Hydroponics 101: An Introduction to Hydroponics - Fitleaf

Hydroponics 101: An Introduction to Hydroponics

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Home Growing, Hydroponics, Sustainability

The term hydroponics is most often used in the context of growing plants without soil. The word comes from two Greek words: hydro – meaning water, and ponics, which describes work – or action. Plants that grow hydroponically are grown in systems that are designed to suspend the plants above the water. The second part (ponic) of the word hydroponics describes the back-and-forth movement that occurs when a pump delivers water to or from the plant roots that are suspended above it. 

Some hydroponic growing systems may use inert substances whose sole function is to provide a means of support for plants so that the roots are secured at or just above the water. Inert materials that work exceptionally well include Rockwool, Perlite, Coconut Coir, or pebbles. Many natural substances can provide the stability that plants need in any hydroponic growing system, but the most critical qualities are the ability to retain moisture (and by extension, nutrients), and most of all, allow air to circulate throughout the plants’ root systems.

Who Came Up With the Term “Hydroponics?”

The name for the process of growing plants without soil is attributed to Dr. William F. Gericke, a plant scientist at the University of California at Berkeley who studied ways to grow plants without soil during the 1920s. Gericke explained the origin of the term in his famous 1940 book entitled “The Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening.” He initially wanted to call the practice gardening without soil “Aquiculture” because he liked the fact that it sounded like and related to the term “aquiculture.” He was forced to abandon the hopes of coining that term when he learned that it was already in use in a different context. He chose “hydroponics” because of the parallel connection he saw in the Greek word “geoponics,” which translates as “earth working.”

Hydroponics in History

We know of some historical examples of instances where plants were grown in water, and some of those references date back to the Ancient world. There are some literary references from Greek and Roman writers who described the Hanging Gardens of Babylon from the 6th-century B.C.E. There is, however, no physical evidence of Hanging Gardens in Babylon or at the site where the Ancient city was believed to be.

Image by Mariusz Matuszewski from Pixabay

On May 13, 2013, Christopher Klein wrote on History.com about an Oxford University professor who said she found evidence of the Hanging Gardens, but what she found was 300 miles away from the supposed site of the Ancient city of Babylon. In her book entitled “The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive Wonder Traced,” Dr. Stephanie Dalley suggests that there is a simple reason that no one has ever found evidence of the Hanging Gardens at Babylon. She believes that the gardens were built elsewhere – 300 miles north of where Babylon was supposed to be. She suggests that they were created in Nineveh, which at the time was the Assyrian empire’s capital.

  • An Asian book that is believed to have been written in the third century is considered the world’s oldest book about subtropical botany talked about growing vegetables – especially spinach, on islands that float in water.
  • Up until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, Mexican Aztecs grew beans, maize (corn), and squash on islands that floated in shallow lakes in their empire’s valley.

The evolutionary history of hydroponics has been a long journey to discover what nutrients plants needed, how they used them, and how much they needed. That journey produced records of developments and discoveries that would ultimately help gardeners and plant growers learn how to control seasonal outdoor and indoor conditions that all plant needs. And plant scientists will continue to research search of discoveries that will produce healthier plants, bigger harvests, and extend growing seasons so that we can have healthier food that is grown all year locally.

How Does Hydroponics Differ From Growing Plants in Soil?

  • The hydroponic system works because a pump controls the flow of water towards and away from the plants. Since plants cannot absorb nutrients from the soil, they have to get them elsewhere. That nutrition comes from a nutrient solution that is added to the water.
  • Although hydroponics is defined as soilless growing, it can involve the use of inert substances whose sole purpose is to anchor plants, stabilize them, or hold them in place. Inert mediums can include materials like rock wool, perlite, vermiculite, clay pebbles, and coco peat (coconut coir.)
  • Hydroponics works best in a controlled environment. That requires the ability to regulate the amount of light plants get, the directional exposure, ventilation, water pH levels, and carbon dioxide levels.
  • It also requires the ability to adjust, control, and monitor the growing conditions of the hydroponic growing systems.
Hydroponic Drip Irrigation in Coco Coir
Photo by Fitleaf

That capability makes this method of growing food crops fall under the umbrella of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA.)

Pros and Cons of Hydroponics


  • Hydroponics is the only method of growing crops that gives farmers (or home growers) the ability to control all aspects of the growing conditions.

Because it is possible to manipulate aspects of growing conditions, it gives growers the ability to delay flowering and fruit production to lengthen growth time in a manner that produces bigger plants, and potentially, more bountiful harvests.

  • Hydroponics eliminates weather-related seasonal growing restrictions. That reduces crop cycles and allows for many more harvests every year.
  • You have total control over what nutrients your plants get and when they get them.

This added level of control means that crops grow hydroponically produce healthier and more bountiful harvests and they do so more often.

  • Faster Growth
  • Better use of space

Some systems allow for vertical stacking, and that increases the growing area in a way that isn’t possible with crops that grow in the ground.

  • Hydroponics gives growers the ability to customize systems that meet their needs and fit the limits of the space and conditions where they intend to place it.
Photo by Fitleaf


  • The higher cost of hydroponic systems

It isn’t just the fact that soil is less expensive (or free.) Individual components and entire hydroponic systems aren’t a cheap investment from the start. You will have to pay to replace parts and keep up your supply of nutrients. But an added and often overlooked factor that people often forget when thinking about investing in hydroponic systems is the hit that their utility bills will take. The extra lighting, and the amount of time that the lights are on, the electricity that the pump generates, and the constant manipulation of the temperature and humidity conditions are sure to have a significant impact on utility bills – especially for home growers. Nevertheless, LED lightning has mitigated the overall cost, and as technology keeps up its course, solar energy might be the key for this issue of utility billing.

  • The time factor

Experienced gardeners will understand that hydroponics requires a significant time commitment. First of all, the set-up takes time, and this is especially true for beginners. Even after the setup, you have to monitor the growing conditions, the water pH level, and nutrient levels in the water. The good side though, is that the time spent in this endeavor is rewarding when done with purpose as you enjoy the whole process of it, including the ups and downs.

  • Your crop could be destroyed if you have a lengthy power outage.

Most of the time, if you’re dealing with hydroponics you will have a pump. If it’s your case, then the pump can break or get clogged from mineral deposits in the water. Unless you always have a spare pump on hand and can replace it immediately, your plants could die quickly. Plants are entirely dependent on a fresh water supply every day. Therefore, it is important to have a good mineral balance in both water and nutrient solution.

  • Your water quality can be a negative factor.

Hard water will produce scaling on the sides of the bowl, but it will also cause mineral deposits to build upon and in the pump. This means that you need to clean your system often, but you may have to buy bottled or distilled water to avoid replacing the pump as often.

Individuals who are interested in learning about hydroponics and willing to invest the time and money it takes to produce successful harvests will get the benefit of access to fresh produce all year, regardless of the conditions outside. Hydroponics encourages people to eat healthier foods, and that is sure to lead to improved overall health for everyone who tries it.

Photo by Fitleaf

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