Hydroponics vs soil: How to boost your plants

What wins the battle in hydroponics vs soil?

Hydroponics vs soil

Are you struggling to get your crops to flourish? Is your greenhouse looking lacklustre? Gardeners have been experimenting with different ways of growing their plants for years and experts have refined the perfect ways to get the best from your foliage. 

​But one of the oldest questions on any gardener’s mind is about hydroponics vs soil. What really works? Why do certain plants react better to hydroponics than traditional soil?

​We’ve put together a great guide to walk you through the background of these growing methods, why they work, how you can use them to get the best from your plants and what you can do to improve your garden.

​So, if you’ve been trying to decide between hydroponics and soil then read on and discover the answer once and for all.

​What is hydroponics?

Hydroponics is the process of growing plants in an artificial way and without the normal nutrients, you would find when growing in the soil. The plants are given nutrients through the water instead as they are added in manually.

The main reason people use hydroponics is for stability. This method of growing nearly eliminates diseases and means you can keep your plants at a constant growth rate. The water itself feeds the plants so by keeping that pure you can stop any outside bacteria getting into your foliage.

​The most common hydroponics systems are clay pellets, rock wool and more recently the husks of coconuts have become popular. We will explain more about the different methods later on.

Food products are often grown in hydroponics systems to make sure there is a certain yield. Tomatoes are a good example of a fruit that is grown under this system as it needs heat, light and a stable growing environment to produce the best crop.

​The soil you would normally plant tomatoes in is replaced by the hydroponics system which pumps the water and minerals around the plants.

​Types of hydroponic systems

​Hydroponics is part of hydroculture which is the term for growing plants without any soil and using water instead.

​There are many different types of hydroponic systems but they can be grouped into categories. The main similarity with these systems is they are suspended in water but there are variations on the best methods.

​The easiest hydroponics system, and the one you should start with if you’ve never done anything like it before, is the Wicks System. This is really simple to set up and maintain because there are no moving parts.

​A reservoir at the bottom holds the nutrient-filled water and then it is drawn up into whatever growing material you have set out. This can be sand, gravel, coconut hair or a range of other things.

​The Water Culture system has moving parts so it is a bit more difficult to set up although it is still on the simpler side of this method. The roots are completely under water – similar to how it would be in soil. An air pump is added to give your plants some oxygen.

​This system is mainly set up for lettuce and salad leaves as it isn’t suited to many varieties of plants.

​The Ebb and Flow System does exactly as it describes. Your plants are flooded with water and then the water is drained away and recycled.

​It is similar to the Drip System which is where a timer pumps water into the water jets and then collects the excess in a reservoir.

​When most people talk about hydroponic systems, they are referring to the Nutrient Film Technique. This system has a constant flow of your nutrient-filled water and the plants don’t need any gravel, sand or coconut husk to grow in.

​Types of soil

​Soil is one of the easiest things to find since it is all around us! It is the natural materials found on Earth and is made from minerals, nutrients and organic material which has been broken down over time to create a loamy, rich soil.

​There are many different types of soil and the concentration you use will depend on the type of plants you want to grow and the specific minerals they need to thrive.

​To boost your soil, you can add liquid plant food which is a chemically-produced feed to supplement the soil. You can also mix in manure, casings from earthworms or even bird droppings to give your potting soil the added extras it needs.

​The main nutrients that come from soil are:

  • Nitrogen
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Sulfur
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Boron
  • Manganese
  • Zinc
  • Molybdenum
  • Copper

​These nutrients are present in differing amounts in every soil on the planet but you will find some plants need more of one kind of nutrient and less of another. For example, tomatoes thrive in calcium-rich soil so if you are planning to grow your crops in soil make sure it is high in this vital mineral.

​The best types of soil

​Again, the type of soil you need depends on the plants you are growing. Some like heavy, rich soil that traps moisture and leaves the roots in damp mud. But others need well-aerated, drainable soil which will allow the plants to soak up moisture without it sitting in moisture.

​The thing gardeners check when they are assessing their soil is the pH level. A pH test determines how acidic or alkali the soil is and therefore which plants will do best. A pH level of 7 is neutral whereas 3 is acidic and 8 is alkaline

​If you don’t want to spend time levelling out or changing the pH of your existing soil, the easiest thing to do is just plant shrubs that will thrive in the soil you have.

​As well as pH levels, there are different soil make ups. These are:

  • Clay
  • Sandy
  • Loam
  • Peat
  • Chalky

​Out of these types, the easiest to grow in will be loam as it is a mixture of clay, soil, sand and silt but it doesn’t have too much of anything. This is a good all round soil for any plants

Clay soils are very high in nutrients but get very cold in winter and will dry right out in summer months. Sandy soil is warm but has hardly any nutrients and will test as acidic when you do a pH test.

