Hydroponic Farming is gaining momentum worldwide. Why? Many countries in the world do not have optimum conditions or resources to grow food like insufficient landmass for agriculture, infertile soil, harsh climatic conditions, etc. Hydroponic farming or hydroponics comes as a solution to overcome all these hurdles and feed the population.
Israel is one of the countries in the world that has adopted hydroponic farming on a large scale. One should definitely have a look a the scale at which they have deployed the hydroponic farming technology. It is mesmerizing!
Hydroponics is a boon for countries that face drought conditions very frequently.
The history of Hydroponics dates back to 1600 A.D. when our ancestors became curious about the composition of plants. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are examples of hydroponic systems from the past.
So now we have heard the term “Hydroponic Farming“. But what is it? And is it really possible to start a hydroponics system of your own? What are the different technologies in use to grow a hydroponic plant? What all you need to start the farm? This article will help you answer all these questions. Read the full article to discover the details and gain a working knowledge of hydroponics technology.
What is Hydroponic Farming or Hydro Farming?
Hydroponic Farming is a method of growing plants without soil. It is also called soilless farming, hydro farming, water gardening, hydroponic agriculture, etc. In the hydroponic system of farming, the roots of the plant are submerged in a liquid nutrient solution instead of soil. The nutrient solution consists of all the essential elements or substances required for the growth of the plant.
Hydroponics literally mean feeding while irrigating the plant.
In hydroponic agriculture, we recreate or replicate the natural environment/habitat for the plant artificially. In a nutshell, we basically replicate nature for the plant.
Therefore, for you to be a successful hydroponic farmer/gardener, you need to understand in detail what a plant needs in its entire lifecycle.
However, please keep in mind that you cannot alter the genetic composition of a plant. If a tomato variety is tasteless, it will remain tasteless. Hydroponics can help you grow the plant faster and give a better yield. But it cannot alter the natural composition of a plant. Therefore, choosing a high quality seed for starting your hydroponic system is very important.
Like a human, a plant has different requirements of nutrients at different stages of growth. For eg, during the development of leaves, nitrogen is required in abundance. During the flowering stage, phosphorous is required in large quantities.
Understand Plant Basics: Factors Affecting Plant Growth in Hydroponic Farming
There are various factors that affect a plant’s growth. We cannot control all of them. But we can control the major ones which are most important for hydroponic farming. But what are those? Let us have a look:
- Temperature of environment and growing media
- Light conditions
- Nutrient concentration ( as per the growth lifecycle)
- pH of growing media
- Humidity level of the surrounding
- Oxygen concentration of the growing media
- Cabon dioxide levels
- Diseases and pests
A plant will always give you the output in proportion to what you feed the plant. So remember:
WHAT GOES IN, COMES OUT!
Let us understand each of the above factors in some detail.
Every plant/crop has its own temperature requirements. Some can survive extreme hot/cold weathers while others cannot.
Controlling the temperature of water is thus very important in hydroponic farming.
If the temperature of the growing media/water is too high, the roots of the plant are unable to absorb the nutrients from water.
At the same time, high temperatures reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen in water resulting in fungi attack and root rot.
In Hydroponics, the temperature is controlled by artificial chillers/heaters to maintain the optimum temperature for plant growth.
If you do not want to spend your money on chillers/heaters for hydroponics, then you must choose a crop as per the season in your region.
Plants need light to produce food by a process called Photosynthesis. In the absence of light, plant stretches itself towards the source of light and hence undergoes a stunted growth. Eventually it dies if not provided with sufficient light exposure.
Different plants have varying need for light. Some require full sun, some need partial sun while others can survive in shade.
In Hydroponics, the exposure can be provided in 2 ways:
- Natural sunlight
- Artificial grow lights
In most hydroponic systems, you will find grow lights being used to fulfill the sunlight requirement of plants. This is because growers wish to control the environment in which the plants grow. If the Hydroponic setup is done in natural light, then growers lose some control over the environment and hence the output of the plant cannot be measured accurately. Therefore they use artificial grow lights.
However, you can grow hydroponic plants in natural light as well.
Nutrients For Hydroponic Farming
Every plant has its own need of essential nutrients for it to remain healthy and produce an abundant crop. The deficiency of these nutrients leads to unbalanced plant growth.
In Hydroponics, these nutrients are mixed in a TDS and pH balanced water solution in liquid form. These nutrients are divided into 2 types:
- Micro Nutrients
Macronutrients are the ones that are required by plants in abundance for their growth while micronutrients are required in small quantities.
To know more about the changes in nutrient requirements with the growth cycle of a plant, please read this article.
You can also prepare your own nutrients at home. There are many YouTube videos available on this topic.
What is the use of adding nutrients when your plan cannot absorb them from the nutrient solution? Isn’t it? The pH of the nutrient solution/soil or in other words its acidity affects the absorption of nutrients by the plants.
