How many times have you walked out to your garden/farm and seen one of your plants thriving while its next-door-neighbor is drooping? In such situations, it is almost impossible to know which variable is negatively affecting your droopy plant. Could it be a pest problem? Are the nutrients in the soil different? Or has this helpless plant become a urinal for passers-by or animals?
With a hydroponic system, the exact condition the plant is being grown is known. As such, you can easily isolate variables and experiment! Once you find the perfect formula of light, pH balance, and nutrients, you can replicate success without always getting hit with curveballs.
“Hydroponics ?” “What’s that ?” “Sounds cool…sounds like it has something to do with healthy food or not ?”
So What is Hydroponics?
Hydroponics is a way to skip the soil, sub in a different material to support the roots of the plant, and grow crops directly in nutrient-rich water. Yes, technically and biologically, you can skip the soil.
Plants grow through a process called photosynthesis, in which they use sunlight and a chemical inside their leaves called chlorophyll to convert carbon dioxide (a gas in the air) and water into glucose (a type of sugar) and oxygen. Write that out chemically and you get this equation:
6CO2 + 6H2O → C6H12O6 + 6O2
There’s no mention of “soil” anywhere in there—and that’s all the proof you need that plants can grow without it. What they do need is water and nutrients, both easily obtained from the soil. But if they can get these things somewhere else—say, by standing with their roots in a nutrient-rich solution—they can do without soil altogether. That’s the basic principle behind hydroponics. In theory, the word “hydroponics” means growing plants in water (from two Greek words meaning “water” and “toil”), but because you can grow plants without actually standing them in water, most people define the word to mean growing plants without using soil.
There are various hydroponics design systems but the core elements are essentially the same:
Freshwater- We are talking primo, filtered stuff with a balanced pH. Most plants like water with a pH level of around 6–6.5. You can adjust the acidity of your water with over-the-counter solutions found at your local hardware, garden, or hydroponic store.
Oxygen- Don’t drown your plants! In traditional farming, roots can get the oxygen needed for respiration from pockets of air in the soil. Depending on your hydroponic setup, you will either need to leave space between the base of your plant and the water reservoir, or you’ll need to oxygenate your container (think of bubbles in a fish tank), which you can accomplish by buying an air stone or installing an air pump.
Root Support- Even though you don’t need soil, your plant’s roots still need a little something to hold on to. Typical materials include vermiculite, perlite, peat moss, coconut fiber, and rock wool. Stay away from materials that might compact (like sand) or that don’t retain any moisture (like gravel).
Nutrients- Your plant is going to need plenty of magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, and other nutrients to stay healthy and productive –– just like plants growing in the ground need healthy soil and fertilizer. In growing plants without soil, the “plant food” should be included in the water supplied to feed the plants. While you can technically make your own nutrient solution, it’s easy to buy mixtures online and in stores.
Light- If you’re growing your plants indoors, you might have to invest in some special lighting. Each kind of plant will have a different requirement for the amount of light it needs and for the placement of lights (typically referred to as Daily Light Integral or DLI).
By closely observing and adjusting these foundational elements, you can begin to discover precisely what your plants need to thrive and replicate those conditions for every growth in the future.
Why Grow Without Soil?
This seemingly subtle shift in how we grow plants (skipping the soil, that is) is actually revolutionary– it allows growers to produce food anywhere in the world, at any time of the year, and to net higher yields with fewer resources. All thanks to hydroponics, you can have a farm right behind your restaurant that requires ultra-fresh produce! And when you’re growing hydroponically, you don’t have to hit pause for a season or risk crop loss from inclement weather.
Hydroponically grown plants are certainly living the good life. Since roots are bathed in all the nutrients they need, plants spend more time growing upward and less time and energy growing extensive root systems to search for food.
Growth rates vary based on the type of system and quality of care, but hydro plants can mature up to 25 percent more quickly than the same plants grown in soil, with increased crop yield, to boot.
We bet you didn’t see this coming: hydroponic systems actually use less water than traditional soil-based systems. This is because closed systems aren’t subject to the same rates of evaporation. Plus, the water used in hydroponic systems can be filtered, re-populated with nutrients, and fed back to plants again so that water is constantly being recycled instead of wasted!
The hydroponic systems use up to 98 percent less water than traditional soil-based systems.
Other “resources” indoor hydroponic plants don’t need? Pesticides and other potentially harmful chemicals, since the hydro crops are protected from many of the pests and plant diseases found outdoors in soil-based farms.
In theory, you can grow any plant hydroponically but—as is always the case with gardening—some things inevitably do better than others. Fruit crops such as tomatoes, strawberries, cucumber, lettuces, and herbs, are among plants that do particularly well.