Hydroponics are becoming more popular with the renewed interest in home vegetable production. Home gardeners build small systems cheaply, out of readily available materials or purchase commercial systems that provide everything needed for a beginner. Either way, there is a learning curve as hydroponic gardening is very different from traditional soil culture.
The Soilless Advantage
Hydroponics does not rely on good soil. Plants can be grown in area with poor soils, high salt content or other contamination issues. Areas that would be considered useless for farming can be used for hydroponic crops. Plants are isolated from soil-borne diseases, weeds and pests, reducing the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides.
Plants can be grown closer together, producing more per acre, because there is no need to compete for nutrients. According to the Arizona Extension Service, a hydroponic greenhouse tomato culture produces an average of 300 tons per acre, while traditional cultural practices average 10 to 40 tons tomatoes per acre. Under greenhouse conditions, plants produce longer and successive crops can be grown year-round.
Water and Nutrient Conservation
While it may seem that hydroponics would use more water than traditional farming methods, the reverse is true. The roots of hydroponic plants are bathed in a nutrient solution and take only as much water and nutrients as needed, returning the remaining solution to be recycled. Hydroponic systems are built to limit water loss to evaporation and waste, making better use of the available resources. Nutrients are recycled, eliminating the use of excess fertilizer, contamination of soils and runoff.
Setting up an automated hydroponic system is expensive. The initial investment in pumps, timers and other systems required may take years to recoup. Because of this high initial investment, hydroponics are only economically feasible for high value crops. Small systems relying on hand watering can be made from recycled materials and are a good way to learn about hydroponics.
Long Learning Curve
Hydroponic systems require education and experience to run. Books are available and help can be found online or at a local hydroponics store, but problems that occur must be dealt with immediately to protect the plants. The Alabama Cooperative Extension recommends that home gardeners start small and learn about hydroponics before committing to a more elaborate system.
More Monitoring and Maintenance Requirements
Hydroponic systems require monitoring and maintenance of the equipment, temperatures, nutrient pH and dissolved solids. Maintenance is not time consuming, and automation does most of the work, but the system and plants need to be checked daily. A power interruption or pump failure can be deadly to the plants if not caught quickly.