Aquaponics Vs. Hydroponics_ What's The Difference And Which Is Better

Are you still undecided if you garden should be an aquaponic or a hydroponic one? These are two revolutionary farming techniques that have many things in common, yet they are quite different. But which one is better for you? Both have great pros and some cons. Let’s find out.

Hydroponics vs. Aquaponics what’s the difference?

Both aquaponics and hydroponics are ways of growing plants using water and without soil, but with a huge difference: with aquaponics, you will feed your plants using organic matter produced by fish and other living beings. On the other hand, with hydroponics, you will use a nutrient solution which you will obtain by mixing nutrients directly to the water you use for your plants.

Which one is right for you?

It very much depends on your needs, however… If you are looking for a professional garden with great selling points, aquaponics may be a very good option indeed; but hydroponics is simpler, cheaper, easier to set up and it allows you full control over the growth of your plants and is on the whole better.

Are you still in two minds about which method is best for you? Both have great advantages and some disadvantages, and you will need to know about them before choosing hydroponics or aquaponics for your home, garden or even terrace. Just read on to find all the pros and cons then…

Are both aquaponics and hydroponics organic?

Yes they are; both are ways of gardening organically; with aquaponics you will create a small and self contained ecosystem in a fish pond whose water you will then feed to your plants; with hydroponics you will put organic nutrients into the water yourself.

That’s for feeding; but how about pest control? It is counterintuitive to use chemical pesticides in water where you grow fish, of course, and with hydroponics, all studies show that pesticides are far less needed than with conventional farming.

Even when you do need to control small pest problems, this can easily be done with natural remedies.

Of course, neither needs any weed killer, and with this, all the three ways in which farming has become environmentally unfriendly are returned to natural methods with both hydroponics and aquaponics.

What do experts say about hydroponics and aquaponics?

If you ask an aquaponic lover, he or she will say that it is far superior to hydroponics.

But the fact is that the reason why they think it is better may be less than appealing to most gardeners, especially if you are not well grounded in biology and farming and you come to these techniques with a fairly limited competence: hydroponics is far simpler than aquaponics.

What are the advantages of aquaponics?

Now, imagine having a pond with fish, or an aquarium, and using the excrement of fish to feed your plans and the plants themselves to clean the water you give back to the fish.

For sure you can see that there is a closed virtuous cycle that emulates what happens in nature. And all within your own little garden, or even with a simple home size aquarium… the idea itself is beautiful, appealing and – why not – even “trendy”.

But there is much more to say about the charm of this innovative technique:

  • It has a great selling factor. Just imagine the most beautiful scenario: you want to have a pick your own farm where families come to harvest their own food. Can you see the children smiling and admiring your fish ponds, and having a great day out while the parents do their “alternative shopping” and ask you lots of questions about your little farm? Close your eyes and imagine how many beautiful pictures you could put on flyers to advertise your little business… Surely you can see the appeal of aquaponics.
  • Looking at the bigger picture, aquaponics may offer solutions to large scale farming, even to restore degraded areas, re-launch tourism, rebalance the ecosystem… It is the stuff utopian dreams are made of…
  • If you love nature, if you have a passion for biology, aquaponics can be a great hobby too. Yes, it is more complex than hydroponics, but if you want to see Mother Nature at work in your back garden, aquaponics can be the way forward.
  • It is a great way to teach children about nature – and this does not just mean your children; you can use your aquaponic garden to teach biology to your neighbors’ kids and even, on a larger scale, to school children.
  • With aquaponics, you can also put fish on your table, or, if you want to do it professionally, you can have a double business: fruit and veggies as well as fish.

What Are The Main Disadvantages Of Aquaponics?

Not all that glitters is gold though, and aquaponics does have some downsides; before you go ahead, you should check them out carefully:

Setting Up An Aquaponic System Is Far Harder Than A Hydroponic One

it requires more elements. For example, you will need a filter, as you cannot send the fish pond water directly to your plants; this can get caught in the roots of your tomato and lettuce plants and cause them to rot.

You will also need an air pump for the fish. You may need one as well with hydroponics, but only with some (fairly old fashioned) techniques, like deep water culture and the wick method; many hydroponic systems can do without an air pump.

It Requires Constant Maintenance

You will need to clean the filter, feed your fish, and make sure that nothing goes wrong.

It Has A Ratio Of Water / Crop Which Has Natural Limitations

this means that from a fish pond you have a ceiling to the amount of food you can produce.

You cannot grow more than a few plants from a tank the size of your average home aquarium to give you an example on a small scale.

You will need to be very careful about fish disease and the balance of your ecosystem.

Anything from extremely wet or hot weather to unforeseen pathogen infections (bacteria and viruses) can spell disaster not just for your fish, but as a consequence for your crop as well.

To Have Your Garden Working At Full Capacity

It will take you about one year from when you set it up. With hydroponics, you can start harvesting full crops within six weeks to two months.

This is for many reasons; you need to establish an ecosystem, the process of transforming fish food into enough plant food to grow your fruits and veggies takes a biological time that you cannot change etc.

What are the advantages of hydroponics?

There must be a reason why hydroponics is far more common than aquaponics, especially with amateurs. In fact, it does have some great advantages:

It is far easier to set up and run. In some cases, all you will need is a couple of tanks, a few pipes, and a water pump.

1: It Is Perfect For Small Spaces, Even For Oddly Shaped Spaces

While there are many hydroponic kits available on the market, once you understand the basics of this technology, you can easily build your own garden to fit even into that quirky corner of your bathroom that has been empty for years…

Hydroponics is so flexible and suitable to all environments that it has been used to grow plants even in orbit since the 1970s. The International Space Station now has a fully operating hydroponic garden on it.

