What is Hydroponics and How Much Do Hydroponic Systems Cost?
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What is Hydroponics?
If you’re into gardening or growing various crops and plants, you’ve likely heard of hydroponics. Often, plants grown through hydroponics have a reputation for being especially good in terms of taste and other qualities. But what is hydroponics?
When plants are grown with hydroponics, typically no soil is involved. If you drive by a large crop field, you’ll see wheat, corn, and other crops planted in soil. Yet visit a hydroponic facility and you may not come across a spec of dirt.
So how can plants grow without soil? Horticulturists substitute other things for soil, including water, air, nutrients, growth mediums, and more.
“Some people use hydroponic farming as a gateway to start a farm business while others use it to feed their household with fresh, home-grown produce. ”
The Benefits of Hydroponics
If you’ve ever seen a hydroponics setup, they often look like something you might see in a futuristic sci-fi movie. So why bother with hydroponics when humanity has successfully used soil-based agriculture for thousands of years?
Quite simply, hydroponic systems provide a number of benefits. That said, some plants, including many vining plants, are best left to soil.
Hydroponics Produces Healthier Plants
When it comes to growing plants, quality is often just as important, if not more important, than quantity. Plants grown hydroponically are often more healthy than plants grown through traditional cultivation methods. Hydroponic plants may offer better taste, more exquisite looks, and otherwise be of higher quality.
Often, hydroponic plants are luxury items. If you head to a high-end florist, you might find hydroponic flowers, including peace lilies, snapdragons, and orchids, that offer exceptionally beautiful colors and looks
The same is true with edible plants. If you’re looking for the best herbs and spices, you might turn to hydroponic plants.
As for quantity, hydroponic systems often deliver higher yields of healthy plants than traditional cultivation methods.
Easy for Indoor Growing
Hydroponics is especially useful for growing plants indoors. If you want to plant plants in soil, you need a lot of ground space. Vast crop fields, local orchards for growing apples, and grape vineyards are some of the many places you’ll find soil-planted crops.
Hydroponic plants are typically but not always grown inside. Often, you can design vertical spaces that allow you to grow a lot of plants, top to bottom, with minimum floor space. This allows horticulturalists to maximize how much they can grow inside.
Growing plants indoors has many benefits itself. Horticulturalists can control temperature, lighting, and other factors, which can increase both the quality and quantity of the plants grown.
What are the types of hydroponics?
There are six main types of hydroponic systems, and each has unique pros and cons. Further, some crops may grow better with certain hydroponic systems than others. Before choosing a hydroponic system, you should do your research. We’ll help you get started by covering the six most common hydroponic systems and the pros and cons for each.
The Wick Hydroponic System
Wicking systems are perhaps the most basic type of hydroponic system and they have been in use for many thousands of years. Wicking is also a passive system, so you don’t need air or water pumps. This also means no electricity, which can be a huge plus.
With this system, the plants are placed in an absorbent growth medium (i.e. coco coir or vermiculite). Then an absorbent wick, perhaps made of nylon, is placed in a nutrient solution.
Wick systems are quite hands-off when set up correctly and are great for newer horticulturalists. Unfortunately, wick hydroponic solutions are not good with larger plants, and if set up incorrectly, your plants could quickly perish. Wick systems may also not produce as great of yields or as high quality of plants as other systems.
Perhaps the most high-tech hydroponic system, aeroponic systems involve plants suspended in the air. A misting zone is set up and the roots are sprayed with a nutrient solution on a regular, perhaps constant basis.
Some tests have shown aeroponics systems to be the fastest in terms of growing plants, perhaps because plants can get easy access to air. These systems are expensive and often require more work to set up. If the spray nozzles jam or the power goes out, plants could quickly die.
Deep Water Culture Hydroponic Systems
Often referred to simply as DWC, deep water culture systems are among the easiest hydroponic systems to set up and use. With this system, you first set up a reservoir of nutrient solutions and then suspend plant roots directly into the solution.
You’ll need to aerate the water, which means setting up an air pump with an air stone to create bubbles. If you don’t aerate the water, your plants could drown at the roots and die.
You can set up DWC hydroponic systems with buckets and other basic tools, making them quite affordable. Because access to air and nutrients is practically unlimited (from the plant’s perspective), these systems often encourage excellent, high-yield growth.
Deep Water Culture hydroponic systems require electricity and if you don’t monitor the system (ensuring good aeration, for example) your plants could perish. DWC systems often struggle with large plants and also plants with long growing periods. However, they are inexpensive and reduce waste.
Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) Systems
Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) Systems feature a primary reservoir where nutrients are stored and then pumped into a network of channels that pass the plant roots. At the end of the channels, the nutrient solution is dumped back into the reservoir and thus recycled. Roots are not submerged.
Typically, a growing medium is not used and plants are instead supported by small plastic baskets. These systems minimize waste, but if pumps fail or the electricity goes out, your plants could quickly die. Further, roots can clog channels.
Ebb and Flow Systems
Sometimes called flood and drain, ebb and flow systems use large beds made out of growth mediums. The growth bed is then flooded but a drain ensures that the nutrient solution does not pass a specified point. A pump is set up on a timer and will shut off at the allotted time.
These systems are efficient and flexible. They can be a bit trickier to set up and you’ll need a lot of growth medium. If a pump fails or the drain clogs, problems will quickly pile up.
Drip Systems are perhaps the most common systems for commercial growers, although they’re sometimes considered overkill for hobbyists. A drip line is set up, typically at the base of the plant. Then, a pump pumps nutrient solution through the line, which drips out and feeds into the plant. Excess solution can be collected and pumped back through the system.
These systems are highly customizable and costs often go down (per plant) as you increase scale. Recirculating systems suffer from fluctuating pH and nutrient levels, while those that don’t recirculate produce a lot of waste.
How Much Does Hydroponics Cost?
There are three tiers of hydroponics systems, with set up and maintenance costs varying greatly.
Low Tech: These systems cost between $50 to $200 for smaller systems and scale accordingly. Often, you can use supplies from around your house, such as buckets and PVC piping.
Mid Tech: These systems typically feature lighting and nutrient solution control (i.e. basic pumps). Costs for mid-tech hydroponic systems usually start around $300 for a smaller unit, although costs can hit $1,000 or more. As you scale, you may save on some features (such as lighting).
High Tech: These systems use advanced nutrient delivery systems, highly customized lighting, and other advanced features. Usually, these systems are reserved for commercial operations or people with a lot of cash to burn. High tech hydroponics systems cost tens of thousands of dollars to set up. Large operations can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Kits: You can also buy kits and closets that contain many of the components you need to quickly set up a compact hydroponics growing system. Some hydroponic kits are small and can fit on your counter, others are the size of large closets. Costs vary between a few hundred to several thousand dollars.
Conclusion: Hydroponics Offers Many Benefits
We’ve covered a lot, including what is hydroponics, the six most common types of systems, how much does hydroponics cost, the benefits and drawbacks of individual systems, and why people use hydroponics.
If you’ve got the money and are serious about growing crops, hydroponics is arguably the way to go. Many commercial operations have turned a profit even after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on hydroponics systems. Many hobby horticulturalists have likewise found success with hydroponics. No matter your ambitions, these systems can help you grow high-yield, high-quality crops.