

Selecting Fish

Common fish species used in aquaponics include:

  • Tilapia
  • Koi
  • Goldfish
  • Rainbow Trout
  • Perch

Ideal fish have these characteristics:

  • Tolerate fluctuating water quality
  • Thrive in high density populations
  • Omnivorous diet
  • Warm water or cold water survivability

Stock according to the estimated mature fish weight and tank size, allowing 2 gallons of water per 1 lb of fish.

Setting Up the Aquarium

The central aquarium needs the following components:

  • Tank: Plastic, glass, or metal tank. Allow 1 gallon per 1 inch of fish length.
  • Pump: Moves water from fish tank to grow beds. Match the pump to tank size.
  • Filtration: Mechanical and biological filtration to remove solids and convert waste.
  • Water Conditioner: Dechlorinator and supplements like pH buffer.
  • Aeration: Air pump with air stone diffusers provide oxygen.
  • Heater/Chiller: Maintains ideal water temperature for fish species.

Establish nitrogen cycle before adding fish by feeding system with pure ammonia.

Assembling the Grow Beds

Common hydroponic grow bed setups include:

  • Deep Water Culture: Styrofoam rafts with net pots suspended in tank.
  • Nutrient Film Technique: Channels continuously flow thin film of water over roots.
  • Media-Filled Beds: Gravel or other media support plants while water flows through.

Maximize surface area with vertical systems, towers, and hanging gardens. Match grow area to fish tank volume at a 1:1 ratio.

Connecting the System Components

Link the fish tank and grow beds together with:

  • Plumbing: Food-grade tubing, PVC, or flexible hose.
  • Siphon: Passive flow from grow bed back to fish tank.
  • Bell Siphon: Creates flood and drain system.

Monitor water quality with sensors (pH, temperature). Control valves adjust water flows and drainage.

Diagram of an indoor aquaponics system setup

A simple home aquaponics system with media grow bed and bell siphon – Aquaponics System Hub

Choosing Your Plants

One of the joys of aquaponics is selecting from a diverse range of plants to grow. Take these factors into consideration:


  • Greens: Lettuce, kale, arugula, spinach, chard – fast growing & nutrient rich.
  • Fruiting: Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, beans – require more space & nutrients.
  • Roots: Radishes, beets, carrots – choose miniature varieties.


  • Basil: A quintessential aquaponics herb, and a fish favorite!
  • Mint: Thrives with abundant moisture – but contain it or it spreads.
  • Oregano, thyme, sage: All do well and enhance recipes.
  • Chives and scallions: Easy green onions to harvest.


  • Pothos: Trails vine-like foliage from hanging baskets.
  • Peace lily: Removes aquatic pollutants.
  • Bamboo: Fast growing and resilient.


  • Lighting: Leafy greens thrive under LED grow lights. Fruiting plants need high light.
  • Rafts vs Pots: Small plants do well in net pots. Vining plants grow directly in rafts.
  • Seed vs Seedlings: Starting with young plants speeds harvest time.

What to Grow When

Here’s a quick snapshot of what grows best season by season:

SeasonIdeal Crops
SpringLettuce, spinach, kale, Asian greens, radish, green onions
SummerTomato, pepper, cucumber, green beans, basil, parsley
FallChard, beets, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, oregano, thyme
WinterMicrogreens, lettuce, herbs, sprouts, wheatgrass

Maximize growth with a seasonal planting schedule – Aquaponics Beginner’s Guide

Aquaponics System Designs

Now that we’ve covered the components, let’s look at how to put them together into a complete system. Aquaponics setups can take many forms:

Tabletop Aquaponics Kit

All-in-one kits are the easiest way to start for beginners. Choose from:

  • AeroGarden countertop models
  • ECO-cycle aquarium kits
  • Back to the Roots AquaFarm
  • Indoor Food Garden FARM Plus

Perfect for growing herbs and greens in kitchens or classrooms!

