What’s Better for Indoor Growing Plants: Hydroponics vs Soil

12,000 years ago, humans began growing outdoors for plant-based food. Hunter-gatherers originally tried their hand at farming in the Zagros Mountains.

Since then, the majority of human civilization let their plants grow in nutrient-rich soil. However, recent climate developments suggest we may have a harder time using traditional soil. Plant growth relies on nutrients from the water, but they face difficulties with rising temperatures and prevailing diseases.

Plants need nutrients, but does it only have to come from the soil?

Scientists introduce the concept of hydroponics; unlike plants in soil, this system grows them outside of it. Growing with hydroponic systems has been recently popularized by NASA. Recent 2015 tests from the International Space Station show leafy vegetables grown in outer space.

Now we arrive at the question - should we consider soil or hydroponics for future garden trends?

To find nutrient solutions for higher yields, we need to consider hydroponics vs soil-based methods. Throughout this article, we can learn how each system allows plant growth. We must look at both sides of the hydroponics vs soil debate to figure out the right solution.

The Essentials of Each Method

To compare and contrast the methods of hydroponics vs soil, we must understand the basic guidelines of growing plants. Each of these methods relies on nutrient-rich sources to keep plants alive. However, they go about it in different ways, as we can find out further below.

The hydroponics vs soil debate is a crucial one since these technological advances can determine future gardening systems.

Plants grown with either method generally feature different benefits. Below are thorough explanations of what each gardening system does. There is also scientific data presented in these findings. Here is what we learn from soil vs hydroponics.

Explanation on Soil

Soil based system

For a plant to grow, they need healthy nutrients. First, we need to start with the soil.

To paraphrase gardening author Frank Tozer:

"once we build the soil, we can improve the overall health of ourselves."

A healthy crop is what we rely on with a good harvest season. Growers understand this concept, which is why they factor in the environment for the roots to grow.

Traditional soil gardening requires four main components, per studies from the University of Hawaii:

  • 45% Minerals
  • 25% Air
  • 25% Water
  • 5% Organic Matter

With soil preparation and a good amount of nutrients and water, you can manage crops. Soil as a growing medium only works with the right nutrient solutions. In other words, we need boron, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorous.

According to nutritionist Gary Zimmer, these nutrients give plants stronger roots compared to other ones. Plants in soil rich in nutrients also produce better gardening yields. For the health of local communities, it's generally advised we grow our crops with environment-friendly systems.

Explanation on Hydroponics

Hydroponic based system

Hydroponics refers to plants grown without soil. When we grow plants in a soil-based terrain, the root system must absorb all the nutrient components within. However, the best yields require soil to grow in optimal conditions.

When we compare soil or hydroponics in a garden discussion, we consider the convenience of growing plants under specific conditions.

Unlike soil, hydroponic systems grow vegetables using water; the roots can take in the nutrients all the same as soil-grown variants.

Harvard did a 2019 study on hydroponic systems to see if plants grow in nutrient-based water. It turns out with changes in the global environment, the United Nations suggests more innovative agriculture.

We can see hydroponically-based gardening dating back to 600 B.C.E., where researchers suggest the use of it in the Hanging Gardens of Babylonia. Even today, NASA continues to find a garden solution with hydroponically-related plant yields.

Pros and Cons of Each Gardening Technique

Now, we can discuss the differences between hydroponics vs soil-based garden techniques. They use a nutrient solution through either soil or water, growing them within their garden. 

While both seek to produce a high yield, crops grown hydroponically see varied results compared to soil. Remember - the purpose of this article is for us to understand which gardening technique allows for higher yields.

A garden with or without soil needs to maintain a reliable nutrient system. These systems offer a unique garden solution, so which compared medium is the best for the environment?

Each gardening system has its advantages and disadvantages. Before we get into soil vs hydroponics, here are the main points to discuss:

  • Initial setup costs
  • Energy reliance of plant compounds
  • Disease maintenance for the root system
  • The amount of space we need for gardening
  • What we can grow with either method

When we make the comparisons between each garden medium, we should first start with soil since these are traditional growing systems. Afterward, we can have it compared to a hydroponics system. Let's start with the setup cost for growing in soil.

1. Initial Setup Costs

Soil Based System

The cost of a soil-related garden depends on how many square inches we need. The outdoor service website Fixr suggests the national average cost ranges $1,300. Meanwhile, the minimum cost is $400, while the maximum cost is $5,000. The more expensive the cost, the more likely we can add nutrient-heavy topsoil to our garden.

Soil growing farms also require the necessary labor and equipment to manage the plants grown. Plants in the soil only grow a good yield if great care is taken.

