In this article we are going to discuss two similar but at the same time distinct systems for growing plants in soilless conditions.
In recent years the market has become huge for growing plants without soil. Whilst most people have heard of hydroponics, aquaponics is a less well-known field. Before we compare the two systems, let’s have a brief definition of what they are.
What is Aquaponics?
Aquaponics is the combination of growing plants and vegetables and raising fish in the same aquaculture. By utilizing the nutrient rich waters that raising fish provides the plants are kept fertilized and at the same time this process cleans the water maintaining the health of the fish. Done correctly it is a win-win situation.
This method is a fantastic way of providing a sustainable source of fresh fish and vegetables that in the right conditions can provide year-round results.
What is Hydroponics?
In a nutshell, Hydroponics is Aquaponics without the fish! By growing the plants in nutrient-rich water, you receive the same results as in the aquaponics systems, but you have to add the nutrients yourself.
Aquaponics vs. Hydroponics: Which is Better?
Both techniques have great potential for growing plants, for many people the attraction of aquaponics is the allure of raising live fish, whilst others prefer the control and precision that can be achieved through aquaponics.
Here we break down some of the pros and cons of both methods to help you make an informed choice when selecting your growing method.
Benefits of Aquaponics
One of the great and obvious benefits is the fact that as well as raising plants you are raising fish as well! Most people that select an aquaponic system at least in part because raising fish is a fun and cool thing to do. And of course, depending on the species, your aquaponics system provides you with fresh fish to eat as well.
Benefits of Hydroponics
By using a hydroponic system, you have more control over the nutrients in your water. You also have less to worry about as the health of your plants is the only thing to concern you. In an aquaculture system, you must be looking after your fish health as well.
Benefits of both Systems
Ultimately both systems are primed towards producing greater yields than traditional gardening. Most hydroponic and aquaponic systems are housed indoors, this negates climate effects, growing seasons and most of the pest problems that are prevalent in traditional gardening.
There are also environmental benefits attached to both systems. With less pressure from insects and weeds the use of chemical insecticides and weed killers that adversely affect the environment.
Water usage is also reduced. Despite the fact that both systems grow plants directly in water, the overall water consumption of the systems is less than used by traditional methods. This is because in both systems the water is constantly recycled, and the plants only use as much as they need.
Plants also grow faster in both systems, with average growth being between 30 and 50% greater than that of traditional systems.
Differences Between Aquaponics and Hydroponics
The main difference of course, is the addition of fish to an aquaponic system. This creates its own set of considerations when deciding between an aquaponic and hydroponic system.
The first thing to consider is the actual size of the systems. Whilst an aquaponic system obviously requires room for fish tanks, a hydroponic system can use grow beds that are typically around 6” in depth.
The next difference is in the actual components required in each system. Aquaponics requires more thought about growing media, which is essential in one of these systems, whilst in Hydroponics the plants can often be grown in no media at all!
Both have similar startup costs as far as the actual hardware goes. But for an aquaponic system there is the added expense of the fish stock and the growing media that is required for the microbes that ultimately provide the fertilizer, to reside within.
Aquaponics v Hydroponics – Start up Times
Here the hands-down winner is the hydroponics system. Once you have your system running it is only necessary to let the added nutrients cycle for a couple of days at the very most before you can begin to grow.
However, aquaponics systems take longer to get up and running. In some instances, this can take three months before the nitrifying bacteria begin to break down the fish waste. It is this process that creates the nitrates that feed the plants. Best case scenario is about a month for this to happen and the water has the required nutrient levels.
Hydroponics costs are mostly the purchase of nutrients to feed the plants. Whilst this might seem to make it more expensive, it is offset by aquaponic systems requiring higher oxygen levels in the water, which increases electricity usage.
Overall, once the systems are installed, both are quite similarly priced to run, with the aquaponics system slightly more expensive when you factor in expenses like fish food.
Hydroponic systems are better at growing a wider range of plants. This is because the nutrient levels can be adjusted to meet the needs of plants that have higher nutritional requirements. Aquaponics have a more limited scope of plants that can be grown and tend to work better with plants that have lesser nutritional needs.
Aquaponic systems are the winner when it comes to considering the maintenance requirements of both systems. The water system in Hydroponics requires constant monitoring to check elements like the PH of the water, dissolved solids and nutrient contents.
A properly balanced aquaculture ecosystem should achieve a natural balance of nutrients that are perfect for both fish and plants. Weekly checks of the ammonia and nutrient levels generally suffice or an aquaponic system, and the fish are there as a health check too, healthy fish means healthy water.
There are distinct advantages to both systems, and both systems produce results that are far superior to traditional gardening methods. Whilst aquaponics is a more ecologically sustainable solution than hydroponics they both have less environmental impact than traditional methods.
Of course, when it comes to choosing for most people the choice will be down to whether they want to have the cool feature of feeding your plants with a population of fish!