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Aquaponics Grow Bed Depth

August 2, 2010

How deep should your aquaponics grow bed be?  Grow bed depth in a media based aquaponics system is a subject not without a little controversy.  The majority of media-based aquaponic growers will say that you should have about 12” (300 mm) of media, with the top 1 – 2” being left dry to reduce algae and fungal growth.  There are those, however, who claim to be growing successfully in substantially less than that.

Deeper beds are more expensive because of the cost of the extra media, the cost of supporting the weight of the extra media and the need for a larger fish tank to fertigate all that media.  Plus, if you stick to a 4 – 6” depth you can use standard hydroponic flood and drain trays which are widely available.

Here is why you don’t want to do that.

If you pay close attention you will notice that everyone who touts shallow grow beds expresses one or more of the following limitations

  1. Limitations on the types of plants you can grow – shallow beds work great for shallow rooted and/or short lived plants such as lettuces and greens, but won’t work for longer lived, deeply rooted plants such as indeterminate tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, melons, etc.  This is both because shallow beds don’t provide the base of nutrients and bacteria required for the relatively long life of these plants nor do they provide the space for large root zones.  Travis Hughey, Murray Hallam, Joel Malcom (and I) all talk about the almost limitless variety of what you can grow in media based aquaponics.  This is because we are all using beds about 12” deep.
  2. “Dead zones” and the need to clean out your beds – As the illustration below shows, in deep beds a layered eco-system establishes that prevents the development of “dead zones” (anaerobic areas) in your bed.  Because of the thriving environment flush with beneficial bacteria and worms and plenty of space for the roots to grow, you never need to clean out your grow bed – they, along with the plants, do the cleaning for you.  When there is enough room for a robust eco-system to establish itself, all the elements of that system thrive and become self-sustaining.  That happens at about 12” of media depth.

Here is an excellent explanation of what happens in the grow beds excerpted with permission from Murray Hallam’s new Aquaponics Secrets video:

Murray Hallam's Grow Bed Zones

image and copy credit: Murray Hallam

Surface or dry zone (Zone 1) – The first 2” (50mm) is the light penetration and dry zone. Evaporation from the bed is minimized by the existence of a dry zone. This dry zone also protects the plant base against collar rot. Additionally, by ensuring that this zone is kept dry, algae is prevented from forming on the surface of the grow bed media and moisture related plant diseases such as powdery mildew are minimized.

Root zone (Zone 2) - Most root growth and plant activity will occur in the next zone of approximately 6” – 8” (150 – 200mm).  In this zone, during the drain part of the flood and drain cycle, the water drains away completely, allowing for excellent and very efficient delivery of oxygen rich air to the roots, beneficial bacteria, soil microbes, and the resident earth/composting worms.

During the flood part of the cycle, the incoming water distributes moisture, nutrients and incoming solid fish waste particles throughout the growing zone. The worm population does most of its very important work in this zone, breaking down and reducing solid matter and thereby releasing nutrients and minerals to the system. “Worm Tea”, as it is commonly known, will be evenly mixed and distributed during each flood and drain cycle. “Worm Tea” and the fish are entirely compatible.

Solid collection and Mineralization Zone (Zone 3) – This is the bottom 2” (50 mm) of the grow bed. In this zone fish waste solids and worm castings are finally collected.

The solid material has been reduced by up to 60% by volume, by the action of the resident garden/composting worms, and microbial action. During each flood and drain cycle, what is left of the solids percolates down into this zone. Further and final mineralization occurs in this area via bacterial and earth worm activity. Due to the excellent action of the flood and drain cycle, this bottom area is kept “fresh” and vital by the excellent delivery of oxygen rich water during the flood cycle.

I can’t resist putting in a plug for our AquaBundance Aquaponics Grow Bed, which has been designedAquaBundance Aquaponics Grow Bed with all these principals in mind.  It is about 12” deep, with an inside lip at the base of the Dry Zone, and features 7.5 cubic feet of growing area.  It is made of ¼” thick food-grade PE plastic and has been designed with enough strength so it will never bow out on the sides.  It includes a gravel guard that has space for either flood and drain fittings or a siphon (purchase separately).  It is very attractive and comes in 4 color choices.  Check it out here and let me know what you think!

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Segraves permalink
    August 2, 2010 5:52 pm

    it is interesting that you, Travis, Murray, and Joel all use similar technology in the hydroponic portion of your systems. The fact that you do not use a solids filter is interesting. Other leading growers pump the water from the fish tank to a solids filter/clarifier in conjunction with a nitrification component prior to using it on the grow beds, whether they choose to use media beds for raft method. What are the benefits/shortcoming of using or not using the clarifier?

    • August 2, 2010 7:31 pm

      Hi Bob. Great question. This is actually one of the key differences between a media based and a raft based (or Deep Water Culture) system. Raft systems are what many of the commercial growers are using, and is the technology developed by the University of the Virgin Islands. Because the plant roots are suspended directly into the water you need to remove the solids so they don’t coat the roots and prevent oxygen from reaching them. In my post from last week I talked about why raft systems are great for commercial operations, but why they have real limitations for home gardeners so I won’t repeat it here. Suffice to say that time spent cleaning solids filters, the disruption of the closed eco-system by the removal of solids, and the lower nutrient levels of a system with the solids removed are among those limitations. Travis, Murray, Joel, and I are all (primarily) media based gardeners.

  2. August 4, 2010 12:27 am

    I like your technology .you have tell it wonderful way .it is great.

    • Bob Segraves permalink
      August 7, 2010 5:24 pm

      Okay, as a prospecive media based grower I suspect at some point I would want my grow bes to have a robust zone 3. How do the worms get there? Do I introduce the worms at some point?

      • August 8, 2010 7:26 am

        Hi Bob! Yes, you introduce the worms to the system. Although I have heard some say “if you build it they will come”, and I’m sure they are right, that strategy will take so long and the benefits of having worms in your system are so great that I recommend just going ahead and purchase them. I haven’t dialed into any real ratios about lb of worms / sq ft of grow bed but my experience says that somewhere in the 1 lb to every 20ish square ft of grow bed would work well. We sell them on our website shipped to you by a very reputable worm farmer.

  3. lee permalink
    August 10, 2010 5:26 am

    You will find that your worm colony when it gets going in your system will only grow as big as your system allows.

  4. Erich permalink
    August 15, 2010 4:37 am

    Hey Guys

    Interesting read re heights, so many different versions out there :)

    The problem I see and why im still confused is has anyone scientifically proveden this is the case? This should clear it all up so us who are new to it can get on growing :)

    I mean statements like “don’t provide the base of nutrients and bacteria required for the relatively long life of these plants” (<300mm), has any scientific research actually been done on this you can show? I know people with IBC's (1000lte containers) fell of media doing well – well above 30cm?

    Cheers :)

Trackbacks

  1. Aquaponics “How To” – Part 2 Grow Beds and Fish Tanks « theaquaponicsource.com

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