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Hydroponics: Growing Plants Without Soil!

A technique grow the healthiest food possible, in large quantities, in the smallest space, and in a sustainable way

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Hydroponic gardening is a technique involving growing plants without the use of soil. Pixabay
Hydroponic gardening is a technique involving growing plants without the use of soil. Pixabay
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BY SHANTAM SAHAI

  • Hydroponics is the science of soil-less gardening
  • Hydroponic gardening does not require the use of large physical spaces
  • Hydroponic gardening systems can be made at home

All of us share an ideal dream of owning a personal vegetable garden. However, for most of us, that dream is shattered due to lack of physical space. You might be living in a 3BHK flat with three balconies, or the lawn in front of your bungalow might not be large enough. Here we are, with a solution to your problem. You can make your own vegetable garden in limited space and no soil!

Hydroponic gardening (also known as the science of soil-less gardening) is a technique involving growing plants without the use of soil. Instead, mineral-rich water solution is used. Terrestrial plants are grown with their roots exposed to the mineral solution; a plant just needs nutrients, some water, and sunlight to grow. Not only does the plant grow without soil, it grows a lot better!

Hydroponics allows plants to grow at an increased rate of 50%. Pixabay
Hydroponics allows plants to grow at an increased rate of 50%. Pixabay

ALSO READ: 8 Simple Techniques That Will Flourish Your Garden

Benefits of Hydroponics

Many governments around the world equate hydroponics with marijuana; this is one of the major reasons why commercial hydroponics industry has not yet hit the mainstream. However, with the constant decline in the availability of arable land, hydroponics is fated to foster global awareness. The benefits of hydroponic gardening are well documented as advantageous to farmers and home vegetable gardeners.

Soil vs Water

Most of us are surprised when we learn that plants can be grown without soil too. Though soil can be an inefficient medium, at times. Plants waste a lot of energy while growing roots in the soil in search of the required water and nutrients. However, in hydroponic gardening, in which constant and readily available nutrition is provided, plants grow 50% faster than they do in soil.

  • There is no need for herbicides and pesticides in hydroponic gardening.
  • Water used in hydroponics stays in the system and can be reused.
  • Arable land is not a requirement. Even a tiny balcony or indoor gardening can work.
Water nutrient solution is the most vital part of hydroponics. Pixabay
Water nutrient solution is the most vital part of hydroponics. Pixabay

ALSO READ: Climate Smart Village’ Initiative

How to make a nutrient solution for your hydroponic garden?

Making a water solution with precise amounts of nutrients is an essential part of hydroponics. First of all, you need to be aware of the composition of the water you are using. For example, ‘soft’ water allows you to directly add nutrients your plants need the most; while ‘hard’ water would require filtering (unwanted materials) first. To check your water regularly, you can use electrical conductivity (dissolved solids meter), also known as parts per million (PPM) meter.

Once you know what your water consists of, you will need to familiarize yourself with the different nutrients several plants need. The most basic nutrients solutions consist of:

  • 25 ml of CaNO3 (calcium nitrate)
  • 1.7 ml of K2SO4 (potassium sulfate)
  • 8.3 ml of KNO3 (potassium nitrate)
  • 6.25 ml of KH2PO4 (monopotassium phosphate)
  • 17.5 ml of MgSO4 (magnesium sulfate)
  • 2 ml of trace elements

Each element involved in these nutrients provides a different benefit.

  • Hydrogen forms water by combining with the oxygen.
  • Nitrogen and sulfur are essential to the supply of amino acids and proteins.
  • Phosphorus is used in photosynthesis and overall growth.
  • Potassium and magnesium act as catalysts in the creation of starches and sugars.
  • Magnesium and nitrogen also play a role in the production of chlorophyll.
  • Calcium is a part of the makeup of cell walls and plays a role in the growth of cells.

Though you can buy nutrients solution online or from a nearby store, making one yourself would prove to be cost-efficient in the long run.

How to set-up a homemade hydroponics system?

The most simple and foolproof method is making a ‘hydroponic raft’ system, also known the ‘lettuce raft method’. This method will allow you to grow lightweight crops such as lettuce, spinach, endives, or herbs such as basil, parsley, and cilantro. However, you will need three simple requirements:

A homemade hydroponics raft. Facebook
A homemade hydroponics raft. Facebook

1. Reservoir

The reservoir is simply a large container used to hold the water. It needs to be at least 1 ft. deep to accommodate root growth, opaque to prevent algae growth, and sturdy. It can be built at home, or you can purchase it at your nearby nursery or online.

2. Raft

The raft is made up of a styrofoam platform (which fits the size of the reservoir) and is fitted with ‘net pots’. Net pots are plastic containers (in which the seedlings grow) that are perforated at the bottom. You can buy them online or a nearby shop. They are usually filled with coconut coir or hydroton.

3. Aerator

You need to aerate the water to make sure that the nutrients do not become stagnant. Aerators can be bought online or from your nearby aquarium store.

