Hydroponics is a type of hydroculture that allows you to grow plants and vegetables in a ‘mineral nutrient solution’ and without the need for soil. By growing plants this way, it then becomes much easier to grow them indoors and often the result is that the plants will grow better and more efficiently, resulting in better looking and tasting produce.
But is hydroponics right for you? What are the positives and negatives? And how does it all work? Read on and we’ll take a look at the basic theory behind hydroponics and at whether it might be right for you.
To understand how hydroponics works, it is first useful to understand how plants work. We are often led to believe that all plants need soil to survive and thrive but in fact there is no reason that this is the case.
Plants are able to grow thanks to a process you’re probably familiar with – photosynthesis – which uses sunlight to and a chemical called chlorophyll to create carbon dioxide, glucose and oxygen. It’s that glucose that the plant uses for energy and which then allows it to grow and thrive.
And as the astute of you may have noticed… there’s no mention of soil there anywhere.
Normally we grow plants in soil for a few reasons:
It’s convenient (most of us have a lot of it in our gardens)
It serves as an anchor for the roots to help the plants stay upright
It contains nutrients which the plants need to feed off of
But soil isn’t convenient if you don’t have a garden and there are actually more efficient ways to achieve the other two points.
A piece of plastic with holes for instance can be used to hold the plants in place. And meanwhile, water infused with nutrition can be used to provide the plant with the nutrients it needs. Often you will see hydroponically grown plants hanging along plastic racks with their roots dipping directly into the nutrient rich solutions.
In other cases, an inert substance such as gravel can be used. Here the plant isn’t submerged directly into water but the term ‘hydroponic’ is still generally used.
The Benefits of Going Hydroponic
So why might you decide to do away with soil and start growing things hydroponically?
One obvious reason is that you don’t have space in your garden. If you’re looking for a way to garden indoors that won’t involve making lots of compost mess, then this is an excellent choice.
Another reason that many people love hydroponic gardening is that they believe it’s more efficient and can result in better yield.
Well for one, hydroponically grown plants have their roots submerged directly into a cocktail of nutrients as opposed to having to find nutrients as they seep into the soil. In other words, they have a much richer and more immediate source of food and there’s never any shortage. This in turn means there’s no need for their roots to spread out and explore the ground and that means you can pack a lot more plants into a much smaller area. This is again a big benefit of hydroponics for those who are forced to bring their plants indoors – you’ll still have space for other things!
Another advantage of smaller root systems is that the plants then have to use less energy growing roots and can put more energy into growing leaves and stems. Thus they can grow quicker, larger and more healthily.
Then there is the fact that you will be able to avoid a great many of the pests associated with soil. Slugs and aphids are less of an issue and because your plants are indoors, they won’t get tormented by strong winds or hail either. Disease is less common and essentially you end up with a ‘super plant’.
More advanced hydroponic set-ups actually use timers and computers to release nutrients too. This means the entire process is automated, creating far less work for you looking after your plants and ensuring the very most efficiently controlled environment. In some cases, even lighting will be controlled by a timer meaning your plants will never skip a beat.
This all also means that you can theoretically grow some more exotic and delicate plants at home that otherwise might struggle.
Not everyone loves hydroponics though and it’s certainly not for everyone.
For some people, tightly controlled and almost sterile environments like those used for hydroponic gardening will take some of the joy out of gardening. If you are gardening for pleasure rather than to produce the best yield, then you might find that this set-up can be a little soulless and less rewarding.
What’s more, creating a fully functional hydroponic garden can be fiddly and expensive. You’ll need hydroponic containers of course, pumps, lights, nutrients and potentially automation for everything.
And while hydroponically grown plants will thrive with ease when everything goes to plan, they also happen to be much easier to kill. With everything so tightly under your control and with such a delicate equilibrium to maintain, it only takes a small mistake for your plants to die. With traditional gardening you can afford to be a little more cavalier in your approach and the hardier plants will still survive.
So is hydroponics right for you? Who can stand to benefit from them?
Hydroponics is one option for growing plants indoors and is a little more manageable on a large scale than other options. If you’re artistic of course, you can enjoy indoor gardening with hanging baskets, bottles and other creative strategies – but that won’t be an option for everyone. If you’re looking to start more traditional gardening and growing vegetables but you don’t have a lot of space, then hydroponics is a good choice.
Hydroponics will also likely appeal to the scientifically minded. If you enjoy creating ecosystems, tweaking variables and ‘hacking’ biological systems, then this can be just as rewarding as any traditional gardening.