Hooked on Hydroponics
The following is a guest post from HydroPops, Omniwhore's dad. He is an expert in hydroponic gardening, and we at the Ethicurean are lucky that he is willing to share his knowledge with us. He made some excellent videos several years ago teaching people how to make their own systems -- which he sold the rights to so he can no longer benefit directly from me mentioning them. However, they are awesome, so check them out.
My love affair with hydroponic gardening began in the 1960’s. I have grown everything from very select “weeds” to beautiful, plump tomatoes, cantaloupe, squash, etc. The versatility of this form of plant growth system remains a constant source of amazement to me; from the many types of chemically-inert growth media that can be used to the methods of nutrient delivery and the growth enhancement methods available.
I was asked by my sweet daughter (Omniwhore) to relate soiless gardening experiences to Ethicurean readers. This topic came about during her visit last August, when we were laughing about a question she had asked me when she was five years old that ended my first indoor gardening career:
“Daddy, why are there never any tomatoes on those tomato plants?”
Well, the plants were removed immediately, nutrient containers dumped, aluminum foil removed from the walls, lights from the ceiling and gravel returned to the south side of the house. But, the interest in soiless gardening remained.
I have been associated with farming nearly all my life; my father was a sharecropper who, despite many failures, could not get farming out of his system. Our farming experiences were during a time when crop rotation and organic amendments were considered valueless. My father later stopped the actual farming endeavors and started a very successful agricultural supply company. What did we supply? Fertilizer, insecticides, chemicals of many descriptions, as well as several different kinds of tools to make sure the chemicals are mixed deep into the soil. This was all very normal to me but I couldn’t help wondering why it took so much fertilizer to make the soil productive. And, of course, we would later learn that over use of fertilizers presents a pollution problem to our ground water supplies.
During all our share-cropping time I had several different farming related jobs: Irrigator, cultivator, fertilizer spreader operator, ditch sprayer (diesel oil), insecticide applier, cotton picker, cotton gin operator, potato seeder and picker, and many more. My two worst jobs were:
This was Arizona and most of the irrigation ditches were dirt and covered with grass and weeds which offered opposition to water flow; they would have to be removed. The weeds seemed to require absolutely no fertilizer to grow profusely. I used to wonder about that. The work-day temperature was usually 100 plus degrees and I had to wear a WW2 rubber gas mask (which I had to remove occasionally to prevent heat-stroke and/or suffocation) to keep the diesel oil off of my face and out of my lungs. Needless to say, because of frequent removal, my fair skin received oil spray and became blistered - the resulting pain was intense.
Years later, reminiscing his past farming experiences, my father explained (in front of me and my two brothers), “Hey, when I wanted to get rid of someone – I didn’t have to fire them, I’d just put them on the weed sprayer – they would quit in no time!”
I think that’s the only time I’ve ever called my father an asshole...
When the airplane sprayed insecticide on the crops a person with a flag was needed to pace-off and mark the spot for the return spray path. No matter how fast one moved – it was impossible to get out of the way of the falling insecticide. I had the distinct feeling that the pilot did quite a lot of Flagger spraying on purpose.
DDT was the most popular in those days. Actually, I made a valuable discovery performing that job; I found that if I submerged my dirty hands in DDT, and wiped them off with a towel, they became perfectly clean! Several years later, after I became an electrician, I discovered the same cleaning action occurred when submerging my bare hands in transformer oil containing Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs).
Another thing; we always had a couple of gallons of DDT around the house and a several of those very nifty, hand-held DDT sprayers. My brothers and I used to have really fun DDT fights! Sometimes we would all spray our little sister! I don’t know if the spraying had any effect, but she grew up to be really weird. Hey, farmers need to have fun too…
So, what about hydroponics? Take a look at a few hydroponic gardens and systems I put together a few years ago then I’ll carry on.
Several years after the “tomato plant” experience I decided to give it another try. I immediately discovered that the Hydroponic gardening process had been vastly improved. There were now many types of inert materials for plant support, many types of nutrient solutions and amendments, and there were now highly profitable commercial applications.
I believe that Hydroponic plant growth can be the closest to organic growth as possible. I’ll explain why. First, here’s the Organic Trade Association's (OTA) definition of Organic Growth:
"Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.
‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.
Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water.
Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people."
Organic farming is mostly accomplished in an outdoor, soil environment. Both air and soil contain impurities and possible contaminates that cannot be easily removed. If fact, it would be impossible to sterilize even a one acre area of farm land. That is why the next to last short paragraph in the OTA definition exists; “methods are used to minimize….”
There are essentially five factors to plant growth: Air, Light, Water, Root Support and Minerals.
In soil plant production, the 5 factors are introduced by light (and heat) from the sun, certain elements (Carbon Dioxide and Oxygen) from the air, dissolved minerals (major and trace) from a combination of earth, water and mineral products. Earth serves as the plant’s root support system.
