Over the past decade, cannabis growing techniques have evolved dramatically.

Technological and agricultural innovations have enabled the cannabis industry to produce exceptionally high-quality products.

Okay, but why does it matter how the plant is grown?

Whether you have a green thumb or you’re just curious to discover the origin of your medicine, you’ve likely questioned how licensed producers can create such high-quality cannabis. 

So, what are the best growing methods and how do they differ in producing consistent quality products?

The most popular (and ancient) method of using soil, water, and sunlight to grow cannabis is probably what first comes to mind. If you ask the average DIY recreational growers, they’ll tell you that consistency and reliability are the biggest issues.

Remove the soil and sunshine and what are you left with? Water.

Enter aquaponics and hydroponics.

These methods are technology-based approaches to food production known as controlled environment agriculture (CEA). The goal of any CEA approach is to protect plants by controlling the environment to maintain optimal growing conditions throughout the plant development cycle.

Both of these modern CEA growing techniques are indoor closed environments used to grow cannabis without soil and sunshine to create healthy, flourishing, and most importantly, consistent plants. 

Stick around and read on to discover how they differ while delving into the complexities of these wonderfully innovative growing methods.

What is aquaponics?

It is a sustainable crop-growing method that combines hydroponics and conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic life, such as fish, in tanks) in a closed-loop environment.  An aquaponics system creates a symbiotic relationship between the plants and the fish to create a balanced ecosystem.

Technology advancements have enhanced the aquaponics growing method but – fun fact – aquaponics has existed for centuries, the first form of commercialized aquaponics was used by the Aztecs as early as 1150CE.

In normal aquaculture, excreted waste from the aquatic life being reared can build up over time, resulting in toxic water conditions. In an aquaponic system, the excretion-laden water is filtered through a hydroponic system.

This system takes the by-products that are initially broken down by bacteria and turned into nitrites, which later become nitrates that are consumed by the plants as nutrients.

You might be asking, are these “by-products” referring to what I think they are? Yes, it’s fish poop.

The plants’ exposed roots dangle down into grow beds that are connected to the fish tanks in the system. The plants feed off the nitrates produced by fish excretion and in doing so help to purify the water that the fish live in. The clean water is then recirculated back to the aquaculture system creating a never-ending closed loop.

Talk about a good deal for both parties involved!

The system is mutually beneficial for the fish and the plants as the fish poop provide a food source for the growing plants while the plants provide a natural filter to ensure safe, and optimal growing conditions for the fish. This creates a self-sustaining ecosystem where both parties can thrive.

What is hydroponics?

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants by submerging only the roots of a plant into water that’s enriched with specific nutrients. Absolutely no soil. The plant roots are often supported in the water using a static substance such as gravel, sand or rock wool. Experts refer to these static substances as substrates or growing media.

Sounds cool but, what does that even look like?

Picture a regular potted plant, but instead of soil there is water and the plant is suspended and supported by a substance at the top of the water so that the roots can dangle down. Modern hydroponic systems are much more sophisticated than this crude depiction but you get the idea.

While underwater the plant roots are artificially fed a mineral solution which is then absorbed by the roots and delivered to the plant. Each plant is usually kept in a plastic cube or glass container, often using another substance or layer to separate the plant and roots.

A hydroponic growing facility would ideally be underground, well insulated and climate controlled using a mixture of cooling fans and warm artificial lighting. There are many different forms of hydroponics growing, some involve a flood and drain system and other popular systems use drip irrigation similar to greenhouse vegetable growers.

The hanging roots draw their nutrients from a water trough system below the plants which is fed by the main water tank. Any excess water drips through and goes back out of the trough, returning to the tank.

Every 10-14 days, the nutrients are flushed from the system to avoid build-up and avoid nutrient “blocking” in the plants and subsequently replaced with new water and nutrients.   

Being in the cube keeps the plants consistently moist when using an automated system. For example in an ebb-flow hydroponic system, when the cubes start to dry out and the water level is low a sensor is triggered and the system will activate, refilling the troughs to once again submerge the roots.

How do aquaponics and hydroponics differ?

There are a handful of similarities shared by hydroponics and aquaponics. For starters, both methods of growing cannabis do not typically require soil or sunshine to produce high-grade cannabis.

Both growing techniques utilize oxygen-heavy, nutrient-rich water to continuously saturate the plants’ roots. In addition, both systems yield better results when compared to growing with soil and they share the same ‘flood and drain’ system – although the hydroponic flooding time is much longer.

But do we know if one growing method is better than the other?

To best answer this question, let’s take a look at some common factors about each system.

