Last Updated on July 21, 2020
When people think about growing crops or gardening, they instantly picture themselves getting down and dirty with soil.
While burying seeds under the earth is the traditional way of growing plants, it’s not the only one. Some techniques allow gardeners to carry out plantation without using the soil. One such method is hydroponics that uses water to grow plants.
Like the orthodox way of planting, hydroponics, which is also referred to as soilless culture, has been around for centuries. However, it gained popularity much later.
History tells us that many civilizations settled around river banks so that they could grow crops and sustain themselves. The hanging gardens of Babylon and plantation using rafts on rivers by Aztecs of Mexico are all the outcomes of hydroponic systems.
The hieroglyphic records of the ancient Egyptian civilization dating back several thousand years B.C. also suggest plantation using water.
During world war two, the same soilless culture technique was used to grow fresh fruits and vegetables to feed the soldiers on the frontline in the South Pacific.
Although hydroponic systems have been around for a while, they got commercial recognition in the 1970s. It’s a highly effective solution for growing plants, especially in areas with low soil fertility or poor water quality.
The innovative soil-less plantation technique is a viable option to increase crops’ production, especially in this age, when population growth is out of control, and the climate is going through significant changes.
Whether or not countries decide to use hydroponics on a large scale to increase crop production, you can certainly do so in your home.
If you wish to learn everything about growing plants hydroponically, read our in-depth guide on DIY hydroponics at home.
Table of Contents
- What Exactly is Hydroponics?
- Benefits of Hydroponics over Regular Gardening
- Can You Make a Hydroponics Garden At Your Home?
- A Step by Step Guide to Build a Wick System
- A Step by Step Guide to Build a Deep Water Culture System
- A Step by Step Guide to Build an N.F.T. System
What Exactly is Hydroponics?
The term hydroponics comes from the Latin language that loosely translates to working water. Simply put, the name hydroponics combine two words; hydro, meaning water, and ponos, meaning labor, hence the derived meaning of hydroponics is working water.
Hydroponics is a soilless technique used to grow plants by submerging the roots in a water solution infused with nutrients. It is now a popular method of growing crops that allows gardeners to monitor and control the nourishment provided to plants.
Although there are plenty of ways to grow plants hydroponically, the one used most readily is N.F.T. or Nutrient Film Technique.
Nutrient Film Technique
The N.F.T. is a hydroponic technique in which plant roots are directly soaked in water without any growing medium.
A material through which the roots of a plant pass to enter the water, or in other words, the material that holds the roots is known as a growing medium.
Various substances are used for the growing medium, such as Perlite, Rockwool, vermiculite, gravel, coconut fiber, and sand.
Although a growing medium is not used when carrying out the nutrient film technique, it is an essential component of other hydroponic systems.
In an N.F.T. system, plants are lined in a tube but are not held by a growing medium. A pump is placed in the water tank holding the nutrient solution that is placed underneath the tube containing the plants.
The nutrient solution enters the tube from one end, soaking the roots and then drains out from the other end. A timer is responsible for the regular pumping of the water solution.
Other basic hydroponic systems aside from N.F.T. include
- Wick System
- Water Culture
- Ebb and Flow
While there can be multiple variations of a hydroponic system, the primary types are these six.
The wick system is a passive hydroponic solution, which means it doesn’t have any moving parts.
The plant roots are passed through a growing medium typically made of Perlite, Vermiculite, Pro-Mix, or Coconut Fiber. A wick is used to transport nutrients from the water solution to the growing medium and eventually to the plants.
One drawback of this hydroponics technique is that the plants use a lot of water, so you need to have a large water reservoir. Plus, the wick used may not be able to provide sufficient water to the roots fast enough.
The water culture technique is an active hydroponic solution in which the growing medium floats over the water solution. The platform holding the roots in a water culture hydroponic setup is typically made with Styrofoam, which makes floating possible.
An air pump is connected to the water solution that airs it causing effervescence in the water, which supplies oxygen to the plants.
A water culture hydroponic system is ideal for fast-growing water-loving plants such as lettuce. It is pretty cheap and can be constructed using an old aquarium. The only drawback of this technique is that it is not suitable for large plants or long-term plants.
Ebb and Flow (Flood and Drain) System
The ebb and flow system of growing plants hydroponically uses the technique of alternatively inundating the growing tray with the water solution and then drawing it off. The growing plate is placed on top of a tank filled with a nutrient solution.
A pump connects the growing medium and the nutrient reservoir, flooding and draining the tray at particular intervals. A timer is attached to the pump to regulate the water movement.
When the timer turns on, the water flows towards the growing tray, and when the timer turns off, the water moves back into the solution tank.
