What if you got no space to garden outside, or let's say you want to cultivate fresh plants indoors next to your kitchen space? What would you do if you were going to grow vegetables, herbs, and small fruiting plants commercially throughout the year for your plants-based business?
If you got no space to garden outside, bring your gardens inside!
And to do so, you need to know what hydroponics is and how it works for indoor settings and greenhouse chambers.
Hydroponics is the art and science of growing plants without any soil.
The word hydroponics is derived from two Greek words, "hydro meaning water and ponos meaning labor," i.e., "working water”. In the absence of soil, "working water" acts as a supporting medium for the roots of hanging plants and enriches them with hydration, nutrients, and oxygen (dissolved form) to plant life. With hydroponics, you can grow juicy watermelons to tasty jalapenos to orchids.
Using 1/3rd less space and 95% less water than traditional gardening, you can grow virtually any plant using the ingenious hydroponics design in half the time.
Though this pioneering technology might seem a recent phenomenon, the process itself is centuries old. The floating gardens of Aztecs in Mexico and the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon were hydroponic in nature. The great Marco Polo, in the 13th century, wrote detailed notes of beholding floating gardens in China.
In the Second World War, the U.S. Army crafted humongous hydroponics gardens on various islands of the western pacific to ensure a concurrent supply of lustrous and green vegetables to its troops
You would be amazed to know; NASA is extensively using hydroponics for space exploration and applications. Through this method, NASA was able to grow aeroponic bean seedlings in 1990 for the first time.
No doubt, hydroponics continues to amaze us with its unique and truly inspiring process of water conservation and crop production.
What is hydroponics?
In simple terms, hydroponics is the art of growing plants without soil.
It is one form of soilless-crop cultivation all over the world.
Hydroponics is an efficient and quick method of cultivating herbs, veggies, flowers, and some selective fruit-producing plants in an inert growing media bombarded with oxygen, nutrient-rich solution, and water.
I think some explanation is needed here regarding the nutrient-rich solution and inert growing media!
What is a nutrient-rich solution?
It's nothing but 16 of the19 plant growth essential nutrients. These essential nutrients are provided by means of nutrient-rich solutions.
Next, what is inert growing media?
It may be, depending on the choice of the grower, an inorganic substance (such as gravel, sand, Rockwool, perlite) or organic substance (such as sphagnum peat moss, coconut fiber, or pine bark).
An inert growing media plays a vital role in creating a perfect hydroponics system by providing mechanical support to the plant life.
In recent times, hydroponics has been quite popular among growers because the system offers robust growth, higher yield returns, and top-notch performance.
Traditional soil-based agriculture was good until recently when growers started to use various chemicals. This not only caused public health concerns but environmental pollution as well. Moreover, in soil-based agriculture, plants use most of their energy to promote roots system
to search for nutrients underground.
On the other hand, in hydroponics, plants don't waste their energy promoting root growth. The roots of the plants are supplemented with nutrient-rich water. So, plants redirect their surplus energy to encourage faster growth to reach maturity levels at a faster pace. As a result, leaf canopy flourishes, as does the blossoming of flowers and fruits.
Plants grow and thrive through a process called photosynthesis. In this process, plant leaves capture sunlight through chlorophyll cells. Cells in the leaves combine water taken from roots and carbon dioxide obtained through stomatal cells that are present underside of the leaves.
Six water molecules combine with six carbon dioxide molecules using sunlight energy to produce sugar molecules and, in the process, release six molecules of oxygen. This oxygen upon creation is released into the atmosphere, which is highly essential for the sustainability of the Earth.
As you may have noticed, plants don't need soil to carry out photosynthesis. Plants need soil for water and all the essential nutrients.
You can easily supply the required dose of nutrients through hydroponics by mixing them in water and bombarding them through misting, flooding, or immersion.
Research and reports from hydroponics growers have shown that direct exposure of nutrient-rich water to the exposed roots of the plants can be a more effective and nifty technique than traditional irrigation.
How does hydroponics work?
No doubt, hydroponics is doing wonders these days.
It is all because of the simplicity of the process itself.
Hydroponics works by allowing little control over environmental variables such as humidity, temperature, pH levels, and full exposure to water and nutrients.
