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Hydroponics Primer : River Valley edition : Saturday, 22 February 2020 22:39 EST : a service of The Public Press
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A New Hydroponics Primer

     by Jay Potter

Many gardeners are turning to hydroponics these days for a number of reasons: the unreliability of safety with our food supply; the embodied energy and costs associated with buying foods, especially out of season; newer and simpler systems on the market; and the fact that hydroponic gardening has moved out of the synthetic chemical age and into organic methods. Jay Potter of Green Thumb Hydro Gardens explains the basics and how simple it is to get started.

With summer rapidly approaching, and perhaps the rising costs of food and the recent concerns regarding food safety as a catalyst, there have been many new gardeners in the shop interested in soil-less, or hydroponic, gardening. Hydroponic gardening can be a fun and exciting way for gardeners of any skill level to enhance the joy we all get from cultivating plants. The purpose of this article is to first illustrate the advantages of growing in a hydroponic gardening system rather than in soil, to describe some different types of hydroponic gardening systems, and lastly to give some tips on how anyone can easily and inexpensively set up their very own soil-less garden.

The main reason gardeners choose a hydroponic system over soil is because the yield is greater and the plant growth is faster. In soil, plants expend energy building extensive root systems to search for nutrients to feed the plant. Because hydroponic plants are constantly supplied with the necessary nutrients to their root systems, they can use more energy on growth above the root zone.

Soil is also a perfect host to many parasites, fungus, and plant diseases. Soil plants also outgrow their pots requiring them to be re-potted. In general, hydroponic plants not only grow faster, but they also reach maturity faster.quiet zone

Feeding Your Plants

With only a couple of tools, one to check the ph of the water and another to check the amount of nutrients or fertilizer (also known as ppm or TDS) in the water, a gardener is able to ensure that the plants are being fed at their optimal levels. Feeding the plants water with a correct ph is imperative.

The ph range for plants such as tomatoes or peppers is 5.8 to 6.5. This is the range where the transfer of nutrients in the water to the root system can occur safely. Products can be obtained for raising, lowering, and measuring ph at your local gardening store.
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Once the ph is set in the proper range, it is time to feed the plant. Tomatoes and peppers are fed at a rate of 500 to 700 ppm during vegetative growth and 1,200 to 1,500 ppm during flower depending on the specific strain. Measuring the exact amount of nutrients is a key to maximizing a plant's potential. By monitoring the amount of nutrients in the water, a gardener can ensure that their garden is not being underfed, which causes deficiencies, or being fed too much, which causes the plants to stop growing. Most plants need different nutrients for vegetative growth and flowering. These, along with devices to measure the level of nutrients in the water are available at your local gardening store.

Choosing a Growing Medium

The next step is to choose a growing medium for the seedling. The three most popular soil-less mediums are coco, expanded clay pellets, and rock wool. Usually, a combination of mediums is used. For example, seeds may be started in plugs made of coco fiber and later transplanted into mesh pots filled with expanded clay pellets that are then placed into one of several types of hydroponic systems. The coco plugs are especially good for beginners because, unlike the rock wool, they are ph neutral and do not require conditioning prior to use. Much of choosing a growing medium becomes a matter of preference. However, ease of use and irreclaimability of the growing medium are things to consider.

Three Types of Hydroponic Systems

There are basically three different ways to set up a hydroponic gardening unit in different combinations and variations. The first unit is called aeroponics. An aeroponics unit is usually a long plastic tube or tray that has been slotted so that plants can be inserted. The tube is then connected to a reservoir with some tubing that has been attached to a submersible pump inside the reservoir. The pump sends nutrient solution from the reservoir to the end of the tube. As the nutrient solution is pumped into the tube, it runs past the root zone of the plants and returns to the reservoir to be pumped again.

The second hydroponic system is called ebb and flow, or flood and drain. Ebb and flow systems are characterized by a flat tray (or table) positioned over a reservoir. Again a submersible water pump is used to flood the table periodically and then the nutrient solution returns to the reservoir below the table. Rock wool is usually the preferred growing medium for ebb and flow units because it holds moisture better than the others. Because the gardener knows when they have set their flooding to occur, it is possible to check the ph and the ppm before the plants are fed. In contrast, the nutrient solution in the aeroponics unit is in constant contact with the root zone requiring the gardener to keep a close eye on the ph and ppm of the nutrient solution.

The third way to set up a hydroponic garden is called a deep water culture (DWC). DWC uses a specially designed bucket and lid to grow plants. The bucket is filled with nutrient solution and an air stone is placed in the bottom of the bucket. This provides the root zone with oxygen and keeps the water from becoming stagnant. The plant is then placed in a lid that fits right on a five gallon bucket and is supported with expanded clay pellets. The gardener must then monitor ph and ppm closely, and must also change the nutrient solution in the buckets every seven to ten days.

While all of these units have their pros and cons, the DWC is the easiest and most inexpensive for a beginning hydroponic gardener. Each individual bucket unit can be purchased for fewer than thirty dollars and sets up in only a couple of minutes. Having your plants in buckets has many advantages. The first and most important advantage is that plants will grow faster and the gardener will be rewarded with a larger yield. Other advantages include the ability to simply bring your system in off the patio on cold nights to prevent freezing and the ability to move the system throughout the day to maximize sunlight. Plants that are in the ground are a risk for frost, especially early and late in the growing season, and are limited to the amount of sun exposure they receive.

I have illustrated some of the advantages of growing in a hydroponic system, briefly described some hydroponic systems and growing mediums, and given some ideas on how to begin growing a hydroponic garden. There are many different methods for enacting the three major hydroponic systems and even more choices for the gardener concerning nutrients (including organic options), lighting, and ventilation. Please feel free to contact your local gardening store with any questions and happy gardening!

Green Thumb Hydro Gardens & Organic Supply, which supplied this article, has stores in Klamath Falls and Medford. Call them at 850-0017 or 779-8600.

Advantages of the Hydroponic Method

The greatest advantage of the hydroponic method is that crop yields are increased many times over those of conventional agriculture. It is this fact that makes hydroponics ideally suited to the space restrictions encountered in the average small home greenhouse.

The yield of tomatoes grown in soil is from 5 to 10 tons per acre. With hydroponics, the harvest is boosted to between 60 and 300 tons per acre! For cucumbers, the equivalent per-acre statistics are: 3 1/2 tons in soil, compared with 14 tons for hydroponics; for lettuce, 4 1/2 tons per acre in soil, versus 10 1/2 tons with hydroponics.

In addition, it is estimated that hydroponic methods require only 1/20 to 1/30 the amount of water required by conventional soil gardening, thus making it possible to grow large amounts of food in arid and semi-arid environments. This is because the solution is captured and saved to be recycled over and over again.

Another advantage is that hydroponics lends itself to automation -- a very important fact for people who can't always be around when their plants need attention. The technology for this is very simple and uses an insignificant amount of electrical energy.

Excerpted with permission from The Hydroponic Hot House: Low-Cost, High-Yield Greenhouse Gardening by James B. DeKorne. Available from Loompanics Unlimited, PO BOX 1197, Port Townsend, WA. 800-380-2230.

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