Introduction: Vertical Aquaponic Garden

About: I'm a Bio-medical researcher stationed in Chicago. Graduate of Loyola University (Chicago) class of 2014.

Objective: To create a high-efficiency aquaponic garden capable of producing vegetables in high yield while using minimal space and resources (Electricity, water, upkeep).

So, I first had an idea last year when my school opened a building that featured an aquaponic garden that grew herbs using a koi pond as a nutrient source. Since I've had an empty 50 gallon tank laying around for the last 4 years, I decided to put it to use. My system evolved from a raceway to a set of grow-bins full of vermiculite. My yeilds of basil are considerable but there's not that much else and it looks like it was made out of a bunch of construction waste and junk found laying in my garage (mostly because it was). This is the largest project i've done and without a doubt, my largest 'ible ever.

The design is taken partially from zipgrow towers and partially from youtube user: SleestaksRule's 'rain tower'. Each of four towers will be outfitted with netpots down the length and watered from a shower head at the top. This should maximize the number of plants per square foot as well as make harvesting as easy as possible.

With the exception of the lighting, the entire project has cost about $200*. This is also not taking into account the cost of the fishtank, fish ($70) and filter.

I'm not going to actually go into how I built the frame for the towers to hang from. Mostly because I already finished them a while ago

*All values are given in USD

Mad Ramblings:
You'll see me use this heading whenever I have something to say that's not entirely necessary for you to know but might help you get a taste of who I am or where I'm trying to go with this project. My hope isn't that you'll clone my system. If you do that, you're a bad maker and shame on your house. My hope is that you'll improve on my designs and share them with me and the rest of the makerverse. If at any time you see anything whatsoever I should fix, change or make a note of, LET ME KNOW! Give me suggestions and i'll add them (and even credit you). I criticize people's bike fits (an 'ible I have to make some time. people are going to blow their knees out) on their comments section so let me have it.

I built the frame on an insane burst of energy after being told by a career counselor not to apply to the Peace Corps for a sustainable agriculture position. Fine. I'll write my own damn cover letter. Nothing is better solace than power tools and McLusky (Welsh indie>post-punk. check out "she will only bring you happiness")

Listening to DANGERDOOM.

Step 1: What You'll Need:

Lumber (30ft) -- I used 3 10 foot studs to build my frame.

3" PVC (2 10ft lengths)

3" PVC caps (2)

3/4" PVC (1 10ft length)

3/4" T (4)
3/4" L (2)
3/4 to 1/2 male adapter (4)

El-Cheapo shower heads (4)

3/4" valve (ideally 5, I used 4. more on that later)

Giant storage tub (I really hope I don't have to inquire about that guarantee)

Lead-free Vinyl Hose (probably only needed 4 feet but it came in lengths of 10.)
Hose clamps (3)

discharge hose (1 foot. I used a piece of latex inner tube instead.)

1000gph pump (I got it off eBay.)
Interval timer

3 inch net pots (100. Each tower can fit 20 to 30 pots depending on desired density. I go for the high end because you can always back off later)

Tools and Supplies:


hole saw, spade bit or drill bit (whatever size you see fit/have on hand.)

Miter Saw

PVC cement
razor knife

Mad Ramblings:
So, I live in Chicago and Giant-Hardwarestore-Chain is not a place I canget to that easily so this all had to happen in 1 trip. Impossible task, like getting out of the house in one go but I decided to try anyway. I even, for the first time ever, made a shopping list. Well, I forgot to include in my plans an extra valve to help regulate what kind of total system pressure i'm getting. Important for the exchange rate between reservoir and fishtank. So, I relegated a valve from one of the shower heads. I know that no matter what, this head will be slightly higher than the others but I can deal.

Listening to Gradaddy. I know i'm late to the party but these guys are good.

Step 2: Spray Bar Assembly

So, the first thing is to assemble the spray bar. It's a pretty simple build from a picture but i'll walk you through my reasoning for building it how I did:

Each tower is 3" in diameter and I want to leave a little room for plants to grow without interfering too much with one another. The reservoir is also 36" in length which means that since:


I can space my towers 9 inches apart. however, since spray bars are at the center, I had to subtract 3 inches from the distance between the first sprayer and the elbow that feeds the bar. This gave me:

3 lengths of PVC at 9 inches
1 at 6"
7 at 2" (for coupling valves, reducers and T's without adding undue length)

So, I'll have nice space between my plants.

