Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil. Terrestrial plants may be grown with their roots in the mineral nutrient solution only or in an inert medium, such as perlite, gravel, mineral wool, or coconut husk.
Researchers discovered in the 19th century that plants absorb essential mineral nutrients as inorganic ions in water. In natural conditions, soil acts as a mineral nutrient reservoir but the soil itself is not essential to plant growth. When the mineral nutrients in the soil dissolve in water, plant roots are able to absorb them. When the required mineral nutrients are introduced into a plant's water supply artificially, soil is no longer required for the plant to thrive. Almost any terrestrial plant will grow with hydroponics. Hydroponics is also a standard technique in biology research and teaching.
Some of the reasons why hydroponics is being adapted around the world for food production are the following:
- No soil is needed
- The water stays in the system and can be reused- thus, lower water costs
- It is possible to control the nutrition levels in their entirety- thus, lower nutrition costs
- No nutrition pollution is released into the environment because of the controlled system
- Stable and high yields
- Pests and diseases are easier to get rid of than in soil because of the container's mobility
Today, hydroponics is an established branch of agronomy. Progress has been rapid, and results obtained in various countries have proved it to be thoroughly practical and to have very definite advantages over conventional methods of horticulture. The two chief merits of the soil-less cultivation of plants are, first, much higher crop yields, and second, hydroponics can be used in places where in-ground agriculture or gardening is not possible.
Billions of container plants are produced annually, including fruit, shade and ornamental trees, shrubs, forest seedlings, vegetable seedlings, bedding plants, herbaceous perennials and vines. Most container plants are produced in soilless media, representing soilless culture. However, most are not hydroponics because the soilless medium often provides some of the mineral nutrients via slow release fertilizers, cation exchange and decomposition of the organic medium itself. Most soilless media for container plants also contain organic materials such as peat or composted bark, which provide some nitrogen to the plant. Greenhouse growth of plants in peat bags is often termed hydroponics, but technically it is not because the medium provides some of the mineral nutrients.
Techniques: The two main types of hydroponics are solution culture and medium culture. Solution culture does not use a solid medium for the roots, just the nutrient solution. The three main types of solution culture are static solution culture, continuous flow solution culture and aeroponics. The medium culture method has a solid medium for the roots and is named for the type of medium, e.g. sand culture, gravel culture or rockwool culture.
There are two main variations for each medium, subirrigation and top irrigation. For all techniques, most hydroponic reservoirs are now built of plastic but other materials have been used including concrete, glass, metal, vegetable solids and wood. The containers should exclude light to prevent algae growth in the nutrient solution.