Hydroponics gardening is a great benefit to those who want to produce flowers, fruits, vegetables, houseplants and other crops.
It allows total control over growing environment and plant nutrition, and can often result in a higher yield of better quality produce from fruits, vegetables and flower crops.
And yet, hydroponics is harder to define than you might think it is.
It is often thought of as being synonymous with “indoor growing,” but you can also grow hydroponically outdoors and in greenhouses, so that synonym isn’t totally accurate.
Some people insist that hydroponic gardening can only be gardening that uses soilless root media, such as a sterile growing strata or water.
Others say that the use of soil or other organic media in the root zone, in situations where the media is used primarily as root substrate rather than as primary nutrition sources, can also be defined as hydroponic growing.
The key to the definition is whether the grower is providing the majority of the nutrients through water infused with nutrients, or whether the crops are deriving most of their nutrients from those found naturally in a soil media or other organic media. The former method could be called hydroponics; the latter would be called traditional growing.
Hydroponics offers several advantages over traditional ways of growing crops in soil. It can help you produce bigger harvests, better quality fruit and vegetables, and a consistent year-round yield that you cannot equal using soil or by growing outdoors or in greenhouses using only natural light.
In a hydroponic garden that uses sterile root zone media and has a clean environment, crops aren’t exposed to pathogens and diseases that live in soil. Hydroponic gardening eliminates weeds.
Hydroponics gardening can be done more intensively than traditional gardening, with more crop cycles, using controlled environments. Growing indoors under artificial light or in greenhouses with manipulation of sunlight and artificial light augmentation, growers can harvest year round in small spaces and still get profitable yields.
Growers can totally control the content and timing of nutrient delivery, which allows them to manipulate crops to achieve more product and higher quality.
Hydroponics gardening is the most modern method of producing quality vegetables, fruits, flowers and other agricultural crops, but if you think hydroponics is a new concept, you may be surprised by the history of hydroponics.
Plants first grew in oceans and lakes before moving onto land, so the concept of plants growing without soil is as old as Creation.
Humans have been growing plants in hydroponic gardens for at least 2600 years, perhaps beginning with the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Greek scientists Theophrastus and Dioscorides studied hydroponics two millennia ago.
In the 11th century, the Aztec Nation (later destroyed by European invaders) created floating gardens in Lake Tenochtitlan in the central valley of what is now called Mexico.
They built rafts from shore vegetation, placed soil on top of the rafts, and floated them in the lake with plants growing on the soil. These rafts were called “Chinampas.” Plants growing on them sent roots through the soil and rafts; the roots fed off the nutrient-rich water of the lake.
This may have been a first use of aeroponics. Some Chinampas were linked together into co-joined gardens big enough to be classified as islands, so big that people could walk on them.
Early European scientists also explored the idea of using water as a primary medium for plant roots and did other research to figure out how plants grew.
In 1600, Jan van Helmont planted a one pound willow shoot in a pipe containing 200 pounds of dried soil in Belgium. Five years later, the willow shoot weighed 160 pounds, but there was still 200 pounds of soil in the pipe. Van Helmont could not figure out how the willow got so big, because scientists were not yet aware that plants absorb nutrients through water and air.
A century later, Englishman John Woodward mixed water and soil as a root media; he is credited with being one of the first people to figure out that plants absorb nutrients from soil and water, and some believe that his water-soil combination qualifies as the first hydroponic plant food.
Soon thereafter, other Europeans discovered the function of roots, transpiration, nutrient uptake, carbon dioxide absorption from air through leaves, and absorption of oxygen through roots.
English researcher Joseph Priestly is the creator of the first CO2 enhancement chamber. He found that plants in a chamber filled with carbon dioxide gradually transform the carbon dioxide into oxygen. He also discovered that sunlight rapidly increased this transformation, which was an early indication of what was later called photosynthesis.
By the early 20th century, scientists had precisely analyzed minerals and other materials necessary for plant growth; they’d also devised liquid nutrient formulas that substituted for soil nutrients.
Before 1924, hydroponics was called nutriculture, chemiculture and aquaculture. In 1924, Dr. William F. Gericke of the University of California (often referred to as “the father of modern hydroponics”) created the word hydroponics to describe growing crops in non-soil media and nutrient-enriched water indoors and outdoors.
The green-thumbed professor grew hydroponic fruits, veggies, root crops, ornamentals and flowers. His tomato plants attained heights of 25 feet, producing tomatoes the size of grapefruits!
During World War II, the US and British militaries used hydroponics to grow hundreds of thousands of tons of food for soldiers in remote locations where conventional farming was impossible. After World War II, the military continued to use hydroponics. For example, the American army grew eight million pounds of fresh hydroponic produce in 1952, most of it in Japan.
