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Hydroponic Systems

What is Hydroponics?

Wikipedia defines Hydroponics as “the method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil”.  

It’s thought that hydroponics was first used in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, however more recent history has attributed the introduction to the English philosopher Francis Bacon, thanks to his 1627 book Sylva Sylvarum, in which he published work on growing plants without soil.  This mantle was taken up by John Woodward in 1699 who discovered that spearmint grown in “unclean” water experienced better growth than plants grown in distilled water. 

Later work by German botanists Julius Von Sachs and Wilhelm Knop, further laid the foundations of this science. However, it was Frederick Gericke of the University of California at Berkeley who first publicly pushed for soilless agriculture to be used commercially.  It was also Frederick, in 1937, who gave the process the name Hydroponics.  Hydroponics was used by the US Army during World War II to feed soldiers stationed in the Pacific Islands. NASA continues to develop Hydroponic techniques in order to grow food on Mars.

With over 10 years of experience in this sector of the market we’ve tested out most of the major brands, with this knowledge we have decided to focus on the Secret Jardin as our leading product due to the innovative product range and continued product development, excellent customer support and long warranties.

We sell 5 different ranges from Secret Jardin, and can order in any other tents they sell, just give us a call if you can’t see what you’re after. 

What are the benefits?

The main benefit is that nutrient solution is applied directly to the root zone so the plant doesn’t need to work so hard at the base and will subsequently grow larger and at an enhanced rate, producing more fruit. A hydroponically-grown tomato plant will produce fruit at about 8 weeks, compared to 12 weeks from a soil grown plant. This benefit has not gone unnoticed by commercial growers. If you shop at a supermarket, you will have already tasted Hydroponics tomatoes.

However with a faster life cycle these benefits can be extended to the home-grower and institutions such as schools and colleges where students can gain a better understanding of food production and the plant life-cycle. Of course with an unreliable climate in the UK, Hydroponic gardening makes food production possible all year round. It also conserves water as most systems recycle the nutrient/water mix. Another benefit is that you won’t be bothered by soil-borne pests and subsequently your plants don’t have to be subjected to pesticides.

Are there any downsides?

The main downside is that if things go wrong, they go very wrong and you tend to lose your entire crop. A classic example is pump failure, if you are not there when it happens and you’re growing under lights, your plants can die within a couple of hours. Soil acts as a natural buffer to this potential problem, and gives you a certain amount of room to make mistakes. Hydroponics however, is usually more productive yield wise.

What about taste?

There is a lot of discussion about whether a Hydroponically-grown tomato offers the same taste as a soil grown version. Unfortunately we can’t offer a taste-test online, but if you have an interest we would urge you to do a blind taste-test. Hydroponic tomatoes are every bit as delicious as their soil grown cousins and the sweetness of the taste can be altered by the nutrients they are fed as much as the alternative growing method. Another benefit of growing at home is that your food is picked and eaten at the correct age and not subjected to the gases used in the packaging and transporting of food.

What does a typical UK indoor setup consist of?

The three essential components of successful growing are Light, Water (Nutrient) & Air – the key to strong growth and a good yield is providing these in the correct proportions. Whilst perfecting this skill comes with experience, it is easy for the novice to produce excellent results with a little care.

Component 1 - Light – Provided by a Grow Light or the sun

A Grow Light allows you to replicate the suns natural UV rays, which is vital for the plant to photosynthesize.

The Grow Light consists of 3 parts:

  • The Lamp, the source of the light, available as Blue light (Metal Halide) for vegetative growth early in the plants life; Red light (High Pressure Sodium) for fruiting/flowering and Dual Spectrum which covers the whole life cycle, but is not as specific.  Lamps generally come in different strengths – 250w/400w/600w/1000w
  • The Reflector, which protects the lamp and directs the light.  The size ad design of a reflector affects the intensity of the light delivered and the area over which it is distributed.
  • The Ballast, which contains all the necessary electrical components to ignite the lamp and regulate the current.  A good ballast will help prolong the life of your lamp by absorbing power spikes.  Many digital ballasts will also offer a dimmable switch, so if you change your lamp you can simply switch the output of the ballast rather than buy a new one (which you would have to do with a standard or compact ballast).

Component 2 - Water/Nutrients – Provided by the Hydroponic System

This refers to the actual Hydroponics system as this is the piece of kit that will deliver the essential Water/Nutrient mix to the plant roots.  There are a number of different systems available, some more suited to the beginner, some for those with more experience.  The Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) is one such system.  It provides perhaps the most rapid rate of growth of any system, but because the roots of the plants are exposed, rather than planted in growing media (or substrate), there is no buffer to retain nutrient solution and any failure of the system would lead to rapid plant death.  Other options, such as Wilma System using a substrate to hold the root are more forgiving and a better starting point for many.

