Before getting started with any hydroponics or aquaponics growing project, it’s important to become familiar with this incredibly unique, innovative, and often complicated way of growing food. In short, hydroponics and aquaponics are forms of soilless agriculture that entail suspending plant roots in a solution of nutrient-rich water. This solution circulates through tanks and into containers where the plants are grown. The difference between the two growing techniques fundamentally stems from the source of the nutrients being used. Hydroponic growing relies on commercially available plant food, which generally comes in liquid form. Aquaponics, on the other hand, consists of raising both plants and fish or other aquatic creatures, which are kept in tanks. In aquaponics, water circulates between a tank where the fish are held and the containers where the plants are grown. As water circulates between the two systems, it delivers the nutrient-rich fish excrement to the plants.

HYDROPONIC AND AQUAPONIC GARDENS AT A GLANCE: Growing crops indoors in a nutrient-rich water solution instead of soil.

  • Set up time: Medium/High
  • Overall cost: Variable/High
  • Maintenance time: Medium/High

EQUIPMENT
The equipment needed for hydroponic and aquaponic operations vary widely. Johnny’s Selected Seeds Introduction to Hydroponics is a good place to start if you’re looking for a detailed overview of hydroponic growing, and the equipment options available to you. The USDA provides an excellent set of resources for teams that might be interested in utilizing aquaponics systems.

Growing plants using either method has both benefits and downsides. Since this form of agriculture occurs indoors, it can take place all season long no matter the climatic conditions. It is adaptable to almost any context, especially to those where soil isn’t present, like in major urban areas. There is a sustainability argument to be made for hydroponic and aquaponic growing, as both methods require significantly less water to grow comparably more food per square foot.

With that being said, there are also practical and ethical concerns about both methods. Hydroponic growing relies on nutrient mixes, which, if not OMRI-approved according to USDA Organic standards, can be derived from synthetic, nonrenewable-energy sources. Aquaponics too, while considered to be more sustainable than hydroponic growing, requires the harvesting of wild fish species to be used as feed for the fish being raised in the aquaponics tanks. Some critics believe that the popularization of hydroponic and aquaponic growing disconnects farmers and consumers from the land and wider natural environment.

SECURE YOUR SPACE
If you’ve delved into the complicated and fascinating world of soilless growing, and have decided that one of these systems best suits your needs and the amount of labor you’ll have to dedicate to the project, it’s time to begin speaking with stakeholders on your campus about securing space for your operation. The vast majority of hydroponic and aquaponic facilities are located indoors, either under grow lights in buildings, or in greenhouses where plants can receive natural sunlight.  

If you’re considering designing a system from scratch, consider opting for one that is small scale and easily maintained at first. This will allow you to get used to the work required, and eventually expand it over time. If you and your team have a larger budget, and are feeling ambitious, you may want to consider hiring a gardening assistant to oversee the project, or working with companies like Freight Farms, CityBlooms, or LA Urban Farms that sell ready-to-go hydroponic facilities.

As you talk with stakeholders at your corporate campus about the location of the new operation, keep in mind factors such as landscape aesthetics and transportation to and from your space. Unlike a manicured lawn, an indoor garden will evolve throughout the seasons and may not look neat and tidy all of the time. You will want to ensure that the operation is kept clean and tidy as much as possible, in order to fit into the corporate campus’s overall look and feel. In addition, consider how people and produce will get to and from the garden. If the food service team is managing the space, the closer you can locate it to the kitchen the better. When the garden is constantly in sight, the culinary team will be more likely to remember to harvest crops for the salad bar at lunch.

CHOOSE WHAT YOU’LL GROW
Innovations in the crop breeding space have created a wide variety of vegetables, fruits. and herbs able to be grown hydroponically and aquaponically. The following crops grow well in soilless conditions: all microgreens, head lettuce, salanova, spinach, arugula, kale, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, and basil. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a leader in the non-GMO and USDA Certified Organic seed industry, provides an entire online catalogue of hydroponic and aquaponic friendly varieties.

CHALLENGES
Operating any sort of campus farm is sometimes a challenging endeavor, so don’t get discouraged! Hydroponics and aquaponics are perhaps the most complicated growing method covered on campusfarmers.org, posing unique challenges such as issues related to algae growth inside the system, leaks, and clogs resulting from nutrient build up. Growing in enclosed spaces that don’t benefit from direct sunlight or seasonal frosts can also breed fungal diseases and a prevalence of insect pests.  We’ve included resources below to help answer questions that might arise as you run into these challenges.

CREATE A COMMUNITY
You’ve put in the work of establishing and maintaining your soilless garden, and now comes the fun of enjoying it! Campus gardens of any kind are the perfect venues for lots of exciting events with folks in your community, and one huge benefit of hydroponic and aquaponics operations are that these events can occur year round! Consider the following ideas:

  • Garden dinners or potlucks
  • Garden tours
  • Cooking classes using garden grown ingredients
  • Plant identification scavenger hunts
  • Hydroponic/Aquaponic demonstrations and workshops

EXAMPLES
Urban Organics Aquaponics
Roger Williams University: Shellfish Hatchery
Eckerd College Hydroponic Cafe Garden

RESOURCES
USDA | Full resource page on Aquaponics
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Introduction to hydroponics
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Guide to hydroponic seed starting
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Guide to pests and diseases in greenhouses/hydroponics operations
Book | DIY Hydroponic Gardens: How to Design and Build an Inexpensive System for Growing Plants in Water by Tyler Baras
Book | Aquaponic Gardening: A Step-By-Step Guide to Raising Vegetables and Fish Together by Sylvia Bernstein

EQUIPMENT
Hydroponics and aquaponics have come into vogue, and companies across the country are popping up to fill demand for hydroponic and aquaponic equipment. We’re including examples below of some companies that we found!
CityBlooms makes modular hydroponic farms suitable for outdoor spaces to indoor warehouses and anywhere in between, with technology letting growers be connected to farm conditions at all times
Freight Farms  sells a product aptly called the “Leafy Green Machine” or LGM for short. The LGM is a mobile growing unit that can be deployed almost anywhere. The LGM is found on corporate and college campuses across the country.
Farmhand A full service online soilless growing store.
LA Urban Farms markets a patented vertical aeroponic system of stacking pots that take up a 2.5’ by 2.5’ footprint.
AMHydro Based on the West Coat, AMHydro, offers “Classroom and Home” hydroponic equipment bundles. The set ups are turnkey, and the company offers assistance in setting up and maintaining the system.
Tower Garden offers a vertical Tower aeroponic system that can be easily assembled, and grows 20 vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers in less than three square feet.
Foody Vertical Garden offers a similar modular Tower set up that occupies two square feet and can grow up 40 plants.