About Hydroponics and Aquaponics


Overview of Hydroponics and Aquaponics

As the world continues to evolve with advancements in health, science, and technology, the gardening world is rapidly embracing hydroponics and aquaponics. Why? Because these growing techniques can be less problematic and yield better results when compared to conventional soil gardening.  Let’s look at each of these growing methods more closely to discover how you may benefit from using these growing techniques. It’s all about hydroponics and aquaponics these days, so come and join in!

What is Hydroponics?

The word origin of hydroponics comes from the Greek words for water (“hudor”) and labor (“ponos”). Thus, the literal definition of hydroponics is “water working” or “water labor.”

Broadly speaking, hydroponics is the method of growing plants by suspending the roots in oxygenated water instead of in soil. Nutrients are added to the water, creating the nutrient solution. This nutrient solution contains known quantities of nutrients and can be adjusted as needed when conditions change.

Grow media – such as clay pellets, coconut fiber, and growstones – are used to support, aerate and retain the nutrient solution in the root zone. Since growing plants typically use soil as a medium, the most notable change to hydroponic growing in the absence of any soil.

History of Hydroponics

Although hydroponic growing may seem like a new concept, it is not. Many believe the first use of hydroponic principles were employed in the beautiful vertical terraces of The Hanging Gardens of Babylon (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) circa 600 BC. Later, during the 10th and 11th centuries, Aztecs used hydroponic methods to convert marshy wetlands into arable farmland, helping to feed their enormous population despite the less than ideal soil growing condition.

In the early 20th century, Dr. William Frederick, an academic at the University of Berkley, pioneered research in hydroponic growing, and coined the term “hydroponics.” Gericke proved to his skeptical colleagues that plants could, in fact, grow effectively in solutions of nutrients and water, and without the need for soil.

Today, hydroponics is a widely respected and often preferred method used to cultivate plants. Commercial farmers, individual gardeners, apartment dwellers, restaurateurs, and even policymakers and hunger advocates are excited by the advances in hydroponics and what soilless growing offers us in the 21st century.

Benefits of using Hydroponics

Traditional soil growing is subject to many variables outside of the grower’s control. In contrast, hydroponics allows us to give plants precisely what it needs when it needs it. Some of the key advantages of hydroponic growing include:

  • No soil means fewer problems: Growing plants in the soil can be a messy and problematic endeavor.  Hydroponics eliminates the need for weeding, keeps growing spaces soil-free, and minimizes pests and soil-borne disease.
  • Space Saving: Traditional soil-based gardening requires a lot of space to grow plants while hydroponics allows for maximizing yield within limited spaces. Hydroponics can produce the same amount of crops in just 10% of the space used for traditional farming.
  • Faster growth and higher yield: Because nutrients and oxygen are delivered directly to roots in a controlled environment, plants tend to grow faster (30% – 50%) when using hydroponics. Faster growth results in shorter times until the next harvest. Thus, there are more growth cycles and a greater crop yield compared to growing plants in soil. 
  • Better quality crops: Not only is yield higher and the growth quicker, but the quality and size of plants is often superior when growing hydroponically. With the optimal conditions of hydroponics, plants can reach their full genetic potential.
  • Year-round: Hydroponic systems allow for both indoor and outdoor gardening. If you live in a colder climate, no problem! Plants can be grown year-round indoors, meaning you can always have something growing during any season. 
  • More control: Since you control the growing environment, traditional soil-related problems like overwatering/underwatering, aeration in the root-zone, and nutrient deficiencies are less of a concern with hydroponics. 
  • Conservation: Hydroponics uses 90% less water than traditional soil gardening. Many hydroponic systems recycle water and nutrients, so there much less waste overall.

How to Grow Plants using Hydroponics

Hydroponics typically uses a growing medium to support and oxygenate plants at their root level. Nutrients are mixed with water (creating the nutrient solution) and delivered directly to the roots. This allows for plants to take in food with ease and results in more ideal growing conditions compared to problematic soil gardening. Since it is important to always maintain adequate pH levels, pH adjusters can be added to the nutrient solution when needed. While hydroponic growing may sound complicated, it is actually quite easy once you have your system in place.

