Comparing Vertical Hydroponic Gardens and Soil-Based Methods: Which is Right for You?

May 15, 2023Vertical Garden Systems, Hydroponics

The trend of lush, green balconies in our cities is a testament to the growing popularity of vertical gardening, a perfect solution for those who love gardening but are short on space. But, what if we told you there’s a way to have that garden without even needing soil? This is where vertical hydroponic gardens come into play.

This article explores vertical hydroponic systems, comparing them with traditional soil-based methods. With hydroponics gaining momentum in both commercial food production and home gardening, we aim to assist you in determining which method – soil or hydroponics – is the best fit for your needs.

1. Understanding Vertical Hydroponic Gardens

So, what exactly is a vertical hydroponic garden?

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. And ‘vertical’? Well, that’s all about growing your plants upwards (or hanging them downwards) instead of spreading them out on the ground. Combine the two, and you have a vertical hydroponic system – a neat, efficient way to grow a whole bunch of plants in a small space.

One of the biggest benefits of a vertical hydroponic garden is that it can be incredibly water-efficient. You’re recycling water in the system, which means you’re using much less than a traditional soil garden. Plus, because hydroponic systems don’t use soil, your plants are less likely to encounter soil-borne pests or diseases, even when set up outdoors.

But, like everything, it’s not all sunshine and roses. Setting up a vertical hydroponic system can be a bit of a project, and it might take some time (and YouTube tutorials!) to get the hang of maintaining it. Plus, it is likely to be a greater investment upfront compared to a soil-based garden with greater ongoing costs to maintain it.

We’ll now dive deeper into the differences and similarities between vertical hydroponic gardens and their soil-based counterparts.

2. Grasping Soil-Based Vertical Gardens

Now, let’s talk about the other side of the coin: soil-based vertical gardens. If you’re picturing pots stacked on a vertical frame or a wall of leafy green plants climbing up a trellis, you’re on the right track. Soil-based vertical gardens, quite simply, are a way of arranging plants vertically using good old-fashioned soil.

There’s a comforting familiarity to soil-based gardens. There’s the smell of fresh earth, the feel of soil under your fingers, and the satisfaction of watching your plants grow naturally. Not to mention, getting a soil-based garden up and running is generally more straightforward and less costly than setting up a vertical hydroponic system.

However, soil-based gardens aren’t without their challenges. You might have to deal with pests, weeds, and diseases more often. And, unlike a vertical hydroponic garden, they can get a little messy (so it’s a good idea to keep your broom nearby!) Plus, they typically require more water and space than their hydroponic counterparts.

But don’t let these challenges deter you. Whether you opt for a soil-based or hydroponic system, both types of vertical gardens can bring a whole lot of green goodness into your life.

Vertical Gardens Using Soil for Growing Food 1
Soil based vertical gardens can be grown in a range of containers

3. Key Differences Between Vertical Hydroponic Gardens and Soil-Based Methods

At this point, you might be asking, “So, which one is better, hydroponic or soil-based?” Well, it’s not as simple as saying one is better than the other. It really depends on your situation and preferences.

In terms of cost, soil-based methods generally require less investment upfront. You’re basically looking at the cost of soil, pots, and plants. But over time, a vertical hydroponic garden could potentially pay off due to higher yields and lower water usage.

When it comes to maintenance, hydroponic systems can be more demanding. There’s a bit of a learning curve involved in getting your system set up and keeping it running smoothly. However, once you get the hang of it, it can be a very efficient and rewarding way to garden.

Space-wise, both systems are designed to make the most of vertical space. But hydroponic systems, with their compact and soilless design, can often accommodate more plants in the same space as a soil-based garden.

As for yield, many gardeners find that hydroponic systems can produce more bountiful harvests, especially when it comes to certain types of vegetables and herbs. However, the types of plants you can grow in a hydroponic system might be more limited than in a soil-based garden.

Hydroponics delivers minerals from the water with a fast uptake by plants resulting in faster growth. The root system of plants grown hydroponically is significantly smaller than plants grown in soil (which search out slow-release minerals. This means you can generally grow more in a smaller space with less space between plants.

Hydroponic plants generally are less impacted by pests than plants grown in soil. This makes it easier to grow food chemical free.

In the next section, we’ll guide you through how to decide between a vertical hydroponic garden and a soil-based method based on these factors and more. 