Desktop Aquaponics Kit

Aquaponics kits like this make it simple to start growing fast – Aquaponics Products & Kits

Apartment/Condo Aquaponics

Urban farmers choose compact systems like:

  • Desktop aquarium + grow bucket
  • AquaSprouts Garden
  • Wall-mounted vertical gardens
  • Integrated storage cabinet designs
  • Repurposed Ikea furniture hacks

Focus on quick harvesting greens, herbs, and dwarf veggies.

Outdoor Aquaponics

Larger backyard systems utilize:

  • Stock tanks or IBC totes for fish tanks
  • Rafts, NFT channels, and gravel beds for grow zones
  • Greenhouse or hoop house over structure

Grow full-sized vegetables and fruiting plants with ample space.

Community Aquaponics

School and community systems empower through:

  • Handmade garden bed tanks and troughs
  • Food computer modules with sensors
  • Aquaponics STEM education
  • Workforce training programs
  • Food security for underserved groups

Share aquaponics with classrooms, community gardens, and urban farms!

Operating Your Aquaponics System

Once built, aquaponics systems require ongoing maintenance and monitoring. Here are key tasks for smooth operation:

Planting Your System

  • Source quality seedlings and seeds from reputable suppliers.
  • Use net pots, propagation plugs, or direct planting into media.
  • Start seedlings 3-6 weeks before transplanting into grow beds.
  • Plant at proper spacing and density for each variety.
  • Add support structures like trellises for vining plants.

Optimizing Nutrient Cycling

  • Observe plant health and watch for signs of deficiency.
  • Test levels of macronutrients: N,P,K, Ca, Mg.
  • Supplement with organic liquid fertilizers if needed.
  • Add iron, potassium, calcium to correct common issues.
  • Use growing guides to understand each plant’s needs.

Regular System Maintenance

  • Feed fish consistently and monitor growth.
  • Remove solids from mechanical filters and tanks.
  • Test and adjust pH, temperature, water flow rates.
  • Clean grow beds to prevent algae or pathogens.
  • Prune plants for optimal light and air flow.

Preventing Problems

  • Introduce resilient fish and plants to avoid disease.
  • Quarantine and treat new additions first.
  • Control pests naturally with beneficial insects.
  • Correct issues immediately to maintain balance.
  • Keep detailed logs to optimize conditions.

With close attention, your aquaponics garden will flourish! Reach out to the Aquaponics Community for troubleshooting advice.

The Benefits of Small-Scale Aquaponics

Beyond just producing food, small home aquaponics systems provide many advantages:


  • Learn about ecosystems and nature’s cycles hands-on.
  • Gain STEM skills in biology, chemistry, math and engineering.
  • Inspire kids by letting them help care for the fish and plants.

Mental Health

  • Relieves anxiety and stress through garden therapy.
  • Provides satisfying hands-on hobby at home.
  • Boosts mood by growing fresh natural produce.


  • Produce organic food yourself with minimal effort.
  • Slash grocery bills by harvesting homegrown greens and herbs.
  • Build self-reliance and resilience skills for uncertain times.


  • Grow local food that doesn’t rely on long supply chains.
  • Use 95% less water than soil-based gardening.
  • Reduce food waste by harvesting just what you need.

Aquaponics allows anyone, even in urban apartments without outdoor space, to experience the rewards of gardening sustainably.

Creative Solutions for Small Spaces

While aquaponics systems can scale from large commercial farms down to tabletop kits, space constraints can still be challenging. Try these tips to overcome limited square footage:

Going Vertical

Optimize vertical space with:

  • Wall-mounted grow towers
  • Stacked bucket systems
  • Hanging gardens for vining plants
  • Shelving to multiply grow zones
  • Balconies, patios, and stair landings!

Compact Varieties

Seek out miniature varieties of:

  • Bush tomatoes vs vines
  • Salad greens over large cabbages
  • Root vegetables like baby carrots
  • Potted berry bushes
  • Dwarf fruit trees

Supplementary Lighting

Expand yields with:

  • Full spectrum LED grow lights
  • Reflective sheeting for maximizing light
  • Adjustable light hanging sets
  • Natural sunlight from windows if positioned well

Shared Community Resources

Partner with local organizations on:

  • School classroom aquaponics
  • Community center education programs
  • Urban farms and outdoor grow zones
  • Workshops and build days

Sharing knowledge and resources allows everyone to benefit from aquaponics, even in cramped city spaces!

