Growing plants indoors offers quite a few options in terms of the method you want to use. If you don’t want to use soil, hydroponic, aquaponic, and aeroponic systems are three great alternative growing techniques.
While there are multiple types of hydroponics, these 3 soilless systems offer higher yields as the nutrients get right into the roots instead of passing through soil.
The main differences between these growing methods is how each gets their nutrients. Hydroponics is growing plants in a mixture of nutrients and water, aeroponics grows plants in air with the nutrients and water being sprayed or misted onto the roots, and aquaponics are grown in water and use fish as the source of nutrients.
While aquaponics and aeroponics are considered different variations of hydroponics, they are quite different.
Here is a quick overview of the differences in these methods.
|Roots grow in nutrient rich water
|A fish tank setup below the growing area and the fish provide all nutrients for the plants to grow.
|Roots are regularly sprayed with nutrients and water on a timer.
|Ease of Setup
|Ease of Maintenance
|Cost to Start
|Liquid NPK nutrients
|None added; plants fed via fish waste
|Liquid NPK nutrients
|Time to Maintain
|1-2 hours per week to add water and nutrients
|Daily fish feeding
|1-2 hours per week to add water and nutrients
|Plant Growth Speed
Hydroponics is probably the most well known method of indoor growing, mostly because a lot of 90s rappers were talking about it in their songs – even as a kid back then I had no idea what it meant, but I knew they were talking about it in terms of growing trees. 🙂
Instead of using soil, the roots are suspended in a solution of water and nutrients. Hydroponic systems can be very simple or very complex, and can be used to grow a wide variety of plants.
With a hydroponics system the plants roots are constantly in a solution of water and nutrients, and then system is constantly circulating this throughout. The water is pumped to the top of the system, and flows down through channels and ends up in a reservoir that then gets filtered and pumped back up to the beginning.
- You don’t need soil
- Reduced pest problems
- Less risk of diseases
- Vertical hydroponics systems save space
- Requires a little more intention and knowledge around nutrients and maintenance
- It required more knowledge of pH to make sure plants have enough nutrients and acidity.
While it sounds complicated, you might have already done some hydroponic growing. Countertop growing solutions like Aerogardens, Click and Grow, and others often use hydroponics systems.
- Water pump
- PVC pipes for the channels
- Net pots for the plants to grow in
An aquaponics system is a method where you grow plants and fish together in one ecosystem. The fish waste provides nutrients for the plants, and the plants help to filter the water for the fish. Aquaponics systems can be very simple or very complex, and can be used to grow a wide variety of plants.
Aquaponics systems can provide a really engaging learning experience for students when used in schools. Since it’s a closed loop system, they get to learn about cause and effect, as well as the circle of life and how everything in the environment impacts everything else. They get to participate in growing fish alongside plants.
Dudegrowsfish on TikTok is one of my favorite people to follow as he explains every part of this system well.
The large fish tanks will allow them to watch the fish swim around, and tell their friends and family they got to raise fish at school.
With aquaponics, you need to make sure you have the right fish to plants ratio in order to keep the fish alive. Depending on the age of the fish, the type of fish, and the size, they can eat anywhere from 1-3% of their body weight per day. This is called the fish feed ratio and it can be tricky to figure out at first.
While there are quite a few startup costs, the great part about an aquaponic system is that you mainly need to worry about feeding the fish, and their waste is what fertilizes the plants and helps them grow.
- Reduced need for fertilizers and plant food
- You get to watch fish swimming around which can be peaceful
- Fast growth rates
- High yields
- Fish take care of the nutrients
- You can also harvest the fish
- Can be expensive to setup
- Need to feed fish daily
- Have to keep fish alive and learn about signs of disease
- Requires more knowledge around the ecosystem to properly troubleshoot
- For commercial growers, there may be more regulatory hoops because it falls in the middle of fish farming and regular farming
With Aquaponics, there is quite a bit of equipment you need to get up and running.
- Fish tank
- Fish food
- Fish (most commonly tilapia, trout, carp, catfish, and others)
- Water pump to get water to the plants
- Oxygen pump to aerate water for the fish
- Growing medium (hydroton, rocks, etc.)
- Net pots
- Tubing to get water to the grow bed and back
With Aeroponics the roots are suspended in a chamber of air and misted with a solution of water and nutrients regularly. Aeroponic systems can be very simple or very complex, and can be used to grow a wide variety of plants.
Typically, there is a chamber very similar to hydroponics, but instead of the plant roots being submerged in water, they kind of just hang there. Misters are set on timers (anywhere between every 5-30 minutes) and they directly spray the plants roots with a nutrient and water mixture.
Aeroponics and hydroponics are quite similar in the way the systems are built, with the exception of what the roots are kept in.
- Fastest growth among these methods
- No need for substrate
- Consumes even less water than hydroponics
- Need less nutrients than hydroponics
- Minimal maintenance
- Setup and proper equipment can be expensive
- If one part of the growing system fails (or a mister clogs), you can lose your entire crop in just a few hours
There are purists in this industry who will tell you that having a submersible water pump right below the plants is not a “true aeroponics” system.
To “properly” setup an aeroponics system, you’ll need high quality pumps and misters and no reservoir or water sitting in the water chamber. Many setups are really a mix between aeroponics and hydroponics using submersible pumps to redistribute the water as mist.
Quite a Few Potential Points of Failure
With aeroponics you might get faster growth, but there are also more points of failure. Any of these issues can be deadly for your plants:
- Power outages
- Roots clogging a drain
- Roots clogging the misters
While you can take a plant through its entire lifecycle using aeroponics, as they get larger there is a lot of room for issues. Larger roots means more chance of a clog, top-heavy plants can cause the small net pot to tip or break,
Quite a few growers will start out with aeroponics and move over to something like hydroponics
With a “real” aeroponics system, the equipment tends to be more expensive. You need high quality water pumps, PVC piping and misters.
There are two kinds of aeroponics systems, Low Pressure Aeroponics (LPA) and High Pressure Aeroponics (HPA). The LPA systems are usually what you’ll find with home growers, as they are cheaper and easier to build for a DIY setup.
However, low pressure aeroponics systems are not as efficient as HPA systems.
In general, to get a quality aeroponics setup, you need the following:
- Water pump
- Accumulator tank
- PVC pipe for channels
- Mister nozzles
- Timer to control the spraying
- Water reservoir
- Nutrient solution
Although there are a lot of points where an aeroponics system can go wrong, there is also a lot of upside to this growing method. Aeroponics usually have the fastest growth and highest yields of these 3 options.
Some claim you can get between 15 and 20% more yield from aeroponics vs regular hydroponics.
What Can Be Grown in Hydroponics vs Aquaponics vs Aeroponics?
All three are able to be used for growing a wide variety of plants. Some of the ideal starting points for beginners are lettuce and other leafy greens, as well as herbs, tomatoes, strawberries, and peppers.
Root plants or those that grow under the soil can be challenging since the root system is consistently submerged in all three of these systems.
Which Method to Use?
All of these systems are more environmentally friendly than traditional farming methods, since you use a lot less water, have no need for soil, and less amount of nutrients are required to grow them. When choosing a growing technique, it’s important to consider all of the advantages and disadvantages of each.
If you’re just getting started, basic hydroponics is likely the method to use – you can get started with something as simple as a mason jar if you have that lying around. If you want a little more of a challenge in terms of build setup and maintenance, then aeroponics is a good option.
The hardest setup but easiest maintenance is likely going to be aquaponics.
I don’t know about you, but I’m hooked on ‘ponics. 🙂 #dadjoke