DIY Aquaponics: Weathering Freezing Temps

A farmXchanger in Connecticut asked us how to grow aquaponically, outdoors, where temperatures drop below freezing. Admittedly, cold-weather gardening is not our expertise. We dabble in aquaponic gardening in cities where it rarely dips below 50 degrees fahrenheit! That being said, here’s some words of wisdom from our research and experience. Please leave additional tips for Chris and others Winter urban farmers below!

Winter Aqua Gardening Tips

  • Fish. Choose non-invasive fish that thrive in local waterways.  By raising cold-water fish like trout or salmon, you avoid using the extra electricity needed to heat your tank for say, tilapia. Last January, it got too cold on our 8th floor balcony in San Diego for Oscar, our now-gigantic tilapia.
  • Tank Design. If you can, dig a hole for an in-ground fishtank (then apply pond liner, rocks and/or lumber). It will be easier to stabilize the water temperature underground, plus you could then utilize lower level vertical space for plant beds. This can be useful, especially in greenhouse environments where the above-ground space is limited. If you have the materials, build a little cover over at least part of your pond. This will also help you save on heating costs.
  • Garden Design. It is easier to stabilize the water temperature of larger bodies of water. Thus Deep Water Culture (DWC) is the best system, as one reader noted below. And flood and drain methods are preferred over the drip method or NFT (nutrient film technique, which relies on gravity to run water through the system) in colder conditions. That being said, we personally prefer NFT systems and have seen some amazing NFT setups in cold-weather (albeit greenhouse) environments. To prevent your system from freezing over, make sure all running water in your grow bed is somehow insulated from the cold air.
  • Greenhouse. Build a small greenhouse or create a greenhouse effect around seedlings and small plants that do not react well to frost (see videos below for inspiration). This can be achieved stylishly and affordably with recycled glass and plastic bottles, or even old window frames (like in the picture below, from r/greenhouses).
Amazing recycled greenhouse (source: reddit)
Amazing recycled greenhouse (source: reddit)
  • Plants. Buy several varieties of heirloom (i.e. non-GMO) seeds online. Try to find plants that thrive in northern, cooler climates. See what works best in your unique system and growing environment, and stick to the plant species that work best. We would try several different blueberries, apples, and other plants that actually require a frost to bloom and thrive, and thus do not grow well in most parts of Southern California or Hawaii. Green leafy veggies are easy to grow in any climate — just need to choose the right variety!
      • “Hardy vegetables” tolerate temperatures in the low 20s and high teens — and they all taste best when they mature in cool weather.
        • Broccoli
        • Brussels sprouts
        • Cabbage
        • Collards*
        • English peas
        • Kale
        • Kohlrabi
        • Mustard greens
        • Parsley
        • Radish
        • Spinach
        • Turnips
      • “Semi-hardy vegetables” tolerate light frosts (usually 29 to 32 degrees F) late into fall and through winter in mild climates. They are good for spring and fall gardens.
        • Beets
        • Carrot
        • Cauliflower
        • Celery
        • Chinese cabbage
        • Endive
        • Irish potatoes
        • Lettuce and gourmet salad greens
        • Radicchio
        • Rutabaga
        • Salsify
        • Swiss chard*

*Swiss chard and collards taste best in the cool of spring and fall, but will hang on during summer heat, too.

Some More Youtube Research

Backyard aquaponics. DIY aquaponic greenhouse system in New England, with an automatic feeder, goldfish, and several flood and drain grow beds.

Winter aquaponics. A look at someone’s home IBC aquaponic system in the winter. Filmed after a cold spell came through the Northwest in 2008. The fish are huddled together, waiting for Spring.

European aquaponics during Winter. Guy in Belgium shows us how he maintains his small aquaponic system during the winter. He keeps it running on a low level, as long as temperatures don’t drop under -2°C Celsius, a lot of vegetables still grow. Starting up the system in Spring is faster when the system keeps running over Winter. The downside is the energy consumption. To address this, he is combining compost heat recovery, a self-made solar water heating system, and a possible wood burning installation in 2013.

Super “green” North Dakota greenhouse. Made from about 80% recycled material. The upper window designs let in good light and allows plenty of head room. All of the windows/glass were recycled, including the top custom-made roof windows. Most of the material from the roof down was from old decks, and the top is recycled corrugated roofing panels and windows. The oval door which was in the discount bin at the local hardware store. Rustic and cute, with final touches like shutters and flower boxes.

Backyard Greenhouse aquaponics in the Winter. How to maintain a greenhouse in snowy Oregon. Also takes a look at a few tropical mango and guava trees inside the greenhouse that are amazingly starting to blossom! Also has beautiful orange, grapefruit, lime, lemon, and banana trees. Describes how he combatted white fly infestation that killed all the leaves off his papaya trees.

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Urban American Gothic Farmers
Urban American Gothic Farmers by Brandon Martella

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