What is Hydroponics?
Wikipedia defines Hydroponics as “the method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil”.
It's thought that hydroponics was first used in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, however more recent history has attributed the introduction to the English philosopher Francis Bacon, thanks to his 1627 book Sylva Sylvarum, in which he published work on growing plants without soil. This mantle was taken up by John Woodward in 1699 who discovered that spearmint grown in "unclean" water experienced better growth than plants grown in distilled water.
Later work by German botanists Julius Von Sachs and Wilhelm Knop, further laid the foundations of this science. However, it was Frederick Gericke of the University of California at Berkeley who first publicly pushed for soilless agriculture to be used commercially. It was also Frederick, in 1937, who gave the process the name Hydroponics. Hydroponics was used by the US Army during World War II to feed soldiers stationed in the Pacific Islands. NASA continues to develop Hydroponic techniques in order to grow food on Mars.
What are the benefits?
The main benefit is that nutrient solution is applied directly to the root zone so the plant doesn’t need to work so hard at the base and will subsequently grow larger and at an enhanced rate, producing more fruit. A hydroponically-grown tomato plant will produce fruit at about 8 weeks, compared to 12 weeks from a soil grown plant. This benefit has not gone unnoticed by commercial growers. If you shop at a supermarket, you will have already tasted Hydroponics tomatoes.
However with a faster life cycle these benefits can be extended to the home-grower and institutions such as schools and colleges where students can gain a better understanding of food production and the plant life-cycle. Of course with an unreliable climate in the UK, Hydroponic gardening makes food production possible all year round. It also conserves water as most systems recycle the nutrient/water mix. Another benefit is that you won’t be bothered by soil-borne pests and subsequently your plants don’t have to be subjected to pesticides.
Are there any downsides?
The main downside is that if things go wrong, they go very wrong and you tend to lose your entire crop. A classic example is pump failure, if you are not there when it happens and you're growing under lights, your plants can die within a couple of hours. Soil acts as a natural buffer to this potential problem, and gives you a certain amount of room to make mistakes. Hydroponics however, is usually more productive yield wise.
Another potential problem is Pythium, for more information see our blog post What do you need to know about Pythium?
What about taste?
There is a lot of discussion about whether a Hydroponically-grown tomato offers the same taste as a soil grown version. Unfortunately we can’t offer a taste-test online, but if you have an interest we would urge you to do a blind taste-test. Hydroponic tomatoes are every bit as delicious as their soil grown cousins and the sweetness of the taste can be altered by the nutrients they are fed as much as the alternative growing method. Another benefit of growing at home is that your food is picked and eaten at the correct age and not subjected to the gases used in the packaging and transporting of food.
What does a typical UK indoor setup consist of?
The three essential components of successful growing are Light, Water (Nutrient) & Air - the key to strong growth and a good yield is providing these in the correct proportions. Whilst perfecting this skill comes with experience, it is easy for the novice to produce excellent results with a little care.
Component 1 - Light – Provided by a Grow Light or the sun
A Grow Light allows you to replicate the suns natural UV rays, which is vital for the plant to photosynthesize.
The Grow Light consists of 3 parts:
- The Lamp, the source of the light, available as Blue light (Metal Halide) for vegetative growth early in the plants life; Red light (High Pressure Sodium) for fruiting/flowering and Dual Spectrum which covers the whole life cycle, but is not as specific. Lamps generally come in different strengths – 250w/400w/600w/1000w
- The Reflector, which protects the lamp and directs the light. The size ad design of a reflector affects the intensity of the light delivered and the area over which it is distributed.
- The Ballast, which contains all the necessary electrical components to ignite the lamp and regulate the current. A good ballast will help prolong the life of your lamp by absorbing power spikes. Many digital ballasts will also offer a dimmable switch, so if you change your lamp you can simply switch the output of the ballast rather than buy a new one (which you would have to do with a standard or compact ballast).
Component 2 - Water/Nutrients – Provided by the Hydroponic System
This refers to the actual Hydroponics system as this is the piece of kit that will deliver the essential Water/Nutrient mix to the plant roots. There are a number of different systems available, some more suited to the beginner, some for those with more experience. The Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) is one such system. It provides perhaps the most rapid rate of growth of any system, but because the roots of the plants are exposed, rather than planted in growing media (or substrate), there is no buffer to retain nutrient solution and any failure of the system would lead to rapid plant death. Other options, such as Wilma System using a substrate to hold the root are more forgiving and a better starting point for many.
The nutrient/water solution that we give the plant is its sole source of a number of mineral elements and it is important to provide these in the correct mix. The core requirements are Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium, but there are also a number of other micro-nutrients. They generally come in two types of mix: “Grow” for young plants and those that don’t flower or fruit, and “Bloom” for the flowering and fruiting stage.
We also offer different mixes for Hard & Soft water areas. Two other factors must be tested regularly, these are pH level, which measures how acid/alkaline the nutrient solution is, and the Electrical Conductivity or EC level which measures the strength of the nutrient solution. To assess this you will need a pH pen and an EC pen.
Component 3 - Air – Provided by the Circulation (Fan & Filter) System
The final component is air exchange. A plant obtains only 25% of its requirements through its roots, the rest comes from Carbon Dioxide in the air, so it is vital not to starve your plants of this essential source of nutrition. A good fan will help to control air circulation and humidity, while a filter is desirable to remove plant odour, particularly if growing indoors using a grow tent. Plants often grow best in temperatures of between 18-23C and in a humidity range of 40-75%. Failure to control this could result in disease and lack of growth.
Where can I do it?
This will really depend on the size of the system you buy and how much you wish to grow! Generally speaking though, a hydro system can be installed wherever you have space - grow tents are highly recommended as well.
So you can see that Hydroponics is a great way to grow either your own food or household plants, or both. Not only can you control what goes into the food you eat, but you also develop a much greater appreciation of it! Many Chilli growers have already woken up to hydroponic growing and enjoy prize-winning production using the method.