Hydroponics vs. Soil: Which Will Grow Plants Faster
Hydroponics vs soil - what's the better choice? We break down why growing hydroponically can be much more effective and a quicker option for growing veggies/plants.
If you think a bountiful vegetable garden has to involve sweat, grime, and wrestling with heavy bags of fertilizer, we've got great news: there's a cleaner, simpler, and more earth-friendly way to do it, and it's called hydroponic gardening.
When it comes to hydroponics vs. soil, the science is in: Hydroponic gardening lets you enjoy all the benefits of home-grown veggies, using less space and less water than soil growing.
Ready to learn more about starting a hydroponic garden in your own home? We're deep diving into how hydroponic systems work, and how you can produce healthy, nutritious vegetables using hydroponics.
What Is Hydroponic Gardening?
Hydroponics is a system for growing plants in water that's mixed with plant food. Instead of growing in soil, the plants grow in a rich nutrient solution that delivers a consistent supply of food directly to each plant's roots.
Hydroponic systems can be built in a variety of ways, making it easy to scale up or down depending on your space and needs. A hydroponics system can be as simple as a mason jar or as high-tech as NASA's hydroponic space garden on the International Space Station.1
Some hydroponic growers suspend plants directly in water using nets, rafts, or pots. Others grow plants in an inert growing medium that allows water to flow through the container, which can include:2
- Coconut fiber
- Peat Moss
- Styrofoam packing peanuts
- Brick shards
- Sand, rock, or clay
What Are the Benefits of Hydroponics?
Hydroponic growing provides an environment in which plants can effectively use water to facilitate healthy plant growth. But that's not all—hydroponics also contribute to:3
- Faster growth and higher yield – Plants grown hydroponically often grow faster, meaning you can harvest several bushels of herbs for your dishes year-round. The set-up also allows you to grow plants closely together, allowing you to produce more food per square foot.
- Water conserving – Hydroponic systems use less water than soil-based growing methods, a benefit that is especially important in areas where water conservation regulations are strict, or water is scarce.4
- Space saving – Hydroponic setups require less space since plants can be grown closer together and can even be stacked vertically. They're perfect for apartment dwellers or anyone who wants to pack in as much plant density as possible in a small footprint.
- Environmental impact – Since most hydroponic systems are indoors, it's much easier to protect your hydroponic crops from garden invaders like birds and bugs. This allows growers to cut down on pesticides, herbicides, and other harmful deterrents like bird nets.
- Less mess and more control – With hydroponic systems, there's no need to dig or weed your fresh veggies. Gardeners can easily make adjustments to plant growth factors like nutrients, temperature, and light with hydroponic systems. Read more about the benefits of LED grow lights for hydroponics.
Let's take a closer look at each of these benefits in turn to see exactly how hydroponics stacks up against soil.
#1 Hydroponic Plants Grow Faster and Yield More
When a plant grows in soil, the organic and inorganic compounds that the plant feeds on must break down before the plant can use them. The compounds react with soil particles, then with water, allowing the plant to absorb the compounds.5
In hydroponics, plants are grown in nutrient-rich water with plenty of oxygen circulating around their root systems. Nutrients are immediately available to the plant's roots, which can absorb the food and go to work. Researchers proved that growing plants in water changes the cellular structure of plant roots, allowing them to absorb nutrients more quickly and efficiently than growing in soil:6
- Efficient uptake of nutrients allows plants to root and develop faster
- Some plants can grow as much as 50% faster in hydroponic systems -up to 5x faster when grow lights are added
- Growing lettuce indoors hydroponically can reach harvest in only 30 days instead of 60 days when grown in soil7
Through hydroponics, you can grow more plants more quickly in less space, adding up to a higher yield overall.
#2 Hydroponics Saves Water
You may not realize just how much water goes to waste when you water plants growing in soil. Picture watering one of your potted plants. How much water simply ends up dripping out of the bottom of the pot and collecting in the saucer until it evaporates?
Hydroponic systems, on the other hand, use a reservoir to conserve water. This means:
- The same water recirculates through the system over and over
- Plants absorb only what they need, and the rest stays in the reservoir until needed8
- Hydroponic systems can use up to 10 times less water than growing in soil9
#3 Hydroponics Uses Less Space
One of the biggest advantages hydroponic systems have over soil is that plants can grow very close together. Because nutrients are more easily accessible to the plants, there's no need to develop long, spreading root systems.
