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Soil vs. Soilless: What’s the Best Way to Grow Indoors?

If you are choosing to grow indoors, you have two options: soil vs. hydroponics. But, what’s the best growing medium for growing tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, or cannabis indoors? Let’s make a side-by-side comparison on costs, efficiency, risks, and yields.

Growing cannabis in soil is more cost-effective, but you’re likely to get bigger yields with hydroponic systems. And even the best soil for cannabis is more prone to disease and pests than its soilless counterpart. 

Our conclusion? Based on more than a decade of experience growing indoors, soilless hydroponic systems pay off in all the ways that count. So here is our argument. 

Hydroponics vs. Soil: An Explainer

Out in nature, plants grow in soil. The soil provides a place for roots to anchor. It also keeps the root system moist, with access to nutrients, minerals, and a living microbiome. But, nature is unpredictable. 

When well managed, a living soil system creates a healthy ecosystem of beneficial organic components and organisms living in symbiosis. The best soil for cannabis is undoubtedly a living one.

Plants dig deep with their root systems, absorbing available nutrients, which may be produced by components within the system or added through fertilizers. In addition, beneficial fungi connect with the root system to further improve absorption rates.

  • Pros of Soil: Natural, affordable, and straightforward
  • Cons of Soil: Prone to pests and disease, unpredictable

Hydroponic growing removes the unknowns of soil, replacing it with an inert growing medium. The grower provides all the necessities, including water and nutrients. 

Different soilless mediums often include one or more of the following: 

  • Coco coir
  • Clay pellets
  • Gravel
  • Perlite
  • Rockwool

These mediums offer plants the same anchorage, moisture, and nutrient access but in a much more controlled way. If done correctly, hydroponic systems using soilless growing mediums deliver all the necessities of life while reducing the risk of disease or infestation.

  • Pros of Soilless Mediums: Better yields possible, greater system efficiency, full control possible
  • Cons of Soilless Mediums: More expensive to set up, plants are much more reliant on cultivator expertise

Cost Comparison Soil vs. Soilless

Short-term Winner: Soil

Long-term Potential: Soiliess

In the short haul, it is more affordable to set up a soil-based system. Soil is widely available at garden centers and hardware stores. It’s also incredibly cheap to buy new soil when it comes time to replace it after each crop. 

A hydroponic system requires a steeper investment to set up. The automation, the nutrient reservoirs, and even the inert growing medium can cost much more than a simple pot and bag of soil.

However, over the long term, soilless systems are cheaper to run and produce much more product. 

First, with proper postharvest disinfection procedures, you can often reuse the soilless growing medium.

Second, you’ll save on nutrients. Because you’ll use only what the plants need, nothing goes to waste at any given point in their life cycle. 

Finally, soilless systems generally produce bigger yields in a shorter period. So that’s less time and energy invested for a larger payoff.

System Efficiencies Hydroponic vs. Soil

Winner: Soilless 

The clear winner in the battle between soil vs. hydroponics when it comes to system efficiency is hydroponics. When it comes to both water and nutrient consumption, a hydroponic system is much more refined.

In a soilless hydroponic system, you drill down to exactly what your plants need, delivering water and nutrients only when required. 

In a soil-based system, the soil and the living organisms absorb (and waste) much of what you apply. It’s like using a fire hose to water a garden; you’ll lose a lot of what you apply because it’s not targeted.

Within a hydroponic system, it’s not only possible to reduce your water and nutrient use, but most systems recirculate the nutrient solution back into the system. 

Pests & Disease Risk

red mite on a leaf, pests and disease
Soil naturally comes with a higher risk of pests and disease.

Winner: Soilless 

Inherently, soil comes with more risks for pests and disease. After all, the soil is a natural habitat for all kinds of insects, pathogens, and other risks to your plants. It can harbor spores, bacteria, and other contaminants without you knowing.

While a hydroponic system can get hit by disease as well, the risks are much lower. First, because it starts with an inert growing medium, this fundamentally reduces the unpredictability. Then, soilless gives you much more control over every aspect of the environment, which means control over variables when done right.

But, no matter which system you choose, soil or hydroponics, sanitation and sterilization are the best ways to reduce the liklihood of disease and pests. Without these procedures, any design is at risk of total meltdown from mites, powdery mildew, or another issue.

Yield Comparison

Winner: Soilless

When done right, soilless systems will always produce bigger buds, better fruits, and larger total yield than soil-based systems. Studies have shown this to be the case with comparisons of zucchinis, strawberries, and cannabis. So, soilless is the clear winner when it comes to yield.

Because there are greater system efficiencies within a soilless system, plants get more access (when they need it) to nutrients, minerals, and water. That means they can make greater use of these components for growing bigger flowers and fruits.

Soil systems are not as targeted. That means plants take longer to access and absorb nutrients and minerals. Other factors may get in the way as well, like problematic microorganisms or soil imbalances.

Less Risk, Bigger Payoffs: Hydroponic is Best Indoor Cultivation

Growing hydroponically uses resources more effectively to produce larger fruits and flowers in a shorter period. 

It’s less prone to disease and risk than soil-based systems, but it does cost more during the initial setup. And, if you don’t know the basic nutrient recipes, common issues, and system schedules, you’ll find the hydroponic route more challenging. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

So why not join our growing community of hydroponic growers to get expert advice, proven recipes, and more?

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