You can use a small reservoir. This follows from the previous point, but I feel it should be stated separately; having a small tank with just enough water to mix with nutrients for your plants means that you don’t need a large space to have even a garden with quite significant food production quantities.

2: Hydroponics Has A Much Higher Crop Yield Than Aquaponics 

when hydroponics was invented (by Dr. William Frederick Gericke in 1929), it became apparent that plants gown with this method were bigger and produced better and bigger crops than even conventional soil farming.

In fact, when the rumors got round that he had invented a way of growing plants in water, the scientific community did what it does best: they didn’t believe it…

So he grew a 25 foot tall tomato plant at the University of California to show his colleagues that not only he could grow plants with no soil, but that they were bigger, faster growing and had more fruits than conventionally grown ones.

To be honest, now there is a way to match the yield you get with hydroponics using aquaponics, but it requires a double cycle water system which is quite complex.

3: You Have Full Control Over The Growth Of Your Plants 

There are no “external factors” in hydroponics, like the weather, health and even appetite of your fish.

You know how much water you need, how much nutrient solution you need, how often to give it to your plants…

Every stage of the growth of your plants and food production is under your control.

4: Have Different Systems And Methods

There are so many different systems and methods with hydroponics that you can easily find one that is best for your needs.

For example, you can have a very easy almost rudimental wick system (you use a rope, often a felt one to bring the water from your reservoir to your grow tray) that even a child can build, or an ebb and flow system where water gets pumped into the grow tray and then drained back into the reservoir (you only need a timer for it).

Or, if you want a very clean and neat system, you can go for a drip system; the nutrient solution is taken from you reservoir (or “sump tank” as it is often called) through piped and then dripped directly to the roots of your plants.

These systems have been developed to make the best of small spaces; you can now buy hydroponic towers, pyramids and even tiny kits that are no bigger than a shoe box in size.

5: Hydroponic Kits Are Cheap

These kits will cost you very little. Because they are now mass produced and they only have a few simple elements, they are very affordable indeed.

6: More Reliable And Faster Than An Aquaponic One

A hydroponic system is more reliable and faster than an aquaponic one; because the technology is simple, the elements only a few, and they are easy to operate (in some systems, you will only need to set a timer for your irrigation), fewer parts can break, get stuck or clogged.

The filter in aquaponics needs to be emptied regularly; it is a mucky job but if you don’t do it, the whole chain collapses, for example.

7: It Is “Dinner Guest Friendly”

This may look like a minor point, but if you only want a small garden to keep in your living room, while fish may look nice, both the water and the filter of an aquaponic system will smell at some stage… Not exactly what you want to have by your dinner table…

8: You Can Go On Holiday With A Lighter Heart

Even this is a key point if you don’t want to have a big professional garden but just a small one for your own needs.

Now, imagine having that once in a lifetime holiday to Mexico planned… 

How can you ask your neighbor to look after you aquaponic plant, take responsibility for the well-being of the fish in your pond, and even get his or her hands dirty to clean the filter for a few weeks?

And if something goes wrong while you are away?

With hydroponics, instead, you can ask your neighbor to check that the timer and pumps are working once a week while she or he harvests some of your spinach and peppers on the way back from the Saturday shopping trip!

Does hydroponics have any disadvantages?

All things come with downsides, and hydroponics is no exception:

1: To start with, you will not have fish. This may be the most evident drawbacks of hydroponics.

2: Hydroponics does not look too great in a decorative garden; you can’t match a fish pond with plants growing next to it to a system of plastic towers or a tank with water and plants growing from it.

3: It is harder to enthuse children to love nature with hydroponics.

4: You will not become fully independent. If your idea is to set up a homestead and become fully self sufficient, hydroponics will spoil it by sending you to the nearest town to buy the nutrients.

These are organic nutrients, of course, but you just can’t produce them as you do with aquaponics.

5: It does not have the same selling appeal as aquaponics. What is more, many people are convinced that hydroponic fruits and veggies simply don’t taste as good as soil grown ones or aquaponic ones…

The point is highly debated and, at least from a scientific and rational point of view, it looks like this belief is “all in the mind”.

But go and tell your customers that their taste is wrong if you want to sell your produce at the local farmers market!

Hydroponics vs. Aquaponics: Which One is Right For You?

Thus, both aquaponics and hydroponics offer amazing solutions for our future as a species. Both have great advantages, and only time will tell where these two innovative and revolutionary forms of gardening will go.

Still, while one (aquaponics) will probably find great meeting points with regenerative agriculture and permaculture, the other, hydroponics, is already starting to change the look (and air) of our cities.

But when it comes to your personal choice, you will need to factor in your own needs, the space you have for your garden, your scientific and technical expertise before you make a fully informed and successful choice.

On the whole, if you are new to these two techniques (and especially if you are new to gardening and growing your own fruits and veggies) and if you have a small space, little time or live in an apartment block, hydroponics is far better as a choice than aquaponics.

But then again, if aquaponics is very appealing to you for its beauty, for the fact that it will, on the long run, make you fully self sufficient, or simply because you prefer your garden to “look” as natural as possible and follow a fully natural cycle of production, aquaponics could be a very enticing option indeed.

However, if you are not a consummate gardener, but you would like to have a parish pond that grows veggies as well in the future, why don’t you get your hands dirty (or “wet” in this case) with hydroponics first to gain experience and then take it from there?

Adriano Bulla

Written By

Adriano Bulla

After many years as an academic in London, Adriano Bulla became a writer, publishing books like A History of Gardening, Organic Gardening and Elements of Garden Design; he then decided to become a gardener, following his childhood dream, and has been following his dream writing and gardening professionally in Southern Europe, where he has specialized in new and innovative organic gardening fields and techniques, like permaculture, regenerative agriculture, food forests and hydroponics.

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