By the 1960’s, hydroponic agriculture had become a major industry worldwide, especially in parts of the US such as Florida, California, Hawaii, and Arizona, and in Russia, France, South Africa, the Middle East, Holland, Japan, Australia and Germany.
A recent Australian government report estimates that 65,000 acres of high-intensity legal hydroponic production exists worldwide, with a value of six billion to eight billion US dollars per year.
Analysts cited in the Aussie report say global warming, desertification, water shortages, oil shortages, and globalization are making hydroponics increasingly important. The report notes that the industry has achieved phenomenal financial and technological success in a relatively short time, and that its value has a faster doubling time than almost any other category of the world agricultural economy.
In addition to the commercial use of hydroponics, many amateur or small-scale growers are using hydroponic systems in closets, on windowsills, in basements, greenhouses and spare rooms.
The US Navy grows hydroponic vegetables on submarines, and NASA has long attempted to perfect hydroponic systems that could provide oxygen and food for people on long space flights.
Most people use one of the following methods of hydroponic growing:
The Ebb and Flow system features plant pots filled with sterile grow medium inundated with nutrient-rich water for a few minutes every hour. Often, the pots sit in an upper reservoir which drains into a lower reservoir. The most commonly used grow medium for Ebb and Flow gardens are rockwool, perlite, vermiculite, and lava rock.
Drip systems use an irrigation approach that relies on drip emitters suspended just above the root zone. These emitters come in varying shapes, sizes and spray patterns, so growers can use the emitters to regulate the amount of moisture reaching root media, and how the moisture is distributed spatially. Drip systems can be fine tuned in conjunction with temperature and humidity to create a near-continuous feed cycle that pours lots of nutrients and water into plants to produce growth.
One advanced system of growing is known as the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT). In this method, plants are placed in narrow grow channels that sometimes resemble a long pipe cut in half horizontally. A “film” of nutrients in contained in water in the bottom of the channel where roots are dangling.
In NFT, an abundance of oxygen is drawn in through the top of the roots and through the irrigation solution as it passes by the lower parts of roots. The irrigation sprayer is activated much of the time by necessity, because the plant roots are hanging in the bottom of the channel with no media around them to keep them moist. NFT is a high maintenance, temperamental, but extremely productive method of hydroponics growing.
The easiest type of hydroponic garden to set up is a passive system in which plants sit in their pots or in an apparatus that allows their roots to hang in a weak reservoir of nutrients.
This system has no moving parts, pumps, emitters or other complications, but it often has a problem with low amounts of oxygenation in the reservoir, which can slow plant growth. It is the least flexible of any of the four systems mentioned here because it is virtually impossible to microadjust feed rate and concentration, and is almost certain to produce smaller yields when compared with the other methods mentioned in this article.
A more difficult form of gardening, but one which is very high-tech and efficient, is the aeroponics garden, which bathes plant roots in an aerosol of nutrition and water, into which the roots are suspended. The system provides a huge amount of oxygen to roots, and also negates the need for lots of root space, because delivery of nutrients is so efficient.
You’ve noticed that we assume that hydroponics means “without soil.” In a soil garden, plant roots are supported by soil that encases the roots while the roots search through the soil for food and water.
In hydroponics, the roots search through other types of media that contain no nutrients until we put the nutrients there. These media are often referred to as “sterile,” because they are either manmade or otherwise barren so that they contain no nutrients in and of themselves. These sterile media are used because they can absorb nutrient solution, time release it, release moisture, buffer nutrient solution, and support plant roots in a manner that is pH neutral, porous and ideally suited for the complementary relationship between root media and roots.
Properly watered sterile media that has been infused with high-end plant nutrition such as Advanced Nutrients hydroponics plant food will almost always outperform even the richest soil in terms of maximizing nutrient and water absorption. Most fertilizers are not designed specifically for hydroponics, so they do not break down properly, the clog drip emitters, and they cause other problems.
The roots of a hydroponic plant work less hard than roots of a soil-grown plant, because in hydroponics using Advanced Nutrients you can feed them faster and more efficiently than if the plants have to get their nutrients from soil.
The energy saved when roots don’t have to work so hard is channeled into aboveground plant growth and larger yield. Better yet, the roots work less hard to absorb more nutrient than they would if they were being grown in soil.
Hydroponic non-soil root zone media include vermiculite, sphagnum or peat moss, rockwool, Perlite, Vermiculite, coco coir and expanded clay pebbles. Perlite, rockwool, clay pebbles and coco coir are the most popular choices.
