As the Michigan weather started to get cold, I researched ways for growing plants better indoors and without the mess. 

During this time, I came across three different types of soil-less growing. 

It was confusing to me at first, but I got a handle on it and learned some interesting things about aeroponics vs. hydroponics vs. aquaponics I wanted to share with you. 

All three types of soil-less systems are great for growing plants indoors, and each has its strengths. Aeroponics is the cleanest to use but requires a spray system. Hydroponics is simple to use but needs a tank for water. Aquaponics raises fish at the same time but takes more work.

Check out the rest of the article for details and several comparison tables and other graphics to help you visualize the systems.

aeroponics vs hydroponics vs aquaponics

Comparison Table Of Aeroponics Vs. Hydroponics Vs. Aquaponics

MediumRoots sit in airWaterWater
Nutrient SourceNutrient water sprayPlant food added to waterFish waste and plant food
Average Cost*HighLow-MediumMedium
Parts RequiredGrowth deck, Sprayer, Grow lightsGrowth deck, hydroponic reservoir, grow lights, air pump, water pumpGrowth deck, fish tank, grow light, air pump, water pump, heater, fish
Unique ElementIf the roots sit in the air, it’s aeroponics.If the roots sit in water at least part of the time, it’s hydroponics.If it’s like a hydroponic system with fish, it’s aquaponics.

*Cost depends on the exact system setup. This is just an average.

Aeroponics Basics

Aeroponics 1

Aeroponics has its roots in space. NASA pioneered this technique to make growing plants and farm in zero gravity easier and more effective.

To this end, the efficiency of space is the goal. Aeroponics removes the hydroponic reservoir in its technique.

As with all three of these techniques, aeroponics uses a soil-less system where the roots dangle into the air (thus the “aero-” prefix). 

A grow light is used to provide the needed sunshine and rays. 

Unlike hydroponics, which circulates a nutrient solution through the roots, a spray system delivers a limited amount of nutrient-rich water to the roots. 

Since there isn’t as much overall water and nutrients, the sprays need to happen on a frequent and specific schedule. 

In a word, aeroponics is a stripped-down, efficient hydroponic system.

Compared to normal growing, plants develop more roots than their typically grown counterparts. This is because they need the robust root balls to get the most out of their growing medium and nutrient source. 

There are a lot of different setups for how these systems look, but it hasn’t become a standard industry for the everyday gardener. 

This drives up the price, though it’s possible to make your own if you know how to make and time the sprayers. 

Still, this isn’t great for new folks.

The graphic above may give you an idea of how it works. 

Hydroponics Basics

Hydroponics 1

Hydroponics is the most common soil-less growing technique out there today. It began in California and has now spread worldwide in both home-growing and commercial farming markets. 

Hydroponics grows your vegetables, greens, herbs, and flowers by cycling a nutrient solution of water and plant food through the roots. 

The plants are exposed to special grow lights from above to mimic the effects of the sunshine. 

Other specific techniques for this cycling process include: 

  • Ebb and Flow
  • Nutrient Film Technique
  • Drip
  • Deep Water Culture

The seeds need a growing medium to hold the water and allow the roots to grow. In many cases, this is a natural netting, but it’s possible to make your own using products such as Rockwool. 

Check out our guide for how to use Rockwool in hydroponics

The water is kept in something called a hydroponic reservoir. 

This tank uses a water pump to send the water through the roots, but it also has an air pump to keep the water oxygenated and moving. 

The movement prevents mold and algae from forming too. 

For ideas on how to make your own, check out these DIY hydroponic reservoir ideas

Hydroponics does have a strong tie with growing your own cannabis, but it’s not strictly that. 

There are seed pods and systems of all kinds geared toward any plant you want. 

They work especially well with smaller plants, herbs, and lettuce. 

One of the top brands for the average gardener is AeroGarden. 

Check out our picks for the best AeroGarden for lettuce and herbs

Hydroponics is a popular indoor growing option, but more and more people use them for greenhouse growing or even outdoor commercial farming. 

The direct nutrient delivery saves money on soil and results in a higher yield when done correctly. 

The tough part is the up-front cost of getting the system up and running.

Aquaponics Basics


Aquaponics is an interesting idea and one I haven’t looked into too much. 

It’s a combination of fish farming and hydroponics. 

The goal here is to be as efficient with nutrients and eco-friendly as possible. 

Instead of a hydroponic reservoir to keep the nutrient solution, you use a fish farm. 

As you raise the fish, they eat and create waste. 

The solid waste is removed and what’s left is nutrient-rich water.

The water is then cycled through the seed pods and roots as you would normally in a hydroponic system.

As the plants “drink” the water, they filter out much bacteria and nutrition from the waste. 

This does provide a natural filter to clean the water to put back into the fish tank. 

The fish still need to be fed, but they don’t need as much of a filter. 

The end goal with this system is to provide as close to a natural system as possible. 

In the end, there is much less water waste than with traditional hydroponic systems, and you end up with two products at the end of the day: fish and plants. 

This system isn’t as common in the household market, but it’s doable. The toughest part is finding the filters to remove solid waste. 

It does require a lot more work. 

Which Is Better? Aquaponics, Aeroponics, or Hydroponics?

The easiest option is hydroponics, and this is the one most people should check out first. 

Aeroponics and aquaponics are similar in function, though much more complex. 

Aeroponics takes up the least space and is the most water-efficient, though it’s not available easily and requires design knowledge and experimentation to make it work well. 

Aquaponics is the most environmentally friendly and produces two end products: fish and plants. It requires the most work, but it’s also the most natural. 

The Three Methods Compared With Conventional Farming

Compared with traditional soil farming, the system has some notable strengths and weaknesses.

As a soilless method, you get to control the amount of nutrients going into your plants. 

It’s more precise and efficient than soil farming, where you’re left at the mercy of the soil.

The water absorption is more efficient, too, because the water is delivered directly to the roots. 

This means you use less water overall than you need in soil farming.

For example, hydroponic (the most common system) uses an average of 10% of the water a soil-planted crop needs. 

Water is recycled in the system, too, making it cheaper than irrigating or watering the plants if you’re in a drier area. 

If you keep the plants in a closed system or indoors, you won’t have to worry about pesticides at all. 

You’ll even be able to skip out on fertilizer since the nutrients are delivered directly.

This is much better for the environment as you won’t have chemicals bleeding into the groundwater and infecting natural water supplies.  

On the grand scale, the -ponics are more difficult to do, however.

It’s simpler to take acres of land to plant hundreds and thousands of crops in the soil than to build the hydroponics systems for all those same plants. 

You also don’t have to worry about the sunlight. 

With a closed system, you need to provide grow lights yourself and ensure enough for all the plants you keep. 

Of course, it’s possible to keep a hydroponic system outdoors too. 

There’s a whole system, infrastructure, and selection of tools to help with planting, making it much cheaper up-front. 

Though in the future, and if you look long-term on water, fertilizer, pesticides, and environmental-friendliness, it may be better to use hydroponics instead.  

For the average gardener or someone growing small plants, check out the soilless systems where possible.