 Hydroponic Systems

There are various methods (or systems) in which to grow plants hydroponically. Each hydroponic system delivers water, nutrients, and oxygen differently, and it is at the discretion of the grower to decide which system to employ.

Passive hydroponic systems rely on the grow medium or a wick to bring nutrients and moisture to the roots of a plant, while active hydroponic systems move the nutrient solution within the system, usually with the help of a pump.

Recovery systems recirculate water and nutrients back into the system once used, whereas non-recovery systems use water and nutrients only one time…and then are discarded.

Types of Hydroponic Systems

While many hydroponic growers combined different techniques into one system, there are essentially 6 different types of systems used in hydroponics. These are:

  • Aeroponics – Roots of a plant are suspended in a growth chamber and periodically misted with a nutrient solution. No grow medium is used in aeroponics, which allows for superior aeration of the root system. 
  • Deep Water Culture (DWC) – Also called “the reservoir method,” Deep Water Culture works by suspending plant roots in a grow medium filled with oxygenated, nutrient-rich water. Air pumps are used to provide oxygen to the nutrient solution, which prevents roots from suffocating. 
  • Drip System – These hydroponic systems provide a slow, continual drip of nutrients and moisture to the roots or grow medium. Drip systems recirculate the nutrient solution back to the reservoir and then are re-dripped. This cycle ensures that the roots have a constant supply of nutrient solution without flooding the growing environment. 
  • Ebb and Flow – Also called “flood and drain,” this hydroponic system works by flooding nutrient solution into the growing area. Once flooded, the nutrient solution slowly drains back into the reservoir. With the help of pump and timers, this cycle will repeat at specific times, resulting in periods of wetness and dryness. 
  • Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) – Nutrient Film Technique works by recirculating a shallow stream of nutrient solution through a tilted, watertight channel. The nutrient solution only touches the tip of the roots of the plant, which allows plants to receive a substantial amount of oxygen for fast growth. 
  • Wicking – The simplest of hydroponic systems, wicking employs a rope-like material to draw the nutrient solution to the roots of the plant. No timers or pumps are used in this passive hydroponic system.

Buying a Hydroponics System Online

Amazon has many fabulous kits, supplies, and hydroponic systems available to get you started. Tepid hydroponic beginners may find a simple wicking herb garden is all they want to try, while other novices may want to try a more productive system – such as the Aerogarden. There are also some easy-to-use Deep Water Culture, Drip, and Ebb and Flow systems to choose from.

More experienced or adventuresome hydroponic growers have a wider range of choices. Amazon has numerous DWC, Drip, Ebb and Flow, and NFT options, as well as some interesting Aeroponic systems. Get creative and combine different systems into one, or keep the set-up as is. The world is your oyster with hydroponics, so get started today!

 What is Aquaponics?

The integrated system of aquaponics combines the aquaculture element of raising fish with the hydroponics element of growing plants in water instead of soil. Like hydroponics, grow media and pumps are used. But instead of relying on the man-made nutrients used in hydroponics, aquaponics uses organic fish waste to supply the nutrients for growing plants. Fish consume inexpensive fish food, which is digested to become waste, then this waste is pumped into the grow beds, supplying the nutrients necessary for plant health. Plants naturally help to clean water in aquarium tanks, so the symbiotic environment of aquaponics requires less cleaning and overall maintenance.

Benefits of using an Aquaponics System

Aquaponics shares many of the same benefits as hydroponics.

