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Most Commonly Used Types of Growing Media for Hydroponic Systems

freshly picked cucumbersGrowing media is an essential part of any hydroponic growing system. Almost any inert material can be used in place of dirt or soil in a hydroponic growing system, although porous materials generally are recommended in order to hold the moisture and oxygen that allow the roots to grow properly. Growing media is not designed to provide any nutrients to the plants, so it should not break down or decompose quickly. The sole purpose of growing media is to offer support and moisture to the plants. While there are many types of growing media available, some growers tend to prefer one type of growing medium over another, especially depending upon the type of hydroponic system and designed being used. There are a wide variety of factors to consider when choosing a growing medium for your hydroponic system.

Rockwool

One of the most commonly used growing media in hydroponic gardening is rockwool, which is a porous, non-degradable material primarily made up of granite or limestone that has been heated, melted, and turned into small threads that eventually make up blocks, sheets, or cubes. You must soak rockwool in pH-balanced water prior to use. Because rockwool is so porous, however, you must not allow it to become completely saturated, or your plants could suffer from stem or root rot.

Coconut Fibre

Another popular growing media is coconut fibre, which comes from the outer husk of coconuts. Coconut fibre is a completely organic plant material that was once considered a waste product. It breaks down very slowly over time, it is pH neutral, and holds a great deal of oxygen and water, which is ideal for hydroponic gardening. Some growers also have found that coconut fibre provides plants with some protection against certain root diseases.

Perlite and Vermiculite

Both perlite and vermiculite are mineral substances that expand when exposed to very high temperatures. Both materials are extremely lightweight and porous, which makes them appropriate for hydroponic gardening. While perlite doesn’t retain water, however, vermiculite does. As a result, some growers commonly mix perlite and vermiculite to use as a growing medium for their hydroponic systems.

Lava Rock

Unlike other types of growing media, lava rock is not porous and due to the air pockets between rocks, water will easily drain through it. These same air pockets do provide sufficient oxygen to the plants and the ease in drainage will prevent your plants from becoming over-saturated. When using lava rock, it simply may be necessary to allow for more frequent watering and/or add other growing media, such as coconut fibre, to assist in moisture retention.

Hydroponic ArugulaThese are a few examples of the most commonly used types of growing media for hydroponic gardening. Additionally, other porous materials such as sand, oasis cubes, floral foam, polyurethane foam insulation, composted pine bark and pine shavings all can be used for hydroponic gardening, although they are not the most commonly used types of growing media. While there is not one type of growing media that is best for all situations and hydroponic growing systems, growers can easily find an effective type of growing media that works best for them.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Hydroponics and Indoor Gardening

hydroponic vegetables in farmIf you have always been interested in plants, but have only grown them in soil up until now, you may want to think about indoor gardening with hydroponics. While this does take a little more skill than growing potted plants in soil, it isn’t all that difficult, and there are definitely some benefits to using hydroponics. The industry has been expanding recently and it is nowhere near its full potential because even though many hobbyist gardeners have found out how beneficial this process can be, most of the commercial industry hasn’t yet adopted this method of gardening. If you are brand new at hydroponics or indoor gardening, this guide will teach you everything you need to know to get started.

What is Hydroponics?

Hydroponics is the process of growing plants without soil. Although the name makes you think of growing plants with their roots in water, this is only one kind of hydroponics. There are actually several, and one reason people think of this method first when they hear the word is that this is one of the most popular methods of hydroponic gardening. However, there are other ways to grow plants without soil, and we will cover most of the popular ones here.

Benefits of Hydroponic Gardening

There are quite a few benefits to hydroponic gardening, which is why it is becoming more and more popular, and in the future, it will likely be widespread because as food prices go up and more and more people start thinking of ways to grow their own food, generate their own power and in essence, be self-sufficient, hydroponics will get more use, because it is a really convenient way to grow plants, fruits and vegetables. Here are just a few of the benefits of hydroponic gardening.

