Intro to Hydroponics (and why it’s not just for growing pot)
So what are hydroponics anyway?
Hydroponics is the practice of growing plants in a soil-less medium, where the plant’s nutrition is delivered through water. There are a number of different hydroponic systems, including Deep Water Culture (DWC), Ebb and Flow (sometimes called “Ebb and Flood” or “Flood and Drain”), Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) and others—we plan on having a future post dedicated to each. Some sources refer to hydroponics as the process of growing plants without soil or growing plants in water, but neither of these is entirely true on its own. There are many non-hydroponic systems where plants are grown without soil, such as aeroponics. Similarly, there are hydroponic systems where the plant is grown in a non-soil medium other than water (such as rocks), but the nutrients are still delivered through water. So in order to make it hydroponic, you need both: (1) no soil and (2) nutrients delivered through water.
Well, I’m not growing pot, so why would I need to learn about hydroponics?
We’re not growing pot, either! We are growing lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and other plants hydroponically, and so should you.
The number one benefit of hydroponics is that it provides the vegetable gardener so much more flexibility and control than growing plants in the ground. Because a plant growing hydroponically—that is, in a container with non-soil medium—can be moved around, from the house to the greenhouse to the great outdoors, the growing season is extended infinitely. In fact, this flexibility is the very reason why it is the farming method of choice for pot growers, because it allows plants—a lot of them—to be grown entirely indoors (we’ll let you do the math on why that would be important).
Aside from flexibility, here are just a few of the other benefits of hydroponics:
- Many plants can be stacked vertically, which is good if you’re short on space or have trouble bending down in the garden;
- No crop rotation;
- No weeding;
- No soil-borne pests means fewer pests and problems in general;
- Diseases are less likely to spread across plants;
- Complete control over nutrients means control of edible outcome;
- Plants often grow faster;
- Hydroponic systems weigh less than planters with soil and are well-suited for rooftops and balconies; and
- Hydroponic systems are more eco-friendly.
<Record Scratch> Wait—What? How can Hydroponic systems be more eco-friendly? I thought those pot growers were always getting busted for running up huge electric and water bills.
Again with the pot growers. If you must know, the reason grow houses have notoriously high utilities consumption is that they are usually growing an entire farm’s worth of product within the confines of a suburban home. Thus, as far as water is concerned, it is an issue of mass quantity. Even in your wildest homesteader dreams, you will never approach this amount. In fact, you will use less water than you would if you were growing the same vegetables in the ground because there is no run-off. When you water a standard garden, a significant amount of the water you output is absorbed by the ground, not the plant. In most hydroponic systems, any water that is not used by the plant is collected and recirculated—so except for minor loss to evaporation or leaks in your system, 100% of the water output is consumed by the plant.
As for electricity, grow houses use a large number of grow lights that are intended to approximate daylight. In some instances, these lights are run 24 hours a day with the theory that it will maximize production. Growing such a large quantity of plants indoors also requires the use of electrical systems to regulate temperature, humidity, and air flow. Additional electricity may be expended in efforts to conceal what is going on in the house.
By contrast, if you keep your hydroponic system outdoors, you have no need for grow lights as you have the best light ever—the sun. Even if you start your plants indoors or in a greenhouse with the assistance of grow lights (for example, to lengthen the “day” in winter and fool your plants into thinking it’s summer), the electrical usage should be reasonable. Depending on your system, you might also need to run an air pump, water pump, or timer—none of these items should make a noticeable difference on your utilities bill.
It sounds tempting, and I might try it, but the local hydroponic store looks like only pot growers work there.
One of our primary objectives here at Van Arden Farms is to make hydroponics and other “hi-tech” growing methods more user-friendly for the home gardener. If you have a hydroponic store near you, consider yourself luck, as the people who work there are usually very friendly and happy to help you figure out what components you need for your first system. In addition, these stores usually have classes and other resources for people new to hydroponics. However, if you don’t have such a store by you, or if it just not your scene, we recommend Amazon as a great source for hydroponic equipment that is shipped straight to your door. We make no bones about the fact that we are an affiliate advertiser for Amazon (meaning we make a small commission off any products you buy on Amazon as a result of clicking on our hyperlinks), but that is only because we are such fans of Prime free shipping, which brings every kind of store in the world to your doorstep within just two days. Here are some of our favorites, and we hope to be launching our own line of hydroponic starter kits on Amazon very soon:
- Fox Farms Nutrients
- General Hydroponics PH Test Kit
- Grodon Rockwool Cubes
- How-To Hydroponics by Keith Roberto
- 3-inch Net Pots
- Plant!t Hydroton Pebbles