How Do Hydroponics Work? (A Beginner's Guide)

Look: 

If you're interested in agriculture at all, you likely have heard of "hydroponics".

Yet you may still be wondering: 

"What is hydroponic growing, and how does it work?" 

Or Maybe: 

"What are the main differences between hydroponic farming and normal farming?" 

Or Maybe Even: 

"Can I do it on a small scale myself?"

How do hydroponics work (A beginner's guide)

Well:

All of these answers and more are discussed in this Beginner's Guide To How Hydroponics Works.

But here's the most important part:

At the end of this article, you should have enough knowledge to start planning your own, personal hydroponic mini-farm.

So let's get started...

What is hydroponic farming? 

Many people think that hydroponic farming is sticking seeds in water and letting them grow.

But these people have it all wrong.

Let me explain: 

The definition of hydroponic growing is:

"The method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent."

What does this mean, in plain english?

Hydroponics are never plants just growing in a container of water.

Now, here's the key:
 
The water continually circulates, instead of forming a stagnant pool.

Also, only the roots are exposed.

This is often accomplished by using a tank and a pump (image below).

An example of Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) Hydroponic System: Source

Now: 

This likely isn't exactly what you originally had in mind when you heard about hydroponics.

Hydroponic growing systems can be complicated to design and operate.

So if you are trying to truly understand hydroponics, where do you start? 

To truly understand hydroponics, let's start at the very beginning.

Then we will cover: 

- Pros and Cons
- Real Life Examples
- A More Detailed Breakdown of Hydroponic System Design

Keep on reading below!

What is the history of hydroponic farming? 

Now,

You may be shocked to hear this, but: 

The precursors of hydroponic farms date back to prehistoric ages.

The first hydroponic growing techniques were developed by the ancient Mesopotamians in 600 BCE
the first hydroponic growing techniques were developed by the ancient Mesopotamians around 600 BCE
(source)

How long ago? 

Before the common era. Like, 600 BCE. 

Yes...seriously.

Now, what's the back story on this? 

King Nebuchadnezzar built the "hanging gardens" of Babylon for queen, Amyitis. 

According to legend, she grew up in a mountainous area and so the King wanted to expose Amyitis to the beauty of agriculture.

How did this system actually work? 

Technically the water was carried in buckets by slaves instead of with a pump. 

Plus, one other technicality to keep in mind: 

The system did use irrigated soil so was not technically hydroponic.

But, despite this fact: 

Agricultural historians conclude it is the earliest known example of a precursor to true hydroponic techniques.

Now...

We've covered so far: 
1) the definition of hydroponics
2) the history of hydroponics

But you're also likely curious: 

"What are the pro's and con's of hydroponic farming?"

Or:

"What are current examples of large scale hydroponic farms?"

Or: 

"How does hydroponic farming actually work (step-by-step)?"

Well you're in luck.

Why? 

We are covering all of those parts next...

Pro's and Con's of Hydroponic Farming

Now, here's the skinny: 

Many experts have actually highlighted the disadvantages of hydroponics. 

But: 

If you can do it the right way, you can grow some serious vegetable volume...

So let's walk through the upside and downside, step-by-step: 

Here are common criticisms, according to The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science (IFAS)

Cons:

- High Upfront Cost: Hydroponics are expensive to set up compared to conventional farming style.

- Restricted Growing Options:  Some types of produce are not ideal for hydroponics, particularly heavy plants with tall stalks.

For example: you won't be able to grow large hedges or trees hydroponically! 

- Nutrient Solution "Links" All Plants: In a soil-based system, soil can act as a temporary buffer between plants. If one plant is diseased, the others have the soil to separate plants.

This isn't the case with hydroponics. If the nutrient content in a hydroponic solution is not correct or a disease enters the solution, the entire crop could be destroyed.

Now: 

there's also tons of benefits to hydroponic growing, namely (also via IFAS): 

Pros:

- More efficient harvesting: 
Although this is more important with increasing scale, harvesting in a hydroponic system is typically less expensive than harvesting conventionally

- Less Pests: Growing crops off the ground results in a cleaner crop with less pests.

- Space: Less space is required for growing.

- Water: Less water is required.

Now: 

We've covered the pros and cons.

So let's move onto current examples of hydroponic farms...

A Current Example of a Hydroponic Farm

Clearwater Organic Farms
Clearwater Organic Farms Hydroponic Aerial Overview
Clearwater Organic Farms Hydroponic Aerial Overview
Source

Clearwater Organic Farms in Rochester, New York, USA is a brand new, still under-construction, state of the art 15-acre hydroponic farm.

According to part-owner of Clearwater Organic, Alex Wasilov, (via this Rocherfirst.com article): 

"Clearwater Organic Farms has created a controlled environment organic hydroponic greenhouse system that grows baby leaf vegetables,"

The farm will employ over 100 people upon completion in 2017/2018. Over 92 million consumers will be within a 4 hour truck drive of Clearwater.

"We plan to grow baby leaf vegetables here in Rochester. Our facility phase one will be about 15 acres, under glass, and we hope to double that size within the next three to five years."

Still interested to learn more about Clearwater? 

Check out the YouTube overview from the designers of their facility below.

Now: 

Ater all this info, you're probably at least a little interested (or dying to know) exactly how a hydroponic farm functions. 

In other words: 

"What are the actual components of a hydroponic farm?"

Well: 

We cover a simple, step-by-step walk through of the components of a hydroponic farm below...

How Hydroponic Farming Works

The bottom line: 

There are four key areas to analyze the function of urban farming:

(1) physical layout
(2) lighting
(3) growing medium
(4) sustainability features

We can use the following example and break down the key characteristics and functions of a hydroponic farm: 

First things first: 

(1) Physical Layout

There are actually 6 main "techniques" for uban farming: 

1. Wick Technique
2. Ebb and Flow Technique
3. NFT Technique
4. Water Culture Technique
5. Drip Technique
6. Aeroponic

Each of these techniques have a different layout.

There will almost always be a reservoir of nutrient solution, a pump, a structure to hold plants, "plugs" that hold the plants in place, and drains.

The most common component for building hydroponic infrastructure is plastic.

(2) Lighting if indoors, is often accomplished with LED lighting.

Hydroponic farming can also occur outdoors in some climates.

(3) Hyrdoponic farming never uses soil. If a growing medium is used, it will be soil-less.
 

(4) As previously noted, hydroponics are incredibly efficient with water. This is perhaps their most sustainable feature.

Additionally, hydroponic systems are efficient with nutrients, because nutrient solution can be recycled.

The 6 Main Hydroponic Techniques
Source: The 6 main hydroponic techniques

Did you like this article?

You now know the basic background information relating to hydroponic farming.

Why is that important?

Here's your real takeaway (if you forget everything else):

Hydroponic farming is here to stay! 

Getting to know the background of hydroponic farming, is just the start of your urban farming journey.

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