In today’s blog post, we will explain the differences between hydroponic, aquaponics and aeroponics. In general, there are many confusing definitions and descriptions of the differences between those three grow systems. For the sake of clarity, it should be noted at the outset that aquaponics and aeroponics is basically a form of hydroponics.
The simplest description of hydroponics is, that it is virtually any form of agriculture, where we do not use a substrate to grow plants. In hydroponics, we use other media instead of substrates to transfer the nutrients that plants needs. Most often it is sand, rockwool or just water pipes, such as NFT systems.
A large number of definitions say what hydroponics can be, but simply it is cultivation of plants without using clay. Originally, hydroponics was used to grow high-density vegetables, usually in greenhouses or in areas with poor soil. The first attempts with this method of cultivation took place during World War II, when it was necessary to supply troops in harsh conditions and in foreign countries.
During the 1950s, the development of hydroponics gained relatively high speed and this method of cultivation was subsequently transferred to commercial use. It allowed growers to increase production, manage nutrient distribution, and also the possibility to avoid a large number of soil diseases and pests.
Majority of the tomatoes we eat today are grown by some form of hydroponics. Likewise, a large portion of cucumbers, lettuce, most basil and, indeed, a large portion of crops that had to be cultivated in open fields until recently, are now grown hydroponically.
The vast majority of these systems use various fertilizer solutions as a source of nutrients. The fertilizer is mixed into the water and is then distributed to the plants in a controlled manner. This water is always set to the ideal pH and other parameters that allow maximum efficiency in delivering nutrients to plants.
Many people are unaware of the huge increase in the hydroponic industry and its potential. Its huge advantage is that it allows the grower to create a controlled environment. Hydroponics and greenhouses allow us to start production much sooner and faster than open-field cultivation, where plants are exposed to all weather and climatic conditions.
A large part of growers is looking for a form of hydroponics, that is more organic and does not need to use fertilizers and solutions (roztok). In fact, artificial fertilizers used in hydroponics ultimately release plants of the same chemical composition as organic methods.
It is the same for a plant whether it obtains nutrients and energy for its growth from nitrates converted from fish waste, or in the form of nitrates from fertilizer. In both variants, the plant treats them the same way. Therefore, it cannot be said, that hydroponics is bad. In fact, hydroponic production can be much safer than vegetables from conventional cultivation techniques. Just because the grower has much more control over the whole system.
Aquaponics, as we mentioned at the very beginning, is a form of hydroponics, but with one major difference. In aquaponics, we use fish breeding waste water as a source of nutrients, which the bacteria transform into nutrients usable for plants.
Because it is necessary to convert fish waste water into plant nutrients, the design of the aquaponic system is somehow more complex. Unfortunately, it is not possible to take a hydroponic system and simply link it to aquaculture fish farming with the expectation that it will work. At this point, the third, and most important part of the aquaponic system must be added. This part is microbes and the whole system has to be adapted. Properly functioning microbes are the key to the success of the aquaponic system.
The disadvantage of aquaponics compared to hydroponics is its starting part and the “learning curve” that we have to go through before the entire system is balanced and able to produce output at 100% level.
This learning curve and production start-up lasts 4-5 weeks for hydroponics, while for aquaponics it is around 7 months. In a hydroponic system, this is considerably simpler. You supply the system with nutrients, start it up and watch it grow.
A great limitation for aquaponics is the limited possibility of what can be used as a pesticide. Since we also have fish in the system that are very susceptible to splashes and oils in water, it is necessary to absolutely avoid such pesticides. On the contrary, in hydroponics we do not have to solve this limitation at all.
The big difference between hydroponics and aquaponics is also the amount of knowledge that the grower has to master. In hydroponics, it is primarily knowledge of how to influence the pH and electrical conductivity of water, how to identify pests and diseases of plants and, indeed, everything that is associated with the cultivation of plants.
On the other hand, in aquaponics it is necessary to have all these characteristics and in addition to know all the problems of aquaculture fish farming and especially how to keep microbes in the aquaponic system in balance. For aquaponics, it is therefore necessary to have a good overview of the other two categories.
These are the reasons why aquaponic system failure is much more common in growers than pure hydroponics. Many growers embark on aquaponics without having sufficient knowledge of these areas and are unable to detect a possible system imbalance.
In the last part we will look at what aeroponics is. Aeroponics uses a stem hanging and roots hang freely in the air. The nutrient solution is sprayed into the air under the plant by a set of nozzles and reaches the roots in the form of a spray or mist. The main advantage of aeroponics is the improved respiration of plant roots. Aeroponic cultures are characterized by rapid growth. Prospects for aeroponic cultivation are to be seen in the breeding of laboratory cultures, medicinal plants, but also in the cultivation of fruit and vegetables in agriculturally unsuitable areas, including space and extraterrestrial colonies. That’s why NASA also deals with aeroponics.