The start-up cost of a farm also depends on soil preparation, the seeds used for growing the garden, and irrigation water systems.

According to Dorian Lorat of Farm It Yourself, which is a garden affiliate, we can look upwards of $10,000 for a year-round harvest. A return on investment ultimately depends on the growing season.

Pros

  • The setup requires everything is in place for the best yield
  • If we only plant a small garden, the cost should be lower

Cons

  • The start-up cost for a small farm is over $10,000
  • It can be expensive to maintain, especially with live workers

Hydroponic Based System

Meanwhile, a hydroponic setup requires specific technology. We need flowing water control and an LED system. The cost of water control and lighting relies on the size and shape.

Plants grown under this system see financial growth if they only use one type of plant, according to the cultivation management company Artemis.

Otherwise, a hydroponic system also needs seeds like any other plant. As the platform Artemis reports, a hydroponic system is more likely to do well with leafy greens.

The startup rate of success for hydroponic systems depends on the plants and nutrients used in the process.

We should also consider monthly water control costs since we need gallons of nutrient-rich water. The official USDA website offers training videos from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which can save us time.

Pros

  • A low-to-mid system grown hydroponically is much cheaper
  • Increase in growth rate for various plants
  • Better return of startup investment

Cons

  • High-end technologies range at $10,000
  • We spend more time and money on water control

2. Energy Reliance for Plant Compounds

Soil Based System

Energy reliance refers to a power solution for plant compounds. With soil, it requires the three basic factors of water, earth, and sunlight. A nutrient solution with soil much adheres to these principles; otherwise, the plants cannot grow without the nutrients.

One problem with a soil system is the energy process can be slow. Back in 2012, Penn State University did a study on soil quality. Although it's a reliable system to grow plants, a change in weather conditions makes the cycle unpredictable.

Pros

  • Soil-reliant plants only need water and sunlight
  • The system is easy to understand

Cons

  • While rich in nutrients, energy reliance is slow
  • Weather changes can make or break a seasonal cycle

Hydroponic Based System

Since hydroponic plants rely on water rich in nutrients, they do not rely on the soil. To grow, they need a water filter machine and direct access to LED lights.

The energy process for hydroponics is highly technical and takes some time to learn. However, hydroponic energy sources do not require us to worry about soil.

By comparison, it can save us maintenance time from soil troubles such as dry terrain. Hydroponics also give us more environmental control for our plants.

Pros

  • Removes the need for soil
  • Water serves as the nutrient solution for plants

Cons

  • Requires extensive knowledge of hydroponics
  • We need hydroponic equipment for the plants

3. Maintenance and Disease

Soil Based System

One of the most important ways to manage soil is through maintenance. According to the 2017 research on suppressive soil, experts from the National Library of Medicine conclude sanitation practices can decrease the potential for diseases. The likes of mildew and bacterial wilt can occur without proper cleanliness.

Disease-related problems arise from traditional pests, such as rodents and insects. We need to carefully observe moisture levels as we do not attract pests to the location.

Pests eat away plants from the root, which also ruins the soil. Chemicals can keep them away, although toxic residue can damage the plants themselves. We should also be mindful of weeds since weeds grow rapidly in areas. The maintenance costs for weed removal depend on local services.

Pros

  • Sanitation prevents most of these problems

Cons

  • Toxic pesticides can damage the foods
  • Moisture in the soil can attract other animals
  • There are maintenance costs

Hydroponic Based System

Hydroponics allows us more authority, by comparison. Since a hydroponic system is indoors, it removes outdoor nuisances such as overgrowing plants and disease-carrying rodents.

Hydroponics requires no weeding or digging, which saves us time from sanitation duties. We also don't need to rely on chemical defenses with a hydroponic system, since there are fewer soil-ruining predators to eat our plants.

Pros

  • A secure location prevents most pests
  • Promotes health through disease control
  • Chemical-free plants

Cons

  • We need to control the environment ourselves

4. How Much Space Will You Need?

Soil Based System

We all need space to grow our plants since it depends on the roots. Soil uses horizontal gardens over an open field or grassy area. The amount of space we use relies on what plants we desire to grow.

For example, we can grow an entire row of vegetables, as long as there is organic matter within the soil. However, we can only plant as much as there is land available.

Pros

  • A wide-open field to grow plants

Cons

  • A limited amount of vegetation, depending on the land

Hydroponic Based System

Hydroponics uses vertical gardening to save room for the plants. Unlike soil, hydroponic systems can create more space for plants.

