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Soil vs Hydroponics: what you need to know before growing hydroponic plants.

It is time that we tackle this big question: soil vs hydroponics? It is a pretty hot topic of conversation! Especially in Berlin, where we have incredible startups like infarm, who specialise in hydroponic production in urban areas, supplying restaurants, supermarkets and much more. Therefore, their setup is installed in-house which allows them to cut down on the food miles.

Also, I’m finding friends that are getting themselves home hydroponic kits to grow exciting salad varieties. So we’ve often find ourselves talking about why we use soil vs of hydroponics, and so we wanted to give a bit of an overview of the pros and cons of both.

What is hydroponics?

So then let’s go back to basics, what is hydroponics? Hydroponics, in a nutshell, is a method of growing plants without soil where you use mineral nutrient mixes in a water solution (hence the word ‘hydro’).

Generally, the roots are exposed when the plant grows. The water and nutrient mix is introduced by either the roots sitting within the mixture, being sprayed or in some cases having partial drying and partial immersion. In other cases where plants require support to their root systems perlite, rock wool and gravel can be used.

You can use nutrient solutions produced by the multiple companies that have begun specializing in this, or you can mix up your own (with access to a lab type stock of elements). You can also use by-products of aquaculture farms, fish waste etc. Generally, hydroponic systems that most homeowners utilize for home gardening are a fully controllable unit including lighting. Therefore enabling growers to control and produce a very efficient plant in the best conditions that you choose.

Now let’s get into the real topic: soil vs hydroponics, what are the pros and cons?

plants grown with hydroponics vs soil

 

Economic investment

This all might sound ideal to some. But actually, there are a few things to consider here.

Firstly the economic investment required in the beginning is rather substantial. These systems are not always cheap. Or let me put it this way: if you want good lighting which are in the right ‘spectrum’ and are not going to give you leggy unhealthy plants, you want a good system that has been produced by a trustworthy company. And whilst these sure exist, Ikea even does great systems, they are not cheap and it adds up financially.

In comparison, you can do home balcony soil-based gardening without investing tons of money in the beginning. You can build it up slowly, all you need is some seeds and soil. You even have the possibility to recycle egg cartons for seedling trays and bang you’re on your way in springtime!

Energy reliance / plant compounds

Now another thing to be concerned about in terms of hydroponics is that it is energy reliant. So if you’re in a place where the electricity tends to cut out, or if you don’t fancy using unnecessary energy, then this is really something to consider.

If your lights go out, your plants will die. Sadly that’s just the reality, it’s a very fine-tuned system and you can get great productivity out of it. But at the same time, plants produced in such systems are not as resilient as those grown in natural conditions.

And that brings us to the next major point to consider. Natural conditions tend to enable plants to develop a buffer capacity against changes in temperature, lack of water, etc. They toughen up and produce all kinds of amazing secondary metabolite plant compounds that help protect them from stress. And guess what? Science is just discovering how healthy some of these compounds are for us humans! Secondary metabolites called ‘glucosinolates’ in the broccoli family have anti-carcinogenic properties! So plants toughening up to growing conditions can be a good thing for them and for us.

example of hydroponics plants to illustrate the difference with soil

 

Maintenance and disease

There is a whole hype in controlling ‘lighting’ recipes that LED’s can now create for plants. Some home growers are for example tweaking their tomato plants to increase flavonoid secondary compounds. But this is realistically more advanced.

Essentially, hydroponics can be harder for the novice gardener because the plants are not very resilient or forgiving. They are fragile beauty queens that have never had a stress in their life, and really throw a temper tantrum when things go a bit unusually out of schedule.

This importantly enough brings us to another point: hydroponic systems are very controlled, clean and uncontaminated. This usually means then that if one plant gets a disease, a virus or is afflicted by something, you can pretty much count on all the other plants being afflicted or struck down by the same thing within days. All plants are grown in the same water mixture. As a result, disease and contamination spread extremely fast. So you have to really be quick on the draw in identifying a malady or symptom when it crops up.

 

The Green Conspiracy Garden Journal

Track your plants growth throughout the season to keep them happy!

 

Organic or not?

