It’s no secret, the usable land for crops is dramatically decreasing, due to numerous factors. This inspired growers to come up with some alternative solutions for plant growth. Among the most frequently used methods, whose popularity is rising is the soilless production system- with these two options being the leading choices.
Do aquaponics and hydroponics have something in common, and which system is better?
Yes, both of these systems provide gardeners with a plethora of advantages and diminish potentially harmful environmental effects. And which one is the best choice for you will depend entirely on a gardener’s specific demands and needs.
Let’s take a closer look at both of these systems and discuss their positive and negative sides.
Getting to Know Hydroponics
Perhaps you will be surprised, but this method has been in use for a long, long time, and it’s a system that allows plants to develop without soil.
Though at the first glance it may seem like a contradictory idea, growing plants with no soil, it’s actually much more successful than the traditional (that is, soil) method.
But, let’s take a moment and think a bit- what is it that plants need the most to be able to develop?
Boling down to the very essence, the majority of plants need water and adequate nutrients.
And THAT’S precisely what this aquaponics rely on!
If you provide these two, then the soil is not needed.
In this system, the liquid solution filled with nourishing elements is flushed through the root zone, supplying the plant with the necessary ingredients for proper development.
It’s important to mention that crops grown in this way are of higher quality than those developed in traditional way.
What is Aquaponics and How Does It Work?
This inventive solution also allows gardeners to grow plants without using soil.
It is in a way similar to aquaponics, meaning plants are developed in the soilless environment, but unlike with hydroponics, no fertilizer is used.
So, what is it that provides the necessary nutrients?
It’s the excreted waste of fish, which is a natural and extremely great source of organic nourishing elements.
In this system, fish are grown simultaneously in aquatic surroundings (think of it as some sort of an aquarium below your garden), creating a symbiotic connection thanks to which plants can thrive.
The ammonia from their waste is transformed into nitrites. They are later converted into nitrates, and taken through the roots- and the best of all, they contain the essential nitrogen needed for plants’ optimal development.
Okay, so fish are the ones giving their “precious gifts” to plants, and how do plants return the favor?
They naturally filter the water, maintaining the living surroundings clean.
What a wonderful circle of life, isn’t it?
Things in Common between These Growing Systems
Both of these methods have led to the explosive popularity of soilless production. Not only did the small growers benefited from it, but large-scale production as well.
With the continuous decrease of natural resources, polluted water sources as well as excessive use, and misapplication of chemicals, these systems saved the day.
Having in mind that they both are based on water, to say so, they do share some things in common.
Here they are:
Growing season is significantly longer
When compared to traditional production, soil-based, both these variants allow gardeners to develop their plants much longer than when they are grown outdoors.
This is because both methods are used indoors, which means they are protected from all the impacts coming from the outside.
Plus, there’s much better control over conditions, and you can give them a bit boost by using grow lights.
So, basically, you can have healthy products all year round, regardless of the season.
Minimized negative environmental impacts
First of all, less water is utilized. No matter how illogical it may seem (less water for a system which functions on water?!), the secret is in reutilization and recirculating. For example, of all the water you need for soil-based development, aquaponics utilizes approximately 10% of it.
Then, less trouble with pests and weed which consequently means decreased usage of harmful chemicals.
When grown outside, you don’t have such great control over these, but when kept inside, you are the boss.
Faster development of plants
Believe it or not, plants will grow around 30-50% faster than those grown in the traditional way.
That’s because the roots will receive more oxygen when in water. Oxygen is also a great stimulator of root development, which further leads to better and faster absorption of nourishing particles.
Having in mind the overall conditions which can be fine-tuned and adjusted precisely, it doesn’t come as a surprise that crops developed in any of these two soilless methods return around 30-40 % more than those developed in soil.
What About Differences?
Those obvious discrepancies aside (fish and no fish), these two mechanisms differ in numerous aspects.
For that reason, I shall list as many of them as possible, so that you can make up your mind on which one suits your needs the best.
Components and the overall design are not the same
One of the major distinctions is the depth of the grow beds. While there’s no such thing as an overly crowded environment for an aquatic solution, when using aquaponics, you do have to make sure those fish have enough room to swim and move.
So, the approximate depth for aquaponics us 12”, while for the other is 6”.
Start-up and running costs
As for the system itself, expenses are more or less the same, it’s actually the fish that makes differences in prices.
So, depending on how big is your system, that is, how many fish you need, and which cultivars you grow- costs will be higher or lower.
I’d like to stress out that aquaponics also has extra costs for growing media for the microbes.
In terms of overall running expenses, for hydroponics, fertilizer is required throughout the entire period of development.
On the other hand, the other mechanism comes with higher expenses for electricity. That’s because water needs to have an adequate amount of oxygen so that fish would have an optimal living environment.
As you could have guessed, aquaponics is more time-consuming. It takes on average 3 months for those bacteria from the waste to decompose, transform, and establish a proper environment for plants to be nourished.
On the other hand, once the hydroponics is set up, it takes a couple of days for the nutrient solution cycle to be well-established and then you can add the crops.
Both systems have them, of course, but the one which is more susceptible to issues is aquaponics.
That’s because the water needs to be filtered every 15-45 minutes, while in hydroponics, it is done every 4 to 6 hours.
