The benefits of soilless growing.
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Hydroponics, most often defined as “soilless gardening,” is an intensive method of growing that facilitates abundant yields and year-round harvests. It can be done low-tech or high, simply or not, indoors or out. It’s easily adapted to growing a wide variety of plants: greens, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, even root vegetables, as well as flowering plants of all kinds. Here’s what it is and why it’s become so popular.
Definition: Why Not “Aquiculture”?
The Greek root word “hydro” describes the technique’s liquid nature. “Ponic” suggests work or action. Dr. William F. Gericke, a plant scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, as he explored the possibilities of soilless growing, brought the terms together to form “hydroponic” in the 1920s. At the beginning of his classic 1940 text The Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening, Gericke explained the origins of the word:
HYDROPONICS was really the second name to be applied to the science of soilless gardening. The first was “aquiculture,” chosen because of its analogy to “agriculture.” Later it was found that this word had already been used in another connection and so could not be employed again. “Hydroponics” was then selected because of its parallel relationship with “geoponics,” the Greek word meaning “earth working.”
Hydroponic growing is as much about the nutrients as it is about the water. It’s specifically described as growing in a liquid culture. Oxygen, ready for the plant’s taking, is in the culture. Solids, some in dissolved form, also play a role. In addition to the nutrient solutions that supply sustenance to plants, most hydroponic systems use growing mediums such as coconut coir, rockwool, pumice, clay pebbles, or mixes of natural and mineral components, to support roots and promote irrigation. Some, including nutrient film systems which use aeration and moisture conducting matting, rely less on growing mediums than do top-fed, bucket systems filled with clay pebbles or coconut coir. The mediums work hand-in-hand with the solutions, supplying and enabling the feeding of nutrients and oxygen to the plants.
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Hydroponic gardens, once established, makes it simple to provide optimal conditions at all times for your plants’ development. Systems are defined as “active,” in which pumps move the solution between nutrient tanks and plant roots, or “passive,” in which the solution is applied by mechanical means including hand watering. The practice is widely adaptable in scale and complexity and can be made to work in basement corners, warehouse-sized commercial spaces, or outdoors on an apartment balcony or against the side of a garage.
As simple as it can be, growing indoors, like outdoor growing, requires work and attention. An oversight or mistake can have disastrous consequences. While growing in soil provides a safety margin when it comes to moisture and nutrients, growing hydroponically means less, if any tolerance for missed floodings or false-steps in nutrient measurement and application. That said, a well-designed system makes efficient growing easy and even beginners can achieve success. Technology has reduced a lot of the guess work and automated applications. Commercial nutrient solutions make for almost foolproof feeding.
The advantages of hydroponic growing, some more obvious than others, are many. We think the best reasons to invest in a hydroponic system is often found in winter salad bowls filled with fresh greens, herbs and even tomatoes that have been raised indoors.
Yes, it’s great picking lettuce or basil from a downstairs grow room in February. But it’s also great to be gardening. No longer are the winter months a time of waiting, planning and going through seed catalogs. Gardeners with even small systems can be actively involved in planting, raising and harvesting in the dead of winter.
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Indoor hydroponic units that extend the gardening season also provide a place for it. They allow apartment, condominium and urban dwellers without access to a traditional garden plot a space to grow plants, from orchids to tomatoes, indoors, any season they might choose.
Hydroponic how-tos always cite the speed and abundance of the results. Yes, growing in controlled hydroponic conditions will yield harvests more quickly than any outdoor, soil plot can, even under the best conditions. This is especially important to commercial growers.
Hydroponic systems make managing staggered planting and harvesting more exacting, no matter the season. They also make it easy to control light exposure and temperature making it easy to control flowering and yields.
Hydroponic gardening has few of the problems that come with soil growing. Because you start with a sterile growing medium, weeds are eliminated. There are no soil borne pests or diseases to cope with.
There’s seldom need for pesticides because there are few pest problems in enclosed systems. When problems do occur, they’re easier to recognize and put down because of the controlled conditions (some indoor pest problems can get out-of-hand if not dealt with quickly and efficiently.
Large operations have significant advantages, making for more production in less space than soil farming. Recirculation of liquid means more efficient use of water than in outdoor, soil growing.
