Science Education - Others

How do Hydroponics Work?

Maria Victoria Malela
By Maria Victoria Malela. Updated: January 20, 2017
How do Hydroponics Work?

Hydroponics describe a method of growing plants without soil. This practice is mainly used for sustainability and conservation. Plants can be grown hydroponically by everyone, as well as for large-scale production purposes.

In order to grow, a plant needs light, water and nutrients. Etymologically, the word hydroponics comes from the Greek hydro-, + -ponics (Greek : ponein "labor, toil"). It literally means working with water.

Consider a plant growing without soil and a question arises almost instantly - How do hydroponics work? OneHowTo explains.

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The techniques

A plant grows through a process called photosynthesis. It needs sunlight and uses chlorophyll - a chemical inside its leaves - to convert carbon dioxide and water into nutrients. These nutrients can be found in the soil or alternatively in hydroponic nutrient solutions.

Various techniques are used to grow plants hydroponically :

  • N.F.T. or nutrient film technique : This is the most common technique. It consists in a system which pumps the nutrient solution from a reservoir and distributes it through a tubing system, where seedlings are placed in starter cubes, while their roots are left hanging, so they can directly nourish of the shallow film of nutrients. Hydroponic nutrient solutions are recycled in recycling systems and can be reused. Plants are very sensitive to any potential interruption, thus the system requires a constant flow.
  • Aeroponics : This technique uses a device called AeroGarden, which is a product for cultivating an indoor garden. It is used to grow small amounts of vegetables, herbs, salads in customizable kits. The roots are usually suspended in a container full of humid, nutrient-rich and highly oxygenated air. It comes with a microchip controller to automatically regulate light, nutrient and water.
  • Water Culture: This technique is mainly used to produce water-loving and quick-growing plants. It requires suspending the plant in a basket above the nutrient solution, in a reservoir where the roots continually remain submerged. Air bubbles present in the nutrient solution guarantee that the roots get oxygen, through an aquarium air pump and the use of air stones.
  • Ebb and flow System : This technique consists in building a flood and drain system. Plants are placed in containers connected to a reservoir. The reservoir contains the hydroponic solution and the plants will be fed through a control bucket that times irrigation and eventually pumps the nutrient solution back into the reservoir. This technique works for growing small to medium size plants. It is ideal for a greenhouse setting.
  • Hydroponic drip system : This technique is ideal for larger plants that take a lot of root space. A growing tray is placed above a water container, containing the nutrient solution, which is pumped via a tubing system and drips onto the base of each plant, via a small drip line.
  • Wick System : This technique is simple and uses a wick to draw the nutrient solution from the reservoir into the growing tray. The plants grow directly in the growing medium. Some materials commonly used for the growing medium are coconut fiber or perlite. However one of the biggest drawback of this technique is that plants do not get to absorb water and nutrients evenly. Fresh water is thus regularly needed.
How do Hydroponics Work? - The techniques

Why hydroponics?

There are many advantages to growing plants hydroponically :

  • By avoiding the use of soil, hydroponics avoid soil-born pests and diseases and therefore eliminate the use of pesticides. This in turn, reduces pollution and promotes a heathy living. The growers know the exact nutrient content that their plants are getting.
  • As mentioned above, hydroponic nutrient solutions are recyclable and reusable.
  • Hydroponics constitute a great asset for food production. On one hand it palliates to the solution of infertile soils, while maximize the productivity.The growers are able to produce a high density of plants using less space.

Hydroponics are fun and accessible to anyone. The best way to understand how do hydroponics work is to purchase a kit or build one, as many online tutorials are available.

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