You get to determine what nutrients your plants get and in what amount
You don’t need to have a huge budget. Hydroponic gardens generally cost less than soil gardens.
Hydroponic gardens can be placed anywhere, so even if you live in an apartment you can still grow.
Hydroponics actually produces better plants, higher yields, plus you can grow all year long.
Hydroponics doesn’t use as much water as traditional methods of gardening.
You can also set up hydroponics with a recyclable water system that only uses 1/10th of as much water as traditional gardening.

Types of Hydroponics

tomatoes in a greenhouseThere are five standard hydroponic techniques that are used to grow plants this way. The first type is the one that most people think of when they think of hydroponics, where plants are suspended with their roots getting water through a pump system. It is called the Nutrient Film Technique and it uses a pump to push water through the bottom section of a grow tray tube where it passes over the roots of the plants and then drains back into a return tank and can be reused in the cycle again and again. The plants themselves are placed into supportive baskets and growers like this method because the only medium used for growth is air, which doesn’t need to be replaced. The disadvantage to this is that you do need to maintain the pump system and make sure it is working, and it requires electricity to function.

The Wick System is another method that you can use to start your hydroponic garden. The wick system is a very simple method of getting nutrients to plants, but it does require a medium that has to be replaced, an expense that many prefer to avoid by using air as a medium instead. The wick system draws the nutrients into the grow medium through a wick that is dipped into the reservoir with an air pump to circulate the nutrients properly. This system does use a great deal of water as well, which is why many people don’t like it, but it has the advantage of always working no matter the circumstances because there are no moving parts.

The water culture system is even simpler than the wick system. Plants are suspended in a platform made out of Styrofoam or another light material and float on the nutrient solution. An air pump provides oxygen to the plants and helps circulate the nutrients properly. It has the advantage of being extremely simple to set up, costing almost nothing, but it will not work for large plants, nor for plants that grow for longer period of time.

The flood-and-drain system of hydroponic gardening works by flooding a grow tray with the solution containing the plant nutrients and then draining it right away. This works by placing a pump into the reservoir as well as a timer, and the nutrients and water will be released a few times a day depending upon the type of plants that you are growing.

Drip systems are another way that you can get the nutrients to the plants that need them, and this is probably the most common method of doing hydroponic gardening. It works very simply. The plants are placed into the grow medium (and the drip system supports multiple grow medium types) and then water is dripped onto the plants from a pipe or a line. This has a lot in common with your sprinkler system that you use to water your lawn and it is a simple and effective way to get the nutrients to the grow medium. There are both non-recovery and recovery drip systems that each have their own advantages and disadvantages.

The last hydroponic gardening system that we’ll discuss is the aeroponic system. Aeroponics utilizes the latest technology of hydroponic gardening and it is similar to the nutrient film technique in that the plants are suspended with the roots in the air. It also shares the delivery method with the drip system although aeroponics use mists instead of dripping. The misting cycles must not be interrupted by a power outage however, since the roots are hanging in the air, so it has this disadvantage. However, it does have the advantage of not needing an expensive grow medium since it uses air instead.

The Science and History of Hydroponics

At its most basic, hydroponics is the act of growing plants in water as opposed to soil. Here, you will simply be growing your plants using water to carry nutrients as your medium instead of soil. This means that the nutrients are now dissolved into the water allowing the roots to drink them up. Of course the plants themselves are suspended above the water (so you can see them).

That’s the basics but things get a lot more complicated as you get more involved with the process. And what’s more, there is of course a lot more going on beneath the surface that ensures it all works…

This introduction then will go a little deeper and look in more depth at where specifically hydroponics comes from and at the science behind it all.

Hanging Gardens of BabylonThe History of Hydroponics

To look at, rows of plants suspended in water can look quite high tech and even ‘futuristic’. In fact though, nothing could be further from the truth. Hydroponics has actually been around for centuries and one of the wonders of the ancient world featured it heavily even. That wonder? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon of course – which worked using hydroponic principles as early as 600BC! Specifically, the gardens were watered using a chain pull system which would carry water up from the river so that it would then trickle down throughout the hanging gardens.

In the 10th and 11th centuries meanwhile, the Aztecs had a system of floating gardens that used similar principles. Because the marshes at Lake Tenochtitlan were not suitable for growing crops, they instead resorted to building rafts made from reeds with roots hanging out the bottom into the water.

