Gardening has a new poster-child of innovation: the hydroponic garden. It might sound like something out of a sci-fi film, but hydroponic gardens are much more common than you probably realize.
But what exactly is hydroponics? And how does it work? Keep reading, and we might convince you to start your very own hydroponic garden at home!
What Is Hydroponic Gardening?
Hydroponic gardening is a growing method that submerges the plants' roots in fertilizer-infused water — commonly called a /garden-bed-ideas/“nutrient solution” — instead of using soil.
Hydroponic systems are known for being compact and efficient. They are also great for year-round growing indoors. Hydroponic systems are popular for growing vegetables and herbs where water or farmland are scarce. But these systems have many practical uses for farmers and hobby gardeners alike.
Types of hydroponic systems
There are four (often overlapping) categories of hydroponic systems:
Liquid hydroponic systems grow plants directly in the nutrient solution. There is no sand or other support medium used in this system.
Aggregate hydroponic systems use a solid medium to support the plants' roots while the nutrient solution flows over them. This medium can be sand, gravel, perlite, sawdust, vermiculite, or any other plant-safe material.
Open hydroponic systems cycle the nutrient solution through the system only once, and discard any excess solution.
Closed hydroponic systems recycle the nutrient solution back through the system until it is entirely spent. Closed systems use fewer resources and are more eco-friendly than comparable open systems.
Hydroponics vs. aquaponics
Before reading about hydroponics, you may have heard a similar term: aquaponics. While they do share some similarities, hydroponics and aquaponics have some distinct differences.
Aquaponics is the combination of hydroponics and aquaculture. Aquaculture is the general term for raising fish in an aquarium.
In aquaponics, the organic waste from the fish acts as fertilizer for the plants. Likewise, the plants' roots release oxygen into the water which the fish then “breathe” in. This process creates an efficient, symbiotic relationship between the plants and fish.
Although aquaponics is a form of hydroponics, it's important to remember that they aren't exactly interchangeable terms.
The Benefits of Hydroponics
Many agriculturalists have called hydroponics the farming of the future. But outside of fulfilling science fiction fantasies, a hydroponic garden offers many unique benefits:
- 1Hydroponics farming is possible anywhere – and we mean anywhere. Hydroponic systems are used to grow produce in Antartica and outer space.
- 2Most hydroponic systems require no or very few pesticides. Most systems are naturally pest-free.
- 3A hydroponic garden uses one-twentieth of the water that traditional gardening uses.
- 4Unwanted plants won't grow in a hydroponic system. This means no weeding or herbicides.
- 5There's no messy, heavy, and expensive soil to worry about.
- 6Industrial hydroponic farming uses 20 percent less space than traditional agriculture.
So what are the downsides?
Of course, no gardening system is perfect. But hydroponics offer very few disadvantages compared to its benefits:
- 1Most hydroponic gardens, especially larger setups, require electricity to run the water pumps.
- 2Since all of the plants are connected in a system, a disease can spread very quickly.
- 3While traditional pests are rare in a hydroponic garden, non-sterile practices can introduce harmful micro-organisms to the system.
Vertical Farming with Hydroponics
Farmland can be hard to come by, especially in urban areas with high populations and very few lots of undeveloped land.
Vertical farming is by no means a new concept. Human civilizations have been using terraced farming for centuries to maximize farmland in tight spaces. Historical examples of terraced farming include the rice paddies of East Asia, grape vines, and olives in the Mediterranean, and corn, quinoa, and potatoes in the Incan Andes.
Today, some commercial farmers are also looking to vertical spaces to grow their crops. These spaces include empty warehouses, building exteriors, and even skyscrapers.
Hydroponic systems are standard in this type of modern vertical farming. Since there is no soil used in these systems, they are lighter and more compact than their traditional counterpart.
Many apartment-dwellers have also turned to a hydroponic garden to grow their own vegetables and herbs. Living in the city can make accessing fresh produce difficult and expensive, and a vertical hydroponic garden is a great solution for tight living spaces.
