Hydroponics was once a buzzword for potheads, pseudo-hippies, and yuppies, but the proliferation of materials, supplies, and knowledge about hydroponics has pushed this once “fringe” technology into the forefront of off-the-grid living, homesteading, and urban dwelling – areas where hydroponics have failed to grab a foothold in the past.
Hydroponics basically refers to planting and growing different plans without soil; it’s a generic term to denote a primary reliance on water as the medium in which a plant lives its life. Contrary to popular belief, however, it doesn’t require crazy, high-intensity, energy sapping lights and exotic liquid nutrients to perpetuate hydroponic gardening.
Obviously, perfectly controlled saturation of sun and nutrients (or equivalent alternatives) will yield the best result possible; this is a primary reason why those in the drug trade and high-end testing labs use hydroponics over natural, sun-grown, daytime-only gardening. It’s important to note though, that you can grow hydroponic gardens outdoors without 24/7 sunlight.
For those of us with land, there probably isn’t as much of a need for hydroponics, but it’s hard to deny the benefits of such a practice. Very few of us have perfect growing environments where we live, and hydroponics may be the solution needed. Maybe you’re someone who swore off hydroponics at one time, but it may be time to reconsider at least for a small portion of your produce.
Hydroponics might make sense:
- For those who are just beginning to tread into the world of off-the-grid living and still haven’t been able to get a rural homestead started.
- For those with incredibly hard desert soil.
- For those with incredibly harsh winters or temperatures below 45° for large portions of the year.
- For those in areas where animals might be ruining outdoor gardens.
- For those with excess energy production (for instance, those with hydroelectric plants or heavy wind or solar energy reserves, because a second garden will allow winter growth of produce).
- For those who want to understand plants and how to grow gardens a little bit better than they already do. A good hydroponic setup (indoor or outdoor) could be the ideal training solution and can be made quite inexpensively.
Plants grown in soil get natural regulation of all the variables needed for growth including sunlight moisture and soil nutrients. With hydroponic gardening (where all variables will be controlled) more tension is necessary for the plant, but the trade-off is often worth it. Hydroponic setups using constant light and high-end nutrient mixes can yield incredibly large, impressive fruits and vegetables without the need for excess weeding.
A few words about an outdoor hydroponics setup: You’ll still need real sun exposure, accurately matched temperatures, and pest control to ensure the best results. Additionally, you’ll need to understand that because you’re still reliant on the single solar cycle each day, you can’t expect more rapid growth than those custom tailoring the maximum amount of light to the plant type (like those with full indoor hydroponic setups). For delicate plants you’ll still need to expect some solar blanching of the leaves, and you’ll still likely have adverse environmental effects in the mix, including pollutants, acid rain, and wind concerns, not to mention potentially problems with frost.
Materials can be as simple or as complex as you want them to be. It doesn’t take much to set up an outdoor hydroponics; a high-quality bucket, some PVC pipe, a drill with a small hole saw bit, and some elbow grease will yield an excellent container for using water as your plant-growing medium. A little ingenuity and some cheap netting will ensure most of the pests your plants fear will be mitigated. A weekly check on your plants should be enough to keep them running hot. Say goodbye to expensive pre-packaged soil mixes and annoying clay soils. A heavy-duty set up capable of many years of service might run just a little over $100.
You can go out and buy a complete kit to make hydroponics, but it’s become a heavily commercialized industry, and as such, you’ll likely be overpaying for what you’re getting. About the only thing you’ll need to pay for is the proper light bulbs, assuming you’re willing to put some time and effort into the process of growing.
There are several types of hydroponic platforms:
- Wicking-type systems, which feed the roots of the plants the nutrients via contact of the wick.
- Ebb and flow, which raises and lowers water levels at different times to introduce proper nutrients to young plant seedlings.
- Water cultures, which allows plants to float on top of a nutrient bath and oxygen is introduced through a pump.
- Nutrient film, which allows air exposure to the roots but also gives a constant nutrient flow to them.
- An aero system, which sits with the roots hanging down, suspended in air.
Which system you choose will depend on the types of plants you want to grow. The growing media that you use will help dictate the strength of the roots and the overall growth of the plant.
Some growing media are as follows:
- Rockwool: a basalt material designed to be porous but substantial and used to control spacing in a hydroponic setup; it does affect the pH levels in your hydroponic setup, so you will need a testing kit.
- Sand: while it’s not ideal for hydroponics, many plants grow incredibly well in wet sand, and it can serve as an excellent medium for many fruits and vegetables.
- Gravel: it provides a stable base for heartier roots but does require a pump to keep water and nutrient flow between the relatively heavy gravel pieces.
- Perlite: volcanic rock heated to be broken down to a specific shape and size. It has a porous structure able to retain oxygen, which is important as hydroponically grown fruits and vegetables will take all oxygen very rapidly
- Vermiculite: similar to perlite but holds less air and more water. It’s typically used in conjunction with perlite.
Once you’ve chosen your platform, materials, and growth medium, you are ready to create your hydroponics system. Let’s use tomatoes as an example.
You always want larger containers than you think you’ll need, especially if you want to experiment with transplanting as opposed to just seedling growth. You’ll want to sterilize the water by boiling it and then allowing it to cool to room temperature. After that, you can use a commercial nutrient mix at the appropriate levels to ensure your plants have the right mix. Many commercial mixes are incredibly inexpensive and have a long shelf life.
The nutrients that will make the most sense will be nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium; normal soils and fertilizers most often are not suitable for hydroponic setups. You’ll also want to consult guidebooks to determine the proper nutrient mix for your specific plant and set up. You want to ensure the proper mix of nutrients because nitrogen burning and other concerns can lead to poor plant growth or ruined produce. Again some premixed liquid nutrient products are incredibly cheap, but it is always your best bet is to obtain testing materials to make sure the environment is exactly how you intend it to be.
A pump, either one made specifically for hydroponic gardening or even one used for fish tank, will allow aeration and water flow movement, two essentials for hydroponic gardening. Lighting is important as well, and while some plants don’t need the photosynthesis process, most do. You want to be looking for at least seven to ten hours of natural light a day. You can also use artificial lights made to customize the UV saturation for hydroponic platforms.
It might seem overwhelming to consider hydroponics, especially if you’ve been taught, like most of us, that the backyard garden is where it’s at. Many situations and environments necessitate supplementary production of food, and that’s why the consideration of hydroponic systems makes sense for someone living off the grid. It allows you to have more control over the growing process and to combat concerns before they become problems, including pests, animals, nature, and yes, of course, your lack of a green thumb. It’s much easier to grow plants hydroponically because the industry is so science and measurement driven. Even a novice can produce incredible results with very low start-up costs, often less than a raised box garden in the backyard. If hydroponics makes sense to you in some fashion, get a good book and take a look at some of the inexpensive components required to make a long-term set up. You’ll be surprised at how easy it really is.
©2012 Off the Grid News