October 10, 2012
Hydroponics is a term used to describe growing plants without soil, such as directly in water, air, or solid non-soil mediums.
Does it work? Yes. Plants require three things from the soil: 1) water, 2) nutrients, and 3) stability. If plants have access to water and nutrients (particularly the molecules of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) and a structure that can hold up the plant, plants will grow just as well if not better than in soil.
Why would people want to do this? Hydroponics enables growing plants in spaces that would not otherwise be supportive of growing plants. This may be on barren land that lacks nutrients or has overly acidic or basic soil. It may also be inside a greenhouse or a warehouse--or even on a boat or space ship. People have even used hydroponics to grow vegetables on the roofs and walls of buildings!
Are there other benefits to growing hydroponically? Yes. Hydroponics enables more sustainable agriculture. In many hydroponics systems, water is fed to plants in a closed circuit--meaning water fed to plants that is unused by the plant is re-circulated to feed plants later. Water is fed directly to the roots to minimize evaporation or draining into the ground. This can result in saving 95% of the water consumed in traditional farming, which is important because farming uses 60% of the potable water in society.
Farmers have known for thousands of years that growing crops drains the land of its resources, thereby requiring the land to lay fallow before planting again. However, in recent years, heavy usage of fertilizer, pesticides, and other chemicals have caused more permanent detrimental effects to not only the surrounding environment, but entire regions. Chemicals draining into the ground water can contaminate water supplies and destroy wildlife, fauna and flora. As farmers push for more yield today, they sacrifice yield in the future.
In hydroponics, plant nutrients (fertilizer) is dissolved in the water that is fed to the plants. The fertilizer never comes in contact with the natural land. Consequently, plants grown hydroponically do not deplete the natural resources of the soil underneath them. There is no need to lay fallow lands and there is minimal risk of chemicals damaging the surrounding area.
Hydroponics can also result in greater yield: bigger plants and more plant mass per square foot. Plants in hydroponic systems do not need to compete for water and nutrients and so growers can grow plants closer together. This means more food while using less land!