Your essential guide to hydroponics for your eco home.

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Plants need soil to grow.

Well, not really. Plants grow through the process of photosynthesis where sunlight reacts with a chemical called chlorophyll and carbon dioxide and water to make glucose and oxygen. So technically soil is not a necessary part of the formula for plant growth.

Besides light, plants do need water and nutrients, which is found in soil, but they will happily grow without soil if, for example, their roots are in a nutrient-rich water solution. And this is where the art of hydroponics comes in – the word derived from the Greek meaning of ‘water’ and ‘toil’, although hydroponics can also cover growing healthy plants without water – we’ll get to that later.

So why not just grow plants in soil?

There definitely are some benefits to growing plants – especially when looking at growing plants to eat – without using soil.  

  • Some hydroponic growers who have switched from growing in soil report a big increase in yields. This is mainly due to having the roots of the plants dipped directly into whatever nutrient-rich solution is being used and the plant having access to what they need more easily. This results in smaller root systems and better-functioning leaves and stems.
  • Smaller roots mean more plants per square meter which means even very limited spaces can produce good yields – think apartment balconies, small greenhouses, and eco-home connoisseurs.
  • Hydroponic plants grow faster, and because this type of growing is suitable for indoors you can grow plants all year round. There are easy-to-install and operate automated systems that make hydroponic growing so easy.
  • Soil can carry unwanted pests which make hydroponic growing healthier, especially for growers.

So what are some of the disadvantages of using hydroponic equipment for growing?

  • The equipment can be pricey – you will need lights, pumps, containers, timers, nutrients, etc.
  • There is more science behind the art – you are responsible for maintaining optimal growing conditions. Automated systems are very effective, but you will still need to be checking on your plants more often.
  • Hydroponic plants have smaller root systems which mean those that fruit, for example, tomatoes, will need some sort of growing support.

Why is hydroponic growing becoming so popular?

There is a great deal of talk these days about future-proofing farming and growing. Hydroponics is one of the ways of doing this, and scientists are excited about the possibilities of hydroponic growing and:

  • Outer space. Space travel, colonizing distant planets, will rely on hydroponics. · Floating farms. Global warming, rising sea levels, this may mean in the future we will have floating communities that rely on hydroponics to survive.
  • Inner-city gardens. No soil? No problem. Hydroponic gardens can literally be grown anywhere, including 50 floors up in a high-rise building.
  • nutrient-poor soil environments. Living in the Sahara desert and want a fresh salad? Hydroponically grown lettuce tastes delicious.

The possibilities are almost limitless when you remove soil from the equation.

What are the different ways to grow hydroponically?

The most popular way is probably to have your plants in a plastic trough and a nutrient-rich solution moves past their roots with the help of a pump. Another way is by having the plant’s roots supported in a nutrient-enhanced soil substitute like rock wool, vermiculite or sand. Or there is aeroponics – the plants are suspended in a container that is full of humid, nutrient-rich air – think floating cities of the future with thousands of little pockets of minerals growing all the food we need.

So what to grow?

Most plants can be grown hydroponically, but like all gardens, there are some plants that will do better without soil than others.

Let’s say you are building an eco-friendly house and want to try your hand at hydroponic growing. We’ve put together a list of some of the vegetables that grow very well in a hydroponic environment with what makes them so healthy.

  1. Tomatoes. Tomatoes are a wonderfully rich source of vitamins A, C, and folic acid. They are packed full of antioxidants that help protect against the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
  2. Lettuce. This veggie is very low in calories and contains phytonutrients with strong health-promoting and disease-preventing properties. Lettuce is rich in vitamins A, C and K and contains minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium for a healthy metabolism.
  3. Cucumbers. Besides being delicious they are rich in the micro-elements iron, sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium and zinc. They also contain vitamins B, C and folic acid, making them highly sought-after for cleansing the body from cholesterol and slowing down the ageing process.
  4. Spring onions. These little beauties grow very quickly and one planting can be harvested every few weeks. They are packed full of antioxidants to help prevent damage to DNA and cellular tissue by inhibiting the action of free radicals. Spring onions contain vitamins C and K which are both essential for healthy bones and to help fight off infections.
  5. Spinach. This is such a healthy green leafy vegetable and well known for its antioxidant properties. It provides protein, iron, vitamins and minerals, in particular vitamins A, C, K, E, magnesium, folic acid, copper, zinc. Spinach acts to protect the heart, lower cholesterol, aid in digestion, is anti-ageing and is a rich source of iron, most definitely a must-have in your new eco house hydroponic garden.

For more information on how to get started, freephone the Herbal House Team on 0508 4 4372257 or email Matt@herbals.co.nz.