What Are Hydroponic Systems and How Do They Work?

As the weather and temperatures become less reliable in the United States, a number of farmers and soon-to-be farmers are experimenting with hydroponic gardening on a small to large scale. When crops are grown inside special buildings or enclosures, the temperature, moisture level, and other crop-growing factors can be controlled. The added cost of building and equipping hydroponic gardens can be recouped with more successful crop outcomes.

What is Hydroponic Gardening?

Hydroponics is simply growing plants without soil. Photosynthesis is a process where plants use sunlight and chlorophyll from their leaves to change carbon dioxide in the air into glucose and oxygen. Plants need water and nutrients to grow. Those things can come from rich growing soil or from their roots being placed in nutrient-rich solutions with water. Hydroponics comes from the Greek language, meaning growing plants in water, but it has come to mean growing plants without using soil.

Agron is a large company that supplies hydroponic gardening supplies and equipment including lighting, HVAC, additives, irrigation, nutrient, and set-up equipment for people growing or wanting to start growing crops hydroponically. There are products available for every facet of hydroponic growing of plants, including those for protecting plants from insects and other predators, starting a new garden setup, and keeping the plants healthy and producing.

Benefits of Hydroponic Gardening

Before spending the money and time setting up a hydroponic garden, a person should know the benefits and the downside of this type of farming. Some crops do very well in this type of growing environment, while others are better suited to traditional farming in soil. It is important to know the difference.

The benefits of this type of gardening include:

  • The plants grow and mature faster, by up to 20%, and can have up to 25% higher crop yields.
  • The grower does not need to worry about temperature or weather conditions outside and does not need soil testing.
  • Some studies show that hydroponic crops have higher levels of nutrition.
  • There is less need for space and labor. These gardens are more versatile.
  • This type of garden can be as small as a five-gallon bucket or as large as a warehouse or large greenhouse. Start small and increase the operation as knowledge and experience dictate.
  • Hydroponic gardening can be accomplished in crowded cities as well as rural areas.

The Downside of Hydroponic Gardening

The downside of this type of gardening includes expenses and a learning curve.

  • The start-up costs of this system are high. The person considering setting up a hydroponic growing system should make a list of all the chemicals, equipment, and accessories they will need to purchase.
  • There is a learning curve that could become expensive. Setup, constant monitoring, technicalities, and mistakes that cause crop failure can be expensive. Do research before starting. Do not cut corners in any stage of this type of crop growing.
  • Equipment failure can happen to the best of us. If part of the system fails, such as a water pump, the plants can die quickly. If there is a power outage, the plants must be manually cared for to survive. This is a time to consider having a backup power generator.

Doing it Right

Proper setup is the key to a successful hydroponic gardening operation. Once the expense of setting up is done, the system will run on a fairly small budget. There are several models for hydroponic gardens, and a person should study them all before deciding on a plan and purchasing equipment.

Basic gardening without soil requirements include:

  • A water reservoir the size needed for the amount of gardening planned.
  • Plants of the correct type and species to do well when grown in water rather than soil. This can include lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, herbs, radishes, and other vegetables and greens.
  • Net pots are small plastic mesh planting pots.
  • The garden will require an air pump, line, and stone. The pump is to provide the plant roots with oxygen.
  • The sheet type of Styrofoam
  • A good quality nutrient mix to feed the plants via the water solution
  • Water of the correct kind. It should not be too hard or city water with fluoride added. Distilled water is the best choice.
  • The plants need the correct kind and amount of light at the right times. Different plants require different light. Natural and artificial light can be correctly combined.
  • The setup will need Perlite or volcanic rock in the bottom of the net pots.

Setting up and managing the garden will require knowledge and good instructions from a reliable source.

  • Basically, once all the supplies are on hand, fill the plant reservoirs with a nutrient mixture and water in the exact proportions needed for each crop.
  • Top the containers with the sheets of Styrofoam with holes cut in it for the net pots and plants. The Styrofoam acts as a floating platform for the plants.
  • Prepare the plants by gently removing them from the pots they came in and rinsing all the dirt off the roots. Next, thread the roots gently through the bottom of the net pots and add a little Perlite to the net pots to support them. Now, put the pots in the holes and submerge in the water solution.
  • Hook up the air pump to provide oxygen for the plant roots.
  • Follow the set-up instructions for more requirements.

When the hydroponic garden is all set up and running, it is necessary to monitor the garden and keep careful notes on what was done and what should be changed. This requires monitoring of things such as:

  • The water and air temperature should be in the range of 68 degrees to 70 degrees for the plants to do their best.
  • The humidity in the garden space should be from 40% to 60% for the best results. This is where a dehumidifier might be needed to remove excess moisture from the air and a humidifier to add moisture to the air as needed. Too much humidity might cause fungal infections.
  • The air circulation is important for plant health. This can be achieved with vents, fans, or open doors. Remember, plants need fresh air in and stale air out. They need carbon dioxide in the fresh air to grow.
  • All plants need nutrients and in water gardening, the nutrients are found in the water the roots are submerged in.
  • Monitoring the plants carefully and giving them enough space can help avoid pests.
  • The pH level of the water must be periodically checked and corrected as needed for plants to thrive. This pH level should be between 5.5 and 6.3.

When the hydroponic gardener does everything correctly, they can expect good results and larger crop yields than with traditional outdoor in soil gardening. Remember, there will not be a need for plowing and weeding, worrying about droughts or rainstorms, or early frosts.

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