What is hydroponics?
Although it has received a recent bump in the ratings, hydroponics is definitely not a new gardening method. The first evidence of hydroponic cultivation dates back over two thousand years, but it has advanced in leaps and bounds through scientific research in the last century. NASA has even investigated hydroponics as a potential food source for astronauts on Mars. Hydroponics is essentially growing plants without soil and providing their nutrients directly through water. From Greek, it literally translates to ‘working water’; ‘hydro’ meaning water and ‘ponos’ meaning labour. Plants typically get their nutrients from soil, but the idea behind hydroponics is that plants can grow just as well, often even better, when the nutrients are delivered to the roots through their water.
How does it work?
Instead of growing in soil, hydroponic systems use a combination of growing media, water and added nutrients. There are several different systems, each with their own pros and cons, but they all make use of this combination. The growing media keeps the roots oxygenated and helps transfer the nutrients through the roots, often with a pump. Hydroponic growers typically make use of indoor spaces or greenhouses to allow for maximum control of the surrounding environment.
This may seem to require a lot more time and effort than your average weekend gardener tends to devote, but there are many benefits that make the process worthwhile.
- Plants grow faster. If you have an impatient streak, hydroponics is your answer. Plants tend to grow at least 20% faster in hydroponic systems compared to plants grown in soil under the same conditions. The energy usually used by the plant in gathering nutrients from the soil gets put into growth instead and the controlled environment allows for each plant to be under near perfect conditions for optimal growth.
- No soil. People with poor garden soil or without gardens at all can grow almost anything indoors without worrying about poor growth rate or bad conditions.
- Water saving. This has become a serious concern in recent years. The rise in temperatures and increasing droughts spell trouble for high water-consumption gardens, but this concern can be eliminated with hydroponics. Hydroponic systems are sealed to prevent evaporation and no water is lost to surrounding soil. Any run-off water can be recirculated back into the system to ensure nothing is wasted. In terms of agriculture, hydroponic farming uses only 10% of the water that soil agriculture does, making it the ideal method for farming in water-scarce areas.
- Space saving. The root systems in soil gardens need to travel farther to get the nutrients they need, compared to hydroponically grown plants that get their nutrients directly. With more compact roots, plants can be grown closer together, which is a great benefit for those who need to garden completely indoors.
While you’ve probably already been won over, there are a few cons to consider.
- Expenses. There are a few start-up costs involved in setting up a hydroponic garden, including pumps, filters, growing media and nutrients. Although there are more initial expenses, once you get the hang of hydroponics there is less risk as you have a greater chance of successful growth with a controlled environment. Money spent on equipment is ultimately money saved on dead plants in the garden.
- System failure. Ah, the dreaded load shedding. Not only is it a risk to our Sunday night movies, but for hydroponic gardeners it also becomes a risk to the plants. If the system is switched off for extended periods of time the plants lose their only source of survival and begin to die. If you live in an area with an unstable power supply and no backup, you risk losing your plants completely.
- Expertise. Hydroponics takes knowledge and a bit of practice to get right, just like any method of gardening. However, this series will provide you with everything you need to know to get started and your experiences will give you the rest of the knowledge to become an absolute pro.