Hydroponic Gardening at Home
There are countless breathtaking examples of hydroponics spanning several stories high. But it is also possible to scale these techniques down and create an at-home hydroponic garden.
Choosing the right at-home system
At-home hydroponic systems range from simple store-bought kits to extreme D.I.Y. projects. You can even make a hydroponic garden out of a kiddie pool.
One store-bought system that was recently in the news is IKEA's hydroponics collection. IKEA's collection uses a simplified aggregate system, and it is an excellent way for hobby gardeners to dip their feet into the world of hydroponics. But IKEA's hydroponic garden system doesn't take advantage of this method's space-saving abilities. The IKEA hydroponic system takes up just as much counter space as a traditional potted herb garden, even if its modern design makes an attractive statement piece.
While there are many ways to create your own vertical hydroponic garden, perhaps the most popular building material is PVC piping. These lightweight systems can hang on a wall, window, or outdoor fence, taking up very little space.
Other vertical hydroponic garden builds include hanging plastic water bottles, or more aesthetically pleasing glass/plastic beakers, from a bright window. With the right eye for design, a hydroponic garden can be just as much a work of art as it is a productive plant home.
Caring for your hydroponic garden
Maintaining a hydroponic garden is just as easy as a traditional garden, if not easier! But there are still some extra things your garden will need if it's going to succeed:
If your hydroponic garden is going to use a liquid system, you can skip right over this section!
But if you're using an aggregate system in your hydroponic garden, you will need to choose an “inert” medium to stabilize the roots. Inert mediums are those that don't break down easily as compost and soil do in traditional gardening. Your chosen medium is just used to support the plants' root systems, not actually deliver nutrients to the plant.
Many popular potting soil fillers — like perlite, rockwool, vermiculite, and sand — make good hydroponic garden mediums. These materials are easy to find at local hardware and gardening stores.
Fertilizers and nutrients
You cannot use ordinary soil-based fertilizer in your hydroponic garden, even if it is water soluble. You will need to use a nutrient solution specifically designed for hydroponic gardening.
Maintaining the right nutrient balance is best left to the professionals, and there are several ready-made nutrient solutions on the market. It's generally recommended for novice hydroponic gardeners to purchase one of these products rather than trying to create their own!
An often-overlooked part of hydroponic gardening is your plants' need for oxygen. Like an aquarium, your hydroponic garden needs to have air pumped into its water supply to function properly.
Dissolved oxygen is the term for free-floating oxygen molecules in water or other liquids. This is the type of oxygen your plants can absorb through their roots.
Dissolved oxygen helps fight bacterial growth in the water while also encouraging the growth of beneficial micro-organisms. Adequate oxygen levels are often all it takes to prevent bacteria from entering your hydroponic garden system.
Almost every single hydroponic garden kit you find will include an air pump. Airstones (commonly called aquarium bubblers) are also a great tool for maintaining the dissolved oxygen levels in your hydroponic garden system. Whatever means you choose, adding oxygen to your hydroponic garden is necessary if you want your plants to survive!
The best plants for your hydroponic garden
Plants that tend to thrive in hydroponic garden systems include:
While these are the most common plants for a hydroponic garden, hydroponic growing methods are effective for practically any produce.
Flowers can also be grown in a hydroponic garden, though this is not as popular as growing produce. Some of the most common hydroponic flowers are daisies, carnations, and snapdragons.
While not quite as quickly as in the agricultural industry, hydroponic systems are growing in popularity among professional florists. Hydroponic systems can help prevent certain fungal diseases that kill or cosmetically damage commercial flowers. Plants grown with hydroponics also tend to flower up to 50 percent faster than those cultivated with traditional methods, meaning more flowers are cut and sold within a shorter period.
The Future of Hydroponics
There is a world of potential good in hydroponics, with many scholars citing these systems as a possible cure for world hunger. We will also likely see hydroponics used in further space exploration, especially if dreams of living on mars ever become a reality.
Whether used in a multi-story vertical farm, in a small apartment window, or in a future space colony, hydroponics is a revolutionary way to grow produce.