The ebb and flow system is quite versatile as it can work with a variety of growing materials. Many gardeners also like to use individual pots for plants when planting using this hydroponic technique.
A drawback of the flood and drain system is that since it uses a timer to transport nourishment to plants, a power outage can interrupt the supply cycle impeding plant growth, which can eventually kill the roots.
The Drip System
The drip system is the probably most commonly used hydroponic system in the world. It is a highly efficient technique that provides nourishment to plants individually.
The operation is facilitated by a network of drip lines that are connected to the main pipe that runs through the reservoir and is plugged into a pump. The pump is attached to a timer which controls the movement of the nutrient solution.
When the timer goes off, the liquid from the tank moves towards the growing tray via the mainline and then divides them among the branches, leading the nutrients to each plant’s roots.
A drip system can be recoverable or non-recoverable. In the recoverable version, the excess nutrient solution from the growing tray is recollected in the reservoir while in the non-recoverable version, it is drained out.
The non-recovery drip system is relatively low maintenance than its recoverable counterpart as in this setup, the used solution is discarded, so it doesn’t mix with the liquid in the reservoir.
As a result, the nutrient strength and pH of the solution in the water tank remain unchanged. On the other hand, in the recovery system, the nutrient strength and pH of the solution in the reservoir can drastically shift; therefore, it requires regular monitoring.
The aeroponic system is the most high-tech of all the hydroponic solutions. Like N.F.T., it also works without a growing tray. However, in this system, the roots are not directly immersed in the water but hang in the air.
In a large tank, a nutrient solution is filled up to quarter of the container’s volume from the bottom, and plants are hanged at the top, causing the roots to dangle in the air.
A pump is placed in the solution that sprays the plants every few minutes. Since the roots are midair in an aeroponic system, they can dry quickly if the spraying cycles are interrupted.
Just like the other hydroponic techniques, a timer controls the pump in an aeroponic solution. The only difference is that in the latter, the timer is set to go off every few seconds while in the former, it can last a while before going off.
Any hydroponics system offers multiple benefits. From mass crop production to pest-free plant growth, hydroponics has many advantages over regular gardening. Let’s take a detailed look at the many benefits of growing plants hydroponically.
Benefits of Hydroponics over Regular Gardening
Better Space Allocation
Plants that are grown hydroponically take up much less space than those grown in soil, which means you can grow plants soilless in compact areas where soil-based plants cannot be cultivated.
The reason why hydroponically grown plants don’t require a lot of space is the direct supply of nutrients to the roots.
Since the roots in a hydroponic system do not have to reach deeper in the ground for nourishment, the plants stay in a restricted area, hence occupying less space.
Plantation without Soil
Growing plants without soil may seem unconventional to some, but it can save you a lot of money and trouble. Plants grown in mud may or may not get all the necessary nutrients as the soil quality varies in different areas.
Furthermore, some plants prefer specific types of soil over others, and if that particular soil is not available in your region, arranging it could cost you a lot of money and inconvenience. But with hydroponics, you can surpass these soil troubles easily and grow healthy plants.
Also, in states around the world with non-arable land, hydroponic techniques offer an effective and inexpensive solution. Granted, that people use the cheaper systems and not the high-tech ones.
Hydroponics Saves Water
Although it may sound unlikely, considering hydroponics grow plants using only water, it is the truth. Plants growing in soil require a lot more water than plants grown hydroponically. Soilless plantation consumes approximately 90-95% less water than soil-based crop production.
In most hydroponic systems, the water used to soak plants is recollected and reused, which reduces the amount of water wasted. As a result, a lot of water is saved.
With the rapidly increasing global food production that consumes water in massive quantities, water-preserving horticulture techniques, such as hydroponics, can be extremely beneficial.
With hydroponics, farmers have the freedom to control the climate surrounding plants, which allows them to grow crops all year round regardless of the season. In other words, hydroponics is an excellent way of boosting produce supply for consumers.
Controlled pH and Healthier Plants
Soil-based plants take their nutrients from the ground that may or may not have the ideal pH for plant growth.
For optimal growth, plants need to get the necessary nutrients at a particular pH count. Hydroponic solutions allow growers to maintain the pH of the nutrients provided to plants, which in turn makes the crops healthier.
No Weeds or Pests
One of the biggest disadvantages of growing plants in the soil is exposure to several pests and weed.
The unwelcomed critters can impact plant growth in a soil-based plantation. However, in soil-less culture, plants remain free of all pests and weeds, allowing them to grow uninhibitedly.
