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Aquaponics Vs Hydroponics Guide for Beginners

Plants growing in an aquaponic/hydroponic indoor gardening system

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Are you an at-home gardener looking for an alternative to backyard planting? Or perhaps you’re a larger-scale farmer ready to try a new method of planting?

Regardless of your background, you’ve probably got hydroponics and aquaponics growing on your mind.

The good news is even if these methods seem foreign to you, they are accessible for growers of all levels of experience and with all kinds of growing needs!

DIY hydroponic and aquaponic systems can be set up on a tabletop, and larger-scale systems are efficient means of growing for profit.

Either way, the process begins with understanding the difference between aquaponics vs. hydroponics and determining which is right for your garden.

Ready to learn more? Let’s get started!

Hydroponic agriculture just means growing plants without soil.

In hydroponic systems, fertilizers are added into a tank of water, which nourishes the plants’ roots.

Aquaponics, on the other hand, is the blending of aquaculture (farming fish), with hydroponics.

Aquaponic systems house living fish, whose waste in turn feeds the growing plants.

Are There Any Similarities?

Both hydroponic and aquaponic growing systems have several common benefits to offer:

No Need for a Large Outdoor Space

Hydroponic and aquaponic gardens can live inside, so they are great for growers who have small yards or no yard at all!

No Dirt

If the soil available to you is low-quality, or if you are sick of forking over cash for bagged soil, it is a relief to know you can grow plants without soil!

Plus, hydroponic/aquaponic growing frees you from constantly plucking up weeds.

Less Prone to Seasonal Limitations

Since hydroponic and aquaponic gardens can be set up easily in greenhouses and indoor spaces, they are less affected by the winters’ frosts and shorter daylight hours.

This allows growers the flexibility to grow year-round, and to expand their options for which crops can flourish in colder seasons.

Saves Water

In both types of systems, water is recycled within its tank, so the growing process is much less water-intensive than conventional farming.

It’s Fun and Educational!

For those used to traditional gardening, playing with a new method of growing is an exciting challenge.

Plus, hydroponic and aquaponic systems are kid-friendly and educational for classrooms.

Learning about aquatic cycles as well as plant growth is accessible and exciting when you can see your plants’ roots grow and see how fish or fertilizers are nourishing them.

What's So Great About Aquaponics?

Ok, so using a hydroponic or aquaponic growing system sounds pretty great!

But are there any reasons that aquaponics might be a better choice for you? 

Let’s take a look at the details. 

Unique aquaponics benefits: It’s an all-natural growing method, and you can produce a dual harvest of both plants and fish.

Here’s a visual to give you a better idea of how aquaponics works:

Illustration showing aquaponics growing system

Aquaponics is a natural, organic growing method. Instead of using fertilizers to support plant growth, aquaponic systems rely on the symbiotic relationship between fish, bacteria, and plants to farm both plants and fish.

Here’s the basic breakdown:

  1. Bacteria consume fish excrement, which helps keep the water clean for the fish.
  2. The bacteria also convert the waste’s ammonia into nitrate, which is a usable form of plant food.
  3. As the plants take up this nitrified nutrition, they are actively cleaning the fish’s water.

This cycle keeps the fish fresh and healthy while also providing nutrients for plant growth, leading to one of the coolest benefits of aquaponic growing: dual harvest.

If you choose edible fish such as tilapia, catfish, trout, or shrimp to grow in your aquaponic system, you can harvest them.

Note: These fish require large aquatic spaces to grow, so these are only good options if your aquaponic tank is on the bigger side.

If you are just looking for a tabletop aquaponic setup, smaller fish like goldfish might be a better option. These won’t contribute to a dual harvest, but they will feed your plants just as well as the bigger fish do.

Why Choose Hydroponics?

Are there any reasons why hydroponics might be the better fit for your needs? 

Here are some points to consider: 

Unique hydroponics benefits: Easy to control and manage, and it’s also typically inexpensive.