Moreover, hydroponics functions under a straightforward process: to provide plants what they need, in which quantity, and when they need it.
Today, nutrient solutions are tailored precisely to each plant's needs and want in markets.
Furthermore, you can check the energy needs through a perfect monitoring system.
Each plant in hydroponics has different light requirements to function correctly.
Don't worry if you have shorthand over the indoor lighting system; you can supplement the required light through photosynthetic lights. In this regard, LED lights can do wonders for your hydroponics.
In addition, pH levels can be monitored and tailored according to the need of each plant.
If you're looking for high plant growth, you can install a highly customizable hydroponics system. No doubt, plant growth boosts in a customized and controlled environment.
With a controlled system like hydroponics, many risks can be avoided. In soil-based agriculture, plants are always prone to the risk of soil-borne diseases (fungus), pests (flies, leafhoppers, locusts, etc.), and predators (rabbits), which can destroy freshly grown vegetables from your outdoor garden. When you opt for hydroponics instead of traditional agriculture, you can expect healthy, high-quality fruits, herbs, and vegetables. Furthermore, with the absence of pests and diseases, seedlings can grow at a much faster rate and mature in less than a month.
Lastly, hydroponics enriches your plant with a stable environment that allows your plants to grow vigorously and speedily.
Note: Don't be fooled by reading some unscientific posts on Google!
Hydroponics is full of problems.
It requires special attention to detail and good growing skills.
Unfortunately, research has shown that "failures far outnumber the successes, due to management inexperience or lack of scientific and engineering support. Soil growing is more forgiving of errors made by the grower than are most hydroponic/soilless growing systems, particularly those that are purely hydroponic."
What are the components of the hydroponics system?
As a human body is made of various organs which work together to sustain a healthy lifestyle. Similarly, the hydroponics system consists of three principal organs: Growing Media, Air Stones and Air Pumps, and Net Pots. A considerable understanding of each principal component will allow you to run your system smoothly and swiftly.
- Growing Media: Plants in a hydroponics system can be grown with or without the use of growing media. A growing media is an inert material which means it does not directly play any significant role in the growth and development of the plants. Still, it is helpful to have a growing media in a hydroponic system because it provides the necessary support to hold and anchor the plant's weight and root structure. Further, it plays a vital role in regulating water and nutrients for quick and swift uptake of nutrients by plants. Many veteran hydroponics plant growers recommend using pH-neutral growing media as it doesn't disturb the normal pH balance of the nutrient solution. There are many kinds and types of inert materials available in the market to choose from. By keeping in view your exact requirements, you can opt for specific growing media from online, local, or nursery gardening vendors.
- Air Stones and Air Pumps: Oxygen is the lifeline of all living species, and hydroponics is no exception. Without a proper and balanced supply of oxygen, your hydroponics seedlings can drown in no time. To keep up with the quick growth process, it is essential to properly aerate your hydroponics plant. Air stones and air pumps serve the purpose of providing oxygen to plants in a closed system by creating and dispersing tiny air bubbles through your nutrient-rich water solution. Moreover, these air bubbles make sure the nutrients in your hydroponics system are evenly distributed. On the other hand, air pumps don't introduce oxygen to the nutrient solution on their own like air stones but form the external environment via opaque food-grade plastic tubing. You can easily find both air stones and air pumps from aquarium stores.
- Net Pots: Consider net pots as your body muscle and skeleton. As your muscle and skeleton hold your body intact. Similarly, net pots are the meshy skeleton that keeps hydroponics plants in place and intact. The meshy and interlaced material allows the roots of plants to grow downwards and outwards to allow each plant to extract maximum nutrients and oxygen. Moreover, net pots are better as compared to plastic or clay pots in providing better drainage.
Advantages and Disadvantages:
Following are some of the top advantages and disadvantages of hydroponics, as listed by Jensen in his scientific report.
- First and foremost, the hydroponics system is clean, mechanized, and lightweight.
- With hydroponics, it is possible to grow crops where no suitable soil exists for the growth of some plants or where the soil is contaminated with pests and diseases.
- This process removes the need for tilling, weeding, fumigating, watering, cultivating, and other traditional farm practices.
- You can expect higher yields, quality food production, and efficient resource management.