The subject of hydroponics made it into the mainstream though in the 17th century when Sir Francis Bacon began researching the idea of soil-less gardening. This triggered a lot of interest in the subject when it was published and led to the likes of John Woodward promoting its use in agriculture (which he called ‘aquaculture’). Commercial use began in 1938 following research at Berkeley and in WW2, the method was used to grow crops for the troops located on the Pacific Islands.

These days, hydroponics is used far more widely and the process has become much more systematic. Today we know how to set up a hydroponic farm to grow plants as efficiently as possible and this can have many benefits.

How Plants Survive and Why You Don’t Need Soil

Basically, hydroponics simply does away with the soil. Contrary to popular belief, soil is not actually a crucial component when it comes to growing plants. The job of the soil is to anchor the plants and to serve as a medium – allowing water and nutrients to travel so that they can be consumed by the plants.

Floating gardensPlants need water and they also need nutrients. These nutrients are what the plant can use to build tissue and grow/repair damaged leaves etc. The final piece of the puzzle is the sun, which the plants need for photosynthesis – in order to create glucose for energy.

As you can see then, the soil itself is not actually providing anything that the plant needs to survive – it’s just that without the soil, the plant would blow away and wouldn’t be able to reach the all-important water and nutrients. In theory, a plant could grow in cat hair – as long as you watered it occasionally and provided it with sun and water.

The Set Up

Most of the minerals and vitamins that plants need to survive are water soluble. This means they’ll dissolve in water just as sugar dissolves in your tea. Roots don’t have teeth and so this is how plants are able to get the nutrients out of the soil – the water absorbs them and the plant then absorbs the water.

With hydroponics you intentionally infuse the water with the necessary nutrients and then feed that water directly to the roots. Thus there is actually no need for soil as long as you find another way to hold the plant in place and above the water. Depending on the type of hydroponics system used then, the plants will usually be suspended in some way, or will use an alternative medium such as perlite, rockwool, clay pellets or something else.

This actually means that the plants have even better access to the nutrients. Normally the roots of plants will spread out under the ground not only to provide a more stable anchor but also to help them find more water and more nutrients. The larger the surface area covered by the roots, the greater chance there is that some part of that root system will happen on water and nutrients. With hydroponics, the roots are directly growing into the water, meaning there’s no need for them to spread out. This in turn means they are much smaller and that more plants can be stacked in a row. This makes hydroponics much more space efficient as compared with ‘normal’ agriculture and somewhat ironically, it also means that hydroponic plants require less water overall. This makes hydroponics very eco-friendly and efficient, which is one of the reasons it now has so many fans.

But there is one other important use of soil that needs to be considered – and that’s the fact that it also provides the soil with air. If you have ever kept houseplants, then you will likely be aware that it’s possible to over water them resulting in them becoming drowned and dying. Normally, soil is able to trap ‘pockets’ of air which the plants can then use to breathe.

So if you can overwater plants, how is it that submerging the roots entirely in water doesn’t do the exact same thing? Well it would, which is why hydroponics needs to use various different systems in order to ensure the plants still are getting oxygen. For instance, some hydroponics systems will use an air pump in order to oxygenate the nutrient solution.

The Essential Hydroponic Supplies for Success

As a newly interested or novice hydroponic gardener, the broad array of information and possibilities may feel overwhelming. From hundreds of products, systems, plant choices, and more, information overload and creep into the mind and create fear of failure or even paralysis about which path to first travel.

hydroponic tomatoesThis anxiety is a normal part of becoming familiar with the field. Fortunately, the entire set of parameters can be simplified to help you compartmentalize and understand the various essentials. Any time things start to feel overwhelming, bring it back to these basic items and your task will seem much more manageable.

The Three Essentials – All You Need to Know

Everything about hydroponic gardening can be boiled down to three simple groups that are easy to remember, separate from one another, and therefore easier to investigate in isolation without too much compounding information getting in the way.

