What is Vertical Aquaponic Gardening?

Interested in gardening and aquaculture? Have limited space to do so? Well, we might just have what you are looking for — vertical aquaponic gardening!

Vertical aquaponic gardening is defined as an approach to plant growth together with fish in a re-circulating system, where plants are growing upwards. The cycling of nutrients and purification of water provides a win-win situation for flora and fauna existing together.

This type of aquaponic gardening opens doors to environmentally friendly, cost-effective techniques.

No chemicals, no waste, and better use of space!

Follow us as we explore how aquaculture and gardening come together as one!

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What Is Vertical Aquaponic Gardening?

Before we delve into the depths of this gardening technique, let’s familiarize ourselves with the following three concepts:

  1. Hydroponics – where plants and vegetables are grown without a medium such as soil.
  2. Aquaponics – where plants and vegetables are grown without a medium and together in a closed system with fish.
  3. Vertical gardening – where plants and vegetables are grown upwards.

So what is vertical aquaponic gardening then? And why is this recent technology making such a splash?

Put briefly — vertical aquaponic gardening combines aquaponics and vertical gardening. In other words, gardening upwards in an enclosed re-circulating system with fish.

Basic structure of a vertical aquaponic gardening system
Basic structure of a vertical aquaponic gardening system
Source: Garden Culture Magazine

From a scientific point of view, this gardening system is primarily based on the nitrogen cycle — where ammonia is broken down by bacteria and becomes nitrates.

How Does Vertical Aquaponic Gardening Work?

Time to get down to the nitty-gritty of this gardening technique!

The fundamental workings of a vertical aquaponic garden begin with cycling nutrients and water between fish and flora.

Waste produced from fish (yes, fish poop) flows through filers where it becomes nitrite and then converts to nitrate. The plants in the above garden absorb the nitrate-filled water and return it as purified water. The purified water goes back to the fish tank below, and the process starts again!

Explanatory diagram of the workings within a vertical aquaponic system
Explanatory diagram of the workings within a vertical aquaponic system
Source: University of Greenwich

Inner Workings

Taking a peek at the inside of an aquaponic unit uncovers the following components and processes in a cyclic manner:

Mechanical filterTakes in solid fish waste and removes it from the water
Biofilter (Nitrification Process)Removes waste materials that are already dissolved in the water. This includes bacteria that convert ammonia into nitrates, making for great plant food!
AbsorptionThe water with nitrates flows up to the plant, where their roots take up the water and return purified water to the tank.

What makes aquaponics different is that the waste from aquaculture goes to plant mediums instead of the environment.

This results in the flora receiving chemical-free nutrients in a more cost-effective manner.

Vertical Aquaponic Gardening Bed Types

There are several types of vertical aquaponic plant bed setups. These may include:

Floating Raft Systems

Also known as deep water culture systems.

These setups use a specialized type of foam that floats on top of the water. Roots of growing plants draw nutrients directly from circulating water for growth.

Gravels or Media Systems

Using pebbles or gravel on top of the fish tank; this setup allows water to flow through the media. Plants would then draw water from the media and absorb nutrients for growth.

This idea may be a bit too rocky, as it limits the size of vertical garden designs.

Nutrient Film Techniques

Nutrient Film Techniques (or NFTs) are the best bed setups for vertical gardening and plants that aren’t dependent on a lot of growth support.

Adaptable for walls and ceilings, NFTs work by allowing plant roots to hang into the water freely. This contact allows for sufficient nutrient uptake.

Sounds like an ideal gardening bed!

Now that we’ve tackled the fundamentals let’s explore the pros and cons of this gardening technique.

Associated Pros & Cons

Using this technique for gardening has numerous pluses, but it also brings about a few downsides.

  • A sustainable way of producing food
  • Two forms of agriculture at once (fish & plants)
  • No soil needed
  • No need for chemicals or fertilizers
  • Low risk for contamination
  • Water-efficient (you can even use collected rainwater!)
  • Suitable for arid environments
  • Costly setup expenses
  • Errors can cause entire system failure
  • Requires high energy use
  • Can be temperature sensitive
  • Limited options for management technique
  • Need knowledge about fish, bacteria, and plants

Information Too Important To Skip

Understanding how a vertical aquaponic gardening system works is one thing, but truly understanding the processes are a whole new ball game.

When considering entering the void of aquaponics and gardening – make sure to read up as much about plant and fish breeding as possible.

Becoming knowledgeable in putting together a fish tank is vital for safe fishkeeping practices. In the same breath, becoming knowledgeable in safe plant-keeping practices is as important.

Why are safe practices so important?

Well, if you think about it, you probably aren’t the only one in contact with your setup. Others in your household, including those with four paws, maybe around too. Moreover, the surrounding environment is essential to protect when trying out any new technology.

Safe practice is an effective way of avoiding accidents as you’re learning to master your new craft!

As the saying goes -—Know safety, no injury. No safety, know injury.

Moving on to a lighter note, can we successfully perform vertical aquaponics indoors? Read on to find out!

Can You Do Vertical Aquaponic Gardening Indoors?

So, you may be thinking of going large scale (producing food to sell) or on a slightly smaller scale (vertical gardening as a hobby).

However you plan to proceed, you may be wondering if you can set up a vertical aquaponic garden indoors?