Price of the nutrients 

  • Chemical nutrients used to feed the cannabis plants in a hydroponic system are costly.
  • With an aquaponic system, fish food replaces the nutrients so the cannabis plants feed off the fish excrement that has been turned into nutrients by the vital bacteria and worms in the water
  • With an aquaponic system, fish food is the only input into the system; the cannabis plants feed off of the broken down fish excrement that has been turned into nutrients by beneficial bacteria in the water.  Thus eliminating the need to purchase expensive supplemental nutrients.

Maintenance

  • Both systems require daily and weekly checks to the system, including electrical conductivity checks, weekly checks on PH and ammonia levels, and monthly checks on nitrate levels
  • The advantage of an aquaponics system is that there is less maintenance in replenishing the water nutrients since there isn’t a necessity to dump all the water out and replace with nutrients as required in hydroponics.

Waste

  • Salt and chemical build-up over time mean water in a hydroponic system needs to be disposed of before the water becomes toxic and the cannabis plants suffer, or worse, perish.
  • Careful consideration must also go into the disposal of hydroponic waste which can be an environmental hazard, although research has shown that helpful disposal methods could be forthcoming.
  • In an aquaponic system, harmful waste is non-existent. Transpiration and evaporation are the only way water leaves the system and since both are so minimal an occasional top up to the tanks is all that is required.

Set-up costs

  • An aquaponic system requires far more capital than a hydroponic system
  • Hydroponic systems have moderately high set-up costs respectively
  • An aquaponics set-up, however, requires a professional team to assemble the equipment required to create its signature mini ecosystem.

Natural

  • A hydroponics growing system for cannabis is essentially a man-made environment while aquaponics recreates a natural ecosystem, thus making it more natural.
  • Expensive nutrients consisting of a mixture of chemicals and salts feed the cannabis plants in a hydroponic system.
  • In an aquaponic system fish waste is converted into plant food by bacteria and composting worms which results in more natural plant growth.

Distinct Advantages of an Aquaponics System

Are you still not wholly convinced the growing method matters? Most of the information provided thus far is heavy on the science and may seem a little overwhelming. We get it.

The key to why the growing method should matter to you, the consumer, is all about the quality of your cannabis.

Let’s explore specifically why aquaponics delivers such a high-quality cannabis plant and some the method’s other benefits.

Faster growing, top-quality cannabis plants with bigger yields

  • Marijuana plants complete their life cycle faster when grown using aquaponics
  • Research has shown that cannabis plants can be ready to harvest up to 10 days earlier than plants grown hydroponically.
  • The flowers are of much better quality because the process is completely natural and the bud yields tend to be higher – up to 20-25 percent higher than soil-grown cannabis plants.

Water conservation

  • In a properly maintained aquaponic growing system, the water in the tanks will more or less be the same water that’s there 20 years from now, it is never dumped.
  • Additional water is only required when it evaporates from the surface under the warmth of artificial light or when the process of transpiration occurs in the plant leaves.
  • That original loop of water with all the nutrients is pretty much there forever and research suggests that 90 per cent less water is used in aquaponics when compared with traditional agriculture.
  • This statistic alone could greatly benefit arid third world countries suffering due to chronic water shortages.

Completely natural

  • With aquaponics nothing whatsoever is added to the system to encourage plant growth.
  • There are no pesticides, no fertilizers, nothing.
  • There is no cheating in an aquaponic system. Adding pesticides or chemical fertilizers will throw the whole ecosystem out of balance, which will, in turn, impact the fish and potentially kill them.
  • The result of this pure environment is consistently high-quality natural cannabis.

Root access

  • The colour of the plant roots matter: white roots mean cannabis plant roots are healthy, brown roots means they are unhealthy.
  • With the roots exposed, an aquaponic system makes it easy to monitor their health. When growing in soil, this is far more difficult.

Self-sustaining model

  • The reason aquaponics is considered to be one of the planet’s most sustainable forms of agriculture is down to the complete lack of input once the process is put into motion.
  • Once that ecosystem is established, once the fish, bacteria, worms, and plants are collaborating to work in harmony the grower does not have to add anything to or alter, the system in any way.
  • So year after year and crop after crop it just keeps humming along and repeating its patterns. It’s basically like owning a little pond that consistently grows high-quality products for as long as you want it to, the cycle will just go round and round forever.
  • It’s no surprise then that NASA is using the aquaponics model for feeding people on Mars once the planet is colonized.

Free source of protein (the fish)

  • The added bonus of a large or small scale aquaponics operation is the free protein source.
  • The fish used to make the ecosystem tick may begin as fry but they will inevitably grow bigger and when fully grown can be removed from the tanks for consumption and replaced.
  • You can choose to eat the fish yourself or donate them to a good cause.

Disadvantages of using aquaponics

While the aquaponics growing method has some unique advantages and secondary benefits, there are some drawbacks that can deter its use more widely.