Vertical Hydroponic Gardens Grow Vegetables at Home
Benchtop hydroponic vertical planters are a great option for growing leafy green vegetables

4. Which One Should You Choose? Hydroponic or Soil?

We’ve covered the basics of both the vertical hydroponic garden and the soil-based vertical garden. Now, how do you choose between the two? Here are some factors to consider:

Budget: Hydroponic systems often have a higher upfront cost due to the need for specialised equipment, such as pumps, lights, and nutrient solutions. However, they can potentially give higher yields and use less water in the long run. Soil-based gardens usually have a lower initial cost and are more familiar to many, but may require more ongoing expenses such as soil, compost, and pest control.

Space: Both systems are excellent for making use of vertical space. However, hydroponic systems can often be more compact and can be installed in unconventional areas, like walls or indoors.

Time and Knowledge: Hydroponics might require more learning initially, as it’s more scientific in nature. The regular checking and adjustment of nutrient levels and pH can be time-consuming. Soil gardening is often more intuitive and can be more forgiving, but it also demands regular tasks like weeding, pest control, and management of the soil.

Plant Variety: Hydroponic systems can be fantastic for growing a variety of herbs, leafy greens, and some fruits like strawberries. Root vegetables such as carrots and beetroots can be grown in some but not all hydroponic systems so it’s worth thinking about what you want to grow before you commit. Soil-based systems generally offer more flexibility for different types of plants, including vegetables, flowers, and even small trees in larger containers. But you will need extra space between plants to accommodate the larger root systems of plants grown in soil.

Yield and Growth Speed: Hydroponic systems often provide faster growth rates and higher yields because nutrients and water are readily available to the plants. The root systems are smaller so you can grow more plants in a smaller area. However, they require close monitoring to prevent issues that could rapidly affect plant health.

Resistance to Pests: Plants grown in soil are generally more prone to pests and diseases compared to hydroponic plants. Soil-based gardens provide a natural habitat for pests, including insects, fungi, and weeds. On the other hand, hydroponics eliminates soil-borne pests and provides a controlled environment that minimises the risk of infestations. By opting for a hydroponic system, you can enjoy a pest-resistant gardening experience.

Chemical-Free: When deciding between a vertical hydroponic garden and a soil-based vertical garden, one factor to consider is the use of chemicals. In hydroponics, plants grow without soil, using a nutrient-rich water solution, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Soil-based gardens, although they can be grown organically without chemicals, may present more challenges in maintaining plant health without the use of chemicals.  For those who prioritize a chemical-free and organic gardening approach, hydroponic gardening offers a simpler and more environmentally friendly gardening experience.

Personal Preference and Lifestyle: Some people love the feel of soil and enjoy traditional gardening methods. Others might be excited by the technology and science involved in hydroponics or the greater ease of implementing organic gardening practices.

Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to gardening. It’s all about finding what works best for you and your space.

5. Final Thoughts on Vertical Hydroponic Gardens vs Vertical Soil Gardens

Whether you choose a vertical hydroponic garden or a soil-based vertical garden, you’re making a wonderful decision to bring more green into your life. Both systems have their pros and cons, but they both also offer the chance to grow your own plants, even in a small space. So, take a moment to consider your specific situation, needs, and preferences.

We see that the higher yields and lower water usage (particularly as water costs increase), combined with chemical-free and organic gardening will continue to see that hydroponic gardening becomes more popular with urban growers.

6. FAQ’s on Vertical Hydroponic Gardens

Do soil-based vertical gardens require a lot of maintenance?

While soil-based gardens can be a bit more demanding in terms of weeding and pest control, they also offer more forgiveness when it comes to watering and feeding your plants. As with anything, you’ll get the hang of it with a bit of practice and keeping an eye on how your plants are responding, will help to give you insights as to whether more/ less light, food or water are required. 

Are vertical hydroponic gardens suitable for beginners?

Absolutely! There may be a learning curve when you’re just starting out, but with plenty of resources and guides available online, anyone can get started with hydroponics. It’s a fun and engaging hobby that can yield some fantastic results.

Can I switch from a soil-based garden to a hydroponic system (or vice versa)?

Sure, you can! Many plants can transition from one system to another with some care. But keep in mind that it might require a bit of effort and time to ensure a smooth transition for your plants. Some of the vertical garden systems you can buy can also be used for either growing plants hydroponically or with soil so this can give you the best of both worlds and the flexibility to swap over if you’re a bit unsure about what you prefer. There may be additional costs though to convert your vertical gardening system.