Case Studies and Inspiring Examples

To see aquaponics in action and learn from others’ experiences, have a look at these real-world use cases:

Educational Aquaponics

Westside Academy in Florida uses aquaponics to teach 7th-12th graders about science, math, business and agriculture skills. Students help build a recirculating aquaponics system housed in a greenhouse on campus grounds. They care for tilapia fish while growing lettuce, mint, basil and other herbs to later sell to local restaurants. This hands-on program provides science education and vocational training.

Community Gardens

In Brooklyn, EdenWorks combines aquaponics with vertical farming technology in a compact urban farm inside repurposed shipping containers. Their Community Farms Initiative helps fund new farms providing local youth education programs. The nonprofit farms distribute fresh produce to neighborhoods with limited healthy food access.

Commercial Aquaponics

Urban Organics operates large-scale commercial aquaponics farms in Hybrid Solar Greenhouses located near cities, reducing food transportation costs and emissions. The farms annually grow over 165,000 pounds of fish and 445,000 pounds of organic greens and herbs in integrated recirculating systems. They distribute wholesale greens to grocers, restaurants, schools locally in Minnesota.

Hobby Aquaponics

Gardening enthusiast Paul set up a modest aquaponics system in his apartment with a 10 gallon aquarium raising guppies. The grow bed filters the fish waste water while producing herbs like parsley, basil, and green onions. For him, the desktop aquaponics garden provides not just food but also an engaging hobby, a mood boost during the winter, and satisfaction of tending a balanced mini-ecosystem.

There are so many creative ways people are leveraging aquaponics to educate, build community, spark interest in STEM, and brighten urban environments!

Further Resources on Aquaponics

To continue your aquaponics journey, here are helpful resources:


  • Aquaponics Food Production Systems by Simon Goddek
  • The Aquaponic Farmer by Joel Malcolm
  • DIY Aquaponics by Robert Bavister

Aquaponics Book Store – Browse books for any level of knowledge.

Online Courses

  • Aquaponics Design Courses from Bright Agrotech
  • Udemy: Aquaponics From Beginner to Expert course
  • Reed College Online Aquaponics Training

Informational Websites

  • – Our website providing guides and resources
  • Backyard Aquaponics – Community forum
  • The Aquaponic Source – Articles and blog

Local Workshops

  • Find an aquaponics workshop at community gardens or urban farms near you.
  • Attend a build day to construct systems hands-on.
  • Reach out to local groups through


We’ve covered everything you need to dive into the world of home-scale aquaponics, from system components and design to plant and fish selection to ongoing maintenance. Aquaponics leverages natural ecological cycles to achieve productive, sustainable food growth in small footprints.

With some patience and consistent care, you can create a thriving indoor ecosystem right in your own apartment or condo. We hope this guide has inspired you with possibilities and provided practical tips to get started. The Aquaponics Community is always here to help with any questions along the way.

Soon you’ll be harvesting homegrown greens and herbs, enjoying the tranquility of watching fish swim, and gaining the satisfaction of mastering aquaponics yourself. We wish you the best on your aquaponic gardening journey ahead!

Explore Further with Our Specialized Guides

We’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with aquaponics in small spaces. If you’re hungry for more knowledge and ready to dive deeper, we’ve got two specialized guides that’ll take you further into the world of aquaponics:

  1. Creative Solutions for Small-Space Aquaponics: From Vertical Gardens to Compact Varieties
    • Discover innovative ways to grow in limited spaces, from vertical gardens to choosing the right compact plant varieties. This guide is perfect for urban gardeners and those looking to maximize their space.
  2. Inspiring Aquaponics Case Studies: From Education to Commercial Success
    • Explore real-world examples of aquaponics in action. From educational programs to commercial success stories, this guide showcases the diverse applications and inspiring possibilities of aquaponics.

Whether you’re a beginner just getting your feet wet or a seasoned pro looking to expand your knowledge, these guides are tailored to help you succeed in your aquaponic gardening journey. Dive in, and let’s grow together!