Gardening in the Sonoran Desert presents many challenges. The dry climate, poor top-soil, and radical temperature changes create big obstacles for growing tender, edible plants. It can take several years to turn desert dirt into good soil, and gardening in the desert consumes a lot of water. Enter Aquaponics.
Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (raising edible fish in tanks) and hydroponics (growing plants in aerated, fertilized water instead of soil). Fish waste (ammonia) is converted into plant food (nitrates) by naturally occurring beneficial bacteria. The fish provide nutrients for the beneficial bacteria and plants, while the plants “clean” the water for the fish. In an aquaponic system, you rarely have to worry about watering or fertilizing your plants. The systems can be designed to automatically replenish water lost from evaporation, and the most common additive (chelated iron) is rarely needed.
Hate hunching over? Most aquaponic systems grow plants in tanks or troughs known as grow beds. These grow beds raise plants off the ground and allow for easy access when planting and harvesting. This means no more bending over on your knees in the dirt! Raised grow beds also significantly decrease the amount of weeds and insect traffic around your edible plants. Also, because your plants are never competing for water and nutrients in an aquaponic grow bed, you can grow nearly twice as many plants (per square foot) in roughly the half time.
Finally, one of the most outstanding benefits of aquaponic gardening is water conservation. Aquaponic systems continuously re-use the same water over and over again. While standard agricultural practices use 92% of available freshwater, aquaponic systems use only 10%. This significant water savings is extremely important in an arid climate such as Tucson’s and a huge reason behind the growing popularity of aquaponics in Southern Arizona.
So, how popular is aquaponics in our region?
- In 2013, Tucson’s Loews Ventana Canyon Resort hosted the 2nd Annual Aquaponics Association Conference with over 500 people in attendance.
- The University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center is experimenting with aquaponic greenhouses.
- Maggie’s Farm Aquaponics and Rhiba Farms are two commercial aquaponic farms that are currently operating out of Marana and Phoenix, respectively.
In Tucson, there are a number of resources for all things aquaponic, including workshops, systems, and equipment, such as:
- Local Roots Aquaponics (System Design and Installation, Consulting, Workshops)
- Premium AP (Systems and Accessories)
- EcoGro (Equipment, Plants, Edible Fish, and Workshops)
- Tucson Aquaponics Project (Community Education)
With so many local resources available, and all of the benefits to choosing aquaponics over soil gardening, it’s time to seriously consider how this amazing, new method of gardening can help you conserve water, increase your yields, and (just maybe) avoid a trip to the chiropractor.