Agricultural Revolution in a Debrecen backyard

Debrecen, Hungary – A hobby gardener from Csapókert accomplished something that no-one before him had. His solution which provides his family with vegetables and fish is incredibly cheap, simple, healthy, and it works! In snow and frost, too.

The crime scene (photo from private archive)

The story begins in a backyard in Debrecen, where disease caused by fungi after plentiful summer rain made all vegetables rot. But the owner did not give up and began toying with ideas. Finally, he came up with an ingenious solution, requiring minimum investment that in addition to vegetables also covers his family’s supply of fish. While even some university professors do not understand it fully, the solution is based on nature’s pure logic, and also provides a glimmer of hope for the currently quite blurred future of the human race.

“When my garden was devastated by the fungi, I started looking for greenhouses on the net” says Péter Gönczi who otherwise works as an online-marketing manager. “I have stumbled upon the passive greenhouse heated by sunlight by accident, but the information on world wide web was patchy.” He also found a video that he did not quite understand: “fish were swimming in a tank while lettuce grew from pebbles next to the fish tank…”

Nature provides the solution

Question marks soon turned into exclamation marks in the mind of the 34 year father of two, when he realized just what he had found. For the video showed the so far not very well known aquaponics, which emerged from joining intensive fish breeding in tank (aquaculture) with growing plants without soil (hydroponics). Its greatness in simplicity results from its ability to transform the disadvantages of the two methods into advantages, thus providing for natural and remarkably cheap operation.

Both processes are efficient by themselves and as such quite popular, but both are fraught with huge costs. “In hydroponics, plants are grown in water without soil and all the required nutrients are added to the water with the fertilizer. The supermarkets’ vegetables with their mud-free roots come from this process, so it’s workable. But hundreds of cubic meters of water need to be regularly changed and the drained water needs to be treated before it can be released into the environment. Aquaculture is also spreading with the retreat of fishing. Intensive fisheries also require regular changing of water for maintaining water quality. Moreover, the water in the tanks often requires heating.”

In aquaponics, all the costs enumerated above are eliminated by a natural cycle. “The water containing the excrement of fish is saturated with nutrients important for the plants thanks to bacteria converting ammonia into nitrates. So, the fish tank gets next to the pebble bed and the water coming out of it irrigates the pebble bed of the plants. The latter nicely grow from it and clean the water in addition. The water recycled from the plants thus becomes of excellent quality for the fish and rich in oxygen.”

“If it is so logical, how the heck we don’t have it yet?!”

This article at this point would deserve a few minutes’ break, a coffee and some pondering, though the best is saved for last. For the hobby gardener from Debrecen, uniquely, started operating this system in a passive greenhouse.

“Aquaponics emerged in climates warmer than ours, where even wintertime operations posed no problem. However, no matter how I calculated, it did not seem impossible to make do with a passive greenhouse.” As examples of the latter concept are also few and far in between, it was difficult to plan the process in advance. “I had calculated all parameters, starting from the inclination of sunrays, through the number of sunny hours, down to outside temperature. Though it was described on some level online, there was no actual data sequence, even less so for our climate. I’ve gone though all of it several times and though it all fit perfectly together, it made me suspicious precisely on that account. If it is so logical, how the heck we don’t have it yet?!”

Heats itself during the winter!

Suspicions were eventually swept aside by entrepreneurial drive: “Let us be realist and demand the impossible; a greenhouse in the backyard that heats itself during the winter and cools itself during the summer in which I can grow veggies and fish with zero effort…”

In March, he built the 22 square meter greenhouse with the help of friends. Only the southern wall is made of glass, the rest is insulated. The accumulation of heat from sunlight happens in the barrels full of water along the northern wall. The greenhouse was equipped with a fish tank with 50 rainbow trouts, the water is circulated by an old pump between the 30 centimeter pebble bed below the plants and the fish tank. Almost everything is built from recycled materials, so the start did not require an investment unavailable for the average person.

Costs cleared in two or three years, invested work minimal

Although two winter months are yet to come, which pose the toughest conditions due to little sunshine, so far aquaponics have passed the test with flying colors. The greenhouse was able to provide appropriate climate both for the vegetables and the rainbow trout without any (artificial) heating. “At the beginning, my wife was not enthused by my idea; she has since perceptibly warmed to it, as the system provides high quality tomatoes, green peppers, onions, raddishes, lettuce and cabbage that are also guaranteed to be chemical-free, covering the vegetable needs of our entire family year-round. It also provides herbs (both flavoring and for medicinal purposes), and ensures one fish-based meal a week to boot.’

Kiss goodbye to weeding or watering

The majority of incurred costs stem from the usage of the pump, which costs appr. HUF 3500 (roughly $14.43 USD) per month. The only other external ‘ingredient’ is fish food, which costs even less; water lost due to evaporation is replaced by rain. The rainbow trouts hail from Lillafüred; as their growth exceeds expectations, they presumably also feel well. “According to my calculations, with the same parameters I will get return of investment in two or three years. The daily required labor is minimal. Weeding and watering are unnecessary. Planting is pretty much just spreading seeds on the pebbles; for seedlings, you make some space, put in the seedling, put the pebbles back, and you’re done. I usually drop in at the greenhouse on my way to work, give the fish some food, check whether the pump is running, and off I go, done til the next morning..’

A Chinese trend

Péter Gönczi emphasized that aquaponics had not grown out of the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics; rather, it is a return to an original natural method. ‘ To this day, when Chinese farmers flood rice fields, they use trouts for pest control, cleaning up algae and trash, and of course to fertilize the ground, so that rice grows better. The very same method was used in Hungary as well in some forms of traditional agriculture with basin irrigation. The whole system was invented by nature, or rather: the system is nature, and that is why it is perfect.’

Our story however is not complete yet, since this method opens up novel possibilities, with quite a few important questions. The innovator from Debrecen is willing to answer these, so we shall provide space for further elaboration of this matter on Cívishír!

Translation by Orsolya Kiss and Daniel Nagy.
Original article in Hungarian available at