Because plants are grown in soilless, nutrient-rich, well-oxygenated water, crops experience the same fast growth and high yield as do hydroponic plants. Aquaponics systems are space-saving, can be set-up indoors and utilized year-round, and eliminate the problems associated with soil growing. While raising fish may not appeal to everyone, there are a few advantages to using aquaponics vs. hydroponics:

  • Organic fertilizer: Aquaponics appeals to organic growers, as no man-made fertilizers are used and no additional nutrients need to be purchased (beyond the fish food). 
  • Easy disposal: Since fish waste is organic, this fertilizer can be flushed down the drain or saved for composting.
  • Low maintenance: The natural ecosystem created by aquaponics tends to balance itself out, meaning only periodic testing of pH, ammonia and nitrate levels may be necessary.

Because of the aquariums used, aquaponic systems tend to consumer more energy than most hydroponic systems. In addition, it may take months to get an aquaponics biofilter to become fully established, whereas hydroponics systems hit the ground running. However, while both hydroponic and aquaponic techniques can be more efficient than soil growing, aquaponics is often the easier system to maintain once it is established.

Aquaponic Kits

Aquaponics kits easily convert an aquarium into a living ecosystem, where plants and fish symbiotically co-exist. If you already have an aquarium…great! Simply buy an aquaponics kit and retrofit to your existing set-up. Don’t have an aquarium? You can purchase one on Amazon, then buy an aquaponics kit separately. Some aquaponics kits come complete with an aquarium tank and all the necessary components to get you started. Aquaponics systems can be large and elaborate or small and simplistic, so choose a size which will work best for you.

Grow Mediums used in Hydroponics and Aquaponics:

Grow mediums act as the soil-substitute in hydroponic and aquaponic growing. While the nutrient solution (or fish waste) provides food for the plant, grow mediums act as a support system to the roots, and helps to maintain a beneficial oxygen to water ratio within the hydroponic and aquaponic growing environment.

Some of the grow medium choices available to hydroponic and aquaponic growers include:

  • Clay Pebbles (Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate (L.E.C.A.)) – these clay pellets are lightweight, porous, pH-neutral, re-usable and maintain a beneficial oxygen to water ratio 
  • Coconut Fiber (“coco coir”) – made from the outer husks of coconuts, this grow medium is naturally pH-neutral, anti-fungal, retains moisture and is environmentally friendly 
  • Growstones a mix of recycled glass and calcium carbonate, growstones provide a lightweight, porous and effective grow medium for hydroponic and aquaponic growing
  • Perlite and Vermiculiteoften mixed with other grow media, these synthesized minerals create a lightweight, porous, pH-neutral medium, retaining water and oxygen 
  • Rockwoolmade of rock which has been spun into thin fibers, rockwool has excellent water retaining properties and is widely used as a seed-starter
  • Oasis Cubeslike rockwool, Oasis cubes are a popular choice for seed-starting, providing excellent water retention and aeration capabilities due to its open-cell foam-like material
  • Lava Rocks these volcanic rocks are porous, lightweight, pH-neutral and provide drainage and water retention, plus add trace minerals to the root zone

What can you Grow using Hydroponics and Aquaponics?

Nearly any plant can be grown using hydroponics or aquaponics. With that said,  we recommend that you avoid growing fungi, squash, zucchini, corn, zucchini, and vining plants, as well as vegetables which grow beneath the soil (carrots, onions, parsnips, leeks, yams, radishes, and potatoes).  While these crops can be grown hydroponically or aquaponically, it will require more attention and skill to cultivate them effectively.

Among the most popular hydroponic and aquaponic plants to grow include:

  • Herbs for Hydroponics: basil, parsley, sage, mint, chives, anise, dill, thyme, catnip, tarragon, chamomile, lavender, cilantro, oregano, rosemary, coriander, fennel, cannabis
  • Vegetables: tomatoes, radish, peas, artichokes, celery, brussels sprouts, peppers, cabbage, spinach, cauliflower, beans, lettuce, cucumbers, asparagus, broccoli 
  • Fruits: strawberries, blueberries, watermelon, cantaloupes, blackberries, raspberries
  • Flowers: daisies, roses, petunia, zinnia, snapdragon, begonias, dahlias, iris, orchids 
  • Ornamentals: impatiens, palm trees, ficus, African violets, monster, caladiums

And the list goes on…