Here is an interesting fact if you are not aware of it: organic produce will not be certified so if grown using hydroponics. Why you might ask? Because one of the underlying most important rules for organic certification is that organic produce is grown in soil.

There was a huge push to remove this rule as we can now find more sustainable organic fertilizers and nutrient mixes for hydroponics, that were not available a few years ago. But I must say that I think it might be an important gold standard to keep in play.

Soil is so important and is such a reserve of all kinds of micro life and activity. When cared for and given back to in exchange for the harvests and bounties you are getting out of your balcony or garden, they can become enriched and magical. There is a whole micro magical world of fungi and organisms that aid in the breakdown and transport of nutrients from the air into the soil and to your plant’s roots that are just mind-boggling.

So when you create a healthy balanced soil you are in for a win-win situation of constant giving in exchange for a bit of compost and humus content every year. It’s pretty satisfying, I must say!

lettuce growing with hydroponics

Big companies?

Back onto the topic of minerals and fertilizers, this is not so far off from the monoculture system many of us are trying to not support by growing our own and sidestep the big agri-companies.

Hydroponics, sadly, is fertilizer based. And one very important aspect to consider even when using organic bio fertilizers is where and how the companies produce them? It is very often the result of mining activities in a developing country, where workers are not living in healthy socially justifiable conditions.

Additionally, big pharmaceutical companies are producing chemicals required for creating these mixtures. And I still have a hard time justifying such high externalities, when liquid manures and composts can be created so easily at home even in small spaces.

Moreover, the production of hydroponics growing facilities and systems needs a lot of energy to ‘build’ or manufacture. And so if you have access to a windowsill or balcony with sunlight (or even semi sunlight), I would be more in favor of encouraging gardeners to branch out and explore this area first. I especially cannot wait for those first warm days in spring to begin organizing, sowing and get growing.

There’s nothing better than fresh air, sunlight and actual dirt under nails in my opinion – but that’s just me. Also let’s not forget how much the insects and bees thank us for the plants and flowers that we provide to them from our outdoor growing activities.

 

soil vs hydroponics illustrated by plants growing in bamboo

 

Soil vs Hydroponics: conclusion

I know, I’ve banged on about the cons of hydroponics a bit and I going to try and redeem myself here. Because trust me… I live in Berlin and I am an urban gardener by profession, so the idea of growing things indoors in winter really is starting to tickle me! In my opinion, this is where the plus can come in. If you have no balcony or sunny windowsills, then these systems can be incredible. In fact, I’ve even visited fantastic bars that grow all their medicinal plants indoors, year long. They use beautifully handmade hydroponic shelving systems.

So I have been secretly scouting out a section in our flat for a little homemade DIY winter growing… Because let’s be honest, this green thumb gets super itchy and would love to have some things to play within the winter!

I also really like the idea of homegrown winter vegetables and salads during the winter. I love seeing the results of lighting and nutrients first hand. But sadly, my flat is incredibly dark year round without an inch of sunlight during the day.

Now my only constraint is all the points I’ve mentioned beforehand. Especially because I am lucky enough to have an urban garden here in Berlin that I share with friends. But you know when I think the pay off is going to come? In summer! Because I have been fantasizing about all the amazing seedlings I could start of early with a hydroponics system here in the flat.

Soil vs hydroponics? To each their own. But for me personally? Nothing beats being outdoors with dirt under my nails!

3 comments

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  2. Very good in-depth information on this topic. Soil based natural farming is best. Hydroponics is going away from nature.

  3. Thank you for this article. You clearly have reservations, but they are thoughtfully articulated.

    I, too, believe that healthy soil is key to our own health, and to the health of the planet. I encourage people to grow their own regenerative, Permaculture-style food forests. In the end, we eat what our plants eat, and hydroponic food really can’t be as cheap or nutritious (from a cradle-to-grave standpoint) as regeneratively-grown food. That said, in cooler climates and in cities, hydroponics does have an appeal.

    Most of us already make compromises, whether we know it or not. If you have limited access to sunlight and soil, perhaps this is a compromise worth considering. I would, however, encourage folks to explore outdoor, soil-based options first – in an allotment, community garden, or outdoor vertical spaces.

    -Karl

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