What is easier: hydroponics or soil? Hydroponics vs soil pros and cons. Comparing hydroponic gardening to traditional soil gardening.
The debate between hydroponics vs soil gardening has been a hot topic recently. It is always difficult to try out new things, but for a better outcome, maybe you should consider planting growing plants without using soil.
Each growing method has its pros and cons, therefore, it is important to have a strong understanding of each of them to decide which suits you the best. In this article, we will offer you a detailed comparison between hydroponics vs soil.
Soil and Hydroponics – What are they?
Before we break down the pros and cons of each, let’s take a quick minute and determine the difference between traditional soil gardening and hydroponic gardening.
1. Gardening with soil
Soil has been our traditional growing method for nearly a dozen millennia. Soil is one of the first items on the shopping list whenever the idea of growing a plant comes to our mind.
We’ve been used to thinking that plants require soil to grow. However, it’s a common misconception. What plants seek from soil are structural stability, nutrients and minerals only. Therefore, if another growing method guarantees to offer those benefits, it can easily replace soil.
Combined from two Greek words meaning “water” and “toil”, hydroponics is a gardening method where plants grow and thrive using nutrients in water instead of soil.
It might sound new to you but hydroponics have been used for thousands of years where space, good soil, and/or water are limited.
The ancient gardens of Babylon used hydroponics (that’s part of what made them so amazing back then). Ancient civilizations in central and south America also used hydroponics to grow massive amounts of crops for their large cities.
You may be wondering how plants can find the structural stability that they require when they are in water. That’s where the hydroponic system itself comes into play. Hydroponic systems are designed to hold the plant in place using either the system (buckets, trays, etc) or the system combined with a hydroponic-friendly growth media (coconut coir, perlite, etc.)
Is soil better for gardening? (Pros of growing in soil)
- Soil is more affordable and requires less equipment. It is naturally available so you might even start gardening without paying a dime.
- Soil doesn’t require a green thumb, as it is more straightforward to plant anything.
- Soil provides some nutrients (nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus) and you can add in supplements if necessary.
- Soil self-regulates by gauging its environment, and adjusting accordingly.
- Soil is any plant’s natural grow medium, which offers oxygen, and a rich community of useful microorganisms.
- Soil acts as structural support to hold plants in place.
- Healthy soil offers the conditions and foundation plants need to thrive and even protects plants from diseases and pests. Beneficial bugs can come to play, which helps drive the pest population down.
- Plants grown in soil are said to taste better than that grown using hydroponics.
- Soil is more ideal if you want to grow a wide range of plants as it comes in various statuses. It can be dry or wet, sandy or peaty, free-draining or watery, etc.
Cons of growing in soil
- Soil can be really dirty and messy to deal with.
- A soil-based garden requires a lot of upkeep, as you need to water your plants regularly.
- In soil, plant roots must go in search of nutrients.
- The plants are subject to outside conditions (unless in a greenhouse).
- If you don’t feel like dealing with an infestation, soil can be a headache. Many pests that affect garden plants will overwinter in the soil, emerging the following year to wreak havoc on your crops.
- It takes longer for your plants to grow and mature.
- It takes longer to identify and treat the defects in your plants as it takes more time to show. As a result, it might cause huge losses.
- You will need to pay close attention to your plants during the first few weeks of growth. If you cannot afford either time or patience for that serious TLC, your plants might not end up really well.
- It might be cheap to start with, but to achieve a high-quality yield, you will need to spend a lot on supplements. Therefore, growing your plants with soil might end up being a lot more expensive than it is worth.
- It also takes a lot more space than hydroponics.
- Soil yields less than hydroponic systems.
- It wastes more water as most of it is not absorbed by the plant, but evaporates or soaks into the medium. In many regions, water is not always readily available and can be sold at high cost.
- Weeds will need to be cleaned out when they sprout.
What are the cons of hydroponic systems?
The initial investment might cost you an arm and a leg for a large-scale project. You will need containers, pumps, lights, nutrients, and so on to start your hydroponics system. The ongoing cost is for nutrients and electricity.
Things can go wrong in an instant and you might lose a lot of crops if you cannot identify and correct the problem immediately. Despite less maintenance, you still need to keep an eye out.
If your hydroponics system requires electricity, you will need to account for the extra cost. If an outage occurs, your plants might be killed by suffocation, drowning, over-feeding, etc.
Hydroponics isn’t suitable for every type of plant, especially root vegetables. Root vegetables need plenty of soil space to grow in and the root space in hydroponic systems usually isn’t large enough.
This growing method can be head scratching for beginners, as it can be too complicated to set up and maintain.
Due to the plants’ small root system, they can’t always support themselves very well. Elaborate forms of support might be needed for heavy fruiting plants.
Why Hydroponics Might Be Your Better Choice?
Although hydroponics requires specialized skills and significant financial investment, it’s shown some great results that may just make it worth the effort. If you’re willing to invest in a hydroponic system and learn some new gardening techniques, then hydroponic gardening can have some huge payoffs.
Hydroponic gardening doesn’t require soil.
Due to erosion, compaction, loss of soil structure, nutrient degradation, and salinity, workable soil is getting more and more scarce. While the population keeps increasing, growing methods without soil will be our sustainable solution to the shortage of food.
Also, many places have perfect weather for gardening, but lack good soil to garden in. It can be extremely expensive to haul in soil for a garden. Hydroponic gardening is a rapidly growing choice for people in coastal areas and desert areas where the soil is unsuitable for growing plants.
