The Difference Between Hydroponics and Aquaponics – Alternative Gardening Methods

Traditional soil-grown methods will not ever be ways of the past, but alternatives exist that can turn the ordinary garden into something extraordinary.  We will look at the difference between hydroponics and aquaponics gardening systems and compare how these two alternative gardening methods work and benefit you!

The home garden is evolving just like other areas of the world with advancements and improvements in growing techniques. Most people choose a side and are on team hydro or team aqua but you can do both!

Don’t feel like you must pick one way or the other, just let this guide help you to learn enough about both to get started.

As a gardener, you are presented with new opportunities to try different growing methods that are fun and present your own unique triumphs and challenges. Are you up for the challenge of trying something new?

I would tell you to get your shovels ready, but you will not need them for these methods of gardening!

The Difference Between Hydroponics and Aquaponics

To understand the differences between hydroponics and aquaponics, we must first look at how each system works. The mechanics can have some similarities but also some vast differences as well. Both of these methods are soil-less. Meaning no dirt is used in gardening with either method.

What is Hydroponic Gardening?

What is Hydroponic Gardening

Hydroponic Gardening is a biologically and chemically controlled growing environment that uses no soil for growing. That may seem like a rather complex definition for something that is far less complicated than it sounds. Hydroponics is basically gardening in water.

The water is not simply received from turning on the tap it is pH balanced and treated with the nutrients required for plant growth. Like in traditional gardening when having to make sure your soil is pH balanced properly for growing certain types of plants and fertilizing regularly for growth.

In a hydroponic system, the plant is usually secured in a net cup surrounded by soil-less growing media to hold the plant in place. Growing mediums usually supply nothing but support for the growing plant and can consist of rock wool, coarse perlite, vermiculite, coco fibers or coir, gravel, or clay pellets.

The plant is then suspended over the balanced nutrient-rich water in various ways depending on the type of system used. The roots of the plant can quickly absorb the nutrients required for growth from the water and increase their growth potential over soil-based growing by 25 to 50% on average.

In a previous article, I did a detailed guide regarding Hydroponics. For more specifics on this soil-less growing method, you can find the article here Hydroponics Herb Gardens – Soil-less Growing This article goes deeper into the mechanics behind hydroponics and the different types of systems

The fish matter! If you are just thinking about starting a small indoor system to begin with goldfish would be your best fish option. Beta fish have also been used in a small single plant start-up. Larger systems use larger species like carp, tilapia, koi and even catfish. Saltwater Tanks Can NOT be used to do an aquaponics system. 

Pros and Cons Of Hydroponics

Pros

  • No Shoveling, tilling or soil Amending required
  • Grow year-round indoors
  • Plants grow faster and Produce More
  • More Control of Plant Growth
  • Uses 90% Less water over soil growing
  • Space Saving

Cons

  • Initial Investment of start-up costs are higher than soil gardening
  • The disease can spread quickly in water
  • Regular monitoring and Supervision of Nutrients and Water Ph balance
  • Affected by Power Outages
  • May Require Grow Lights

What is Aquaponic Gardening?

What is Aquaponic Gardening

The first thing that pops into my head when I think of aquaponics is the song made famous by the movie The Lion King. “It’s the circle of life”… I will spare you my singing.

This circle that I am referring to in aquaponics is this:

  1. ⇒ You have a fish in a tank ⇓
  2. ⇒ You feed the fish ⇓
  3. ⇒ The fish digest food and turn it into waste ⇓
  4. ⇒ The waste is then pumped into the garden beds supplying the plants with nutrients ⇓
  5. ⇒ The filtered water is returned to the tank ⇓
  6. ⇒ The circle is complete and begins again ⇒

This is a very organic growing method as no chemicals are used and it is very environmentally friendly. Water is not wasted as the system works to both nourish and grow plants as well as clean and maintain the aquarium.

Aquaponics and hydroponics are similar in how plants are supported and grown over the water, the main differences lie in the foundation of how the nutrients are supplied within these systems.

Aquaculture is the primary source for sustaining and growing plants in a symbiotic system that benefits both fish and plant species.

Learn More About Aquaponics With this Helpful Video from Aquasprouts

This video provides useful information about Aquaponics as well as a great idea for an easy aquaponics starter kit that would fit into almost any home space.

⇒ You can begin reaping the benefits of this unique aquaponics system featured in this video by following this link AquaSprouts Garden. It is available on Amazon at the lowest price I have found.

AquaSprouts Garden Buy on Amazon

From the above link, you can also see the reviews by those who have purchased and used this item by following the link above.

The AquaSprouts Garden is a self-sustaining aquaponics kit for the home

Pros and Cons Of Aquaponics

Pros

  • No Shoveling, tilling or soil Amending required
  • Grow year-round indoors
  • Plants grow faster and Produce More
  • Organic and Eco-Friendly
  • Can eat the fish Too
  • Space Saving
  • Waste can be composted to use in soil gardening

Cons

  • Initial Investment of start-up costs are higher than soil gardening and hydroponics
  • Slower startup time to balance bacteria to feed plants
  • Energy usage can be higher running multiple systems of aquariums, pumps, heaters, filters, and lights
  • Can be affected by Long-term power outages

Hydroponics vs Aquaponics

Hydroponics vs Aquaponics

As You can see from the above pros and con’s there are many similar positives and negatives to either system. So which one is better?

I will predict that this battle will rage on for many decades with never a clear decisive winner. Why?

It is like becoming a fan of a sports team. If you are team Hydroponics there is very little that somebody from team Aquaponics is going to do to convince you to change your mind. You may find one of these methods better after giving them both a try. You may be one of the few that like them both equally, and that is ok too!  You really do not need to choose.

