Back to the Roots / Making a Fish Tank that Grows Food

The Water Garden home aquaponics system is a self-cleaning fish tank that makes it easy to grow your own food.


Back to the Roots

Based in Oakland, California, Back to the Roots is on a mission to enable more people to grow their own food. Founders Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora met at UC Berkeley, where they were inspired by the discovery that coffee waste creates the perfect environment to grow gourmet mushrooms. The pair immediately got to work on developing their first product, the Mushroom Farm: a little brown box that allows anyone to grow mushrooms.


Falling in love with the idea of creating more ways to help people grow food, the Back to the Roots team set out to develop a second product: the Water Garden (formerly AquaFarm).

This personal aquaponics system is a closed loop, mimicking the symbiotic relationship between plants and fish in the wild. The fish waste fertilizes the plants, and the plants clean the water for the fish, all without the use of soil or chemical fertilizers.

Back to the Roots

The result is a fun, approachable, and educational product that appeals to children and adults alike, and looks great displayed on any countertop.

Making the Water Garden

Back to the Roots worked with local design firm Daylight Design to develop their concept into a product suited for mass production. Brett Newman, partner at Daylight, gives a bit of insight into the process of designing the award-winning Water Garden:

“How much fish waste is needed to nourish five plants? What’s the right ratio of fish to water? How quickly should the water circulate? Do fish need a place to hide? How the heck do you strike the right balance between direct sunlight that’s necessary for the plants to grow and keeping the fish tank out of direct sunlight so the water doesn’t get overgrown with algae bloom? These are all questions that needed answering to design a successful product. Development was a relentless cycle of iterative brainstorming, design, engineering, and testing until we arrived at a solution that resonated with the team, and with users. From initial sketches to the first articles off the tools, the process took just under one year.”

Behind the Scenes

Back to the Roots
The starting point.
Back to the Roots
Design exploration: early prototypes and sketches.
Back to the Roots
One of many rough prototypes.
Back to the Roots
Founder Alejandro Velez (far right) with the Daylight Design team.
Back to the Roots
Back to the Roots?
Back to the Roots
A strong design language takes form.
Back to the Roots
Tooling: this mold forms the lid, with 5 holes for the plant baskets and one for the pump.
Nicole Chen copy
Based on conversations with aquaponics experts, the first version included opaque side panels to shield the tank from sunlight.
Back to the Roots
After long-term testing and owner feedback, the panels were determined unnecessary in preventing algae bloom and removed from the final product.

Meet the Makers

We recently spoke with founder Nikhil Arora about the Water Garden’s maker story, and the future for Back to the Roots:

Back to the Roots
Founders Nikhil Arora (left) and Alejandro Velez (right)

What was the problem you set out to solve by making the Water Garden?
We wanted to condense all the amazing science of large-scale aquaponics into a table-top size unit perfect for the classroom or kitchen. We were so inspired by aquaponics and how curious it made us about where food came from that we wanted to make that experience accessible for all!

Did you immediately settle upon this solution? What else did you consider?
No – we went through many prototypes and potential form factors – the answer for “how small is ‘small’?” was not an easy question to answer. What seems obvious now was a very wide, empty canvas to start.


Who is your ideal customer?
We want to reconnect families back to their food! Food is so universal – which is what is so beautiful about it. We all have to eat 3x a day. We’re really inspired to bring good design, sustainability, and deliciousness to simplifying food. We’ve had everyone from 5 year old kids to grandparents and everyone in between getting excited about the Water Garden – whether it’s the pet fish or growing your own herbs or the beautiful design – something about it can connect with anyone. I think that’s whats also led to such unique distribution – including Nordstrom, Whole Foods Market, Costco, Petco, and Amazon Prime!


What’s next for Back to the Roots?
Back to the Roots is working towards re-defining the “future of food” – one that is all about the “undoing of food” back to its simplest ingredients and least processed versions. How do we create and promote food that is made in a kitchen not a lab, and reconnect families back to their food? Our R&D team isn’t biochemists and food scientists, it’s our grandparents!

We think there’s a powerful movement that’s just starting up around simplicity and un-doing. It is our vision that what “organic brands” were for baby-boomers, radically transparent and simple brands will be for millennials and our kids. Food is the most personal thing there is – it’s what we put into our bodies 3x a day – and yet we’re so disconnected from it. We know what works – simple, real food – we want to inspire a whole new generation to get excited about that!

[UPDATE: The Back to the Roots team just launched their newest product: a delicious stoneground breakfast cereal. It’s made with just three ingredients!]

Back to the Roots
With a vision to “re-define the future of food,” Back to the Roots has attracted attention from President Obama, Martha Stewart, and many others.

Do you have any favorite makers or products that you couldn’t live without?
Makers: Senda Athletics, Yellow Leaf Hammocks, NatureBox, SweetGreens, LifeFactory, and Knockaround Sunglasses. Products: Immediately (iPhone mail application), my macbook air (can’t go back to any other laptop after this – so versatile/stable!), and Pandora (can’t work without good jams!).

Final piece of advice to other makers:
The most important thing about creating products is having fun along the way and really believing that this new product has to exist in the world. Focus on the why first, then then the what.

The Water Garden Team

Back to the Roots is based on Oakland, while Daylight Design is in San Francisco. Meet all of the makers behind the Water Garden:


[sc:buybutton link=”” text=”Buy a Water Garden” ]


All images via Back to the Roots and Daylight Design.