Hydroponics is the art of growing plants without the aid of soil. The practice requires three crucial things – water, nutrients, and a growing medium. Hydroponics gardening has been around for decades. The idea was born back in 1627 and in the years 1859-1875 the soilless technique was developed and in 1950s scientists had started experimenting on the concept.
Today, hydroponics systems have gained popularity in many countries worldwide. In 2018 the global hydroponics market was valued at USD 23.94 billion. The market is expected to reach USD 35.51 billion by 2024. Europe is the largest with a market share of around 47.3%, while Africa boasts of having the fastest-growing market. North America, on the other side, has a medium growth rate.
Since the global food demand is increasing and agricultural land decreasing, food supply to the growing population has become a challenge. Hydroponics systems are the next big thing and a savior for the future of food security. This article discusses the basics of hydroponics, and all you need to get started.
Types of hydroponic systems and how they work
Proper understanding of how the system works is the first step that can lead any enthusiast to succeed in this gardening. The rule of thumb is first to get the necessary and essential skills before you can get started. With time you’ll become a pro. What works for you may not work for someone else and vice versa.
Keep in mind that it’s vital to set up and maintain your hydroponic system properly to yield tremendous benefits. That said, there are six major types of hydroponic systems – as discussed below that have been tested and proven to work excellently. Of course, by doing everything the right way.
The Six Different Types Of Hydroponic Systems:
Deep Water Culture,
Food and Drain or Ebb and Flow,
Nutrient Film Technique,
Drip Systems, and
Deep Water Culture
Two things make deep water culture very appealing. The system is easy to set up (inexpensive) and require very minimal maintenance. If you’re good at DIY kind of stuff, then this system is ideal for you.
What you need to hit the road:
Growing Media (Net Pot and Hydroton)
The tank holds the nutrient solution where the roots of the plant suspend. This way, the plants get a constant supply of nutrients, water, and oxygen. Use the air pump to supply oxygen to the water. The air stone aids the water oxygenating process. The air stone also helps prevent the plant roots from suffocation.
Shelter your plants in the growing media, or the net port and place them in your reservoir. You now have your root system housed. As a new hydroponics gardener, you might not get this right for the first time. But expect things to get better with time.
Note that deep water culture is a superb system for fast-growing water-loving plants but not suitable for large plants and those that take a long growing period.
Deep water culture can be made from any virtually any container. Generally you'll see them within buckets or storage containers. When picking a container ensure it is made from food grade materials to ensure no toxins are released into the nutrient solution.
Roots dangle from the pots down into the nutrient solution which contains oxygen made from an air pump. This allows the plant to get oxygen and nutrients 24/7.
If you need something less sophisticated, then a wick system is the way to go. You do not need any water pumps or air pumps to use wicking system. This simplicity makes the system passive.
Things you need for a wick system:
Growing media (e.g., perlite, pro-mix, vermiculite)
A reservoir stores the nutrient solution while the wick is used to suck the nutrient solution into the growing medium. Wick systems are perfect for beginners. The system is also valid for small plants that don’t require a lot of water and nutrients.
If you intend to grow larger plants, then this system will not work for you as lager plants consume water and nutrients at a very high rate. Always be vigilant when setting up your wick system as minor mistakes such as using incorrect wick or material could drag the whole process behind.
Wicks can be made from almost anything. All you need is a growing container, a plant, some rope that soaks water well and vola - you've got a hydroponic wick system!
You can also easily create a wick system that incorporates multiple plants. All you need is a large reservoir down the bottom and a sturdy lid for the pots to be positioned into.
Food and drain system
The system is also known as Ebb and Flow and is less common but very unique.
What you need for a flood and drain system:
Growing media ( e.g., gravel, grow rocks, wool e t c)
Air pump and air stone
In this system, the roots are not exposed to the nutrient solution throughout the cycle. Instead, the plants grow in the tray filled with a growing medium. The growing tray is flooded with the nutrient solution. The whole process is made successful by using the reservoir, water pump, and a timer.
The timer is used to achieve a regular flooding cycle. There are factors you should consider for you to determine the number of times required to flood your tray. What is the size of your plants? How much water do the plants need? What is the air temperature? Once these questions are clear to you, you can create a perfect flooding schedule for your plants.
After every flood cycle, the solution drains back to the reservoir. The pump oxygenates the solution. This cycle is a continuous process that relies on your timer’s schedule and will go on and on. The flexibility of this system makes it a top choice for many gardeners. The type of a growing medium to use and how you organize your plants is all at your disposal.