In short — yes!

Example of an indoor aquaponic gardening set-up
Example of an indoor aquaponic gardening setup
Source: Eartheasy Guides & Articles

Although the combination of vertical gardening and aquaponics is in its infancy – it certainly is possible!

Indoor aquaponic vertical gardening systems can be set up in different layouts and require different lighting (depending on the plants you choose to use). In fact, if you’re aiming towards an earth home — this system is ideal for you!

Stacked Horizontal Beds

In this design, the garden beds are stacked into a shelving layout.

This design is great because it offers the benefit of stacking plants as high as your room allows, but pumping the nutrients throughout the shared circulating system will need plenty of energy!

Keep this information in mind when considering your energy consumption.

Stepped Tier Systems

A stepped tier system is designed to where plant troughs are either fixed or can rotate.

An advantage of having this system is that light can be alternated, and nutrient flow uses less energy.

Vertical Tower Systems

Most popularly chosen – vertical tower systems!

Vertical tower systems are designed as containers or stacked modules that grow upwards.

This system allows more plants to be grown and has great existing setups, such as ZipGrows.

Which Fish Are Best For Vertical Aquaponic Gardening?

So, we’ve addressed what occurs up top. But what about the creatures down below?

There are a few key aspects to look at when choosing fish for your vertical aquaponics garden.

First and foremost, it is essential to match the breed of fish with plant species in terms of needs as closely as possible.

What exactly do we mean by this?

Both the fish and plants have temperature requirements, pH requirements, space needs, and a range of lighting requirements. Matching these requirements will result in a better chance of survival and better functioning for both fish and plants!

In other words, it’s all about balance!

Reaching deeper into the needs above and below, a thorough understanding of the flora and fauna world is essential. For example, reading up on common pests or problems among plants and fish is knowledge nothing short of crucial for success.

Example of a few fish suitable for aquaponics
Source: Planted Well

Other crucial aspects to keep in mind:

  • Affordability (what setup is most suited to your budget?)
  • Availability (is there an availability of equipment and fish in your area?)
  • Other factors unique to your system and environment (such as maintenance or installation costs)

A great idea would be to hop online and check out what stores are closest to you – the best information comes from those in the industry!

Final Thoughts

If one thing proves true about vertical aquaponic systems, it is that you have numerous options at your fingertips!

Vertical aquaponics offers a fantastic way to combine your hobbies (gardening and breeding fish), provide an aesthetically pleasing environment, or pave a path to becoming self-sufficient.

Keep an eye on your budget (for the present and future), as well as what may be best suited to your environment. Do this, and you’ll have the perfect recipe to start shopping around and getting those green fingers going.

Charissa Worthmann
Charissa Worthmann

Charissa has a Master’s in Environmental Management (Environmental Science). Her research area of interest and expertise is in the interaction between energy and the environment. She practices as an environmental consultant and has extensive experience working on renewable energy projects.

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  1. Hi Charissa
    Firstly, thank you for an excellent intro to vertical aquaponics. Some comments and questions; The set up and electricity costs need not be high. I have built an aeroponics system using a simple low cost hanging plastic sheet to support the plants and a pump which runs intermittently. Electricity costs are negligible. I have taken the idea one step further by trying to avoid expensive (and environmentally damaging) fish food by substituting lemna (duckweed) instead. The fish (koi and goldfish) have been on this diet for the last 3 monthsand are doing well (no belly ups). The problem is that some of the plants (lettuce mainly) are showing signs of iron deficiency (pale green to yellow leaves). I have a feeling that it is not just lack of iron in itself but because the pH is high (8). This is to keep the nitrifying bacteria happy (optimum range is 7-8 I’m told). However, given that plants prefer 5.5 to 6.5, how can I close the gap? Is there a pH which, whilst not being the optimum for the two, at least works for both?

    • Avatar
      Charissa Worthmann March 18, 2022 at 8:19 am

      Hi Mike,

      Thank you for reaching out!

      Yes, the pH differences can become an issue. However, you’ll be surprised at how adaptable plants are with slightly different pH levels. The pH preferences are indicators for optimal growth but don’t necessarily refer to the range for survival. In the case of lettuce, it’s a pretty hardy crop that definitely can survive pH levels out of its optimal range.

      Although yellowing leaves are often a sign of iron deficiency, I’d advise that you look out for other contributing factors.

      Environmental factors are a major factor. For example, CO2 levels have a significant influence on your plant. Lighting and temperature are also impactful when it comes to leaf yellowing. In the case of lettuce, it needs good airflow in order to maintain solid nutrient uptake.

      I’d advise investigating those aspects of your grow so that you can take a more holistic approach to problem-solving.

      If you test your iron levels and find that they are off, you can consider adding chelated iron to your system. Thankfully, cheated iron is organic and should keep the fish, plants, and bacteria happy.

      Then, of course, your water source should be checked. There have been cases where magnesium or iron is missing from the water source itself.

      In summary, going back to the basic components of your system is always a great way to start the process of problem elimination. Start with the environmental elements, look at your water source, try to keep your pH at 7 (it’ll result in fewer adaptation issues for the lettuce), consider cheated iron, and maintain good airflow.

      Lastly, the brief answer to your question on a pH level that would suit both: pH 7.

      I hope this helps!