Perlite and Vermiculite are made when volcanic rock is heated until it explodes like popcorn, resulting in the porous, white Perlite pebbles. Perlite can be used loose, in pots or bagged in thin plastics sleeves, referred to as “grow bags” because the plants are grown right in the bags. Plants in perlite grow bags are usually set up on a drip feed system, and can be hung horizontally along walls and ceiling, or in coliseum fashion, to maximize grow spaces.
Rockwool is a very popular product used by tens of thousands of hydroponics growers, from the most unskilled amateur to the largest commercial producers. It’s made by heating basalt to create rock fibers that are spun to make cubes and slabs of various shapes and sizes.
In production, rockwool cubes are used for seed germination, cloning, and early vegetative plants, and the slabs are for serious finishing and larger plants. Some growers break up the slabs or buy bales of rockwool so they can put rockwool into pots or other holders. Rockwool is easy to work with, but must be pre-soaked to adjust pH and should be handled with care, since its tiny fibers are manmade and can very irritating if they get on skin, similar to asbestos.
Expanded clay pebbles and volcanic pebbles are similar in use and function in ebb and flow systems and in pots. These pebbles have neutral pH and are able to quickly take in and release water. They are often made too large to be used alone as a growing medium. That’s why they are often combined with other sterile media, such as Vermiculite, Perlite and rockwool. Expanded clay pebbles have a neutral pH and excellent capillary action. Often Ebb and Flow systems use expanded clay pebbles in the grow pots as the growing medium.
The 100% sterile and artificial media aspects of hydroponics, such as those obtained using rockwool, are often left behind in hybrid media systems that use sphagnum moss, peat, or other organic ingredients such as coconut coir, which is known commercially as CoCo Coir.
The coconut and its coir contain many phytohormones and other bio-stimulants that are beneficial to crops. Coir is also beneficial because it is a tough, durable substance that is able to resist ongoing pollution or degradation from nutrient salts.
The coconut is teeming with naturally occurring growth hormones and other bio-stimulants that are inherent to the survival of the species, which fortunately for growers may be found in the fibers surrounding the “seed” which may be processed for use as a growing medium.
As with peat, there are factors affecting the quality of use of the coir as a growing medium. The origin and age of the parent material largely plays a role in the fiber qualities. Coconuts harvested when fully mature contain more lignins and cellulose.
These fibers are tough and durable enough to manufacture rope from. Interestingly, coconut fiber is the only natural fiber resistant to breaking down in salt water. This helps make it ideal for indoor gardeners because nutrient solutions can erode growing media, even in the time it takes to grow just one crop.
Coconuts harvested when fully mature contain more lignins and cellulose. These fibers are tough and durable enough to manufacture rope from. Interestingly, coconut fiber is the only natural fiber resistant to breaking down in salt water.
This helps make it ideal for indoor gardeners, as nutrient solutions, particularly popular inorganic varieties and the salts they contain, play a role in the aging of root zone medias over the course of the crop.
Many growers say that coco coir is a cost effective media because it can be used for several crop cycles longer than rockwool and other media.
A very important fact to about coco coir is that it has unique chemical and water-holding properties that require special fertilizers. Advanced Nutrients tested all hydroponics fertilizers, including those allegedly designed for coco coir, and found that none of them optimized coco coir’s advantages. Some of them created serious problems for plants seeking nutrition.
Advanced Nutrients responded by creating Monkey Juice, a comprehensive fertilizer specifically designed for coco coir. Testing shows that Monkey Juice works synergistically with coco coir to maximize plant growth and harvest yield.
Sphagnum moss is another popular root zone media; it’s harvested from watery bogs containing peat. The practice of harvesting sphagnum moss isn’t really sustainable, and there’s an ongoing controversy about the scraping of bog overlayers to get the moss. Many believe that this practice damages peat bogs and is unsustainable.
Moss has been used for many centuries as a poultice for wounds, because it is a nutrient-rich organic substance with a consistency that resembles cloth such as cotton.
As a plant root zone media it is especially useful due to its water-holding, water-releasing properties, and because it contains phytonutrients that stimulate roots and prevent root zone diseases.
Every part of moss is permeated with tiny open tubes and spaces, resulting in a system of delicate capillary cells similar to that of a sponge. The cells readily absorb water and retain it. Even if the water is squeezed out, moss does not become dessicated and is always ready to take in fluid again. Moss has the amazing ability to absorb moisture not just from root zone watering, but also from the atmosphere.
In horticulture, moss is often used in combination with soil, peat, rockwool or other sterile amendments. It is known for extending the water-holding ability of root media and retains some nutrient values on its own.