The system is highly customizable according to your preferences hence more effective and efficient in terms of water and energy usage. Put in mind that environmental conditions can be problematic to your plants, especially if the roots get depleted of water before the next cycle. Timer or pump failure can also prove to be a threatening factor.
You can buy ready made flood and drain tables from hydroponic stores. These will come with the container and a reservoir. Be careful as sometimes pumps and mediums are not automatically included.
You can also easily build your own flood and drain system - all you need is an overflow and inlet which can be purchased for around $15.
Nutrient Film Technique- NFT System
This hydroponic system is for those who would like to do commercial gardening. In this system, plants’ roots lie inside the nutrient solution. The flow of the nutrient solution is constant and keeps circulating.
The things you need for a nft system:
Water pump and tubing
Airstone and pump
The pool holds the nutrient solution. The solution is continuously pumped through the channels to reach the plants. Once the nutrient solution reaches the end of the chain, it’s taken back into the main reservoir. The whole process starts over and over again.
The net pots inside the channels hold the plants. Air is the only growing medium used in this system. The reasons why this system is best for commercial farming is its ability to minimize wastes and the minimal growing medium needed.
There are some downsides of this system that can ruin your crops. Such challenges include pump failure and at times, overgrown roots that can hinder the normal flow of the nutrients solution.
Home made NFT systems are often made with PVC pipes. The reason for this is they are easy to cut, bend, join and are extremely sturdy. You can also angle it easily and it's a very cheap material and easy to source.
Once the nutrient solution / water has reached the end of the tube it then runs off back into a reservoir and is then pumped back to the start; where then the whole process starts again.
Drip systems are also widely known for commercial operations. They are robust systems for large scale gardening and simple to operate. There are two types of this system - recovery drip and non-recovery drip system.
Recovery drip system – the excess nutrient solution is collected for re-use. A simple timer is put in place to control the watering cycle.
Non-recovery drip system – run-off is not collected; hence, a steady timer is vital to ensure proper monitoring and minimal run-off. Tracking is essential to ensure plants get enough nutrients.
Things you need for a drip system:
The timer turns the pump on, and the nutrient solution flows through the tube line and drips onto each plant. Although drip systems are cheap and rarely break, pH level and nutrients variation if using re-circulating (recovery) systems can be problematic. Another problem is with high waste as a result of using a waste system.
Hydroponic drip systems are very popular in both home gardens and in commercial farms. The reason for this is they are easy to set up, maintain and adjust.
Hydroponic drip systems provide a lot of choice to growers from feeding schedules, run to waste or recirculating systems, amount of water to root zone - make it a very popular hydroponic choice.
Aeroponics system is one of the most sophisticated high-tech hydroponics. Just like the nutrient film technique system, the plant roots suspended in the air.
What you need for aeroponics:
The air is the growing medium, and unlike in the nutrient film, the aeroponics system uses a technique called misting. In this technique, the roots zone is mist with a nutrient solution in a steady manner.
You can choose to mist your plants on a cycle or continuously. Unlike in the other submerged root systems, aeroponics system allows more oxygen to the roots. Note that the misting operation should not be interrupted. Any slight disruption – such as falling of pressure nozzles, can cause the roots to dry out. The system is not easy to set up, and therefore, you’ll need the help of a professional.
Aeroponics can be used for a diverse range of plants. In this case a potato farmer is growing potatoes and has easy access to them making harvest a breeze.
Although the growth is fantastic with aeroponics there are a lot of moving parts in this system. It is only recommended for experts and for long term systems.
Hydroponics In A Nutshell
If you’re looking at hydroponics for the very first time, below is a quick take away on how the system works:
Reservoir – stores the nutrient solution and the water for the plants
Growing medium – this is what makes the soil position. It anchors the crops. Some include; rock wool, perlite, and vermiculite, among others.
Air pump and air stone – oxygen is ideal to the plant roots, and that’s why you need the air pump and the air stone to supply it to the plants.
Nutrient solution – this consists of both macro and micronutrients that are essential for the plants' growth.
Timer– to control the pump
Lighting– essential for photosynthesis
Important tips about hydroponics growing
As you already know, there is no use of soil in hydroponics gardening. Therefore, the plants take up the nutrients without fuse. Ensuring that you adhere to the right nutrient solution measurements is vital. Else, you might end up with unusual plants due to unbalanced nutrients.
You’ll encounter different types of hydroponic devices and vast methods to grow hydroponics. Some might be simple, while others will look complex. As you prepare to start your journey in hydroponic gardening, below are some things always to remember.