Here’s what a hydroponics growing system looks like:

Illustration showing a hydroponic growing system

Since hydroponic growing relies on added fertilizers, it is not guaranteed to be as natural and organic as aquaponic systems.

However, hydroponic growing is often easier to control, since you can precisely measure the nutrients you add to your tank. 

Most commonly, these nutrient mixes include the fertilizers NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium), CaNO3 (calcium nitrate), and MgSO4 (magnesium sulfate) into a three-part fertilizer, which can be combined manually.

But many of the same organic fertilizers you can use for typical in-soil farming can be used in hydroponic systems, as well.

One example is fish fertilizer, which offers its own nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, along with other natural nutrients.

You can also find that magical NPK combo in organic seaweed fertilizers or liquefied worm castings. 

Hydroponic upkeep also requires maintaining the water’s pH level. Typically, that value should stay on the acidic side, somewhere between 5.5 and 6.5. This allows nutrients to be maximally available to plants.

However, different plants grow better at slightly different pH levels, so be sure to research what your plants most need.

After setting up your hydroponic system and settling into managing it, it’s likely that a hydroponic system will be less expensive and less time consuming than an aquaponic system.

You can even look into automating your hydroponic system!

Keep in mind that we’re barely scratching the surface here when it comes to hydroponics. To learn more, stop by the Pure Greens website and check out this Ultimate Guide to Hydroponics!

What Kind Of Plants Can You Grow?

While there’s nothing holding you back from growing whatever your heart desires in a hydroponic or aquaponic garden, a little forethought can save you a headache. 

You might be wise to avoid plants that take up a lot of space, including these:

  • Melons
  • Squashes
  • Corn

Similarly, burrowing root vegetables are likely better off in the dirt. A few examples include the following:

  • Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Beets
  • Turnips

Many of the easiest and most popular hydro-harvests are leafy greens and herbs. This list shows a few examples to give you some ideas, but it is by no means exhaustive. In fact, it barely scratches the surface!

  • Lettuces
  • Kale 
  • Spinach
  • Basil
  • Mint
  • Rosemary
  • Oregano

Crops like these can be grown year-round! What’s more, they’ll also be safer from pests if your hydroponic garden is indoors or in a greenhouse rather than in an outdoor garden.

Lots of other kinds of produce–tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, peppers, berries, etc.–can be grown in hydroponic systems, as can many kinds of house plants.

No matter what you’re growing, be sure you’re attuned to that specific plant’s affinity for light and its desired pH level.

Did you know that an indoor hydroponic growing system doesn’t even need direct sunlight? Grow lights, like this one, use LED or fluorescent bulbs to mimic sunshine and encourage healthy plant development. 

Starting Your Growing System

Getting started with hydroponic or aquaponic gardening may sound like a tall order. But it’s really not!

Here’s a look at the supplies and knowledge you need to start your own growing system. 

Aquaponic Systems

You can buy aquaponic tanks of all varieties and sizes online, like this small at-home tank from Amazon. You can also incorporate the fish tank you already have into your garden system!

If you are feeling crafty, there are plenty of options for DIY-ing your aquaponic system. This is a straightforward aquaponic recipe of sorts, pulling together the pieces you will need to make a mini aquaponic garden and how to construct it.

To see more options for varying aquaponic setups, check out this helpful video from Rob Bob’s Aquaponics and Backyard Farm:

Hydroponic Systems

Hydroponic gardens are easy to DIY as well! Here’s a how-to for a PVC pipe hydro system, and here’s one for a floating styrofoam variation.

If you’re looking to buy instead, this bucket system option is great for beginners. Hydrobuilder is also an awesome resource that offers lots of options for larger-scale growing.

Final Thoughts

All that is to say, there is no one right way to do hydroponic or aquaponic gardening.

Both growing systems have their benefits and drawbacks. When it comes to choosing the best one for you, spend some time thinking about your space, time, budget, and intended harvest.

Then go forth and get growing! 

What are your thoughts on aquaponics and hydroponics? Have you tried either method, and what was your experience like? Do you have any other questions?

Let us know in the comments! 

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