Hydroponic Gardening for Anyone, Anywhere

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Hydroponic gardening is not new, but it has seen an increase in popularity lately.  This is easily understandable, as hydroponics require minimal space, use 90% less water, and can grow herbs, fruits, vegetables, and flowers in half the time of a traditional garden.  Hydroponic gardening also decreases the risk of soil fungus, wildlife, and pests.  If you want to create an indoor garden or are interested in small-space gardening, hydroponics may be the technique you’re looking for.

Hydroponics, at its simplest, is gardening without soil.  The word hydroponics in Latin means “working water,” which explains the system’s mechanics.  The water, along with the added nutrient solution, feeds the roots allowing the plant to concentrate its energy on production.  This leads to the quick growth rate hydroponics are known for.

There are a few components to familiarize yourself with before starting a hydroponic garden.  First, instead of soil, you will use an inert growing media.  This media is essentially only used to stabilize the seed, support the weight of the plant as it grows, and anchor the root system.  Rather than providing nutrition like soil does, it retains the moisture and nutrients from the nutrient solution.

Air stones and an air pump are the second components.  These are used in some, but not all, hydroponic systems, and are helpful because a plant that spends its life submerged in water can easily drown if the water is not adequately aerated.  Air stones are attached to an external air pump with an opaque food-grade plastic tube, and they disperse tiny bubbles of dissolved oxygen through the nutrient reservoir.  You can purchase air stones and pumps online or at pet stores, as they are popular aquarium components.

Finally, you will need net pots, mesh containers that hold your plants.  Net pots are designed to allow the roots to grow freely out of the sides and bottom of the pot.

Depending on the type of hydroponic system you choose, you may need other materials.  There are many types of systems, and we are going to go over the three most popular ones, beginning with Deep Water Culture Systems (DWC).

Deep Water Culture Systems are one of the easiest hydroponic methods, as plants are simply suspended in aerated water.  Net pots with plants are dangled over a deep reservoir of an oxygen-rich, nutrient solution, providing the roots with constant access to nutrition, water, and oxygen.  Because the roots are in water at all times, good oxygenation is essential.  An air stone connected to an air pump will oxygenate the entire system.  Deep Water Culture Systems can be made at home.  You only need a clean bucket or aquarium to act as the reservoir, a Styrofoam tray that can hold the net pots while floating on water, and your medium and seeds.  Be sure you only submerge the roots.  This system is best for herbs and lettuce, and it is important to keep the water between 60-68 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Wick System is the second hydroponic system we are going to look at, and it is a good option for those who have an unreliable or nonexistent source of electricity.  In this system, plants are placed in growing media on a tray that sits on top of a reservoir of nutrient-rich water.  Wicks, made of rope, string, or felt, are dangled from the growing media into the water.  This is a passive system and works by a process called capillary action, meaning the wick absorbs and transports water and nutrients from the reservoir up to the plant roots. In this system, it is important to use an appropriate growing medium.  Coco coir, perlite, and vermiculite are all good choices.  Coco coir is excellent at moisture retention and is pH neutral, as is perlite.  Vermiculite is very porous and has the added benefit of having a high cation-exchange rate, meaning it has the ability to store nutrients for later.  Wick systems are the simplest hydroponic systems and do not require electricity, however, they work slower than other systems and work best for fast-growing plants that do not require a lot of water.

The final system we are going to look at is the Ebb and Flow System, also called the Flood and Drain System.  If you are ordering an indoor hydroponic system, this is probably the type of system you will get.  The Ebb and Flow System works by flooding the bed with a nutrient-rich water solution from the reservoir.  When the timer on the system starts, the pump floods the bed.  When the timer goes off, the water slowly drains back into the reservoir.  The roots have time to dry out and oxygenate before the next flooding.  The Ebb and Flow System is the most popular method because of the quick and vigorous growth of almost any type of vegetation.  The only limitation to what you can grow with this system is the size and depth of your bed.  Sanitation is important in this system, as is ensuring you have a working pump.  If the pump breaks, you will need to replace it immediately or face the loss of your crops.

The three hydroponic methods we’ve looked at in this article are perfect for those who want to begin or continue small-scale hydroponic gardening.  Once you decide a hydroponic setup is the way to go, you can invest in larger systems that have the capability to produce for a commercial farm.  A commercial hydroponic system requires a fair amount of resources, but the harvests are more reliable as you have control of every aspect of growing.  This makes it a potential option for homesteaders who are considering adding a CSA to their business plan.

Regardless of how big you choose to go in the future, hydroponics, even the countertop systems, have a lot to offer.  When you consider the savings in time and water, and the quick and prolific production these systems are capable of, it is clear this type of gardening has a lot to offer.

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