Hydroponics is a form of hydroculture that allows for the more efficient growth of plants and vegetables on a large scale. The idea is simple: you do away with the usual ‘medium’ used for growing and instead submerge the roots of plants directly into a liquid solution packed with the perfect balance of nutrients.
This create a large number of advantages as it allows for plants to be grown in a more flexible manner, while at the same time encouraging more rapid growth with less space and lower cost. At the same time though, it is not a perfect solution as it simultaneously introduces a number of new issues and challenges. In this post, we’ll be examining the strengths and weaknesses of hydroponics in greater detail to assess its usefulness.
How Plants Grow and Thrive
Hydroponics work because plants don’t actually need soil to survive. Plants don’t actually get any nutrients from the soil itself but instead, the soil simply acts as a carrier for nutrients that come from other sources – from biological material scattered by plants and animals.
Normally, the nutrients seep down into the soil and are then dissolved by rain and absorbed by the plants’ roots. At the same time, the soil provides an anchor for the plants, allowing them to remain in place against the wind and other things that might disrupt them. Meanwhile, photosynthesis occurs, powered by the sun and chlorophyll, and allows the plant to produce carbon dioxide, glucose and oxygen.
We’re used to seeing plants grow in soil as this is where they are normally found. And for people growing their own plants, it’s convenient to use a medium that is available in such supply. However, this also presents a number of other problems. For starters, it means the plants need to be grown outside or in pots, which limits the number that can be grown in any space. At the same time, the roots need to spread out to form a large network to ensure an ample supply of nutrients. Success also depends on weather conditions and can be hampered by issues such as pesticides.
How does Hydroponics Work?
Hydroponics meanwhile do away with the need for a medium, instead suspending the plant in one way or another while providing the roots with a water solution that is already rich in nutrients. This is achieved in a variety of ways, depending on the type of hydroponics being used.
For instance, deep water culture means suspending the plants in a plastic container (or otherwise) with the roots able to hang free underneath, submerged in a body of water. DWC is one of the most common forms of hydroponics and if you have ever seen rows of plants growing indoors in white containers, this will likely have been DWC. Aeroponics meanwhile is an alternative approach that uses a fine mist containing moisture and nutrients rather than a body of water. Wicking meanwhile uses a material such as cotton wool in order to draw the solution out from a container where it can then be absorbed by roots suspended above. Wicking is a good ‘entry level’ approach to hydroponics.
There are numerous other forms of hydroponics but suffice to say they all have ultimately the same aim – to provide a steady supply of water and nutrients without the need for soil.
One challenge of hydroponics is that the plants also need to be able to get oxygen and carbon dioxide in order to function. In other words, they need air just like animals. Normally, oxygen is acquired through ‘air pockets’ that exist in the soil.
All hydroponic techniques then need to ensure that the plants are getting access to air in one form or another. In the case of something like wicking or aeroponics, this is not an issue. However, DWC will require pumps in order to ensure the water stays oxygenated. An alternative approach is to use ebb and flow hydroponics, which floods the roots with water and nutrients for a brief spell and the drains the fluid away to give them a chance to breathe. In nutrient film technique (NFT), the fluid runs over the top of the roots along a gradient, allowing the roots to get some air while still absorbing the fluid.
This creates an additional complication when using hydroponics however and means the plants being grown will be susceptible to a variety of complications. It only takes a slight error in the system for a pump to stop working for example, potentially suffocating the plants. Likewise, because the light indoors is normally artificial and controlled by a computer, this is similarly prone to error with potentially devastating consequences.
Hydroponics has numerous advantages over other methods of growing because it is potentially much more efficient and much more flexible. Hydroponics requires a fraction of the space required by farming or gardening which reduces the strain that this can place on the environment. What’s more, this means that plants can be grown away from their normal habitats, which has a variety of potential benefits.
Moreover, hydroponics enable ensure that plants get a continuous supply of nutrients that are much denser than is possible normally. And because the nutrient solution is so readily available, there is no need for the roots to spread out as they normally would. This means that more plants can be grown in even smaller spaces and at the same time means the plants will tend to grow bigger, stronger and faster.
With lighting and temperature controlled artificially and no threat from pests, there are very few things to limit or interfere with the normal and healthy growth of the plants.
Ultimately, hydroponics can be viewed like a force multiplier (tool that amplifies output) or a form of automation in business. As with automation and force multipliers, hydroponics allows greater yield from a lesser investment and is thereby more efficient. But also like force multipliers, it can magnify errors and mistakes just as well as desirable inputs.