Also, there’s a problem with fish excrement and the filters, it can sometimes clog the filters, so do make sure the system is cleaned regularly.
Something can be considered sustainable when it has a consistent maintenance procedure without having to be boosted by additional natural resources.
With minimum inputs, aquaponics counts as sustainable. Every component produced is vital for the survival of the entire system.
On the opposite, hydroponics needs a liquid solution, and you have to refill it continuously, so it doesn’t count as sustainable.
Electrical conductivity (EC)
This represents the amount of salt in a solution, and that’s one of the most essential aspects of proper plant nourishment.
Knowing that organic waste from fish doesn’t have a high amount of salts in it, so high EC in aquaponics doesn’t occur frequently. There are no problems with higher concentration of salts.
However, salts naturally accumulate in hydroponics because of the usage of food which contains higher amounts of it. They are, on the other hand, necessary to create adequate solutions with ideal amount of nourishing elements. Having in mind that this liquid with nutrients circulates constantly, the conductivity can reach higher levels, and harm the plants.
For that reason, EC in hydroponics needs to be checked frequently.
When the temperature of the water is higher, it becomes the attractive for fungus development, and this can cause problems in the hydroponics system, so T needs to be kept lower, preferably below 70°F.
On the other hand, the other method doesn’t have that problem, as the fish somehow naturally “blocks” the fungus. It’s recommended to keep it between 82 – 86°F.
Issues with diseases and insects
The fungus we mentioned, it’s pythium, or better known as root rot, and is one of the most common troubles gardeners who opt for hydroponics have.
Though lower T can contribute to significantly decreases issues, still they cannot be completely eliminated, so this is also one of those things which need to be well-monitored.
Aquaponics, luckily, don’t have these issues, but you do need to make sure the fish are healthy. If any infections occur, that will directly affect your plants, and if not spotted on time, the whole thing could be destroyed.
As for the insects, unlike soil-based production, none of these have many of those problems. Sometimes you will have to deal with aphids, spider mites, and thrips, but not as much as in traditional gardening.
However, when this problem occurs in the other system, it is much more challenging to tackle. That’s because those chemicals used to treat the pests are not always fish-friendly.
Aquaponics VS Hydroponics- Who Wins?
After comparing all the aspects, the time has come to answer that great big question- which one is better?
As you could see, both of them come with some significant benefits, they create an excellent and very nourishing environment for plants, but the approaches differ.
So, the truth is- none of them is better, they are both amazing, and the only difference is actually YOUR NEEDS and preferences.
It is the truth that aquaponics requires less daily maintenance, as once well-established, the system can run for itself without any problems.
But you do need to clean the filters, feed the fish, you know that.
On the other hand, hydroponics has a much simpler set-up procedure and provides a bit faster return in investment.
When determining which system to use, the best would be to ask yourself the following questions:
- Which plants do I want to grow?
- How much space do I have for the system?
- Do I have time to maintain it daily or I need something more sustainable?
- How much money do I have for the initial investment?
- Do I need the plants for myself only or I want to become a commercial grower?
This little questionnaire to yourself should help you make up your mind on which system is more appropriate for you.
To analyse several additional segments, and make an even more precise comparison between these two systems, I came up with these practical questions.
Let’s continue to dig deeper!
Can the same plants be grown in both aquaponics and hydroponics?
Having in mind that nutrients intake is in better control in hydroponics, you can basically use it for any plants, while plants that don’t have such high demands (for example leafy greens, herbs, lettuce) can develop well in aquaponics.
Do both aquaponics and hydroponics count as ecosystems?
As far as the definition says, the ecosystem is a community where organisms interact, aquaponics fits the definition, while hydroponics are not.
Is the pH level the same in aquaponics and hydroponics?
The ideal level for hydroponics is 5.5 to 6.0.
As for the other system, it should be neutral or only lightly acidic. The best possible level for fish to live in is on average 6.8 and 7.0 because the accumulated waste will make the surrounding acid in a natural way.
So, the pH level needs to be checked frequently.
Are maintenance requirements the same for hydroponics and aquaponics?
The initial procedure is far more complex for aquaponics, but once it is up and running, it doesn’t require so many daily obligations.
Of course, you do have to pay attention to the level of pH, as well as ammonia approximately once a week. And you have to feed those little swimmers, of course.
As for hydroponics, you have to check the following things more frequently- EC, pH level as well as the concentration of nourishing elements.
How to dispose of waste in hydroponics and aquaponics?
With aquaponics, nature does its job, waste is transformed into food for crops, but you do need to clean the filter so as to avoid clogging.
The waste can go down the drain, without worrying about any risk, as it’s natural.
Also, in hydroponics, you need to make sure salt concentration is not too high, so you need to drain the solution completely from time to time and refill it with a new batch.
On the other hand, disposal of this liquid which is full of fertilizer into natural bodies of water or flushing it down the drain comes with significantly higher risk.
Whichever of these systems you choose, be sure that you will not only enjoy a new form of gardening with many benefits, but you will save nature as well.
Like I already pointed out, usable land is in constant decline, so these alternative solutions are more than well-welcomed.
I sincerely hope my guide helped you solve your doubts and get a better insight into which one is more suitable for your ideas and projects.
Have you had any experience with aquaponics or hydroponics? If so, please share your precious impressions with me and the readers in the comment section below.
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