There are three critical ingredients for plant growth for hydroponics systems
- Water, and,
Hydroponics are classified into two major categories
- Solution culture which is a nutrient-filled solution that plant roots grow in
- Aggregate culture whereby a medium such as sand or gravel is provided for the roots to grow in
There are homemade hydroponics, and if you decide to go that way, three things are mandatory
- Electricity: you should be connected on the grid
- Water: you need a reliable water supply
- Reservoir: to hold the nutrient solution
If you decide to build an indoor hydroponic system, you’ll need to have grow-light. This light is essential for photosynthesis. Available grow light kits include; high output fluorescents, metal halide, compact fluorescents, LEDs lighting, and high-pressure sodium.
There are two leading hydroponics nutrient solutions
- Organic hydroponic solutions – can be used in place of inorganic compounds. They include; blood meal, bone ashes, bonemeal, hoof, fishmeal, wool waste, cottonseed ashes/meal, dried locust/grasshopper, leather waste, among others.
- Inorganic hydroponic solutions – some of the elements mixed to obtain essential nutrient concentration include nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, iron, zinc, copper, manganese, boron,among others.
where, and when to grow
What to grow?
Decide what to plant. Be it vegetables, tomatoes, fruits, or whatever you like. The choice is yours. Once you make your decision, you can either buy hydroponics seed or the seedlings from accredited stores. To clear the air, here are some of the best plants for hydroponics; Lettuce, strawberry, basil, tomatoes, spinach, beans, rosemary, tarragon, cucumbers, blueberry, peppermint, among others.
Where to grow?
The location does not matter since hydroponics do not rely on soil to grow. What’s important is the availability of ingredients.
When to grow?
Unlike plants grown on soil, hydroponics is not seasonal and grows throughout the year. The consistency has helped improve food security in the world.
The cost and the benefits of hydroponics systems
Hydroponics upfront cost can be much depending on the way you want to do it. But here is a snippet of what to expect.
There are hydroponic systems that cost below $150 while others could cost over $450. All these will depend on the size of gardening that you plan to set up. Systems such as Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) and Deep Water Culture (DWC) hydroponic bucket cost below $150. On the other hand, cloudponics, aerogarden farm, and active aqua grow flow cost over $450. A little homework can help you plan better.
Big space is not necessary
No soil, no weeds
Minimal water usage
Plants mature quickly with huge yields
The growth rate is 30-50 percent faster than soil plants
Pro's and con's of hydroponics
Foods grown indoor are not subject to any seasons hence production is year-round
The return in hydroponics is twice as much as the yield in soil, and the quality of the product is also high
Another advantage is hydroponics consume fewer resources as compared to their counterparts
A controlled environment is used to grow hydroponics plants. Meaning that little to no pesticides are required since there rare cases of diseases, pests or fungi.
Hydroponics systems require minimum maintenance, and the cost of labor is lower as compared to traditional farming as there is no digging or weeding.
The initial set-up costs are very high
Supervision and monitoring for large hydroponics can also be costly
In case of, power outage, plants can dry out hence significant losses
FQA about hydroponics
How much does hydroponics cost?
Both the upfront and operational cost of hydroponics are quite high.
Are hydroponics farms profitable?
It is profitable so long as you do your research on the most popular plants
Is hydroponics an economical way of producing food?
The nature of hydroponics allows round-year food production. It is, on average, four times as compared to soil-based production. The space used is minimal, and different kind of crops grow faster.
Does hydroponics have any future?
There is a need to increase security for future foods. Having enough food production means can help achieve this goal. Thus the traditional way of farming alone cannot be sufficient. Hydroponics could be the future as it’s already being used to increase food production.
Why is hydroponics not popular?
Not many people already know about hydroponics. For those who know something about it are held back due to its initial high start-up costs. Most industries have also not embraced this technology.
Are hydroponics plants healthy?
Huh! It’s okay for people to be skeptical. The essential critical fact is that the nutrients are what matters whether the plants are grown in soil or hydroponically. The answer is yes.
Is hydroponics farming better than traditional farming?
Yes. Hydroponics systems are very economical and take up minimal space. Wastages are also minimal. The growth rate is high and the production too.
Should I buy or build hydroponics systems?
Unless you’re a pro with years of experience, you should buy first. That way, you’ll understand the basics and how the whole thing operates. You’ll also realize that building your systems for large scale gardening can be time-consuming.
The Bottom line With Hydroponics
Hydroponic gardening is a wide field of farming. You cannot learn it overnight. Advanced technology plays a significant role in creating awareness. Hydroponics is a potential commercial activity that many people are involved with nowadays. The horticultural industries are investing heavily in hydroponics by both studying and practicing it. Many governments are also funding their research and development. Experts recommend hydroponics as its advantages surpass the disadvantages.