All in all, hydroponics can grow the healthiest food possible, in large quantities, in the smallest space, and in a sustainable way. It accomplishes all goals set by organic farming, and taking a step further it allows people to grow food in places where traditional agriculture is not possible.

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US Fifth Graders Learning Gardening And Help Save the Monarch Butterfly

Eleven-year-old Amelia Jakum loves to observe nature, and gets excited for the discoveries she makes in the garden.

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Monarchs lay their eggs on the milkweed plants the P.B. Smith students grew from seeds in their butterfly garden.
Monarchs lay their eggs on the milkweed plants the P.B. Smith students grew from seeds in their butterfly garden. VOA

P.B. Smith Elementary School in Warrenton, Virginia, is one of a growing number of schools around the United States that have vegetable gardens. Teaching children about gardening gives them a chance to get hands-on experience with growing and eating vegetables, learning about nutrition and nature in the process. Last year, this school’s beautiful, well-kept green space got a valuable addition — a garden filled with plants that attract butterflies.

Learning about butterflies

In class, members of the P.B. Smith Elementary School’s ecology club learn about butterflies — monarch butterflies, in particular. They talk about the need for certain plants for an organism to survive. They learn about life cycles, from eggs to larva, pupa and adult.

But the learning is not complete without the hands-on part. Ecology Club teacher Barbara Dennee said that happens when her class visits the garden. There, they wait patiently to see this life cycle unfold.

The students’ patience was rewarded when monarch butterflies landed in their garden. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants, which have been disappearing due to the use of herbicides and unfavorable weather conditions. That means monarchs have fewer places to stop their migration journey between Canada and Mexico.

“We had probably about a dozen monarchs, and in years past, we never had any,” Dennee said. “So, we feel like we’ve definitely been a good station for the monarchs. Once they emerge from their chrysalis, they fly away. They know where to go. I don’t know how to go to Mexico, but they do. They follow the sun, and the kids have helped them in that.”

A monarch butterfly rests on a milkweed plant in the P.B. Smith Elementary School butterfly garden.
A monarch butterfly rests on a milkweed plant in the P.B. Smith Elementary School butterfly garden. VOA

Observations and discoveries

Eleven-year-old Amelia Jakum loves to observe nature, and gets excited for the discoveries she makes in the garden.

“We saw several swallowtails, caterpillars,” she said. “There is this really fat one that should be turning to chrysalis very soon. I’m quite surprised at how it can turn into chrysalis. And just how does its body form into a beautiful body of a butterfly?”

The kids’ excitement motivated them to learn more about butterflies, how they survive and what plants they feed on, particularly milkweeds.

“That’s the host for the butterfly, the monarch especially,” Dennee explained. “We planted from seeds the milkweed plant. Today, we didn’t see any monarchs, but we did see swallowtail caterpillars. They like dill and parsley. So, the kids learn that different kinds of butterflies are not competing for the food. They live harmoniously.”

Ten-year-old Keenan Whitney said learning about butterflies was an eye-opener.

“I only thought they pollinated one flower, for some reason. But I learned they pollinated a lot of flowers, and that if we didn’t have butterflies, we probably wouldn’t have any food. We wouldn’t be alive,” he said.

When kids become that aware of the interconnections between humans and nature, Dennee said, it means her club succeeded in its mission.

A Black Swallowtail caterpillar nibbles on parsley, a favorite meal.
A Black Swallowtail caterpillar nibbles on parsley, a favorite meal. VOA

“One of our missions for the Ecology Club is to be good stewards of the earth, and they can save this world,” she said. “They can say these words, but they don’t really understand until they actually do something.”

A gift to her old school

When the ecology club created its vegetable garden a couple of years ago, students started to learn how to plant and harvest a variety of herbs and vegetables. They give part of the produce to the school’s cafeteria and donated the rest to a local food bank.

Adding a new garden to attract butterflies was the brainchild of Keely Scott, a former student who has always been involved in school activities and clubs. Last year, the high school student needed a Girl Scout project. She went back to P.B. Smith and created a butterfly garden.

A male monarch butterfly displays the species' distinctive black and orange pattern.
A male monarch butterfly displays the species’ distinctive black and orange pattern. VOA

“We had a butterfly bush at my house,” she said. “We actually had to cut it down when we built our deck, and I missed it so much. I loved looking at the butterflies and to increase its population in our area. I thought I can fix that. So, I developed this idea, and Mrs. Dennee supported me 100 percent.”

School principal Linda Payne Smith said Scott not only presented her old school with a beautiful garden, she also served as a positive role model for its students.

Honeybees also visit the tropical milkweed plants
Honeybees also visit the tropical milkweed plants. VOA

Also read: Is gardening safe in polluted cities? New study says ‘Yes’

“We want the kids to take ownership of those gardens and come back like our senior Keely Scott has come back and created the butterfly garden,” she said. “We hope that their love for the environment started at P.B. Smith, that we have seen it evolve.” (VOA)