Hydroponics and beyond: Soil substitutes to save your plants and the planet

In this blog post we dig into the science of soil, and discover the different methods available, such as hydroponics, to grow beautiful, healthy indoor plants.

Dealing with soil has always been the price we had to pay for having lovely indoor plants. If we want our rooms to be rich with flowers and foliage, we have to put up with the mess and maintenance of the mud they grow in.

But the more we learn about plants, the more we understand that their needs go beyond soil. In fact, to stay in optimum condition in an indoor environment, they may be better off without it.

Soil alternatives often give plants much more of what they need, with much less human effort. Read on, to learn about alternative growth mediums, and why they might be better for your indoor plants:

Why do we need soil substitutes?

Soil doesn’t provide everything that indoor plants need

Plants have a number of factors they need to be fulfilled in order to grow: sufficient light and moisture, space for their roots to grow and oxygen, a balanced pH, the right nutrients and that’s just for starters. And they need these things consistently.

To provide all of this without constantly nannying your indoor plants, one option is to look beyond soil.

Soil is a rare and precious resource

There are plenty of mixes out there that claim to be the best soil for potted plants. Usually, these contain natural elements, like peat.

Peat mixes do offer a lot of what we mentioned above – aeration, moisture retention, neutral pH. The problem is that peat is usually taken straight from delicate non-renewable ecosystems in nature.

International demand for peat has devastated habitats in peat-rich areas like the UK, Ireland, and Scandinavia. Peat-enriched potting mixes may make indoor growing slightly easier – but the question is whether it’s worth the cost to the planet.

What are good potting soil alternatives?

There is no shortage of soil substitutes to choose from. Some people even make their own DIY soil out of materials like mulched paper and vegetable fibers.

For those who prefer to keep their hands clean, commercial soil replacements can include a variety of materials, such as moss, shredded bark, mushroom compost, vermiculite, sand, coir, nut husks, and animal manure. These soil replacements are much more sustainable, but they still need to be enriched with a fertilizing agent.


Hydroculture involves growing plants in an inorganic solid growth medium, usually clay aggregates that are sometimes called LECA (Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregates). The clay pellets are heated to high temperatures in a kiln so that air pockets develop.

These spaces allow water to be absorbed and sucked up towards the plant via capillary action, and give space for the roots to spread out. An alternative is volcanic or lava rock which can also be light and porous.

The greatest advantage of clay or volcanic rock is that the hard rock does not compact, like regular potting mixes, instead it allows plenty of space for air to get to the roots of the plant.

The rock does not break down over time so these advantages are sustained and the moisture retaining properties and wicking effect lead to the plant needing fewer waterings than a regular house plant in regular soil.


When most people think of hydroponics they imagine complex technology, with lights and water pipes or suspended plants growing in reservoirs of water without soil. But there are simpler hydroponic systems that have been in use for thousands of years and these can be easily used in your home or workplace.

Hydroponics simply means growing plants without soil, by using nutrients in a liquid, such as water. In modern homes and offices the hydroponic system involves a special self-watering pot. This pot has an absorbent material, such as rope, hanging down from a shelf on which the plant sits. The plant itself is planted in regular potting mix.

The ropes hanging from the shelf take up water up from a storage area below the shelf, via capillary action. This water storage area can be topped up less frequently than regular planters as extra water can be added and stored in the bottom of the pot. This method ensures the soil is moist but not soaking wet most of the time, and involves less manual watering.

Grow indoor plants effortlessly with Selfgrow™

SelfgrowTM has moved beyond hydroponics and hydroculture and reinvented soil itself.

SelfgrowTM uses cutting edge science to provide the ultimate soil replacement. Our MediumXTM growth medium works with a nanomatrix to hold everything a plant needs to flourish.

The nanomatrix “net” that holds the water ensures that the plant only takes what it needs, when it needs it. SelfgrowTM plants can grow, live, and thrive independently, keeping your rooms looking lovely while you get on with your life. They’re so independent that they usually need watering a couple of times a year at most.

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