By Evan Folds
It sounds like something out of science fiction, but it might very well be on your dinner plate tonight. Many of the tomatoes, herbs, peppers and other specialty crops in today’s supermarkets and restaurants are being grown hydroponically due to its efficiency and potential for higher yields.
It’s really not a new technology. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the chinampas of the ancient Aztecs utilized hydroponic techniques. If you think about it, even the phytoplankton in the ocean that pre-dated terrestrial plants are a form of hydroponics.
The word “hydroponic” is derived from the Greek terms “hydro” meaning “water” and “ponos” meaning “labor”, or working water, and was coined by Dr. William Gericke of the University of California at Berkeley in the 1920s.
Dr. Gericke began publically promoting the technique in 1929 as a means of crop production and created a sensation by growing tomato vines twenty-five feet high in his back yard using mineral nutrient solutions with no soil.
But it was not until the invention of plastics in the 1970s that the technique of hydroponics became available to the masses. What used to be potentially toxic concrete or metal gutters before plastic, could now be relatively cheap and inert towards growing plants.
Fast forward to today and the hydroponic industry is thriving. From school science classes to multi-million dollar greenhouses growing local herbs and greens on rooftops in Brooklyn to simple bubbler systems constructed out of spare buckets in the basement, hydroponics is having a major impact on today’s food landscape.
Hydroponics relies on the concept that a plant is a plant. Whether it is growing on Mars or in your back yard a plant has the same basic requirements for growth – food, light, water and air.
Hydroponic techniques account for these requirements and attempt to deliver them in an ideal manner by using specific nutrient solutions delivered through aerated water that is pH balanced for maximum availability and uptake.
Plants thrive in hydroponic systems due to the balance of nutrition and constant access to air and water in the root zone. Plus, there are no weeds and because most hydroponic techniques involve recirculation of water, it is estimated that water usage is upwards of ten times less than growing in soil.
Hydroponic nutrient solutions come in different formulas for “grow” and “bloom.” Generally, grow fertilizers are higher in nitrogen and encourage vegetative growth like stems and leaves, and bloom fertilizers are higher in phosphorous and encourage fruiting, buds and flowers. The same holds true when growing plants in soil as well.
Using a hydroponic fertilizer may sound technical, but the hard part is already done for you. All the grower is concerned with is how many teaspoons per gallon to use for the plants being grown. Then you pH balance this nutrient solution and you’re done.
When the plants are thriving, the rate of growth is so extraordinary that you can almost watch the plant grow. And because hydroponic systems provide perpetual water, you can go out of town for weeks without watering. You’ll be hooked!
It’s easy to set up your own hydroponic garden. The simplest technique called “water culture” is no different than setting up an aquarium. Imagine a five gallon bucket or plastic container with a net pot that holds the plant but allows the roots to dangle in aerated water. Simple.
Most good hydroponic stores will help you build your own and should cost you around $75-100, depending on how you set it up and what kind of nutrients you choose. If you buy a hydroponic system or go with a setup of any scale this cost can obviously rise, especially if you are considering growing indoors with grow lights. However, once the initial investment is made the return on what you grow can be quite substantial.
Hydroponics is certainly one of the tools we can use to feed the world. Not only does it conserve water, but it is estimated that growing using hydroponics can result in up to thirty times the yield per acre growing tomatoes. Thirty times!
This can be achieved with other crops as well, and can be enhanced further using vertical growing techniques, plant supplements like amino acids or enzymes, enhancing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and all sorts of other amazing applications towards growing plants.
As with all growing or farming, the best tool for success with hydroponics is to get your hands dirty… er… wet, and go for it! So this spring be a farmer, start a (hydroponic) garden.