Let me inject here, before I irritate Mother Nature and piss off Organic Farmers; I purchase organically grown food and use organic methods on my outdoor garden. It’s really the best way as far as I am concerned. I admit that I sometimes add a tad of Bloom Fish Fertilizer which isn’t totally organic – but, for the most part, I use organic methods. I use composted steer manure, et al. I also enjoy seeing and visiting areas of natural plant growth. Living in the Northwest I see the wonders of nature daily; the old-growth forest whose trees sustain themselves through natural moisture and composting. It’s really a perfect example of how little moisture and nutrition it takes to maintain plant growth. However, losing too much moisture or nutrition will doom the plants, as I've learned.
It’s easy to see that commercial soil farming is fairly inefficient; fertilizer is placed around the plant and water is also dumped around the plant to saturate the roots and dissolve and transport the fertilizer to them. Eventually, the water leaches (along with the fertilizer) into the soil – well past the root system. In reality, plants require very small amounts of essential (major and trace) elements for proper growth. In almost every instance, especially with chemical application, a far greater amount of fertilizer is applied than required. In both cases, over-application can eventually lead to ground water contamination.
Let me clarify here however, that adding natural, organic amendments to the soil may unbalance the mineral composition to a slight degree but is certainly a much better, healthier option than adding commercial fertilizers. So, here are two obvious disadvantages to soil gardening: Too much fertilizer is used and water is wasted by using only once. And, of course, a number three disadvantage may be that the soil (root support) and water supplies are very difficult to sterilize.
Hydroponic farming eliminates these problems. Root support media can be chemically inert and sterile, water and minerals are constantly recycled, reducing water and mineral waste exponentially, and the fertilizer does not leach into the ground. Actually, the expended nutrient solution (water and minerals) can be purified and reused many times!
Hydroponic Gardening defined
Just the word Hydroponic is a basic Greek description of the process: hydro = water and ponos = work. So, as the word indicates, it is the water that does the “work” of transporting nutrition (the nutrient solution) to the plant’s roots. This process is made really easy by using a chemically inert material to support the plant while a nutrient solution is sprayed, dripped or flooded through the plant’s roots. The inert material is called the “Growth Medium or Media” and can easily be sterilized (as can the nutrient solution) to minimize the possibility of containing Pathogens or disease causing organisms. So, here’s basically what is needed to start your very own (and very small) hydroponic farm: An inert container (plastic works best) of inert growth media, a container of nutrient solution (minerals and water), air, light and adequate heat. And, of course, don’t forget the plant and a method to deliver the nutrient solution. Ok, I know that is really simplified; you also need to know what the plant requires in the way of minerals, light, heat and feeding frequency, etc. Fortunately, all these items are adequately documented and fairly easy to find.
As mentioned, the Growth Media should be sterile and chemically inert. There are several available including things like common pea gravel, Clay Aggregate, Rock Wool, Pearlite, Vermiculite and others. My favorites are; Rock Wool and Clay Aggregate – Rock Wool cubes for starting the plant or cutting and Clay Aggregate to support for the entire growth cycle. The nice thing about the aggregate is that it is heavy enough to support large plants and it can be cleaned, sterilized and reused. It also provides the plant’s roots with a high degree of aeration which is very important to optimum plant development.
The Nutrient Solution is made up of water and minerals that the specific plant requires. The nice thing about the hydroponic process is that you have maximum control of all facets of the process including the nutrient solution. You find out what the plant needs for each stage of growth (vegetative, blossoming and fruiting stages) add those pure minerals (in the right amount) to clean, pure water and transport the solution to the plant roots. The mineral content, cleanliness and pH of the solution is then monitored and corrected as needed. Also very important; the nutrient solution must be adequately aerated. If oxygen is not constantly added to the solution it soon begins to look like a swamp and, just as important, the roots need oxygen as well. The way I accomplish this is to add a small aquarium pump and install a bubbler in the nutrient tank. Cheap and easy – just like me.
So here’s the Organic aspect: There are several proven organic nutrients for hydroponics. I’ve used a few including Earth Juice, Super Guano, and others. They are not totally dissolved but are certified organic and they work, but my question is – why use them?
I like how my Hydroponics Guru, Ed Muckle, explains; “The fact is that, no matter how many times it goes through the cow, calcium is calcium, identical to that taken from a limestone cliff.” So, by combining pure elements (minerals) into fertilizer we can make up a very close to precise formulation per plant type. Using this procedure provides plants with just what they need (which, as mentioned, are very small amounts) and eliminates the “More is Better” procedure that many commercial farmers tend to use.
In summary, Hydroponic produce can be grown in a very pure environment. Generally, large scale Hydro-farming is accomplished in very large greenhouses; the atmosphere can easily be controlled, for example; air can be cooled/heated and filtered or electro-statically precipitated to insure it arrives to the plants at the proper temperature and as insect and contaminate free as possible. Pure, clean, temperature controlled water and minerals are used, and constantly monitored, and the plants are grown in a disease and pathogens free media. So, how in the hell can you beat them tomatoes?!
The “purity” aspect varies in both hydroponic and organic applications with each grower. Doing it yourself is the only way you will know, with reasonable accuracy, the quality of the end product. My Ethicurean friends have convinced me to use organic products and, most important, to select small, reputable growers.
If interested in more hydroponics info, email me at
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