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Growing Without Soil: Hydroponic Gardening

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Winter can be green with water gardens

By Joyce Ziembo, Master Gardener Volunteer Cornell Cooperative Extension Allegany County

In this ever-changing world, our population exploding, and our seasons becoming unpredictable, hydroponic gardens are becoming more popular over the years. They are grown both commercially and in our homes. Hydroponic comes from two Greek words “hydro”, meaning water, and “pono” meaning labor, it is a method used to grow plants in water.

This is another way to grow nutritious food and/or beautiful flowers without the use of valuable land (soil). Plants can be grown indoors, if desired, where heat and light can be regulated, and since the plants are not directly exposed to the environment, the use of pesticides can also be eliminated, or replaced by organic alternatives. 

Although, it is older than you may think, never proven, but archeologists believe that the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon from around 600 BCE were hydroponic gardens. But they are “new” to us, as scientists have been studying hydroponics more intensively in recent years.

How would you like to have fresh lettuce all winter long, or maybe your favorite herb to pick when needed?  How about a blooming flower sitting on your desk even in the coldest month of the year? Sounds like a dream, but it’s totally possible! Growing a small hydroponic garden in your home is easy and can be a fun hobby, especially during the gray and cold months. If you miss gardening when summer ends, this could fill that void; and just think, there is no weeding necessary!

For the novice gardener, kits are available for purchase, these kits usually contain what you would need for a startup. Based on what you order, they may include a growing container system, seeds for planting, artificial lighting, and a fertilizer with all the nutrients needed to prepare the water for the plants. It may seem a little costly in the beginning, but once you have the equipment it can be used many times for a variety of plants.

But even with one of these kits, hydroponic gardening does require some time and effort to learn about what is required to maintain a healthy crop. All plants need water, air, light, nutrients, and warmth, and getting everything in balance can sometimes be a challenge. Some examples of this would be the source of your water, or how much light the plant needs each day, etc.  Your plant will always show you if it is doing well or not. 

When you first try hydroponic growing, it is best to start with using purified water.  Tap water is filtered and treated with chemicals, this process can change the way the nutrients react with the plants.  As you become more familiar with the process, adjusting your tap water to the quality you need can sometimes be very simple.  Checking and adjusting the PH level in the water will also help with the nutrient intake to the root system.

Plants, in general, require seventeen nutrients, of which carbon, oxygen and nitrogen come naturally, all the other nutrients will come from the fertilizer that is added.  It is important to know how much to add for each type of plant that you wish to grow. Therefore, it is difficult to have a variety of fruits or vegetables in one container.

Since hydroponic gardens are moist and warm, they also encourage the growth of algae and bacteria.  It is always necessary to properly clean the equipment before and after each use.

When food is grown in water, the root system is thick and able to absorb the nutrients into the plant.  So, the food that we eat from hydroponic gardening is very nutritious, it is even being tested and used for astronauts who spend extended time in outer space.

Would you like to learn how to start your own hydroponics at home? The master gardeners of Allegany County will be holding a clinic on hydroponics in the Spring 2024.  Whether you are starting or improving your current hydroponic skills, this could mark the beginning of an exciting chapter in your gardening journey. Are you ready to give hydroponic gardening a try? Stay tuned to the gardening events from Cornell Cooperative Extension Allegany

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