Do I need to add nutrients to water for hydroponic plants?

Yes, in hydroponics, nutrients that plants would normally get from soil are dissolved directly into the water that is supplied to the plants’ roots. You can purchase ready-made hydroponic nutrients that contain the right balance of these elements, which are usually in a concentrated liquid or powder form. It’s important to monitor the nutrient levels and pH of your water regularly to ensure your plants are getting what they need. Over time, as the plants absorb nutrients, you’ll need to replenish the nutrient solution. Different plants may have different nutrient requirements, so it’s essential to understand what your specific plants need for optimum growth.

What do hydroponic plants grow in?

In hydroponics, plants do not grow in traditional soil. Instead, they grow in a medium also known as a “substrate.” This holds the plants in place while the nutrient-rich water solution is delivered directly to the roots. This allows the plant to allocate more energy to growing above the surface since it doesn’t have to expand energy on extensive root systems to search for nutrients in the soil.

Is it possible to set up a vertical hydroponic garden both inside and outside of my home?

Yes, vertical hydroponic gardens can be set up both indoors and outdoors, and both locations have their own benefits.

Indoor Vertical Hydroponic Gardens:

Indoor hydroponic systems offer more control over the environment. You can control temperature, light exposure, and humidity, which can lead to faster plant growth and year-round growing regardless of outdoor weather conditions. It’s also easier to keep pests and diseases at bay. These systems are often used in urban areas or places with harsh climates. If you have room inside your home or apartment, garage, basement or undercover patio, you can set up an indoor vertical hydroponic system. And benchtop or desktop gardens can work if you have the space.

Outdoor Vertical Hydroponic Gardens:

Outdoor hydroponic gardens can take advantage of natural sunlight, which can save on electricity costs associated with grow lights. They can also provide more space for larger systems. However, they are subject to environmental conditions and potential pest issues. Outdoor systems should be set up in a protected area to minimise the impact of extreme weather.

What food can you grow in a vertical hydroponic garden?

A hydroponic vertical system can support a wide variety of plants, especially those that don’t have deep root systems and that require less space to grow. Here are some of the plants you can easily grow in a vertical hydroponic system:

  1. Leafy Greens: Leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, kale, Asian greens and Swiss chard are excellent choices for a vertical hydroponic system. They grow quickly and don’t need a lot of space.
  2. Herbs: Many herbs thrive in hydroponic systems. Basil, parsley, mint, cilantro, dill, and oregano are all good choices.
  3. Strawberries: Strawberries are well-suited to vertical hydroponic systems as they don’t have deep root systems and they grow well in containers.
  4. Capsicums: Smaller varieties of peppers can do well in hydroponic systems.
  5. Tomatoes: While larger tomato plants may struggle in a vertical system, smaller varieties, like cherry or grape tomatoes, can do quite well.
  6. Cucumbers: Like tomatoes, smaller varieties of cucumbers can be grown in vertical hydroponic systems.

Remember, the success of any plant in a hydroponic system depends on the specific conditions of your system, including nutrients, light, and temperature. Always do some research to ensure the plants you’re interested in suit your specific setup.

Do all hydroponic gardens require a pump to run?

While many hydroponic systems use a pump to circulate nutrient-rich water to the plants, it’s not a requirement for all setups. Passive hydroponic systems don’t need a pump and rely on capillary action or natural processes to deliver nutrients. However, these systems may not be suitable for all types of plants, especially larger, fast-growing ones – and they tend to be more technical in nature making it harder for beginners to grow with these systems. It’s essential to consider your plant’s needs, your resources, and your maintenance capacity when choosing a hydroponic system.

Is there a difference in the nutritional value between plants grown in a hydroponic system versus a soil-based garden?

Yes, the nutritional value can differ. Hydroponically grown plants, provided with a balanced nutrient solution, may have equal or sometimes higher nutritional value than those grown in soil. This is because plants can directly absorb nutrients from the water, potentially more than from soil. However, plants in high-quality soil can absorb a wide array of natural nutrients from organic matter, which can enhance their nutritional value. Keep in mind, the nutrient content in soil-grown plants can fluctuate due to varying soil quality. Also, remember that factors like freshness, storage, and cooking methods significantly affect the nutritional value of your produce, regardless of the growing method.


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