The Other Great Debate, Pt. 2: Soil vs. Hydroponics

We’ve touched on the basics of growing in soil, so let’s have a look at the fundamentals of its counterpart, hydroponic cultivation. Essentially there are two types of hydroponic cultivation: active and passive. Passive systems use capillary action (much like water being drawn up a paper towel) in order to supply water to plant roots, whereas active systems use external forces such as pumps to do the same. Passive systems are incredibly easy to construct and maintain, though they might not produce the same yields as active ones. The wick system and capillary mats are two examples of passive hydroponic methods that are cheap and effective, though some growers might be interested in something a little more challenging though more rewarding at the same time.

Active hydroponic systems can be broken down into the following types:

 

–       Aeroponics – Here plant roots hang just above the reservoir of nutrient water in a grow chamber where they get misted in a closed-loop system. This method provides the most amount of oxygen to roots, which means very rapid growth.

–       Deep Water Culture – This method uses nutrient buckets in which plants are suspended over the nutrient solution into which the roots eventually grow. An external air pump oxygenates the nutrient water through an air stone at the bottom of the bucket. Many different variations of this technique exist, though regardless of the design the mixture of oxygen and fertilizer do wonders for yields.

–       Drip System – As the name indicates, this system uses drip irrigation to feed plants individually. A dripper is placed into each plant container or close to the root ball of each plant and nutrient solution is then pumped throughout the system. The nutrient water can be recycled, though sometimes it is discarded after going through the roots. This can also be timed or arranged to be fed continuously. This method also can be used in a soilless medium or even soil itself, though results may differ significantly.

–       Ebb & Flow – Also known as Flood & Drain, this system utilizes rockwool in place of soil and the resulting yields can be very large. Two separate containers are used here, one with the plants and the other with just the nutrient solution and a water pump. The tray containing the plants gets flooded and drained on a timer. This resembles a natural rain cycle, which provides for a more natural grow environment.

–       Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) – In this setup, gravity is utilized to feed roots that are on a tilted surface. Nutrient solution is pumped onto a tray or PVC tubing, creating a shallow, slow-moving film that covers the roots of the plants one by one. The solution is usually then re-circulated back into the reservoir.

 

This is not an exhaustive list, as with some of the above-mentioned techniques, there are many variations available among store-bought systems and they can be endless with DIY setups. With the exception of the drip system, however, these systems all use some soilless medium. Rockwool, hydrocorn and coco coir are perhaps the most popular mediums for hydroponic cultivation, but any inert (non-decaying) medium will get the job done.

All of these systems seem like a lot of work and there certainly can be, at least in the actual construction and setting up of these systems. The amount of maintenance will also vary depending on what the grower chooses but there are a few reasons grower’s like going hydro.

The pros: With all that oxygen and nutrient-rich water being pumped into those roots, hydroponic systems produce huge yields at a very fast pace, which means more harvests in the grow cycle at a cheaper price. Hydro setups are also less likely to attract pests as there is no soil for them to hide in and insects are far less likely to make their way indoors. Since everything is setup indoors anyway, problems are easier to deal with as the grower is also more in control of everything. In addition, if done correctly, systems can be fully automated, making maintenance during the grow a breeze. Apart from bigger, faster yields, many proponents of hydroponic systems also praise the “bag appeal” of their crops, in other words not only is there a lot of it, it is also very eye-catching.

The cons: The cost to purchase and setup (and sometimes maintain) a hydroponic system can be prohibitively high, though there are plenty of DIY options available that won’t hurt the wallet terribly. While soilless mediums themselves aren’t much of an issue for plants, figuring out the right amount of nutrients certainly can be. Nutrient deficiencies and imbalances are common, so it is important to dial in the right formula, which can be a challenge without the right knowledge and experience. Also, problems with roots and nutrients can manifest quickly, so to prevent the issue from getting worse, regular monitoring and fast reactions are a must. While automated systems run hassle-free, they do need proper cleaning from time to time, which can also be costly and labor-intensive. Finally, while hydroponic setups can provide impressive yields and great bag appeal, many connoisseurs claim that the results do not taste as good as pants grown in soil.

We suspect that this debate will continue on for a long time as both the hydroponic and the traditional soil method have their pluses and minuses. Potential growers not sure of which method to choose must first factor in their available resources and then decide what their aim is: Do they want something organic and incredibly tasty or bigger, faster yields? How much time and effort are they willing to dedicate to this and are they able to quickly respond to potential problems?

Regardless of what method they end up going for, one thing is certain: growing your own is a lot of fun and very rewarding. Whether soil or hydroponics, you will learn a lot about the growing process and the plant itself and it’s a safe bet you will want to keep growing.

 

For hydroponic setups try Sweet Fang Lemon Auto or Dragonaut Cookies.

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