You can turn a small yard, a corner in a community garden or an unused space in your home into a thriving vertical farm for vegetables and fish. A household-sized vertical aquaponic system can fit into a 3ft by 5ft (1m x 2m) area and feed a family year-round. Sean Brady, the aquaponics projects coordinator at the Center for Sustainable Aquaponics and Nourish the Planet in Loveland, Colo., showed us how to build a system from scrap he found around the greenhouse.
More food, less water A vertical aquaponic system grows vegetables without soil in columns above a fish tank. It is a water-efficient and space-saving way to garden and raise fish. By growing vertically, you can produce about twice the amount of plants as you can with a hydroponic system of the same area. One five-foot tower can produce more than 200 heads of lettuce per year. And it uses a small fraction of the water needed to grow crops in soil.
Mutual benefits The aquaponic system puts fish waste to work as fertilizer for crops. A small pump draws nutrient-rich water from the fish tank to the tops of the vertical columns. The water trickles down through the roots of the plants, gathering oxygen from the air as it falls back into the tank. The system is mostly enclosed, with little to no waste and no need for fertilizer or pesticides. And, if you do it well, you won't have to clean the fish tank much.
You would have to replace lost water as needed, power the pump and feed the fish. It might not be too hard to power one of these pumps with a small solar panel or some other renewable energy. If anyone has an idea, please share.
This is how to build Sean Brady's low-cost vertical aquaponic system. All the photos are his, and if you have questions for him, you can contact Sean Brady here or email him at
Materials: You can use the following materials or swap out anything for whatever you have on hand. Brady built this system from scrap he had around the greenhouse. We're including pictures of other, fancier systems that he built out of similar materials to show the diversity that this kind of build affords. Measurements are in feet and inches. Sorry, rest of the world.
*Pipes 15-20 ft. of 4-in. diameter PVC or ADS Four 4-inch elbows Four 4-inch T connectors
*Two 50-gallon drums *15-20 ft. of pex tubing, or aquarium tubing *Plastic cups *Strips of cloth, such as burlap sack, cable ties or another fastener *Scrap wood *Two rolls of electrical tape
*Pumps One water pump - the size depends on how much flow it would need. An aquarium pump is enough to keep the flow going. One air pump (optional). The system can aerate itself but it can produce more if it has an air pump.
Tools: *Power drill or hand drill *1-in hole saw *3-in hole saw
Build time: About two hours.
Recommended plants and fish: Leafy vegetables, tomatoes and herbs do well in these systems. So do flowers. You can experiment to find which do well and fit your needs. Tilapia and trout do well, they grow quickly and they're delicious.
Cut the pipe into six 1ft. sections for the sides and two 14in. sections for the ends. Drill two 3in-diameter holes in each of the 1ft side pieces. Drill a 1in-diameter hole into the side of one of the end pieces. Tip:You can use any kind of durable plastic or pipe, not just what's pictured.
Assemble the pieces with electrical tape.
Cut the vertical pipes to the length that suits you. Drill 1in-diameter holes in the vertical pipes, evenly spaced. Insert the vertical pipes as shown. The photo on the right shows the mostly finished structure to give you an idea of how it looks.
Perforate the bottoms of the plastic cups and place them in the holes you drilled in the side pipes. Cut a piece of 1in-diameter pipe to insert into the 1in hole in the end pipe to make a drain. The drain should pour into one of the 50-gallon drums.
You can use two 50-gallon drums like these or any other kind of container that holds water for fish. You could even scale this down and put it on top of an indoor aquarium.
Cut the tops off below the rims.
This is the assembled garden structure on top of the drums, seen from two slightly different angles.
Adjust the structure's balance and support its joints with wooden boards. You could tilt the structure slightly toward the drainpipe to improve the water flow. Most systems will have vertical columns of equal height, but these are cut at different heights to show the range of options available.
Seed the plants in these. Put them in the cups and the holes in the vertical columns.
The final steps are not pictured, but easily explained. Cut strips of burlap or some other material, fasten them to the tops of the vertical pipes and drape them down the inside of the pipes. Stuffing the pipes with cloth like this will give the plant roots something to latch on.
Next, cut and assemble the tubing so that you can pump water from one barrel up to each of the four vertical pipes. You could also pump water from the barrel that receives drainage to the barrel that feeds the system.
These systems can scale up to commercial size, too. Brady and his colleagues at the Center for Sustainable Aquaponics set up this greenhouse for leafy vegetables, herbs and fish.
Another view of the commercial greenhouse.
This arrangement portrays some of the creativity and even the beauty possible with an aquaponic system. Among its features, there is a rocky waterfall into the fish tank and a drip-irrigation system watering soil-free plants in a rock bed.
These are different views of the above system.
Our guide Sean Brady shows what these systems can produce. He's holding a trout here.