Some manufacturers are mixing coco coir with peat. Coco coir/peat is said to retain moisture up to nine times its own volume while maintaining porosity that provides vital oxygen to roots and soil. Growers use coco coir/peat to condition soil and sterile media. It extends the life of root media, and has a naturally high lignin content which encourages favorable micro-organisms in the root zone. It also buffers the media for an optimum pH level.
Make sure that you flush and evaluate the chemical neutrality of coco coir and other sterile root zone media. Media such as rockwool and coco coir can have embedded salts or inappropriate pH.
The way to determine the concentration of salts and the pH of a root zone media is to flush several gallons of distilled water through a gallon or two of root zone media, and measure the pH and total dissolved solids of the run-off water. In many cases growers have to use pH up and down to adjust “sterile” media to the proper pH, which is between 5.7 and 6.4. If you’re a serious grower, it’s time for you to get a total dissolved solids meter (TDS), or a parts per million meter (ppm), along with a pH meter. The first two help you figure out the concentration of substances in your nutrients solution, and the pH meter helps you keep your root zone media balanced at the ideal pH so that you get maximum nutrient absorption.
We recommend the use of Advanced Nutrients ph Up and pH Down, because the Advanced Nutrients formulas are properly made, are pure, and are potent. Growing media is an important consideration for anyone who does general hydroponics gardening indoors, but you won’t get any growth without light, and most professional growers are using indoor high intensity lighting such as Metal Halides and High Pressure Sodiums.
In an ideal world, we would all have secure outdoor areas where massive amounts of sunshine hit every day, but most professional specialty growers grow indoors using artificial lights.
In the old says, people tried to grow using fluorescent lights. There are modern high intensity fluorescents, and there are regular low watt fluorescents, but they are only useful for clones. They lack the punch needed for truly efficient growing that will produce high yields and fast maturation.
Halides and High Pressure Sodium lights suck down a lot of watts but they put out a lot of “lumens,” which are the units of measurement used to describe light intensity. These lights are used in grow rooms, but also are used to illuminate warehouses, baseball diamonds, football fields, roads, parking lots and many other places where huge amounts of light are needed.
Metal Halide (MH) light produces an intense light of a blue-white spectrum excellent for vegetative growth. High-Pressure Sodium (HPS) is an orange-tinted light that simulates the red hue of autumn and is often used as the only light source during flowering phase.
Most medical herb growers use a combination of MH and HPS in a ratio of three HPS to every one MH bulb. This is because MH alone often results in too much stem and leaf growth, with long internodes and delayed flowering and less flowering sites. With HPS augmentation, plants are shorter with more budding sites, and tighter, thicker buds with higher yields.
Growers have to be careful about electricity consumption, because high intensity lights suck down lots of energy. They also have to be careful about temperature control and keeping plants at least two feet away from bulbs, because these types of lights produce lots of surface heat and ambient heat. Proper room exhaust and air exchange must be in place when using high intensity lighting.
Along with adequate lighting, correct temperature, thorough ventilation, and good root zone media, a critical factor in plant growth is plant nutrition. You can have the best lighting, grow media, air exchange and overall grow environment, but if you don’t feed your plants what they need, they will not grow well, and they may even die.
Until several years ago, most people fertilized their crops with generic fertilizer that was designed to be an all purpose fertilizer for house plants and common vegetable crops.
This type of product contained a few major nutrients but not many of the minor nutrients that are necessary for optimum growth. The products were not designed to fill the different nutrient needs that various crops have, and in many cases contain improper ratios and ingredients that actually damage crops.
A few years ago, a general hydroponics plant food company started revising the way fertilizers were designed, manufactured and tested. That company was called Advanced Nutrients. The company’s founders completely changed the way hydroponics research was done and how fertilizers were made. Advanced Nutrients has created the most modern, effective and comprehensive line of hydroponics plant growth products ever seen. These products will give your plants the best growth, quality and health.
Advanced Nutrients totally revised how fertilizers are designed and made and a new approach towards plant nutrition so that you can buy products that go way beyond just regular plant nutrition. For example, Advanced Nutrients sells a product called Scorpion Juice that stimulates plant immune systems so that plants are better able to quickly resist diseases and pests.
They sell products that make roots get bigger so that the roots absorb more water and nutrients faster. They also sell high-end foundational products that contain all the macronutrients and micronutrients that plants need for a basic feed protocol.
Here are the components of a good feed program, and what each component does for plants:
Nitrogen (N) is a main nutrient and is a major component of proteins, which form an essential part of protoplasm and also occur as stored foods in plant cells. Nitrogen is also a part of other organic compounds in plants such as chlorophyll, amino acids, alkaloids and some plant hormones.