Moreover, the no-pest environment in hydroponic systems means farmers do not have to use pesticides. And vegetation grown without exposure to the toxic chemicals in a pesticide is much healthier and safer for human consumption.
Hydroponics Is A Lot Less Labor-Intensive
Although the initial setup cost in a hydroponic system is much higher than regular gardening, the labor involved in cultivation is substantially reduced.
Unlike regular farming that requires frequent bouts of tilling, plowing, and hoeing, hydroponics doesn’t require a lot of hard work.
Since most hydroponic systems use a timer to run nutrient supply cycles, there isn’t much that a grower needs to do themselves, which means a lot of free time for other activities.
Weather Isn’t An Issue
Since one can control the growing environment for plants, the weather stops posing as a hindrance. You can grow any crop that you want regardless of the season.
Moreover, with nature, you can never be sure about the metrics; some days when you expect rain to come down, you may experience scorching heat and somedays when you expect to bear sweltering heat you may be pelted with heavy raindrops.
When growing plants, this unpredictability of the weather can pose a problem. But with hydroponics, you can work around the said issue efficiently and maintain the needed climate.
Faster Growth Rate
Soilless plants grow much faster than soil-based plants. Why?
Because the grower provides the plants with everything they need in sufficient amounts, which naturally boost their growth rate. When plants are placed in an ideal growing environment, they grow better and faster because they don’t have to waste their energy hunting for nutrients.
Can You Make a Hydroponics Garden At Your Home?
Yes, you can make a hydroponics garden at your home. There are many ways to go about it; you can buy a hydroponic kit, but those can be pretty expensive, or you can create your own kit.
Creating a hydroponics system from scratch may seem like a complicated task, but it’s not. The beauty of hydroponics is that you can improvise and come up with a system that works for you.
Since there are many hydroponics systems, you need to decide which one you wish to install.
Generally, domestic gardens use either one or a combination of the three most common hydroponic solutions. Those include the N.F.T., deep water culture, and wick system. You can also choose to use any of these three.
Here is how you can make your own hydroponic garden
A Step by Step Guide to Build a Wick System
Things you’ll need
- A plastic bottle
- A cutter
- A piece of twine
- Nutrient Solution (prepare it by following the instructions on the label)
- A growing medium
- Recycle an empty 1⁄2 US gal (1.9 L) soda bottle and cut it just above the label. Fill the bottom half of the bottle with the nutrient solution and set aside.
- Pierce a large hole in the cap of the bottle using the cutter. Heat the cutter if you have trouble getting through the cap. Once you have poked a hole, pass the twine through it, turn over the upper half of the bottle and place it on top of the solution filled bottom half. Fill the top part of the constructed apparatus with the growing medium and seeds.
- Wick systems are pretty easy to build and manage, but they can’t support large plants.
A Step by Step Guide to Build a Deep Water Culture System
Things you’ll need
- A coffee container
- A net pot (to place the growing medium and seeds)
- A growing medium
- An air tube
- A bubbler
- A cutter
- Nutrient Solution
- Cut a hole in the lid of the coffee container of the same size as the net pot. Next, cut a small ‘x’ near the edge of the coffee container top. Fill the container with the nutrient solution and place the lid back on.
- Fill the net pot with the growing medium and add seeds. Fix the pot into the hole you cut in the coffee container’s lid. Then insert one end of the air tube in the container through the ‘X’ and plug the other end into the bubbler and turn it on.
A Step by Step Guide to Build an N.F.T. System
Things you’ll need
- A plastic tote
- An air pump
- An air tube
- Nutrient solution
- A water pump
- A water pump tube
- A cutter
- A PVC pipe or rain gutter
- 2 Sawhorses
- A drilling machine
- Net pots
- Place the air stone at the bottom of the tote. Next, create a hole in the tote’s sidewall and use it to pass the air tube connecting the stone and the air pump.
- On the other side of the tank, place a water pump, and pass its wire by making an opening in the sidewall. Fill the tub with the nutrient solution.
- Place a P.V.C. pipe or rain gutter on top of the container using the sawhorses for support. Drill one hole on both ends of the placed tube. One hole will drain the water, and the other will carry the water in through the water pump tube.
- Drill two to three more much larger openings to place your net pots.
- Attach the water pump tube from the water pump to one of the holes on either end of your P.V.C. pipe or gutter.
- Place the net pots filled with a growing medium and seeds in their openings and turn on the pumps.
- The N.F.T. system works great for leafy greens and fresh herbs. Be sure to keep the water pump on at all times.
Hydroponics is an excellent way of growing plants without much effort. You can start small with low-scale systems, and once you get the hang of the soilless planting techniques, move towards large scale hydroponic gardening.