A lesson on hydroponics
I recently had the privilege of a guided tour of the Fambro Family Farms including their hydroponic greenhouse. Back when I was in high school hydroponics was the stuff of science fair projects. At that time we erroneously thought that this was new technology. Actually hydroponics has been around since ancient times. It is believed that the Egyptians attempted to use the method, and the hanging gardens of Babylon are thought to have been hydroponic. Roman Emperor Tiberius had out of season cucumbers grown hydroponically. In more modern times, John Woodward began experimenting with growing mint without soil in 1699. Interest did not escalate until the 1920s and 1930s when a more science-based approach was taken. Since that time major strides have been made as technology has provided materials and methods reducing the costs of hydroponic gardening. The development of instruments to measure pH, instruments that can measure the concentration of various chemicals, the peristaltic pump and the development of a wide range of applicable plastics have been beneficial.
The term hydroponics was coined by William Frederick Gericke while working at the University of California, Berkeley. He used two Latin words “hydro” meaning water and “ponos” meaning work or labor. Thus hydroponics implies that the water does the work. Basically, hydroponics is the practice of growing plants in a soilless medium. This medium can be a purely liquid system where the plants’ roots are suspended in a nutrient solution, or it can be a system where the plants are supported in a non-nutrient growing medium such as sand, perlite, gravel, sawdust, etc., but the nutrients are still supplied by a solution. The growing medium simply supplies mechanical support for the plants.
Many of the advantages of hydroponics are those one would expect with a controlled environment agriculture (CEA) system. Since successful hydroponic ventures are indoors the environmental factors are easier to control. This control allows the production of crops unseasonably. Control of diseases and pests is accomplished with much less effort. Pollination can be controlled as well. A resident hive of bumble bees provides consistent pollination in the Fambro greenhouse. Hydroponic systems make more efficient use of water with less waste. These systems provide an opportunity to produce crops where unsuitable soil (rocky soils, too much or too little sand in the soil, for example) exists and make better use of minimal available land area. They also allow for high-density crop yields and often better quality crops making the process more economically feasible on a commercial basis. Hydroponic systems, especially large commercial operations, lend themselves to mechanization.
As attractive as hydroponic systems are, there are some disadvantages. One of the major disadvantages is the high cost of initial set up. Energy costs involved in artificially heating and cooling the environment are also a disadvantage. A successful hydroponic operation requires a rather high degree of technical knowledge and management skills. A degree in horticulture or chemistry is not required for success, but small errors or lack of attention can destroy an entire crop. Fortunately there is a wealth of information on the internet. A Yahoo search for “hydroponics” revealed 3,190,000 sites and a Google search yielded 13,500,000.
Commercial kits are available for gardeners from the hobbyist to the large scale commercial producer. There are commercially available pre-packaged materials for nutrient solutions also. For the adventurous, there are a number of formulas available for hand mixing, but this can be a meticulous and time consuming process.
For those interested, David Fambro and his family have their produce (both in-ground grown and hydroponic) in addition to produce from the Fort Worth farmer’s market for sale every Friday at the Trade Days office in the park from 2 to 6 PM.