Everything You Need To Know About Hydroponics
Few waters run deeper through the human experience than planting and agriculture. From the irrigated riverbeds of Mesopotamia and ancient India to the floating gardens of Tenochtitlan to modern mass agriculture around the world, the interplay between plants, soil, and organic material has been the flowering seed from which civilization has sprung and continues to bloom. Of course, just as Heraclitus famously said, “You can’t step in the same river twice,” the field of agriculture, horticulture, and the way we manipulate water and soil for maximum effect when growing things has changed over time.
Enter hydroponics, the process by which plants are grown with just water and no soil. While the idea goes back to thinkers such as Francis Bacon and John Woodward in the 1600s, and gained renewed interest in the 1930s, it’s really in the last couple of decades that it’s exploded onto the scene as a viable alternative for growing some plants via traditional soil-based methods.
So what is hydroponics, how does it work, what are its benefits, and why should you consider giving it a “grow”?
For those not in the know, hydroponics gets the latter part of its name from the Greek word “ponos,” meaning “labor.” As you probably already know, “hydro” means “water,” making the “water labor” or “labor from water” meaning here all the clearer. The basic idea of hydroponics, then, is to use water and diluted nutrients as well as some substrate to allow a root system to develop free of any soil. When done properly, this can foster a great deal of rapid growth, great yields, and fantastic quality. In some cases, there is even a chance that hydroponically-grown plants may surpass the quality of some planted in traditional soil.
That’s partly due to the fact that plants grown in soil have their roots constantly searching for and needing water and nutrition in order to survive. If the water or nutrient supply runs dry, the plant may quickly dry out, no matter how well developed it is. By contrast, if a plant’s roots are instead exposed directly to a constant and ever-available supply of water and nutrients in a controlled environment, these risks are eliminated. What’s more, the plant does not have to expend as much energy in trying to “find” water and nutrients.
Instead of directing this energy towards its roots and the need to find water and nutrients, hydroponically grown plants therefore have the potential to shift more energy towards their growth and maturation process, resulting in greater flourishing and better-developed flowers and fruits.
How it Works
As you probably remember from grade-school biology, plant life is sustained via photosynthesis, whereby plants capture light from the sun via a colored pigment called chlorophyll (hence why plants are largely green) and use this sunlight to make nutrients for themselves. By using the energy they capture from sunlight, they are able to split water molecules that have been sucked up through the root system, which then combine with hydrogen and carbon dioxide to nourish the plants as they give off oxygen, from which we and most living creatures on Earth benefit.
Photosynthesis is one of those things that’s simple enough to describe to a grade schooler and complicated enough to break down into complex biochemical reactions once you have a great enough understanding to do so. You don’t have to be a botanist or bioengineer, however, to realize that however simply or complexly you present photosynthesis, the word “soil” doesn’t appear once in our description of it. This should already hint at how ancillary it may be under the proper conditions, and hydroponics picks right up on that fact.
Plants need water and nutrients but while soil traditionally provides them with both of these things, soil itself is not strictly necessary. If nutrients can be obtained, dissolved into water, and then soaked up directly via the plant’s root system, it’s possible to forego soil -- and that’s precisely what hydroponics tries to do.
In order to accomplish this, hydroponics setups require a great deal of attention. Some of the most important factors in a hydroponics setup include:
- Water Quality and pH Factor: You need to make sure that you are using clean water. Both soft and hard water have their problems when it comes to growing plants, so don’t overthink your water supply by going too far in either direction. Ideally, your water should have a pH level of around 6 to 6.5.
- Oxygen: For as important as it is for plants in traditional gardening and agricultural setups to get plenty of fresh air, in the controlled settings in which hydroponic growing takes place, you’ll want to be a bit cautious. You are feeding your plant oxygen more directly than in nature, which means that you don’t want to overdo it. You may need to leave space between your plant’s base or oxygenate the container via an air pump or something similar. Either way, make sure your plant receives plenty of oxygen, but not so much that it’s smothered by it.
- Root Supports: Since the roots aren’t going to be gripping the soil, they will need to be supported in another way. Peat moss, perlite, rockwool, coconut fiber, vermiculite, and similar options may work well. That said, you’ll want to steer clear from materials that may end up compacting your roots, such as sand, or that don’t retain moisture, such as gravel.
- Let There Be Light: If you plan on growing your plants indoors, you’ll want to make sure that your plant receives plenty of light from special light sources that can replicate the kind of light they need for photosynthesis. The arrangement of lights is referred to as the Daily Light Integral.
- Nutrients: Plants need lots of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and other nutrients in order to grow well. Fertilizers for soil-based plants include these materials so in their absence, you’ll need to introduce them yourself via the water supply. You’ll thus need to look for mixtures that contain these nutrients or make your own, though the latter alternative is much more difficult. If you are new to hydroponics especially, pre-mixed solutions are probably your best bet at ensuring that your plants get the nutrients they need without overwhelming them.
Products to Help the Process
If hydroponics have won you over, you may be wondering what you’ll need to grow this way. After all, in the absence of soil, many traditional growing containers won’t work and the specialized techniques introduced by hydroponics require special equipment.
Thankfully, for every task there is a proper tool, and hydroponics is no different. For example, you’ll need tents and growrooms in which to grow your plants. These tents can optimize your growing experience in several ways, from reflecting and retaining the light better to eliminating hot spots and keeping the temperature nice and stable. Floor sheeting can also come in handy to further insulate your room in this regard.
Lighting is likewise essential, as mentioned above, so you’ll want to make sure that you get lights that are optimally fitted to both your growing ambitions as well as the space in which you are working. Too bright, and you risk overexposing your plant (not to mention making it blindingly difficult to work and see what you’re doing while in the tent), but too dark, and your plant won’t get enough light to flourish properly. Some lights offer low power consumption for the amount of light they give off, while others offer consistently high lumen output. Some can even be strung up and adjusted with ease in a more portable setup, making it easier to take your plant-growing show on the road.
Then there are the kits in which plants grow. As mentioned above, because of their specialized growing and support needs, you cannot just plant hydroponic plants. Single kits can handle one plant each while more comprehensive kits, ranging from two or four pots to dozens, can handle more complex projects, giving you the potential to grow an entire garden’s worth of plants, flowers, and fruits hydroponically.
To sustain your plants, you’ll need both growing media and nutrients. The latter is derived from everything from liquified substrates for coco plants to bat guano, whereas the former can include everything from clay pebbles to rockwool to vermiculite. Additionally, liquid plant optimizers and accelerators can be used to stimulate the growth process.
Planting, gardening, and agriculture represent the perfect intersection of nature and our own ingenuity. We are always looking for new ways to improve what nature already grants us. Hydroponics is the latest example of that, and one of the most potentially bountiful and groundbreaking ones in centuries. When performed properly, it can allow for all manner of plants to be grown in conditions that might not sustain them in terms of the soil present and can likewise lead to greater yields.
Whether you’ve just been imbued with the seeds of a love for planting and gardening or are looking to grow your skills, hydroponics offers a chance for you and your plants to bloom as never before.