Ah, one of life’s great debates: growing with a hydroponic system or with soil, an especially difficult question to answer for your first grow.
History has given us great success using dirt as a base, and in 1953, Austin Miller referred to soil as ‘the skin of the earth’. Throughout the years, the soil community has learned a few tricks. By adding nutrients, balancing pH, and enriching soil with organic ingredients, producers have made advanced planting mixes to ensure healthy plant growth.
So why consider a hydroponic system or a hydroponic grow box at all if soil has come so far? Well for starters, the advantages of hydroponics include offering the grower higher plant yields and automation, which for most people, are two very powerful motivations to switch away from the past, and move into the future. Let's take a more in-depth look at the two mediums:
In a nutshell, a complete hydroponic system is simply growing plants without soil. There are many different types of hydroponic systems, we've listed some of these techniques below.
Aeroponics - The process of growing plants in an air or mist environment, without the use of soil or aggregate medium. Plant roots hang in the air, and a mist of nutrient-rich water is sprayed onto the roots periodically.
Aquaponics - The combination of aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, or prawns in tanks) and hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. The waste produced by aquatic animals supplies nutrients for the hydroponic plants. In turn, these plants purify the water for the animals.
Drip Irrigation - Also known as micro or localized watering, small drip emitters deliver a constant drip directly to the soil. This ensures that the soil is always moist, but not over watered.
DWC (Deep Water Culture) - A type of hydroponics system where plant roots continuously sit in a highly oxygenated water and nutrient solution. Oxygen is usually supplied using an airstone that pumps air to into the water.
Ebb & Flow - In this process, plant roots sit in a coarse growing medium for support, while a water and nutrient solution periodically flows past the roots on a set time schedule. This is similar to the ocean's rising and receding tides. This allows for the aeration of the roots, while automating the job of watering the plants by hand.
Nutrient Film Technique - This technique involves running a continuous oxygen and nutrient rich film of water over the plants roots in an enclosed space or tube.
All of these different techniques have one thing in common: they don’t need the roots to spread out in soil to absorb nutrients. Instead, they are fed a concentrated solution of oxygen and nutrients. This allows the roots to be packed into much smaller spaces.
All of these systems allow you to be creative and in control. You decide what nutrients to add, how much, and when. This control contributes to the increased speed and yield of growth you will experience.
There are additional benefits to going the hydro route. With a hydroponic system, you are using less water, as it is being recirculated to your plants and only changed out every 7-12 days. No more watching 10% of your runoff go to waste each watering. You also have a secret weapon in your battle against bugs, since eliminating soil from your operation will also eliminate certain bugs that can attack your plants.
When it comes to soil, there are many different types and blends of soil available. So what's what?
Sand - Formed from bits of rock including limestone, quartz, granite, and shale. Drains water quickly.
Silt - Fine particles of organic material combined with sand. Very fertile, drains water well.
Muck - Primarily humus from drained swamps or bogs. Dense with little potassium.
Clay - Fine crystals formed by chemical reactions between minerals. Very poor draining.
Loam - A combination of the above. Organic loams must contain at least 20% organic matter.
Compost - Decayed organic matter. Can contain good bacteria, fungi, insects, worms, and microorganisms.
So head outside with a bucket and shovel right? Yeah, not so fast.
You should always ensure that you are buying your soil from a bag and not just getting it from outside, as store bought product has been treated to remove all of the bugs and critters that can tear-up your garden.
Soil not only provides a secure anchor for your plants and it’s roots, but it also aids in the retention and delivery of nutrients. Soil can act as a buffer for those nutrients, making it easier for the gardener to maintain a perfect nutrient balance.
One thing to watch out for is watering soil, as it can be surprisingly tricky. The number one issue new growers have is overwatering their precious plants.
New growers will try to be extremely attentive to their plants, and they normally want to get the most growth possible. This causes them to water too much and results in killing their plants. Over watering is dangerous because plant roots need to eat and breathe. Too much water logged in soil depletes oxygen, and thus the roots do not get enough oxygen to survive.
When you water your soil, it’s helpful to have some water runoff to ensure you have fully saturated your medium. Once watered, the soil needs to dry out, allowing the roots access to air before letting them drink again. It is a balance that once achieved, will produce consistent healthy results.
The Final Choice
In the end, whether you choose to use soil or hydroponics is, of course, up to you. There really is no right or wrong answer. Just weigh the pros and cons of each style and method, make a decision that works best for you, and then get growing!