Growing on tabletops or in stacked shelf hydroponic systems makes plants more accessible for inspection and harvesting.
Small, counter-top systems make growing herbs or greens (even radishes) a great family activity during the winter months. Having your young students keep journal records on what and how they’ve grown hydroponic gardens can be the basis of a great science project.
History of Hydroponic Growing
Examples of growing plants in water date back to antiquity. The legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, said to grace the ancient city in the 6th Century B.C.E (B.C.), were described by Greek and Roman writers as lush, stacked gardens through which cascading water from the Euphrates River was channeled. No archeological evidence of the gardens has been discovered at the site of Babylon, but the ruins of similar water gardens have been unearthed.
In Asia, the world’s oldest-known book on subtropical botany, written in the third century, describes techniques for growing vegetables, particularly spinach, on islands floating in water.
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The Aztecs of Mexico, beginning some thousand years ago and continuing until they were overrun by the Spaniards in the 16th century, grew maize, beans and squash on floating islands in the shallow lakes in the valley where their empire was based.
The long, scientific history of hydroponics is a story of discoveries that determined how and which nutrients, including oxygen, were taken up by various plants. It’s also a record of the incremental developments that allowed gardeners to control the conditions that all seasonal and indoor gardens require.
Necessity was the mother of invention. Extending the growing season required protecting plants inside structures that kept out the cold. Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder tells how the Emperor Tiberius raised Mediterranean cucumbers year-round by growing them in pots that were moved to indoor shelters when weather conditions required it. Makeshift Middle Ages cold frames were covered in oil cloth to extend the season. Better quality glass production made greenhouses, both public and backyard, practical.
The early 17th century Flemish scientist and physician Jan Baptist von Helmont whose five-year willow tree experiment is credited with proving the importance of water in conducting nutrients. During those five years, the tree, rooted in the same soil and given nothing but water over the period, was observed to grow normally.
A variety of European and American botanists contributed discoveries that determined how we understand nutrient uptake in plants. Many devoted studies to perfecting nutrient solutions best suited to individual plants and conditions. 19th-century German botanist Julius von Sachs, best known for advancing the concept of photosynthesis, coined the term “water culture” when addressing the raising of plants on nutrient solutions.
In the late 1920s, as commercial growers found they were exhausting their soil with serial cropping, large-scale projects in New Jersey and California attempted to utilize irrigated, “sand culture methods” to grow various vegetable crops. Costs of building and maintaining concrete grow beds, before the arrival of plastic liners, made the practice impractical.
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Cal-Berkeley’s Dr. William F. Gericke’s The Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening made practical application of the accumulated knowledge. In 1929, Gericke began experiments growing vegetables, cereal crops and fruit trees with nutrient solutions. The book, still read, introduced growers of all types to exciting possibilities. Applications of Dr. Gericke’s text found their way into the military. Hydroponically grown vegetables were distributed in the Pacific Theater during World War II and hydroponic produce from Japan was distributed to American hospitals during the Korean Conflict. Soldiers in both invasions of Iraq were fed hydroponic produce grown in the Middle East.
The development of plastics allowed for widespread use of indoor, nutrient solution-based crop raising with bed liners, inexpensive, flexible hosing and seasonal greenhouse covering. Drip irrigation techniques and nutrient film systems were pioneered in the 1960s and by the 1970s, the first commercial nutrient solutions were offered to gardeners. Refinements in equipment and systems, often with a focus on the environment, continue to advance the craft of growing without soil. Advancements in artificial lighting, beginning with fluorescent lights and progressing to high-intensity discharge bulbs and today’s sophisticated, energy-saving LED systems facilitated peak-performance from indoor, year-round growing.
While many of the advancements in hydroponic growing have come from the laboratory, much of the recent progress in the craft has come from individual growers seeking efficiency, increased ease of operation and overall higher yields. The simplest, most practical systems — the kind you might put to use in a corner of the basement or laundry room– combine time-proven methods with the latest equipment adapted to the growers specific needs. In other words, the history of hydroponics could be advancing right in your own home.
The University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture & Life Sciences instructional on growing hydroponic tomatoes has a succinct history page that discusses such breakthroughs as the manure-heated glass greenhouses of the 1700s and the discovery and widespread application of plastics have had on its craft and science. Check it out.
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