I started my journey by growing plants in soil, like many other gardening hobbyists! The wide availability of soil and plant pots certainly makes it the easiest way to get into growing. To me there are still very few things better than working in an abundant vegetable garden.
In the last few years, hydroponic gardening has gotten more and more traction amongst home gardeners. If you’re like me and you love science and horticulture, it can’t help but peak your interest. Growing in a DIY system which you’ve made yourself and tweaking all of the variables to find the optimal conditions to grow food for yourself is really exciting! I found the process quite empowering because of the versatility and control I have over my hydroponic systems.
These are the five reasons why I think hydroponic growing is more versatile than soil gardening. Let’s get into it!
1. Water Savings
Let’s compare the watering practices of a normal vegetable garden and a typical hydroponic system. Every few days, the soil gardener will saturate their vegetable beds and pots with enough water to reach all of the roots. A lot of this water will seep deeper into the soil, and much of the rest is lost due to evaporation. When growing in pots this process happens even quicker. In my own garden, when it’s especially hot I find myself using upwards of 6 x 10L watering cans full of water, multiple times a week just to ensure the garden doesn’t dry out, that’s easily over 180L of water a week!
Hydroponic systems typically use recirculating water, which is normally kept in a main reservoir and is pumped to the plants, any unused water is channeled back to the reservoir and the process is repeated. I currently use a Flood and Drain (or Ebb and Flow) system in my conservatory at home and as I mentioned in a previous blog, it can grow up to 2000 seedlings at once. This system uses less than 60L of water per week!
In hydroponics the greatest water losses will be from evaporation. This is from any exposed surfaces and some evaporation is inevitable. However, we can design systems with covered reservoirs and gutters/piping to reduce this significantly.
2. More control over your plants
Soil is an extremely complex growing medium with billions of microbes, varied soil types and properties. I will never deny that healthy soil with lots of organic matter is effective for growing a variety of different vegetables and herbs. For the typical gardener little thought needs to be put into it. Simply fertilise the soil with the right type of fertiliser every couple of weeks in the growing season and you can even make your own natural fertilisers from nettles or comfrey.
The most exciting part of hydroponics for me is the increased control you can have over your plants. You have the ability to experiment with parameters which can’t easily be measured when growing with soil. These include nutrient concentration, pH, watering frequency as well as adding supplements like beneficial bacteria!
Some of us don’t have the luxury of gardens or large open spaces to grow food, especially living in cities like London. We can grow indoors but the biggest limitation is the amount of light the plants receive. Indoor hydroponic farming has become so widespread that LED grow lights are now really easy to find online. Different sizes, intensities and light spectrums available allow you to find the right ‘light recipe’ for you. The price ranges fit everyone from the beginner hydroponic farmer to the commercial farmer.
You can experiment to find the optimum conditions for your plants. By tweaking one of the parameters you may find fantastic yields or more flavourful crops. This ‘growing recipe’ can be then repeated over and over again!
3. Less pests and diseases
In hydroponic systems, with the absence of soil we immediately eliminate a whole host of soil borne pathogens and diseases which often plague outdoor gardeners. Most hydroponic growing media is inert and pretty sterile when you begin using it.
If a good routine of cleaning is in place, like changing the reservoir water regularly, you will have a very slim chance of pathogens making their way into your system. You can even make your system more resilient by adding beneficial bacteria and mycorrhizae fungi into your water, allowing your plants to develop a symbiotic relationship with these microbes.
4. No weeding!
Hydroponic systems will only grow what you intend to grow in them so there is no weeding necessary. In soil there are hundreds of dormant seeds waiting for the perfect conditions to germinate. I personally spend 30 minutes to an hour per week weeding my vegetable garden, with vigorous plants like bindweed taking only days to take hold. So if that’s an aspect of gardening that you’re not a fan of, or have no time for, hydroponics is perfect for you!
5. Spacing saving potential
Usually, soil gardening is done on the horizontal plane, like vegetable beds or container gardens. Hydroponic systems can be easily made to use the vertical plane effectively, making them much more space-efficient. Many walls and fences in homes and gardens are under-utilised, these make perfect places for vertical gardens or living walls.
There are some soil based vertical systems available right now, which combines both disciplines. However, these systems can be a bit messy to set up and can get quite heavy with all of that soil suspended vertically. Hydroponic growing media is often much lighter and is not messy when setting up.
So those are the five reasons why I believe hydroponic growing is more versatile than soil. These benefits apply to the