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For urban garden designers, hydroponics has become a very popular solution to the lack of soils and space available in cities. Hydroponics is a system of growing food in water without the use of soils, and it can be done utilizing vertical spacing, which makes it a great fit for apartment balconies and other confined areas. Otherwise, many curious and innovative growers have simply become interested in broadening the scope of what they do.

In reality, there are several methods for using hydroponics, including wicking beds, floating platforms, flood-and-drain systems, drip systems, and other various titles that likely mean little to those who aren’t gardening hacks. Suffice it to say, hydroponics is a well-established form of agriculture, something humans have been practicing since Ancient Egypt. However, we obviously have new technology that has made things work a little differently.

The Basic Idea of Hydroponics

Plants can’t grow on water alone, so hydroponics is a bit more complicated than simply cultivating in pools of water. In reality, plants need nutrients, so hydroponic systems are not run purely on water but, more so, on nutrient solutions, water with dissolved minerals or infused with rich soils. Plants are stabilized in pots or small rocks so that their roots hang into this solution and are able to feed on the enriched liquid.

This seems like it might be a lot to do when growing plants in soil has worked well for millennia, but in certain circumstances, all the effort is worthwhile. In arid climates, such as Arizona and the Middle East, hydroponics makes a huge difference because it isn’t reliant on rain and uses less than a quarter of the water that soil systems do. In urban areas, where soil isn’t available, it makes growing food at home more of a reality because it can be grown vertically, using less than a quarter of the land. Also, greenhouse space in northern climates where cold weather and hours of sunlight are lacking can be used more efficiently.

In short, hydroponics provides an opportunity to predictably produce more food locally, wherever we are, with less natural resources.

The Disadvantages of Hydroponics

Despite offering several advantages, especially to particularly problematic places, hydroponics is not a full-stop solution to food production. Hydroponic systems do have an initial set up cost larger than growing in soil. The systems are reliant on electricity, which makes them susceptible to power failures, and plants can die very quickly in this system if that happens. Plus, if not run on renewable energy, hydroponic pumps are another pull on the grid. Managing a hydroponics system, repairing pumps and monitoring solutions, can also be time-consuming, much more so than relying on quality soils and rain.

For those of us more in-tuned to the natural ways of doing things, modern hydroponics also has questionable nutritional aspects. Growing in quality soils means that plants are given access to not only the nutrients necessary to make them grow but also they are supplied with micro-nutrients and trace elements that are vital for keeping plants and people healthy. Questions have arisen as to whether nutrient solutions can supply all these needs. Also, many common crops — potatoes, corn, squash, root veggies, grains — are not well-suited for hydroponic systems. They are more geared to lettuces, tomatoes, and other water-hungry, relatively small bushes.

Thus, while hydroponics can be very useful, we shouldn’t completely do away with the soil just yet.

Recovery Drip Systems

 

Probably the most popular hydroponic system for small-scale home gardens is the recovery drip system. This system is designed to improve the efficiency of agricultural irrigation by offering up the plants a constant flow of water and nutrients then sending the unused solution back through the system. Many drip designs are set up so that water is gravity-fed through a collection of pipes that with a slight slope such that they drain into the pipe below them. When the nutrient solution reaches the bottom of the system, a pump sends the water back up to the top, and the process is repeated.

These systems and others like them are very easy to make at home, and they are available as kits if total DIY is not in the cards. For independent cultivators, it’s important not to use PVC pipe, but rather food-grade plastic piping, when cultivating edibles in them because PVC can leach unwanted chemicals into the solution. Nevertheless, this can be a fun, interesting, and productive project to increase food production at home.

Image source: piya Sukchit/Shutterstock

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