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We need to know how plants grow in soil in order to understand how hydroponics differs from soil. A plant has three main parts, namely the root system, the stem and the leaves. The root system anchors the plant in the soil and takes up water and nutrients from the soil.
The soil itself consists of 5% organic matter, which is plant remains and animal residues. These are broken down by bacteria to form humus, This mixture increases the water-holding capacity of the soil and fixes inorganic plant nutrients as well as being a source of nitrogen. The inorganic part of the soil, comprising 45% by volume, is made up of minerals released from broken-down rock particles, mainly sand and clay. This provides the chemical nutrients for plants. The remaining 50% of soil is made up in equal parts of water and air.
You don’t have to worry about making up a nutrient solution of the major and trace elements, as there are ready-made mixtures on the market. We use a two-part nutrient, which, though a bit more trouble than single-part nutrients to mix, has given superior results without the sedimentation experienced with the single-part mixtures. A new solution should be made up once a week, throwing the old solution away into your garden. During the week top up the reservoir with plain water to replace any transpiration losses.
If you want to be more scientific, you can use an EC meter. This measures the total concentration of nutrients in the solution. There comes a time when your plants do not seem to be very happy, turning yellow or brown for no apparent reason. This may be caused by a deficiency in one of the mineral elements. While this may seem to be a contradiction if you are using a ready-made solution as mentioned above, in fact it isn’t, as plants may need more of a particular element at different times in their growth cycle. Although the different nutrient deficiency symptoms may look the same, there are small differences in each problem. It is by observation that the cause may be isolated.
Before your eyes glaze over with all this science, it is necessary to have a working knowledge of pH. Although it sounds fearful, it is simply the relative acidity or alkilinity of a solution. In hydroponics we are interested in determining the pH level of water before nutrient is added to it, making adjustments if necessary, and then checking the pH level of the nutrient solution from time to time.
If we take a scale of 1 to 14, the centre point, or neutral position, is 7. Everything above neutral is alkaline and everything below is acid. To determine accurate pH levels, each whole number is divided into ten parts. Thus we have 6.8, 6.9, 7.0, 7.1, 7.2 and so on. When growing several kinds of vegetables or herbs in one unit, you will probably do best in the slightly acidic range of 5.6 to 6.5, as it is within this range that the nutrients are most available to the plants. To illustrate this, at 7.0, which is outside the most suitable range for vegetables, they will take up nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but only half of the trace elements such as iron, manganese, boron, copper zinc and molybdenum. So if the pH is above 7.0, look out for trace element problems, rather than those caused by lack of major elements.
Now we come to the interesting part of hydroponics. You can grow almost anything in your unit; flowers for cutting, house plants for decoration, or vegetables and herbs to improve your meals. The only limitation is that root vegetables, such as potatoes and carrots need a different hydroponic system and will not have enough space in your unit. But it could also be argued that these vegetables do not suffer from long storage as much as vegetables like tomatoes, lettuce and green peppers, which thrive in your unit. So start with these and then experiment to your heart’s content as you go. We will discuss growing of specific plants later; the comments here apply to any plant you want to grow.
When you select seeds for raising, bear in mind that commercial seed varieties have been bred for toughness and long shelf life in the supermarket at the expense of fragrance and flavour, so ask for seed varieties suited to home growing. For instance, you might like to grow a bush tomato instead of the vine type, which may grow too high! Leaf lettuce will yield a high volume of leaves in a few weeks, while head lettuce takes a bit longer. If you choose a head lettuce, such as “Great Lakes”, treat it like a leaf lettuce and simply pick the leaves for your salads. Don’t be afraid to experiment with hydroponics; use any seed that interests you.
You can plants seeds directly into your hydropopnic unit or, by using the growing medium supplied with your unit, which is equal parts of vermiculite and perlite, put them into seed trays from local nursery. You can soak the seek overnight in water for faster germination. Plant two seeds where you want one plant. If both come up, snip off the smaller one with scissors. Push your seeds gently into the growing medium no deeper than 1.5cm. Most seeds germinate best in darkness, warmth and moisture. Thus, you can cover your seeds with dark plastic sheet or use a humidity dome with a heating pad. For those seeds that germinate best in light, such as certain herbs, use clear plastic. Check every day for results. As soon as the first sprouts poke through the medium, take the cover off to let air and light get to the seedlings. Failure to remove the cover soon enough will make the seedlings “bolt” (grow long and spindly). If that happens you might as well pull them out and start again!
If you have grown seeds in the hydroponic growing medium in a seed tray, all you have to do is transfer them, with the growing medium clinging to their roots, to the unit. There should be no shock, drooping or wilting. They will just continue growing! When you insert the seedling into the growing pot, don’t be afraid to put the roots and the stem up to the first set of leaves into the pot. Ideally, the roots should just protrude into the nutrient channel. If you have been impatient to get started and bought seedlings in soil from your local nursery, that is O.K!
You will have to wash the roots gently to remove the soil. Use cold water running steadily from a tap. The water will help to loosen the soil and the coldness will have an anaesthetising effect on the plant to minimise the shock. Then feed the roots into the growpot so that they stick out of the bottom of the pot. Place one hand under the pot and with the other hand put in the dry mixture by holding the pot under a gently-running tap. The mixture will not now come out of the bottom of the pot. Be warned that there may be some wilting or drooping initially and some plants may even lose some leaves, but you will see the new growth will appear within a few days. Whether you have used hydroponically raised seedlings or those raised in soil, be gentle with the roots.
Any plants that will normally root from cuttings can be placed directly into your growing pots. To make the cutting, use a sterile scalpel blade and cut a section of the plant that has at least 3 internodes diagonally down. Clean the leaves from the last 50mm of the stem and coat with a rooting hormone and place in your growing medium.
Nutrients (16)Hydroponic Nutrients
Nutrient Management (20)pH and EC control
Growing Medium (16)Leca, Rockwool, Cocopeat, Promix
Water & Air (21)Water and Air Components
Plant Lighting (32)Lamps and ballasts
Environment Control (26)Fans, ducting and accessories
Additives (16)Hydroponic nutrient additives
Plant Care (19)Pest control for hydroponics
Propagation (14)Propagators and trays
Systems (22)Hydroponic systems and kits
Components (25)Components and parts