Your Grow Location

As a newcomer, it’s recommended to start small until you have a better handle on the methodology. This means you can choose tight and accessible places within your own home as it already is to grow your plants. For instance, you can simply grow a set of herbs in the windowsill of your kitchen or living room. Any table can become host to a hydroponic centerpiece. You can partition off a portion of your basement or garage as well for medium sized operations. The options are truly endless. Large growers may even build a sun room or greenhouse if they wish.

Your Chosen Systemhydroponics

The choices of which hydroponics system to use are more narrow than you think. Depending on how much hardware you want to build or accumulate, you can choose just one of the three main types of systems, or try them all at some point until you settle on your favorite.

For sake of brevity, the four types will only be listed here. Take the time to learn about each so you can make an informed decision about where you want to start. While there are subsets, remember there are only four main types, so don’t feel overwhelmed! They are:

  • Deep Water

  • Ebb & Flow

  • Aeroponics

  • Drip Systems

That’s it! It’s truly that simple. Each has its benefits and weaknesses, but one will surely fit your style and time investment capabilities.

Your Grow Lights

For small hydroponic installations like a set of herbs on your tabletop, the light from the sun coming in through the window will be enough and go through the appropriate light cycles for you. You can disregard this section entirely at first! As you entertain more complex setups, you’ll want to learn about grow lights.

In a basement or garage you’ll have to provide the plants with light if there is no sunroof or windows. This can be quite beneficial during the winter or cloudy months since you can continue to regulate an optimized cycle of light for your plants. Take the time to learn about fluorescents, HIDs, and LEDs to find out what a proper strength and power demand is right for you and your plants.

And That’s All – Quick and Easy

That’s truly how simple growing hydroponics can be. There’s no need to panic or gets antsy because you can most certainly manage all of the information by keeping track of it all in the fashion mentioned above. Enjoy the journey and explore one option at a time and you’ll have the whole thing mastered in no time at all.

4 Main Types of Hydroponics Systems

When the uninitiated hear the term “hydroponics” they simply think “water.” However, this is a very shallow view of the possibilities. The term hydroponic encompasses several systems of delivering nutrients to plants through water flow. There are four main systems to achieve nutrient flow, listed below:Hydroponics Table

  • Deep Water Culture

  • Ebb and Flow

  • Aeroponics

  • Drip Systems

Each of these four systems are specifically suited for different types of plants and environments. Let’s take a deeper look.

Deep Water Culture Systems

This method is the best for beginners and most easily accessible system for achieving hydroponic growth. It simply involves resting a plant’s roots and soil into a nutrient solution composed of water and dissolved plant food. This method is very inexpensive. All you need is the proper pots and an aeration pump to keep the water full of oxygen and slightly moving. This way the plant’s roots can thrive instead of suffocate and rot underwater.

Ebb and Flow Syhydroponics green vegetables in farmstems

In this method, a single pot or an array of pots in a tray are temporarily submerged in nutrient-rich water and then allowed to drain. This method doesn’t require an aeration pump because the state of being drained allows constant access to oxygen. Frequent flooding of nutrients and water keeps the soil moist, which is achieved through the use of a pump and a timer. Cycling the same water with new nutrient injection can all be achieved, saving you constant intervention and maintenance.

Aeroponics Systems

Aeroponics is by far the most unique and advanced method of hydroponics. It’s name comes from the fact that the root systems of the plants dangle in the air and are frequently misted with nutrient-rich water. The benefit is that the roots and plants can avoid being exposed to fungus and creatures that can thrive in the soil. Plants can grow as much as 50% faster with a proper aeroponics setup.

Drip Systems

The drip method is similar to the Ebb and Flow, except that instead of cycling water in larger amounts less frequently, you drip nutrient-rich water into the soil in small amounts frequently. With a drip of 6-12 times per hour, the roots and soil stay moist but have constant access to oxygen and food. This is also a fairly inexpensive setup and easy for beginners to handle.

Conclusion

When understood in this fashion, hydroponics becomes a little less intimidating. It is suggested that beginners start with a Deep Water system, graduate to a Drip or Ebb and Flow system, and if desired attempt Aeroponics later as an advanced method. The difficulty and cost will increase along this path along with your skill level. Enjoy the adventure and best of luck with your plants!