At the county fair, a favorite haunt is the 4-H room where members display the county's biggest produce. Many a family has photos of pumpkins bigger than children and cucumbers that look like baseball bats. Hydroponic systems don't guarantee monstrous produce that will win purple ribbons, but it does satisfy a desire to show off our cultivation skills by making it easier for the average person to grow things faster, with higher yields.
Hydroponics is the science and art of growing plants without soil. Instead of soil, in hydroponic gardening, you place the roots of plants into trays or pots designed to deliver nutrients, water and oxygen in purer forms, and deliver them more often than a plant could get them with its roots buried in soil. The result of hydroponics is often a plant with a smaller root structure than normal and fuller above-ground growth. Other benefits include the absence of pests usually found in the soil, and - maybe best of all - the absence of weeding.
Four Main Ingredients
In all types of hydroponics, you need the following four ingredients for successful growth:
1. Medium: The purpose of the medium is to anchor the roots of your plant. It's important for the medium to have beneficial nutrients - or to be inert, so the nutrient solution can do its work. Different mediums have different characteristics. Some wick water better than others. Some are best at storing minerals. Some are heavy and others are light. Examples of hydroponic media are sedimentary rock, rock wool, coconut husk, clay, perlite, vermiculite, sand and gravel.
2. Nutrient solution: Different plants require different fertilizer solutions, but in most cases you can use a general solution and still get better results than growing in soil. The nutrient solution is delivered to the plant in a number of different ways (see below). In addition to being aware of the nutrients in the solution, hydroponic gardeners know how to measure and monitor pH levels to provide an optimum balance between acidity and alkalinity.
3. Oxygen and CO2: Hydroponics systems deliver more oxygen and CO2 than normal to plants. It's one of the main reasons yields are higher. Sometimes they are added naturally through the setup of the equipment, and sometimes they are added artificially. As plants use up the oxygen and CO2 provided in the system, it's necessary to have a way to replenish it. To maximize plant growth, it's important to provide as much oxygen and CO2 as the plant can absorb.
4. Light: Although hydroponics can be practiced outdoors using the sun as the light source, growers can get amazing results by using artificial lighting. If you're really serious, you can use two different types of hydroponic grow lights, with light from one part of the spectrum for the vegetative stage and another part of the light spectrum for the flowering stage.
If you have those four basics, you can begin to practice hydroponics. As you get more sophisticated in your knowledge and skill with hydroponics, you also might use special hydroponic supplies, such as air circulators, carbon filters, carbon dioxide replenishers and climate controllers. You'll learn ways to avoid algae growth in the solution and mildew growth in the medium, as well as ways to make sure your lighting sources are safe.
In the end, the payoff is not only more tomatoes, peppers and herbs, but also the satisfaction of knowing you are making the most of your ability to grow your own.