Peat is great as it has a lot of organic matter but you will find more diseases and pests present in these soils and chalk is very alkaline.

​How to improve and grow your plants in different types of soil

​Knowing what soil you have is one thing but how will it affect your plants? Choosing your plants carefully and adjusting the soil before planting can make all the difference to your crop.

​If you are working with clay, then you should add some compost or peat. This will help to break up the huge chunks of clay and make it easier for water to pass through.

​In sandy soil, you should add an organic fertiliser to boost the nutrient level and even use mulch to trap water in this earth.

​Loam is pretty useful and if you find your garden full of this stuff then you might be feeling pretty smug. Nevertheless, you should keep adding a decent compost or plant food to make sure the level of nutrients stays the same.

​Chalk soils are difficult to deal with but not impossible. Don’t plant anything that needs acidic conditions as it will struggle in the highly alkaline soil. It is best to choose plants that will do well in alkaline conditions rather than try to fight the natural form of this soil.

​Advantages and disadvantages of hydroponics


​Hydroponics is good because you don’t need to wait for the right season to start growing or only grow plants that will survive in your climate. As you are recreating the conditions that the plant thrives in, you can grow any plant at any time of the year.

​By monitoring and adjusting the nutrients in the water you can precisely control the growth of your plants. You can grow plants where there is no soil so in areas where land is at a premium people can still grow crops.

​The exact science behind hydroponics means you can give the plant the right amount of nutrients to get the highest yield. Through trial and error, you can optimise your feed to get the best from your plants.

​Hydroponic systems can be complicated but a basic set up can be built fairly inexpensively and if you get a low maintenance water arrangement it means it is fairly low maintenance.


​But hydroponics can be costly. Due to the lights, pumps and water filtration systems, this method of growing is usually only used for high-value crops.

​Another downside is the system is so sensitive. This means if you make a mistake with a number of nutrients or how you are feeding the plants it will have an immediate effect.

​You need to check the pH level of your hydroponic set up very regularly as it can fluctuate quite a lot in a short space of time.

​Another problem is due to the lights and electrics involved, hydroponics must be set up inside. The water also has to be protected from light because light can increase algae growth and nutrients will be broken down.

​Advantages and disadvantages of soil


​Soil is a lot more temperamental than hydroponic systems but it is also more natural. A lot of the nutrients you would have to “buy in” and add to the system artificially may already be present in your garden soil.

​If you have access to good soil, then growing plants in the existing garden soil will be easier and cheaper. Unlike hydroponics, you won’t have to invest in specialist equipment, pumps, and lights.

​Depending on the type of plant you want to grow, you can put your plants anywhere. You don’t need to grow indoors or under shelter, if you don’t have to.

​You may have to assess your soil and then supplement with compost, fertiliser or other nutrients to make sure it is the correct pH level before you start growing.


​Soil is also open to diseases as it is organic and can pick up these issues from other surrounding plants and the environment. Where hydroponics is a largely sterile environment, soil allows bacteria in and that can be problematic for some plants.

​You have more control over a hydroponic system but it is also more time-consuming and requires a lot more experimentation and monitoring to make sure the plants are well cared for and get the right nutrients

Plants may grow faster with a hydroponics system but they need a lot more attention


So what wins the battle in hydroponics vs soil? There are advantages and disadvantages to both systems but when it comes to getting plants to grow well, fast and with minimal effort, good old soil wins every time.

Hydroponics are brilliant for specialist plants or for a situation where you are growing a high-value plant and don’t want anything to interfere with its growth. If you are in an area with no land or poor quality soil, then hydroponics can be a great way to grow your own crops.

​However, for the average gardener, it is far easier and cheaper just to improve the soil you have. With a few simple steps like testing the pH level, adding fertiliser and mixing in compost you can get your soil to the right consistency without spending a fortune.

​So if you’re wondering what to choose when setting up your crops, then soil is hard to beat. Just make sure you are growing a plant that will thrive in the soil you have or you change it before you start to grow.

​If you’ve found this article helpful, or if you have any more questions, please comment below.

About the Author

I’m Emily and after a ten year career as a journalist I have moved on to share my passion for gardening. While getting out in the garden is one of my favourite hobbies, and helps me de-stress after a long day in the office, I often found myself frustrated at not getting the results I wanted from my plants. Through blogging, I have uncovered the answer to lots of common problems and now I want to share my knowledge with other horticulture enthusiasts.

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