Hydroponics in South Africa is a fertile industry with massive economic potential. Commercial farmers and home growing enthusiasts are enjoying ground-breaking innovations in the ever-growing world of nutrient and beneficial plant feeding.
What is Hydroponics?
Hydroponics is the method of feeding a plant without soil, where the nutrition is instead mixed into the water. This means that the plant now requires no soil or organic matter to grow. When a plant is fed through the soil, there is bacteria and fungi that process organic matter into the correct form for the plant to take up. Hydroponic growing skips the intermediate process of soil based growing and rather feeds the plant directly. This is achieved by suspending the plant in an inert media and supplying the nutrient rich water to the roots. Hydroponic growers mainly make use of "synthetic" nutrients, as these nutrients are already in an accessible ionic salt form and are optimized to be taken up by roots.
Types of Hydroponic systems
There are two main types of hydroponics in South Africa: active and passive. Active systems are systems that supply the water directly to the roots, or where the roots reside directly in the nutrient rich water. This is achieved by having a reservoir of nutrient rich water that is then pumped to the plants' roots by use of a water pump. Types of active hydroponics systems include deep water culture and nutrient film technique. In contrast, passive systems are systems where the plants are grown in an inert media such as coco coir or rockwool. The coco coir/rockwool is then irrigated or supplied with the nutrient rich water via an absorbent wick system. Some systems can be used with either method. Learn more in our growing mediums guide.
Feeding Hydroponic Nutrients
Plants require different types and concentrations of nutrients at each stage of growth. Most hydroponic nutrients will therefore come in multiple parts. Each part will be used at a different concentration during the stages of growth. The nutrients will include a basic feeding chart to follow. Each time the nutrients are mixed, the solution must be at the right concentration for the plant. Failing to do this may result in slow growth, plant burn or complete loss. Applying your nutrients correctly will ensure ideal growth and higher yields. Certain nutrients are taken up by the plant at different pH levels. So, the pH of the water must also be adjusted to ensure ideal uptake by the plant. This possibly requires adding acids and bases to your solution to achieve the desired pH.
A PH range of 5.5 to 6.5 is the sweet spot for healthy plants and good growth. Drifting out of this zone will likely lead to PH Lock Out. Causing the plant to effectively block out nutrients, causing significant deficiencies. A good quality PH meter is an essential tool to monitor and make crucial adjustments.
Indoor or Outdoor Hydroponics?
Traditionally hydroponics in South Africa is viewed as an indoor only method, however hydroponic growing can work equally well outdoors. One reason hydroponics is used indoors is because of the harsh elements. Rain can easily offset the nutritional value of the water that is being used to feed the plant. While dirt and diseases may also find a home inside of your hydroponics system, making for poor control and B-grade harvests. Water temperature is also an important part of many hydroponic systems. When using hydroponics outside, it is important to prevent the sun from heating up your water. You can do this by insulating your system or burying your reservoir. Many people opt for a hybrid approach and use a greenhouse to protect the hydroponic system from unwanted contaminants and elements.
Benefits of Hydroponics in South Africa
Hydroponics has become increasingly popular in SA. From large scale producers to DIY home projects, there are many benefits to growing hydroponically. As a water scarce country, the most obvious benefit to hydroponic growing is the water saving aspect. Many hydroponic systems can recirculate the water, requiring a top up only when the plants have taken up all the available water and nutrients. Less water is therefore lost to evaporation and over-watering. Similarly, the nutrients can be precisely controlled which leads to significantly lower nutrient costs. Plants also grow faster in hydroponics, meaning higher yields and quicker harvests for cash crops.
Hydroponics tools for success
It is recommended to use a pH meter to track the acidity of your solution. Typically hydroponic nutrients are in powder or liquid form and diluted to water according to the plants' growth cycle. All synthetic nutrients must be added incrementally as the plant grows. It is recommended to use an EC meter to track the concentration of the solution. You should also aerate your reservoir with an air-pump and air-stone. This will ensure that your plants receive enough oxygen. As roots thrive in oxygen rich growing mediums and nutrient solutions. It may be impossible to "over-water" in hydroponics, but it is very easy to "under-oxygenate".
Can I grow organic hydroponics?
The answer is yes and no. While organic nutrients and soilless mediums have certainly come along way, they are not the most practical option for automated systems. Many organic nutrients must be used fairly quickly once mixed and do not have the long-term stability of their synthetic competitors. Synthetic nutrients are therefore still the go to choice for most hydroponics in South Africa. Learn more in our Organic vs Synthetic nutrients guide.
It's time to get your hydro on!
Hydroponic growing is one of the most effective growing techniques. Plants are steadily fed the exact nutrition they require at each stage. This promotes faster growth and greater yields. The precise nature of this method makes it extremely efficient and resourceful. Over and above the efficacy of hydroponic systems, the quality of the products produced is far more consistent. This improves the commercial viability of projects too. If you want to start a farm or simply have fresh veggies in your own home, hydroponic growing in South Africa is a method you should consider.
Need a little help making up your mind about hydroponics in South Africa? Please contact our grow pros for some top shelf advice.