Hydroponic systems can often be stacked vertically. This lets gardeners grow many more plants in the same footprint as a traditional garden. This space-saving has several benefits:
- Allows more food to be produced with less sprawl, which means no need for a backyard or spare bedroom
- Allows food production in areas that don't have enough land for a traditional vegetable garden
#4 Hydroponics is Easier on the Environment
Hydroponic systems are an environmentally friendly choice for numerous reasons. With an indoor hydroponic garden, you usually won't need to use pesticides, herbicides, or any other harsh chemicals to protect your plants.
Larger scale hydroponic farming operations, known as "vertical farming," are rapidly growing in popularity because they allow food to be produced more efficiently and with less waste of land, water, and other resources. From a sustainability standpoint, hydroponics is an all-around winner.10
#5 Hydroponics Creates Less Mess
Sure, playing in the dirt can be fun sometimes. But when you want to care for your crop quickly and conveniently, without donning your overalls and garden gloves, hydroponic systems make it a snap. You can water, feed, transplant, and harvest plants without any worry about soil contaminants getting into your house or on your veggies.
Many gardeners don't realize that soil contamination can be a real health concern. The next time you buy a bag of potting soil, take a closer look at the package—chances are it comes with a warning label to wear gloves and even a mask when handling.
#6 Hydroponic Gardens Give More Control, Less Worry
Gardeners enjoy hydroponic growing because it gives them precise control over factors like:
- Nutrient mixtures
- pH balance
- Growing temperature
- Light exposure
You can experiment with different techniques and food mixtures until you find exactly what works for the plants you choose to grow.
#7 Hydroponic Systems Require Less Weeding
In fact, try no weeding. Even outdoor hydroponic setups simply don't allow weeds to get a toehold since there's no open soil inviting windborne seeds or invasive runners to make a home.
Just think—you could enjoy all the rewards of a vegetable garden without pulling up a single dandelion or digging up another clump of crabgrass!
What Can I Grow Hydroponically?
Most vegetables can be grown in hydroponic systems. Even plants that need space to grow tall, like bell peppers and tomatoes, can be grown in the right hydroponic setup. Spreading plants like cucumbers will often need a framework or trellis to grow over and can make great additions to your garden.
Some of the most popular and successful plants for growing hydroponically include:
- Lettuce and other greens
- Tomatoes (full size and cherry)
- Peppers (any variety, including bell, jalapeno, etc.)
Even flowers like dianthus and snapdragons can be grown hydroponically, allowing you to enjoy beautiful cut flower arrangements any time of year!
Are Plants Grown Hydroponically More Nutritious?
It hasn't been conclusively proven that fruits and vegetables grown hydroponically have a higher nutritional value, but some research has found that it may be true:
- A study of tomatoes found that hydroponic tomatoes tended to contain more lycopene and beta carotene than conventionally grown fruits11
- Hydroponically produced fruits and veggies may also be more consistently nutritious than soil-grown
- Gardeners can keep growing conditions nearly identical, allowing plants to grow high-quality produce every time12
Garden Smarter with AeroGarden
Whether you're just starting out in the world of vegetable gardening or you're an experienced gardener looking to try something new, hydroponic growing is a fun and easy way to take your growing game to the next level. Hydroponic gardening can save water, save space, and with the AeroGarden system, plants grow up to 5X faster than plants grown in soil.
You don't have to be an engineering whiz to incorporate hydroponic techniques into your indoor gardening—just add an AeroGarden system to your kitchen.
AeroGarden makes it easy to grow everything from herbs to salad greens—and even tall veggies like tomatoes and peppers—right in your own home. Bring the farmer's market to your kitchen countertop with an AeroGarden today.
1, 2, 5, 12Oklahoma State University Extension. Hydroponics. https://extension.okstate.edu/fact-sheets/hydroponics.html
3, 6, 8, 10Harvard University. Hydroponics: The power of water to grow food. https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2019/hydroponics-the-power-of-water-to-grow-food/
4, 11Scientia Horticulturae. Controlled comparisons between soil and hydroponic systems reveal increased water use efficiency and higher lycopene and β-carotene contents in hydroponically grown tomatoes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7885021/
7Oregon State University Extension. Hydroponics: Speed fresh vegetables to the table by growing in water. https://extension.oregonstate.edu/news/hydroponics-speed-fresh-vegetables-table-growing-water
9National Park Service. Hydroponics: A better way to grow food. https://www.nps.gov/articles/hydroponics
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Essential nutrients for plants. https://cdn-de.agrilife.org/extension/departments/scsc/scsc-pu-133/publications/files/essential-nutrients-for-plants.pdf
University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. A word or two about gardening: biohazards in the yard. https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/miami-dade/weather-issues/biohazards-in-the-yard---playing-it-safe/
US Environmental Protection Agency. Outdoor water use in the United States. https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/www3/watersense/pubs/outdoor.html