Hydroponics uses efficiency with the vertical setup of their garden. We can dedicate an entire back row within a greenhouse to a specific plant. Thanks to the ergonomic practices of hydroponic, a vertical space always leaves more room than a horizontal one.

Pros

  • More space to grow plants
  • A smart way to create food in confined areas

Cons

  • Maximum spacing depends on the location

What Are You Growing?

Last but not least, we need to consider the types of plants we grow. According to the USDA, the most popular plants based in soil are as follows:

  • Wheat
  • Corn
  • Soybeans
  • Nuts
  • Fruits

These plants mainly grow in the Midwest regions, such as Minnesota and Nebraska. For the most opportune weather conditions, it does limit the potential growth in areas elsewhere, such as Texas and Alaska. As a result, most crops are dependent on the Midwest for produce.

Hydroponic systems are meant to serve as an alternative in any place. Since the plants are within a controlled environment, it does not need to rely on the weather conditions of the Midwest. Hydroponic plants can be grown anywhere within the right indoor setting.

Is Hydroponics Better than Soil?

is hydroponics better

Hydroponics is certainly a viable alternative to soil. While the latter is easier to understand at first, the former is a cost-effective measure for farmers. It brings down diseases and pests, in addition to bigger harvests for potential markets.

For environmental purposes, hydroponics allows a greener lifestyle. The University of Arizona did a study on soil-based foods. It turns out they need more than ten times the amount of water than hydroponics.

For a more efficient system, hydroponics can reduce the need to waste as many resources. As we can see, the unused water can go elsewhere, such as to families in need.

What is Easier to Grow: Hydroponics or Soil?

Technically speaking, hydroponics does require more technical knowledge than regular soil. However, it's only a short-term cost; in the long-term, hydroponics does make the potential harvest easier.

Harvests with regular soil is a simple process - it only requires water, sunlight, and organic materials. Hydroponics lacks soil, so it uses machine filters and other nutrients to get the job done.

However, once we get to fully understand hydroponics, there are long-term benefits to its use.

Are Hydroponically Grown Plants Organic?

As the National Agricultural Law Center reports, hydroponics is currently an experimental means to produce organic foods, since these farms can be more efficient in energy usage. The USDA clarified in 2018 hydroponics foods can be certified as organic.

The USDA estimates more than 23 million Americans lack access to organic products. Hydroponics is meant to provide millions of Americans with nutrient-rich gardens. No matter which states they come from, they can grow the foods they need.

There is no scientific consensus on the organic difference between soil and hydroponics. However, hydroponics can still be used effectively in this regard. Hydroponics uses both micro-nutrients and macro-nutrients within their environmental parameters.

Is it Better to Grow Plants in Water or Soil?

From what we can gather with our research, hydroponics is a viable nutrient solution for plant growth. While it does require water control daily, we can still grow roots within this environment. All we need is nutrients, water, and space to control these growing systems. Furthermore, scientific data suggests a hydroponic system allows faster-growing plants.

For example, A Google Science Fair in 2011 showcased a major difference between tomatoes grown hydroponically vs growing in soil. These were known as Holland Hybrid tomatoes.

Within 58 days of growing plants, tomatoes growing with hydroponics grew up to almost 100 cm.

By comparison, growing in the soil only reached over 60 cm. The tomato plants grown in hydroponic conditions were much faster than soil growing variants.

Six trials were used in this study, which confirms the same conclusion - hydroponic growing remains more steady with their plants grown.

Hydroponics vs Soil: Conclusion

As we can see from these results, hydroponic growing is a viable alternative to regular soil.

Compared to plants growing in soil, a hydroponic system allows for these nutrient benefits:

  • Faster growth rates in the span of a few months
  • Better environment costs as a long-term solution
  • Less potential for diseases, pests, and weeds
  • Space to grow without environmental-climate factors

Always be mindful of the limitations with hydroponic systems, however.

For the best results in a hydroponic system, we need to properly control the environment, which includes the water and the light. We also need to dedicate enough space to the hydroponic system.

Plants in the soil remain a valuable solution to grow food. Despite all this, hydroponic systems are an entirely feasible replacement. All we need is the right equipment to filter nutrients into the water and plant the roots within. We can save time and money by growing with hydroponics.

It's only appropriate to end this discussion with a paraphrased quote from Michael Christian, who is the Founder of American Hydroponics. Hydroponics used to be a nod and a wink for growing plants; now consumers accept hydroponics for high-quality meals.

About the author 

Daniel Buckner

I have been practicing indoor gardening for quite some time now, and I love writing. So why not combine those two passions into one place where I can share my experience with the world and help the other grow fresh and healthy fruits, vegetables, and herbs in their own apartment

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