A pH of 7 ( like drinking water) is considered neutral. Anything below 7 is acidic and above 7 is alkaline in nature.
A pH value ranges between 0-14. A solution with pH 14 is highly alkaline and with a pH of 0 is highly acidic.
It takes some time for the pH of a freshly prepared solution to stabilize.
For your hydroponic systems, you should strive to keep the pH between 6 to 6.5 (although different plants have different requirements). This range is suitable for most of the plants. This is because every nutritional element like phosphorus, nitrogen, etc. have a different absorption rate at different pH levels. The absorption for most of the elements is high in this range of pH.
You should replace your hydroponic solution every 2 to 2.5 weeks to maintain a healthy hydroponic system.
In hydroponic farming, it is very important to maintain proper humidity levels around the root system of a plant.
Low humidity levels will lead to dehydration in plants and ultimately root dieback.
Especially in an NFT system, when the plants begin to grow, the formation of a large root system may cause obstruction in water flow leading to drying out of roots.
Hydroponic farming is all about keeping the roots of the plant healthy. And oxygen plays an important role in this process. Absence or lack of oxygen in the root area leads to a condition known as asphyxiation which causes root rot.
Once the root of a plant dies or rots, it is next to impossible to save the plant. Root rot or damage in turn leads to damage to upper part (above the soil) of the plant like branches, flowers, fruits, foliage, etc.
Aeroponics is one method of hydroponic farming which demonstrates the importance of oxygen. You will learn more about Aeroponics in this article in the subsequent sections.
Carbon-Dioxide Levels (CO2)
Plants need carbon-dioxide for respiration and photosynthesis process.
In photosynthesis process, plants combine water and CO2 in the presence of sunlight to produce oxygen and food for the plant.
Since hydroponic system is an enclosed setup, we need to provide CO2 artificially to plants in this method of growing plants.
Diseases and Pests
Hydroponic plants rarely come in contact with common soil-borne diseases. However there are some factors that you must know and can lead to health degradation of your hydroponic plants:
Algae Development on roots in hydroponic farming:
When roots are exposed to light, algae development starts. Light promotes algae development.
Algae competes with the main plant for light, oxygen, nutrients and hence depleting the solution of nutrients meant for main plant. It surrounds the root and ultimately leads to rotting of the root.
Hence, when setting up hydroponic systems, ensure that the container you use for water storage is opaque in nature to contain or prevent algae growth. Avoid using transparent tubes/containers.
Colors such as dark green, black or dark blue will be best for containers.
Hydroponic Systems/ Technologies
Any hydroponic technology should be able to fulfil 3 requirements:
- Should not lead to dehydration and crop failure in case of power outage.
- Should be able to provide balanced nutrition and water supply to plants.
- Should facilitate a high gas exchange between roots and nutrient solution.
Hydroponic farming at home can be done using various technologies. These technologies can be broadly classified into 2 types:
- Active hydroponic systems
- Passive hydroponic systems
Active Hydroponic Systems
In these type of hydroponic farming systems, the liquid nutrient solution is continuously circulated in the system facilitating enhanced gas exchange between roots and the environment.
A water pump is required to circulate the nutrient solution. However an air pump may or may not be necessary.
Following hydroponic farming technologies fall under active hydroponics:
- Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)
- Ebb & Flow
- Drip Hydroponics
Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)
In this method of hydroponics, a tube system is created with a water pump and a reservoir to collect and circulate the water through the system.
In NFT, the only issue is that once the roots grow and become large, they may obstruct the water flow and lead to dehydration of the plants.
Ebb & Flow Method
This method is also called as Flood and Drain method. There are 4 major components of this method.
- Plant Tray
- Water Reservoir
- Water Pump
- Drain pipes
As shown in the image above, in this method the plant tray is flooded with nutrient rich water. Water solution then drains out the plant tray through drain pipes giving plant roots some time to oxygenate before flooding again.
A water pump connected with a timer pumps the water from the reservoir to the plant tray periodically.
In this method, the nutrient solution is pumped by a water pump and is allowed to drip over the substrate drop by drop. This allows more time for roots to exchange oxygen. Also, water evaporation is reduced.
Passive Hydroponic Systems
In passive hydroponic systems, the roots of the plant are suspended in stagnant water solution or they absorb the nutrients through capillary action.
In general, you would need an air pump to maintain the dissolved oxygen levels in the nutrient solution.
Following hydroponic farming technologies fall under passive hydroponics:
- Deep Water Culture (DWC)
- Wick System
- Aeroponics or vertical hydroponics
Deep Water Culture (DWC)
In this method of hydroponic farming, the plant roots are suspended in stagnant nutrient solution and water is aerated by air pump and air stones as shown in the figure above.