Signs of nitrogen deficiency: older leaves turn chlorotic and may eventually die; plant is stunted; foliage is light green. If you are overfeeding nitrogen, plants grow too vigorously, with long internodes, leaves become dark green, flowers elongate rather than thicken, and ripening is delayed.
Phosphorous (P) is a component of plant proteins, phospholipids, sugar phosphates, nucleic acids, ATP and NADP. The highest percentages of phosphorous occur in the parts of the plant that are growing rapidly. This is considered a macronutrient along with Nitrogen and Potassium. Phosphorus deficiencies manifest when stem, leaf veins, petioles turn yellow, followed by reddish-purplish as phosphorous is drawn from them into new growth.
Phosphorus deficiencies can cause seedlings to develop slowly. Phosphorus deficiency delays fruiting/flowering; fruits/flowers can be stunted by phosphorus deficiency.
Potassium (K) accumulates in tissues that are growing rapidly. It will migrate from older tissues to merestematic regions. For example, during the maturing of the crop there is movement of potassium from leaves into the fruit. Plants in floral phase need extra amounts of P and K and lesser amounts of N. Deficiency signals are present when older leaves appear chlorotic between veins, but the veins themselves remain green, and/or when leaf edges burn and curl up.
Calcium is one of the constituents of cell walls, where it occurs in the form of calcium pectate. It is essential for plant structure and function and is often insufficiently supplied, especially for plants in floral growth cycle. If calcium supply is insufficient, plants grow more slowly, young leaves yellow, and flowers are small and poorly formed.
Sulfur forms part of protein molecules important for structural growth and metabolism.
Magnesium is a constituent of chlorophyll which is essential in the process of photosynthesis that converts light into energy and growth. . Chlorophylls are the only major compounds of plants that contain magnesium as a stable component. Many enzyme reactions, particularly those involving a transfer of phosphate, are activated by magnesium ions.
Most general hydroponics plant foods do not contain adequate amounts of magnesium. Deficiencies can show up when older leaves curl and yellow areas appear between leaf veins. Deficiencies also manifest when younger leaves curl up and become brittle or dry.
Iron is another key constituent of plants that is underprovided in most fertilizers.
A number of essential compounds in plants contain iron, and iron plays a role in energy conversion, photosynthesis and transpiration. Iron can interfere with uptake of other nutrients, and is often improperly configured in many fertilizer products.
Boron facilitates carbohydrate breakdown. Symptoms of boron deficiency include stunted roots and shoot elongation, lack of flowering, darkening of tissues and growth abnormalities.
Zinc is important for sustained growth of cells, but can be problematic if it builds up in the root zone due to poorly-made nutrients.
Manganese activates enzymes that fuel oxygen processing and other metabolic processes. If there’s a manganese deficiency, plants grow slower and are more likely to succumb to disease. The most obvious sign of a manganese deficiency is chlorosis. Manganese chlorosis results in the leaf taking on a mottled appearance.
Copper is important in the formation of enzymes, which are key to metabolism, nutrient uptake, photosynthesis, and growth rates.
Molybdenum is important for enzymes that help nitrogen fixation and nitrate reduction. Plants suffering molybdenum deficiency absorb nitrate ions but are unable to properly metabolize nitrogen, resulting in severe growth problems.
Many hydroponic growers have problems administering nutrients. When people grow in sterile media, the responsibility of providing nutrients is all on them because the root zone contains no nutrients.
Another problem faced by growers is that different plants require specific nutrient formulas, and many plants need different ratios of formulas as they go from vegetative phase to production phase. There are individual types of plants within one species, such as orchids, that require different nutrients.
Another reason that hydroponics growers have problems with nutrients is that most nutrient manufacturers create generic nutrients that are not properly configured or manufactured. These inferior nutrients do not dissolve or absorb properly. They may have undersupply or oversupply of key components. They are not designed to accommodate the needs of specific plants at specific times in their growth phases.
The Advanced Nutrients hydroponics plant food company has gained a good reputation among general hydroponics gardeners because its products are the result of modern design and testing for hydroponics uses, combined with utilization of higher quality source materials than have traditionally been used by fertilizer companies.
The company’s product line is extensive. It goes beyond the usual provision of macronutrients and micronutrients to include specialty products that increase root size, inoculate plants against pests and diseases, and increase the size, taste, or quality of flowers, fruits, nuts and vegetables. They also have products that help growers salvage crops that have been damaged or underfed.
Hydroponics is a modern agricultural technique that is becoming more and more important for hobbyists and large scale producers. If growers provide sufficient light, well-engineered nutrients, and appropriate environment to their hydroponic crops, they can expect consistently high yields of quality crops year round.