Mad Ramblings
So, you can really just follow the picture. I'm not so sure how to explain it in text so I won't. I realize now that my picture of the exploded view of a sprayer sub-assembly was missing the valve. Since the glue is pretty much dried by now, imagining it with the addition of the valve is left as an exercise for the student to finish. The application of PVC cleaner and cement is beyond the scope of this 'ible so maybe i'll make one some other day. besides, after this step i'm pretty foggy headed. This box-fan isn't doing me much good in terms of fume control.

Step 3: Spray Bar Final Assembly

The spray bar inlet comes from a long vertical piece with an outlet into the fishtank to exchange water. The water exchange outlet should have a piece of discharge hose to keep water from spraying everywhere.Discharge hose is also anti-siphon so the fishtank won't drain into the reservoir, overflow and make your room-mates kill you.

Mad Ramblings:
I don't think there's much to say right now. This step could kinda be merged with the previous....we'll see.

Step 4: Tower Prep

The towers are pretty straightforward. They get two holes at the top to be tied to the top of the frame and, for no apparent reason, an endcap with drainage slits cut in it

The next step is to drill holes in the towers and put the plants in.

There are currently two hole sizes I'm working with right now.

A 76mm saw gives a hole that a 3inch net pot fits perfectly into. Just push the top of the pot inside of the pipe so that it's a little angled and plants sit nicely inside. To keep water from spraying out, I cut a collar out of insulation foam using the same saw.

A fairly large drill bit (about 1/4 inch) is good for cutting holes that you can drop smaller plants through. The holes can be plugged with rockwool, the plants can be wired up into place with a piece of florist's wire.

The towers then get tied with a piece of paracord so that each shower head sprays down and into the tower to soak the plants roots.

Listening to Death Cab for Cutie. Didn't know they had a cover of "All is Full of Love". It's pretty cool.

Step 5: Tube Routing

Tubes are all bound by hose clamps. one comes into the spray system from the pump, one comes from the bulkhead and carries overflow down into the reservoir.The discharge hose merely needs to extend from the exchange outlet into the fishtank.

Mad Ramblings: If your tank lacks a bulkhead, one can easily be cut and drilled into an acrylic tank. It just takes a hole saw and some silicone. Glass tanks are trickier and I haven't thought them through all the way. If you suggest a way I'll put it here: :P . Ideally, any system would operate using irrigation water from the bottom of the tank, however, this is something i'll still have to do manually from time to time.

Step 6: Future Plans

My future plans for this system include:
Growing real wasabi: in the US, wasabi is actually American horseradish dyed green. I want the real stuff and as the natural form is semi-aquatic, I think it will do exceedingly well.

Algae growth: Spirulina is supposed to be delicious and nutritious. I want to give growing it a try. The nutrients it needs are the same as the nutrients the fish provide (mostly the elements CHONP and S but also Mg, Cl, Na but not Fe, Cu or Ca, the last of which i'll have to add as CaCO3 to bring the pH to a dizzyingly high 10.)

Anaerobic Digester: Ok, so this one is a little hard to actually justify. I don't have a want, use or need for huge amounts of methane...yet. I do, however have a way to purify biogas using the aforementioned spirulina. Purification and fertilization all at the same time? yes please! Anybody know of a good way to make a methane fuel cell?

Step 7: Acknowledgements and Thanks.

So there are a few people, friends and organizations I'd like to thank for giving me guidance in developing this system.

My Uncle Scott - gave me my 50gal tank

Wally the handyman - I wired the doorbell in our apartment, the payment from which paid for my original startup.
My Roommates - I live with three guys. Sane roommates would have killed me by now.

Brightagrotech - convincing me to switch to vertical growth

The forums on Grasscity - there is no greater wealth of knowledge on hydroponic growing than exists within the pothead community. Even if you're growing basil and swiss chard (like I am) these guys are really helpful.

Youtube user: SleestaksRule and his website my tower design departs from his in a few ways but it gave me the starting place I needed.

The Plant Chicago - for the original inspiration to begin researching aquaponics. Hire me?

Of course, where would this be without the maker community? You guys are nothing but supportive and it's really a pleasure to work with the creative commons. KEEP KNOWLEDGE FREE!

Richard Stallman - For everything.