In this system, a wick made of porous material is dipped into nutrient solution and other end of the wick is inserted into hydroponic media or substrate. Water moves using capillary action to the roots of the plant.
Aeroponics or Vertical Hydroponic Farming
Aeroponics is a method of Hydroponics in which the roots of the plant are suspended mid-way into the air. A humidity level of 100% is maintained in the environment surrounding the roots.
Nutrient solution is sprayed through spray nozzles on the plant roots suspended in the air periodically.
What All You Need to have to do Hydroponic Farming At Home?
To be able to set up a Hydroponic System at home, you need to purchase a few things which are listed below:
Required to start seeds and seedlings. I recommond using either rock-wool or coco-coir for a start.
To provide support to plant
Basic system in which nutrient solution will be kept
To provide required nutrients to plants
To measure acidity of nutrient solution
To adjust acidity of pH solution
To measure electrical conductivity of solution
To pump air into nutrient solution
To diffuse air into nutrient solution
Alternate to sunlight
To start your desired plant
To measure nutrient solution
Note on Hydroponic Medium
There are more than a hundred materials that can be used as a hydroponic medium like coco-coir, rock-wool, perlite, LECA, molder starter sponge, etc. A good medium should have the ability to hold approximately equal concentrations of air and water. The pH of the growing medium, cost, and lifespan are other factors to consider when selecting a hydroponic growing medium.
Hydroponic System Setup Cost
Starting a hydroponic farm is an expensive affair at the initial stages. But this is like a one time investment you have do. You can normally achieve a break-even point in 2 to 3 years of operations if done right.
For home growers, you can setup the hydroponics starting with INR 5000 – INR 6000 in India.
For commercial growers, the cost will be in the range described below depending on the technology you employ for hydroponic system:
- Poly-house with Automation: INR 890 – INR 900 per sq. m. ( cocopeat trough systems)
- Poly-house with Automation: INR 4500 per sq. m. (NFT systems)
- In-house hydroponic farming: INR 3500 per sq. m.
Note: Above costs are indicative and may vary from place to place.
Is Hydroponic Farming Expensive?
It is true that the initial setup cost (one-time cost) for a Hydroponic Garden is high, however, it is offset by the crop yield and health benefits it offers. It is worth trying.
Which Plants Can be Grown Using Hydroponic Systems?
Hydroponic farming is most suitable for growing plants with shallow root systems like tomatoes, micro-greens (lettuce, coriander), strawberries, cabbage etc.
You can also grow flowers by using Hydroponics. However, it is not suitable for growing large trees & crops like wheat, rice, etc.
Benefits of Hydroponic Farming
Hydroponic method is very popular in Israel where there is scarcity of resources (water & land) to grow food for the entire population. Some of the most important benefits are:
- Water usage reduces by 90% when grown hydroponically as against soil-grown plants.
- One can grow 4x times more crops from a given piece of land in comparison to soil-grown crops. Hence the yield of hydroponic farming is high.
- You can even use your balcony, terrace to grow your own food.
- Since you grow your own food, it is free from harmful pesticides and insecticides.
- Plants are rarely susceptible to any soil-borne disease or infection.
- Plants are generally very healthy.
- Crops can be grown together in close proximity without depriving the neighbor plant of essential nutrients.
- No fear of ground flooding or drought.
- No cost of soil preparation, pesticides, or fungicides.
- Plants do not have to spend energy in the search for water and nutrients in the depths of soil. All the energy is concentrated towards producing foliage, flowers, and fruits.
To give you a glimpse of the increase in yield, please see the comparison table below:
Traditional Farming (Soil) Yield (per acre)
Hydroponic Farming Yield (per acre)
8 to 9 tons
350 to 400 tons
9 to 10 tons
9 to 10 tons
110 to 130 tons
Is Hydroponics bad?
Many people around the world have an opinion that hydroponic farming is a kind of chemical farming.
However, this is not true. A plant does not differentiate between whether it gets nutrients from artificial systems or naturally. In whichever form the essential nutrients are available in soil/nutrient solution, a plant’s root will absorb the nutrient in its pure elemental form.
Hence, to say that Hydroponics is bad is not right.
How Do You Start a Hydroponic Farm?
There are 3 main aspects of starting hydroponic farming:
- Choose or setup a correct system based on the type of crop you plan to grow.
- Control the process with precision. You must gain good knowledge of all the aspects of soilless farming before jumping into hydroponics on a large scale.
- You must prepare a strong business plan. This includes searching for the market, analyzing market needs of the target market and preparing a go-to-market strategy along with logistics an associated costs.
You may consider consulting experts or availing commercial hydroponic services to set-up the hydroponic system.
Hydroponic Farming Training in India
There are many small and large setups and organizations who provide training and commercial services in India for setting up hydroponic farms in India. Some of the them are listed below:
There are many other sources of training which you can find on internet and Youtube.
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