I prefer this is in gardening –  Let the plants decide! I have used both methods for growing different types of plants from herbs, vegetables, and even flowers.

I have found some like the controlled environment I can give them through careful monitoring of nutrients through hydroponically growing. One such champion for me has been tomatoes. I have had far greater success with my tomato plants and their harvest through hydroponics. The fruits seem to be larger and the growth is more consistent and they produce better.

In the opposite corner microgreens and kale have been clear victors in aquaponics. The microgreens growing for shorter times and produce quickly and evenly. I also find they do well at filtering the water that returns to the tanks as well. Kale can get a little large for my small aquaponics but the leaves seem to be thicker and more flavorful when grown aquaponically.

1. Organically Grown Hydroponics?

There is one misconception I would like to address about hydroponics. That is organic growth. Most hydroponic nutrients sold on the market are not for the organic gardener but there are ORGANIC methods to grow hydroponically. Choosing to grow hydroponics organically adds a bit more work but it is possible and is just as effective as non-organic chemicals. Like the grocery stores however organic hydroponic nutrients tend to be a little more pricey and something to consider when thinking about the overhead cost of this method of gardening.

2. Fish Food matter In Aquaponics?

If you are looking to get the most out of your aquaponics growing then you will need to consider not just the fish but what you are feeding them. The food does indeed matter. To get the best return on your waste and a healthy viable tank, your fish should have a balanced diet of food that includes proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Purchasing flake or pellet food is fine, just check that it is ideal for your fish type and use in aquaponics.

A clear advantage in aquaponics is that after an initial set up phase the system will continue to work without adjustments for continued gardening of new plants. In hydroponics, you need to adjust the chemical each time new plants are started in the system to meet the phase of growth your plant is on. Seedlings require different nutrient levels versus the nutrients required in the vegetative or flowing states when grown hydroponically.

How can you get started?

Getting started with either method of hydroponics or aquaponics can be a bit challenging. There are many types of systems available that range greatly in price and size. If you are just starting with alternative growing techniques there are some important questions that you need to ask yourself before investing.

What system do I want to try?

This is a lot of information to digest all at once. There is no right and wrong option for everyone, it is a choice. I enjoy hydroponic gardening because I find it easier and I have one small aquaponic system. My preference is hydroponics, but it may not be the same for you.

How much money do I want to invest in my first system?

Create a budget of how much you are ready to invest in this new growing method. Hydroponics can be a little cheaper initially for a start, while aquaponics may be more upfront but less long-term. The size of the system also greatly impacts the cost. When shopping for a system check to see what is included with your investment.

Will you need to purchase additional equipment that will add to the overhead setup cost? Will it be compatible with your current electrical supply or structural supports at home or will physical structure alterations need to take place? This usually only applies to very large systems but you do not want to be surprised by a large investment in a growing system only to find that you will have to make costly accommodations to make it work in your home or greenhouse.

How much space do I have available for this system?

Both types of systems come in various sizes so matching it to your space should be the easiest part of buying. You could choose a massive full room size system giant to a small countertop one perfect for the kitchen. How it fits into your home and the available space you have for growth will help you to make a choice.

Other factors to consider in space are access to electricity, light either natural or in the form of grow lights, heated or unheated area, waterproofing, and pets that could get into water reservoirs.

Will I need the addition of grow lights?

Some systems come pre-built with everything you need including lights as others do not as previously discussed in cost. If you do not have enough natural sunlight available, you may need to consider the additional investment of grow lights. Your plants in either system will require their own independent lighting to grow. Just because your aquarium has a light does not mean it will supply light to your plants, they will need their own additional lighting.

I have previously posted a couple articles on this site that give you more information and options regarding grow lights. The Best Grow Lights for Indoor Plants and Herbs and Best LED Grow Lights

Jumpstart into Hydroponics or Aquaponics growing now with simple premade starter kits. These recommended starter systems will make it easy to start whatever system you choose. Click on any link below to learn more!

1. Great Hydroponic Starter Systems

2. Awesome Aquaponic Starter Systems

AquaSprouts Garden Buy on Amazon

Most Fruits, Vegetables, Flowers & Herbs Love Hydroponics & Aquaponics!

What Can You Grow in Aquaponics or Hydroponics?

You will not find any limits when it comes to growing in either method. Usually, the only limits I have ever found have come from indoor space confinements. It is difficult to grow an 8ft tall tomato plant on the countertop.

Other plants and vegetables I have found that can be challenging are root or tuber forming types like potatoes, carrots, beets, ginger, turmeric, yams, and similar. Although none of these are impossible they are far more difficult and require larger growing space for the rootstocks to grow. Mushrooms and other fungus types are a big NO-NO. This will infect the water and fungus is the last thing you want spreading in either system.

Anything green loves hydroponics or aquaponics. Herbs and green vegetables like lettuces, kale, and similar thrive and grow in leaps and bounds with these methods. I typically grow a continuous supply of lettuce types for salads all year and they go from seed to harvest on average in 6 weeks.

Fruits, vegetables, and flowers of all other types will grow very well in these systems. You can mix them up and change them out frequently. Try different things to see what you enjoy growing the most. Cannabis is also a common herb that is grown in either method but more often hydroponically to control nutrient levels more strictly.

Are you already using one of these growing methods?

Maybe you are using both. Did you find a difference between hydroponics and aquaponics gardening systems that I missed here? I would love to hear about your experiences! Leave a comment below and start a conversation.

As always, if you have any questions or you need any help drop a comment below or reach out to me on the site contact form. I am happy to help!

Happy Gardening!

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