Set-up costs 

  • Whether you are attempting to grow your own at home or putting together a large scale cannabis production, an aquaponic system will initially be more expensive than a hydroponic operation.
  • On top of that, there is the cost of the fish to make the system work.
  • Depending on the size of the operation, electricity outputs can be high when using an aquaponic system. This is because the fish tank needs to be kept a certain temperature throughout the entire day.
  • You also have to factor in the cost of powering fans, water pumps, and lights among other electronic parts of the system.

Knowledge & adaptation

  • You would need to become trained in fish farming, which would take a lot of time and effort
  • You also need to be well versed in hydroponics in general, as even the smallest errors will affect the plants almost immediately.
  • Then there is the adaptation process, the trial and error of striking the right balance when it comes to the amount of fish and bacteria required to meet the specific needs of your cannabis plants.

Up front time investment 

  • During the first few months, the water needs to be constantly monitored to make sure its quality is okay for the fish.
  • After the system has matured, water testing is usually carried out twice a week for the home user (the professionals do daily pH testing, monitor nitrogen series every other day, and full testing weekly)

Advantages of using hydroponics

It can be difficult to discern which of the CEA growing techniques is definitively superior. Each method has its own unique benefits, and hydroponics is so widely used for these specific reasons.

Water saving

  • Hydroponics is fairly efficient when it comes to water usage, although not as efficient as aquaponics as previously noted.
  • Although the potentially harmful salt-laden water waste needs to be disposed of, none of it will be wasted on the soil or lost through evaporation which makes it more water efficient than growing cannabis in the soil.

Optimizing space

  • In a hydroponic system, the roots of the plant require less space than they would with soil as they can obtain all the nutrients they need in a small space.
  • This, in turn, means using fewer substrates such as gravel, sand, vermiculite, and rock wool.

Large yields and fast growth rate

  • Unlike growing in soil a decent hydroponic system will accurately nourish your cannabis plants. Because the plants are growing in favourable environment, the results are usually impressive.
  • Aside from large yields, the growth rate of cannabis using hydroponics is also quicker than soil-based growing.

Fewer pests and diseases

  • When you use a highly-regulated and controlled environment that a hydroponic system offers, you dramatically reduce the likelihood of pests and diseases turning up, especially if you are growing indoors.
  • Pest infestations are not only damaging but very costly.

Root access

  • The roots indicate whether or not a cannabis plant is healthy so just like an aquaponic system using hydroponics makes their health easy to monitor.

Disadvantages of using hydroponics

No process is without its flaws, and hydroponics is no exception. There are distinct advantages to using hydroponics, hence its wide usage in agriculture both in the cannabis and farming industries. That said, there are a few drawbacks to using this growing method.

Water quality

  • The same water is repeatedly used to hydrate and fertilize the cannabis plants in a hydroponic growing system.
  • That water then eventually becomes very salt heavy and must be dumped because when the salt levels rise too high the plants inevitably suffer.
  • This process alone shows why hydroponics is not sustainable. Aside from that the waste — if not dumped properly — can be harmful to the environment.

Set-up costs 

  • Just like aquaponics, growing cannabis hydroponically can be hard on the wallet as you need to invest heavily in equipment to create that perfect environment for your plants.

Maintenance and attention

  • Creating a favourable environment for cannabis in a hydroponic operation takes time and a lot of effort.
  • Being vigilant is a must as mistakes can be costly and devastating so attentiveness and regular maintenance are required to ensure your plants stay healthy and yields are maximized.

Not quite all natural

  • Hydroponic cannabis is grown in a man-made environment using mineral solutions so it can be argued that is not completely natural.
  • This line of thinking is backed by the fact that hydroponically-grown plants must be flushed of their chemicals — which build up along with salts during the growing process — before they are harvested.
  • If that isn’t done properly the final product could be tainted.

Is aquaponics better than hydroponics when growing cannabis?

While both methods make soil-based growing look inferior, aquaponics seems to trump hydroponics when it comes to growing cannabis.

The reasons are simple and plentiful.

Aquaponics is completely natural, unlike hydroponics, and it uses less water than hydroponics and far less water than traditional agriculture. It isn’t inconceivable that aquaponics, in time, could save the agricultural industries in many parched third world countries.

The consistency of aquaponics is unrivaled when it comes to continuous delivery of high-quality cannabis.

There are no potentially-dangerous waste products associated with aquaponics. 

Let’s also not discount the bonus supply of fish for dinner!

Overall, a major point on the scoreboard for aquaponics is that it requires fewer resources to run (i.e. fertilizer consumption, constantly replenishing water and nutrients).

Ultimately, the homerun for aquaponics cannabis plants is the bigger yields and speedy harvest times.

Can’t really argue with the facts, can you?