Hydroponics vs. Aquaponics: Which Should You Use?
Soilless gardening is the way to go if you want to increase your plant yields, speed up growth and minimize the use of herbicides and pesticides.
However, even as you go the soilless farming way, you still need to choose a good method and in most cases, this means choosing between hydroponics and aquaponics.
Both are highly efficient methods of soilless gardening, and you can be sure of better control of the plant growth process and also much better harvest than traditional soil farming.
But, the two are quite different since one uses chemical nutrients to feed the plants and the other relies on nutrients from fish waste.
What you choose to use between hydroponics and aquaponics depends on your preferences because what works for you might not necessarily work for the next person.
Understanding what each is all about and the advantages and disadvantages should make the decision easier for you.
Contrary to what many people tend to assume, hydroponics is the more recent of the two methods of farming and it has been in use for just over three centuries.
However, it is more common than aquaponics. Most greenhouse foods such as tomatoes and lettuce sold in the USA are produced through hydroponics.
Hydroponics is an efficient method of soilless farming that replaces the soil with other growing mediums such as perlite, gravel, and rock wool. And it uses a nutrient-rich solution to feed the plants.
The formulation of the chemical nutrients in hydroponics varies according to the plants that you are growing. And their use is the main difference between hydroponics and aquaponics since the latter relies on fish waste as an organic source of nutrients for the plants.
Most hydroponics systems will use the standard 6-inch deep flood tables, and you then put the cubes or pots with the plants in them.
With an aquaponics system you need a deeper grow bed and in most cases, it will be double what you use for hydroponics. And this is because the grow bed not only holds the plants but also acts the biofilter for the fish waste.
Compared to the aquaponics systems, hydroponics is relatively easy to set up. The system is less complicated and you will also not need to set up a different plumbing system for a fish tank.
Also, most hydroponics systems will take up less space than aquaponics as there is no fish that requires space. And so hydroponics can be very convenient for gardeners that do not have a lot of space.
But, there are also many downsides of using hydroponics that will never be a concern with an aquaponic system. Key among them is that the nutrient-rich solution requires changing at some point as it becomes toxic and in many jurisdictions, you have to pay a professional to do the disposal.
- Less complicated setup. Hydroponics might not be a simple cultivation method but it is by far simpler to setup than aquaponics. Once you buy the necessary plumbing equipment, flood and growth tables and chemical nutrient everything is else is straightforward and it should also be relatively quick to set up.
- Better nutritional control. With a hydroponics system, you have more control over the quantity and quality of nutrients that your plants get at any time. Hence, you also have more control over the growth process. With aquaponics things are a little more complicated as you cannot dictate the amount of waste that the fish will produce.
- Simple to operate. Hydroponics systems are relatively easier to operate compared to the aquaponics and they will also require less attention. And this is because in aquaponics you need to pay close attention to both the health of the plants and fish and also the worms that are part of the ecosystem. With hydroponics, you only need to check the nutrient solution and that everything else is working fine.
- More prone to root rot. Root rot is one of the biggest problems that you will have to face when using hydroponics cultivation. However, it is almost a non-existent issue with aquaponics.
- Regular nutrient dump out. Hydroponics systems will require regular dumping out of the nutrient solution as it can become toxic to plants overtime as the salts and chemicals build up. And this is not only inconvenient but also problematic because the disposal of the waste might require an expert. With aquaponics, you only need to top up the water to compensate for evaporation.
Aquaponics is an ancient method of cultivation and just like hydroponics, it feeds the plants with a nutrient-rich solution directly. However, the source of the nutrients is the difference.
With aquaponics, the nutrients come from fish and its aim is to create a balanced ecosystem where plants and animals are dependent on each other just as it is nature.
You do not have to buy any chemical nutrients when using aquaponics and instead, you only need to buy some good quality fish food which is cheaper than the nutrients.
And although the aquaponics system looks and feels complicated it uses a very simple principle. It is all about creating a natural ecosystem where you have composting red worms and bacteria to convert the solid waste and ammonia from the fish to rich plant food.
Out of necessity and due to the dependence between the different living organisms in this system, aquaponics ends up becoming a completely organic method of cultivation.
With aquaponics, you cannot use pesticides on the plants because they will almost always kill the fish and you also cannot use antibiotics and growth hormones on the fish as it affects the plants.
Pythium or root rot is the unfortunate problem that you might have to deal with when doing soilless cultivation. And while it is quite common in hydroponics, it is almost non-existent in aquaponics despite the fact that it uses warmer water.
Besides from providing completely organic plants, aquaponics will also produce fish which can be an additional source of income. Also, the wastewater is an organic fertilizer that can be a source of income.
But, even with all the benefits, it is important to note that an aquaponics system is more complicated and hence more expensive and harder to set up and also requires keen and constant monitoring.
- Completely organic. Aquaponics is a necessarily organic system because the use of pesticides and herbicides on plants affects the fish and giving the fish antibiotics and other medication affects the plans. And this means that you always end up with a completely organic system which is not the case with hydroponics where you can have both organic and inorganic cultivation.
- Higher productivity. Although aquaponics takes longer than hydroponics to start, there is more than enough research proof to show that that is more efficient and more productive. The plants will grow faster and it will also provide a better yield.
- Minimal negative environmental impact. Aquaponics has a minimal negative impact on the environment when you compare it to hydroponics. It does not produce any salt and chemical-filed water and so you will never have to dump off the nutrient-rich solution. Also, it has a more efficient water recirculatory system and you only need to add little water (occasionally) to compensate for evaporation.
- Takes longer to start. With a hydroponics system, you will only need to add the nutrients to the reservoir and the system is ready to start operation. However, this is not the case with aquaponics as it will take at least a month to establish a colony of nitrifying bacteria for converting the fish waste ammonia into nitrates to feed the plants.
- Complicated and harder to set up. Aquaponic will require a significantly higher initial investment as you will not only need to set up the plant growing section but also a habitat for the fish. Also, setting up the interdependent ecosystem is quite complicated and takes more effort than setting up a hydroponics system.
How it Works
The choice between hydroponics and aquaponics is subjective and it depends solely on a gardener because what works for you might not be suitable for another gardener.
However, aquaponics seems to have an edge over hydroponics (overall) because plants grow faster, there are higher yields, it is completely organic and you also end up with some fish.
The reduced negative environmental impact and almost non-existent risk of root rot also help to make aquaponics the better choice. But, it also costs more to set up. Hence it might not be a good idea where cost is the main concern.
If you are just starting out and do not have any experience with hydro growers, hydroponics might be the better option for you as it will be easier to setup and control. And once you learn the ropes you can move to aquaponics.