Hydroponic gardening has been hailed by some as the future of agricultural production, but what exactly does it entail, and how can the practise be put into use by home garden enthusiasts?
Basically, hydroponic gardening means growing plants without soil. Sounds a little artificial and counterintuitive to the natural aspect of gardening, right? Surprisingly, the truth is that hydroponically cultivated crops are more likely to reach their full natural potential than traditionally grown produce. This is because there is greater control over the growing conditions and nutrients, meaning they receive the exact sustenance required to grow optimally.
Can Plants Really Thrive Without Soil?
In short, yes! When we think of plants, we tend to automatically imagine them with their roots embedded in soil. But shrubs and soil aren’t mutually exclusive. Soil is simply a growing medium which physically supports the roots.
In fact, soil alone is a fairly substandard growing medium. It can be lacking in vital minerals, and is an ideal breeding ground for contaminants, diseases and pests. It is difficult to absorb nutrients directly from soil, and sometimes the uptake relies on bacteria and microbes breaking the nutrients down into a more soluble form.
Often, soil becomes depleted of nutrients over time and crops will need to be rotated to avoid leaching.
Hydroponics: Soil Free Gardening
Hydroponic growing mediums are usually (but not always) porous substances which hold the water and nutrients necessary for the plant to survive. Almost every inert material is suitable as a medium, but some of the most common materials used are Rockwool, vermiculite, perlite, gravel, sand and coconut fibre. Certain growing methods such as N.F.T use water as a medium. The roots grow directly into the water, which is periodically pumped with nutrients.
In comparison to nutrients derived from soil, the nourishment provided by hydroponic gardening is precisely balanced and highly soluble. This means that plants receive the exact minerals required to grow with minimal energy expended in the uptake process.
Why Choose Hydroponics?
Hydroponics isn’t for everyone. Obviously, if you are the type of gardener who loves to potter about, getting your hands dirty and enjoying the satisfaction of pulling your lettuces from the earth, then traditional gardening may be more suited to you. Indeed, even to the more open-minded horticulturist, the hydroponic process may initially seem a little clinical and scientific. It takes some getting used to, but once you see the amazing results with your own eyes, you will be converted!
Hydroponics has a number of benefits, such as-
- Greater control over nutrient balance means produce is nutritionally denser
- More sustainable on a global scale
- No need for pesticides or other harsh chemicals
- Plants can be cultivated indoors and in cramped spaces such as apartments
- You create the growing conditions, so your produce isn’t governed by the weather or climate
- Hydroponics uses up to 66% less water, and plants grow up to 50% faster
- Less chance of diseases and pests
- No weeds
- No digging
- Healthier crops
For people yearning to become self-sufficient or to dip their toes into commercial market gardening, hydroponics is a no brainer. However, there are a few drawbacks to consider. You need some very specific equipment, and although home kits have become more affordable, there is still an initial outlay. Also, compared to traditional gardening where plants can be abandoned for a week and still survive, hydroponics is much more unforgiving. Forgetting the 10 minutes of daily maintenance could lead to total crop failure in a very short space of time.
On the flip side, if you tend to your harvest diligently, you will be rewarded with richer, tastier produce in less time with less water. What’s not to like about that!