The nutrient/water solution that we give the plant is its sole source of a number of mineral elements and it is important to provide these in the correct mix.  The core requirements are Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium, but there are also a number of other micro-nutrients.  They generally come in two types of mix: “Grow” for young plants and those that don’t flower or fruit, and “Bloom” for the flowering and fruiting stage. 

We also offer different mixes for Hard & Soft water areas.  Two other factors must be tested regularly, these are pH level, which measures how acid/alkaline the nutrient solution is, and the Electrical Conductivity or EC level which measures the strength of the nutrient solution.  To assess this you will need a pH pen and an EC pen.

Component 3 - Air – Provided by the Circulation (Fan & Filter) System

The final component is air exchange. A plant obtains only 25% of its requirements through its roots, the rest comes from Carbon Dioxide in the air, so it is vital not to starve your plants of this essential source of nutrition.  A good fan will help to control air circulation and humidity, while a filter is desirable to remove plant odour, particularly if growing indoors using a grow tent.  Plants often grow best in temperatures of between 18-23C and in a humidity range of 40-75%.  Failure to control this could result in disease and lack of growth. 

The nutrient/water solution that we give the plant is its sole source of a number of mineral elements and it is important to provide these in the correct mix.  The core requirements are Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium, but there are also a number of other micro-nutrients.  They generally come in two types of mix: “Grow” for young plants and those that don’t flower or fruit, and “Bloom” for the flowering and fruiting stage. 

We also offer different mixes for Hard & Soft water areas.  Two other factors must be tested regularly, these are pH level, which measures how acid/alkaline the nutrient solution is, and the Electrical Conductivity or EC level which measures the strength of the nutrient solution. 

Where can I do it?

This will really depend on the size of the system you buy and how much you wish to grow!  Generally speaking though, a hydro system can be installed wherever you have space – grow tents are highly recommended as well.

So you can see that Hydroponics is a great way to grow either your own food or household plants, or both.  Not only can you control what goes into the food you eat, but you also develop a much greater appreciation of it!  Many Chilli growers have already woken up to hydroponic growing and enjoy prize-winning production using the method.

What is Hydroculture?

Hydroculture is a form of passive hydroponics and a way of growing plants without soil. Passive hydroponics systems often use an inert growing medium such as clay pebbles instead of soil. If you haven’t experimented with hydroponics before, then passive hydroponics and hydroculture is a great way to get started.

A hydroculture system is often made up of five simple parts – clay pebbles (or a similar inert growing medium), culture pots, water level indicator, pot liners, and fertiliser.

Clay pebbles are the primary growing medium used in hydroculture systems. These expanded clay pellets take the place of soil. They are highly porous which means they are great for growing plants. Clay pebbles are effective at retaining moisture and nutrients, are fully inert, free from soil-borne pests and diseases, provide plenty of oxygenation at the root zone, and give your plants a sturdy support structure to grow and thrive.

It is worth noting that although clay pebbles are the most common growing media used in hydroculture; other inert mediums such as perlite can also be used.

Culture pots are almost identical to any other plant pot out there on the market, but they have one key difference. A culture pot includes a recess for a water level indicator which will show you exactly how much water your plants are sitting in and giving you a clear indication of when your plants need watering with a nutrient solution.

Water level indicators are a simple way to measure exactly how much water your plants are sitting in. They are tailored for use with specific culture pots and usually come with indicators showing the ‘minimum’, ‘maximum’, and ‘optimum’ water levels. Water level indicators take the guess work out of knowing when to feed your plants.

Pot liners are often used in hydroculture and other forms of gardening to make easy work of moving plants between containers. They also make porous pots used for display purposes in container gardening waterproof and encourage the development of a smaller, more manageable root zone in plants placed in large outer containers.

Unlike growing plants in soil, the growing medium used in hydroculture is inert and lacking any plant nutrition. Therefore, plant fertilisation products have been developed specifically for hydroculture and hydroponic applications. There are various fertilisers developed for use during different stages of the growth cycle and they all contain the essential and beneficial elements and nutrients plants need for healthy, vigorous growth.

There are several benefits to growing plants using the hydroculture method instead of in soil. These include: 

  • Less maintenance
  • Faster and greater growth
  • Reduced risk of pests and diseases
  • Greater oxygenation at the root zone
  • No growth of molds or other known allergens

Using hydroculture to cultivate plants is a fool-proof way to grow. The water level indicators ensure it’s virtually impossible to over or under-water your plants and the elimination of soil-borne pests and disease means hydroculture often requires much less maintenance. 

Overall, growing using the hydroculture method can be both a refreshing change from soil gardening and a rewarding experience when you start growing bigger, better plants. If you are interested in hydroponic or soil-free gardening then hydroculture can be a great stepping stone for gaining experience with soilless cultivation, as the method comes free of the complexities associated with other hydroponic growing methods.

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