- Conservation of water and land is the main highlight of this system. This advantage plays a vital role in the conservation of the environment.
- Little to no chemicals are used. This helps rightly in reducing water and land pollution.
- If the plants in the hydroponic system show a sign of fungal or bacterial disease, you can eradicate them easily with some commercially available eradicant.
- The best distinctive feature of hydroponics is the wholesome control of the environment. With this advantage, a person can easily check the root's health condition, irrigation requirements, and timely nutrient feeding.
- A skilled horticulturist can use this system to design patio-type gardens or even gardens in high-rise buildings.
If you're in the mood to set up a hydroponics system, don't forget to ponder on the original construction cost, which is relatively high.
At least one trained person must always be on the spot to check and test the growing operations. Without knowing how plants thrive in a hydroponics system and rules of nutrition, it is not easy to grow plants in hydroponics to the full capacity.
Unknown introduction of fungal, bacterial, nematodes infection can spread very quickly in the closed-loop system of the hydroponics.
Extensive research is the need of the hour to make hydroponics more efficient and easier to operate.
Plants are highly reactive to the poor supply of nutrients. The grower must pay special attention to the needs of plants.
Hydroponics Structures and Their Operations – The Five Main Types of Hydroponics Systems:
Today there are over hundreds of hydroponics kinds and types available in the market. Still, we will limit our study to only the five main types of hydroponics systems because all of them are some kind of modification or alternation of five main basic types of hydroponics.
- Wick System: The wick system is one of the most straightforward and elegant hydroponic system designs that works independently of electricity, pump, and aerators. Seedlings are directly introduced in an absorbent such as coco-air, perlite, vermiculite, etc., "with a nylon wick running from plants roots into a reservoir of nutrient solution”. Water from the nutrient tank to the growing medium flows with the help of the capillary action. Capillary action is a natural phenomenon where water moves from a water-rich place to a water-scarce spot. This system is suitable for small fruiting plants, leafy greens, and herbs that require less amount of water. One of the major drawbacks is that this design is not ideal for plants that require high doses of water.
- Ebb and Flow System: Ebb and flow system is the first commercial hydroponic system that functions on the principle of flood and drain. Water and nutrient solution move from the storage tank to the grow bed with the aid of a water pump until it reaches a specific level. Nutrient-rich water stays in the grow bed section for a certain period of time so that it provides moisture and nutrients to the seedlings in the grow bed section. With this system, you can grow various kinds of crops. The significant drawbacks of the Ebb and Flow system are the problem of algae, root rot, and mold. To limit the problem of algae, root rot, and mold, create a modified system with a filtration unit installed.
- Drip System: The Drip Hydroponic System works magically for indoor home gardens and outdoor commercial growing spaces. In this design, water or nutrient-rich solution is pumped to the individual plant roots with the help of a water pump. Each plant is placed in a moderately "absorbent growing medium so that the nutrient solution drips slowly." This system is known for growing various veggies, herbs, and flowers with the remarkable conservation of water.
- Deep Water Culture System: In this hydroponics system, plants roots are suspended in nutrient-rich water, and oxygen to the roots is provided with the help of air stones or air pumps. Plants are usually kept in various sizes of net pots, and roots are dipped in nutrient-rich water. Continuous supply of nutrient-rich water to the plant roots all the time promotes the rapid growth of plants and enables the plant grower to accumulate large masses of plants quickly. Keep an eagle eye on the nutrient, oxygen, salinity, and pH levels to limit the growth of algae and molds. This system is a perfect fit for larger plants that gives fruits such as tomatoes and cucumbers.
- Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) System: "In this system, water or nutrient solution circulates throughout the entire system; and enters the growth tray via a water pump without a time control." This NFT System was designed and developed by Dr. Alen Cooper by keeping in view the shortcomings of the ebb and flow system in the 1960s in England. He designed this system to make sure the nutrient solution moves and passes throughout the system every time. The internal system of this design is slightly tilted to make sure the nutrient-rich water moves through the roots of the plants and down back into the storage tank. "Plants are placed in a channel or tube with roots dangling in a hydroponics solution." The major drawback of this system is the danger of fungal infection as the roots of the seedlings are immersed in water all the time. Many leafy greens can be procured with this system. Commercially the NFT system is used for the commercial production of lettuce.