The lack of soil is also a plus because you don’t have to wash off excess soil that can get on your crops. Your plants are clean when you harvest them.
Hydroponics delivers faster results.
Under the same conditions, plants with hydroponics grow about 30-50% faster than those grown in soil. This means that you’ll be able to taste your fresh strawberries, tomatoes or herbs from your hydroponic system days or weeks before you would if they were planted in your garden.
Hydroponics requires less labor.
A single part-time worker can manage a small hydroponic greenhouse as there is no need for tilling, weeding, herbicide and insecticide application, etc.
You will still need to check on your plants daily, but growing in a controlled environment takes a lot of the extra work off of your gardening to-do list.
Can be chemical-free
Hydroponics prevents plants from being susceptible to pests and diseases. Therefore, no chemicals are needed to kill them off. This helps you grow cleaner and healthier foods.
This is especially true if you’re growing plants in a greenhouse. This significantly reduces your pest and disease issues and can eliminate them completely.
As all the minerals are contained in the water, you can easily measure and adjust the pH levels of your water mixture. Since the water in a hydroponics system is constantly flowing in mixing, you only need to test the pH once.
No more multiple pH tests around your garden. Soil changes from inch to inch, which can require you to do multiple soil and pH tests. The water in a hydroponics system is all the same and only requires one test.
Hydroponics can expand your growing space.
Hydroponic systems come in a variety of designs including vertical stacking systems that saves a great amount of space. Even the National Park Service agrees that hydroponic systems can be a really benefical way to make the most of limited space.
It can be a wonderful to either reduce or expand your gardening space, depending on what your goals are.
Let me explain a little more… Let’s say that you have limited growing space and you’re interested in growing a ton of food. A vertical hydroponic system can really increase the amount of growing space that you have. You’ll be able to grow crops on top of one another rather than just one crop per space like in a traditional garden.
If you’re wanting to reduce the amount of space that your garden takes up, you can also benefit from a hydroponic system that is vertical.
Then of course, if space doesn’t matter, you can have hydroponic systems that are horizontal and easy to manage.
Hydroponics allows you more control over the growing conditions.
You have the ultimate power over the nutrient levels and mixture, light, humidity, space, etc. Hydroponic systems that are coupled with a greenhouse give you the most control over the environment.
Hydroponics systems that are located outdoors still eliminate any guesswork that might come into play with growing in soil. Again, the water in the system is constantly mixing unlike the soil in a garden bed. Adjustments and changes are much easier to make in a hydroponic system.
Hydroponics systems actually require less water.
Yes, you read that right! Hydroponic systems use as much as 10 times less water than soil gardening as water in a hydroponic system is captured and reused, rather than absorbed into the soil and evaporating to the environment.
Therefore, this growing method can also be utilized in places with dry and arid climates and/or areas with salt water. Hydroponics is a really eco-friendly way to continue to have massive yields and reduce your environmental impact all at the same time.
No digging & weeding are required in a hydroponic system.
Digging and weeding can be extremely annoying and time consuming. Hydroponics will make the process much easier as there won’t be weeds and you only need to pour some perlite in a container instead of shoveling.
I don’t know about you, but pulling weeds is one of my least favorite tasks. Especially if you have a large garden like mine. It can make gardening really hard work.
Eliminate weeds completely by growing in a hydroponic system.
Grow more food locally with hydroponics.
Indoor hydroponic systems allow plants to grow almost anywhere all year round. In 2019 alone, an estimated 124 million people faced acute food shortages, and urban gardening can help ease this burden.
Those tomatoes that you wanted to grow year-round? Keep your fridge stocked all year with fresh tomatoes and other vegetables straight from your hydroponics system.
Hydroponics systems are the perfect answer to growing in urban areas where there isn’t soil available to grow. Rooftop greenhouses are increasing all over the country as people discover how easily they can grow food in greenhouses using hydroponic systems.
Hydroponic systems grow higher-yielding plants.
The ideal conditions of the hydroponics system make sure the plants get the perfect amount of nutrients, which come in direct contact with roots. Also, year-round growth and faster crop cycles are allowed thanks to the microclimate you create with a hydroponic system.
A traditional garden has variability. The soil isn’t uniform, nutrients can be sparse and leaching of water and fertilizer happens naturally. When you grow in a hydroponic system, plants are almost always growing in ideal conditions, so growth and production never has to slow down.
Predictability and Seasonality
In a hydroponic greenhouse, the plants grown aren’t restricted to their usual growing seasons. They are also not affected by unpredictable weather such as floods, fires, drought, pest problems, etc.
You can grow more food in places where you wouldn’t be able to practice traditional gardening.
Soil can work better if you are a beginner and don’t want to spend too much to start up. It will also be a better choice if you desire to grow root vegetables (which might be costly if grown with hydroponics).
Hydroponics can be a fit for everyone with its many different types of set-ups. It also offers numerous benefits for you to consider that can make it worth the investment and new knowledge.
However, no one can tell you which method between hydroponics and soil gardening is better without knowing about what plants you’re growing, your budget, and your other needs. We hope that, with our detailed comparison, you can find your best bet.
This post was written by Jill Sandy. Jill is a sustainable focus gardener at Constant Delights. She loves decorating her home backyard with beautiful landscape design and creative garden care techniques she develops herself.