Did you know that you can grow food without soil? A hydroponic garden is the name of the game. It allows you to grow fresh veggies year-round and you don’t even have to get dirty.
But, why, on earth, would someone bother to create a soilless garden when our mother nature provided all we need to grow food? After all, you can build a greenhouse to grow veggies regardless of the season. Well, hydroponic gardens allow us to save space and water, for starters.
We live in turbulent times, which is why survival and DIY skills are becoming more popular than ever. There’s a growing number of people who try to live a more responsible and frugal life. Some of them decide to go off the grid, others resort to urban homesteading lifestyle. Some of them are happy enough with composting toilets and survival gardens, while others build self-sufficient homes such as Earthships. Hydroponics adds another option to improve the level of self-sufficiency.
What Is Hydroponic Gardening?
“Hydroponic sounds so sciencey. It must take a lot of knowledge and sophisticated gear to build a hydroponic garden. I’ve heard these words in a TV show about colonizing Mars. Can you really build it in your garden?” – These are the words of my friend when he heard that his neighbor was going to make one. But, he couldn’t be more wrong.
A hydroponic garden is simply a method of growing plants by using water and mineral nutrient solutions. Yes, it is one of the solutions for potential growing food on Mars. And there has been a hydroponic garden on the International Space Station since 2014.
However, there’s the other side of the coin as well. The first-ever mentioned hydroponic system dates back to the 7th century BC. I am talking about one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – The Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Okay, maybe we’re not sure if the structure has ever existed, but there’s no doubt that humans have created some sorts of hydroponic systems a long time ago, even if they didn’t call them that.
Marco Polo, an Italian adventurer, and explorer from the 13th century described the Floating Gardens of China. Roughly at the same time, the Aztecs of Mesoamerica created floating islands called chinampas. It was an ingenious solution that provided an abundance of crops.
So, it’s neither a new practice nor too complicated to build a hydroponic garden. It is a concept born from the desire to build a garden without having to rely on soil, climate, and other environmental influences. You can even do it indoors!
By the way, the strange name comes from the Greek language. Hydro means “water” and ponein is “to labor or toil” in Greek.
Advantages of Hydroponics
Hydroponics offers a lot of advantages, especially in harsh environments or climates. Here are some of them:
- No need for soil. While it sounds counterintuitive, plants don’t need soil to thrive. They need minerals from the soil, sun (light), and moisture. Mineral solutions in water override the need for soil. It is very convenient when there’s not enough soil or if the soil is contaminated.
- Location and space benefits. Plant roots tend to spread out through the soil in search of nutrients and oxygen. The nutrient solution provides an abundance so the root stays pretty small. This allows you to grow plants much closer to each other. Also, you can choose any location: from the garden to your living room.
- Efficient nutrition. In soil, nutrients slowly leach out of the reach of the plant. It means that you’re in control of nutrient intake and there are no losses or changes of nutrients.
- Don’t worry about the climate. You don’t have to worry about draughts or torrential rains. You are a captain, master, and commander of the climate – temperature, humidity, light intensity all depend on your decisions. This way you can organize the growth throughout the year to maximize the effects.
- Plants grow faster. You can provide perfect conditions for plant growth. In return, plants waste no time or energy searching for potentially scarce nutrients. And they grow fast.
- No weeds, pests, and diseases. Well, it’s not completely true – you can’t be sure that you’ll avoid all pests and diseases. However, many pests thrive in soil. With a little bit of luck, your garden will be pest and disease-free. In the worst-case scenario, you’ll still have a significant reduction of pests and diseases.
As for weeds, well, obviously, they can’t find their way into your soilless garden.
Disadvantages of Hydroponic Systems
It’s not all roses, though. While there are many benefits, there are a few downsides as well.
- It isn’t cheap. Especially if you want to build larger gardens. Anyway, you need to provide containers, water, pumps, oxygen, nutrients, light, and perfect temperature. However, higher yields and faster growth should provide compensation in no time.
- Power outages and equipment failure. While you don’t have to worry about the climate and the environment, you do have to monitor it closely. In cases of power outages or equipment failure, you can lose your plants in a couple of hours. So, if you opt for an off-grid hydroponic garden, you’d better make sure to get enough backup power sources.
- There’s a learning curve. If you’re a beginner, it takes some time to work out technicalities and become comfortable with the system.
- Taste is not the same. It seems that plants that live in abundance don’t produce certain chemicals that improve the taste. However, using different wavelengths of light can boost both taste and nutritional value.
DIY Hydroponic System
There are many different types of hydroponic systems and the variations are almost countless. However, home growers and beginners tend to use simple and low-maintenance systems. Advanced and sophisticated systems provide higher efficiency but can be unforgiving. So, here is one of the most popular and one of the simplest systems.
Named after Hawaiian researcher Bernard Kratky who introduced the method in 2009, it became widely popular in no time. It’s a passive method, meaning there are no pumps to move the nutrient solution.
It is very simple and easy to maintain. You don’t need electricity or pumps or timers. All you need is a reservoir, inert growth medium (perlite, rock wool, coconut coir, etc), net pot, and the floating platform.
Fill the reservoir with water containing a nutrient solution. Then you should cover it with the floating platform with holes for net pots. Place plants and growth medium into the net pot. It should be arranged in a way that plant roots are partly submerged. As a result, plants will get nutrients from the water and oxygen from the root parts exposed to the air.
As the plant grows, water level drops. Eventually, the reservoir will run out of water. However, if you did it right, your plant should be ready to harvest. If the water level drops faster than you expected, you can add some water and nutrient solution to allow the completion of the growth phase.
As the old adage goes, beauty lies in simplicity. You can use the Kratky Method at home in mason jars or buckets. But it can be used for commercial production as well. It is not the most efficient hydroponic system, though. It works best for fast-growing plants that don’t consume large amounts of water, such as lettuce and spinach.
Overall, this method is virtually maintenance-free, affordable, and easy to set up. So, it is probably the best way to start your hydroponic venture.
Most Common Types of Hydroponic Gardens
Hydroponics is all about creativity and flexibility. There are countless variations, but there are only a couple of basic setups.
- The Wick System. This is the most simple hydroponic system. It doesn’t require pumps or any moving parts. It is based on the capillary movement from a water reservoir to the growth tray. The growth tray contains a growth medium and that’s where the roots are. It’s easy to set up and maintain.
- Deep Water Culture. A Kratky Method is actually a simplified form of Deep Water Culture (DWC). Typically, plants float atop a container, and roots are submerged into the oxygenated nutrient solution. Air pumps provide oxygen while submersible water pumps reuse water and nutrients.
- Nutrient Film Technique. The nutrient film technique is highly effective. It uses a grow-tube and no growth medium. Pumps continually push the water and nutrient solution from a reservoir into the grow-tube. Because of the slight incline, water flows back into the reservoir.
- Ebb and Flow System. The ebb and flow system also uses a grow tray and a reservoir. However, it uses flood and drain cycles to optimize oxygen and nutrient intake. It is a highly efficient system although it requires pumps and timers.
- Drip system. In drip systems, plants are placed in a growth tray filled with growth medium. Drip lines bring the nutrient solution to each plant. Typically, the process is controlled by timers.
Some people say that our planet is overpopulated. I am not so sure about that, but it’s a fact that we are running low on water supplies and fertile soil.
Hydroponic gardens may not be the solution, but they can certainly alleviate the problems. Also, they allow every one of us to create a small, organic production of veggies regardless of the location and climate.
It may take some time to hone your skills, but it is well worth it.