If we tell someone that we grow our food through hydroponic farming, their response is, “Wow! That is great!” and almost immediately, the next thing they say is, “What is that?”
Hydroponic farming does not require soil, and instead, plants are grown directly in other media. The mineral content in the water is regulated, and these minerals nourish the plants and ensure healthy growth. The environment is also controlled to provide the crops with the best atmosphere to flourish in.
What Can Be Grown Using Hydroponic Farming?
According to UMass Amherst, nearly all crops can be grown using hydroponic farming. But the most common ones are leafy greens, vegetables that grow on vines, and some lightweight fruits.
You can check out this video for a simple explanation of the concept.
The most common type of leaves grown using hydroponic farming is lettuce. But you can also grow many other vegetables like cabbage, spinach, and kale.
Crops that grow on vines such as cucumbers, tomatoes, and peas seem to grow quite well in a hydroponic growing systems. You have to carefully support the growing vines to ensure that they do not move in the wrong direction or hinder other plants in their vicinity.
Root crops, including potatoes, carrots, radishes, and turnips, can be grown using hydroponics. You do not require deep containers for small vegetables, such as baby carrots. But if you want the vegetables to grow to their full, natural size, you might require large containers with at least 8 inches of depth.
Lightweight fruits, such as raspberries and strawberries, can grow quite well in a hydroponic environment. You can even use this method to start large trees like apples or bananas. Once the tree outgrows its container, you can transfer it to the soil to promote further growth.
Whether you want to grow herbs for medicinal purposes or your culinary requirements, hydroponics is a great way to grow herbs like basil, oregano, rosemary, mint, thyme, and many others. According to HerbGardening.com, hydroponically grown herbs have significantly more aromatic oils than those grown in the field.
Types of Hydroponic Farming Systems
Every plant requires a medium to grow in. Some plants grow with their roots in a liquid solution, others require a solid substance, and some can grow with their roots dangling in the air!
Here are 6 different systems that are common in hydroponic farming.
The Wicking System
As the name implies, this system uses a wick to deliver essential nutrients to the roots of the plants. It is based on capillary action, which, if you remember from your science class, is the ability of water to move against gravity and along narrow channels through adhesion and cohesion.
The plants are poised in a solid medium such as perlite or coconut coir in the wicking system. Below the plants growing container is a reservoir of nutrient-balanced water. A wick, such as a rope or a piece of felt fabric, is placed with one end in the water reservoir and the other in the plant container.
Whenever the plants pull out the nutrients from the medium, essential nutrients from the tank travel through the wick to replenish the medium, this way, the plants remain in a controlled environment of plentiful nutrients and absorb them whenever required.
These systems are usually the simplest to install and maintain, as they do not require any advanced equipment. They can be a suitable starting method for growing small plants for beginners. That said, they can also be scaled up into large commercial vertical farms.
However, this system will not suit larger plants and involves the risk of killing the plants if the wick is not set up or maintained correctly.
The Deep Water Culture System
The DWC system comprises a large reservoir filled with nutrient-water solutions. The plants are then suspended in a solid medium, floating above the water. The roots grow through the medium and go directly into the water solution, allowing them to access a constant supply of water and essential nutrients.
Plant roots also require oxygen. Failing to provide them with adequate oxygen can cause them to drown. You will require an air pump with a bubbler to ensure that the water has an adequate supply of oxygen.
This system is also relatively easy and inexpensive to maintain in hydroponic farming terms. All you require is a suspension system, a large reservoir, and basic air equipment. However, this system will not work for larger plants, and failing to maintain it properly can cause the plant to drown and suffocate in the nutrient-rich solution.
The Nutrient Film Technique System
The NFT system repeatedly equips the roots of plants with a thin film of nutrients. In this system, nutrient-rich water is stored in a large reservoir with an air pump and a bubbler stone like the DWC system.
However, the roots of the plants are not submerged in the water and instead sit in a different channel near the reservoir. A water pump equipped with a timer switch pushes water through the channel and supplies the plant roots with a thin film of nutrients at frequent intervals. The water flows back into the reservoir at the end of the channel.
This system, although a bit complex, ensures minimal wastage. With only a thin film of nutrients, the roots have access to oxygen and do not suffocate or drown. This system requires nearly no solid media.
However, it would be best if you were careful about the working condition of the system. A faulty pump can mean disaster for the plants. This system also requires more maintenance as the roots can grow and clog the channel, inhibiting water flow.
The Flood and Drain System
This system is also called ebb and flow and, in that sense, is one of the least complex forms of hydroponic farming from a technical perspective. It works by flooding the plant roots with nutrients and then letting the nutrient-rich solution drain away to allow roots to take in oxygen. Farmers still debate about the efficiency of this system, and some like it because it gives the roots the chance to balance between oxygen and nutrients.
The plants grow in a solid medium in a tray or other container. A large reservoir of nutrient-rich water floods the container through a timed water pump.
After the tray is flooded, gravity takes over to drain the nutrient-rich water from the tray and back into the reservoir. It is essential to keep the water oxygenated with an air pump and bubbler in the reservoir.
This system requires strict monitoring processes to detect and understand how your plants take in nutrients. If the timing of the pump does not match the nutrient requirements, you may end up with dried-out or oversaturated plants.
However, this system can help with growth and yield as it does not keep the roots submerged in water for too long.
The Aeroponic System
The aeroponic systems are one of the most expensive and complex hydroponic farming systems. However, they are also one of the most effective. Aeroponic plants have the benefit of receiving 100% of the oxygen and carbon dioxide that are available to the roots, stems, and leaves, which speeds up biomass growth and shortens rooting times.
According to Modern Farmer, in the aeroponic system, the roots of the plants are dangling in the air inside a large container. This container is equipped with misting sprayers, which spray a fine mist of nutrient-rich water onto the roots of the plants. The water reservoir has air pumps to keep the water well-oxygenated at all times.
Depending on the plants, you can have a continuous mist inside the container or mist the plants at timed intervals. This system ensures that the roots have continuous access to the nutrients without being oversaturated or deprived of oxygen.
Installation and maintenance of this system can be a little expensive, and failure to maintain the pumps properly can cause the plants to dry out.
However, this hydroponic farming system is among the best to balance nutrients as it keeps the roots from being over or under-saturated. It is also one of the easiest to monitor and maintain.
The Drip System
These systems are found in settings with a large number of plants as they are expensive for small setups but work well in commercial systems. They are also called trickle systems.
The drip system is similar to what we see on traditional gardens and farms. A water supply is pumped through a series of pipes to flood the media with water at timed intervals. Instead of running the water through channels or spraying a mist, the drip system deposits tiny droplets of water near each plant individually.
The system controls water usage and can also control the amount of water and nutrients being delivered to each plant. It requires extensive installations and is best suited for commercial setups. They do not circulate the solution but are efficient at controlling wastage.
Final Thoughts on Hydroponic Farming
Hydroponic farming is a great way to grow plants in controlled environments. This technology allows you to produce a better yield from a smaller area than when growing plants on the land.
If you are getting started with hydroponic gardening, there are many systems that you can use, ranging from simple wicking systems to DWCs, and even complex aeroponic systems. Consider watching this video, which will give you the necessary steps, and you will be well on your way to a flourishing hydroponic garden.