Hydroponic Growing Demystified

Green Mountain Harvest Hydroponic

Recently, some of our Vermont staff took a trip to Green Mountain Harvest Hydroponic Farm and were blown away by both the concept and the implementation of this environmentally-friendly farming method.  While most of our staff were familiar with the term to a certain extent (hydroponics = no soil, right?), there is so much more to it than that!  And now that we’re heading into colder months, when the ground freezes unless it’s covered by a hoophouse, diving into the world of hydroponic growing seems quite seasonally appropriate.

Hydroponic is Latin for “working water” and it is indeed the practice of growing plants without soil.  It’s a growing method which has been used for centuries (Romans and Babylonians grew produce hydroponically; one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, is believed to have been a hydroponic garden!) and while uncommon here in the U.S., European countries and Canada have been using it for decades.  Many regions around the world with poor soil nutrition have found hydroponic growing to be tremendously effective and you can grow plants hydroponically both indoor and outdoors!  So clearly, hydroponics are far-reaching both geographically and historically.

Now when we say “hydroponic growing”, you’d be right to imagine that it’s more than just suspending a head of lettuce over a glass of water and calling it a day.  There are actually six basic different methods within the broader category of hydroponic growing: wick, water culture, ebb & flow, drip, n.f.t (nutrient film technique), and aeroponic.  Each system has its own advantages and disadvantages and can be best put to use in different situations, but the common denominator is that they all involve introducing plants to a solution comprising water and nutrients.  (For a fantastic explanation of these different systems, and loads of information on hydroponics in general, check out the Simply Hydroponics and Organics website.)

Regardless of which specific method is used, there are some insane benefits that come with growing fruits, veggies, and herbs this way, including:

-No soil erosion
-No leaching of nutrients into the groundwater (which means no potential run-off in our waterways)
-No wasteful use of water (recycling hydroponic methods actually use an average of 1/10th the water used by irrigated agriculture)
-Crops grow more quickly and have higher yields
-Reduced susceptibility to E. coli or other outbreaks which can occur in outdoor crops
-The foods are clean and easy to use since there are no soil particles
-The foods are highly tender and flavorful

With hydroponic growing, the plants get exactly what they need: no more, no less.  It’s incredibly efficient. It can be incredibly energy efficient. Plus, it’s incredibly productive in areas where it’s practically impossible to grow fruits and vegetables.  It is, in fact, one profound answer to Monsanto’s claim that only GMO crops can feed the world’s seven billion people.

At this point, you might be wondering: hydroponics sound great, but is produce grown hydroponically the same as produce grown organically? The answer is no, but: hydroponically grown produce may be Certified Organic according to the National Organic Programs (a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture), and this is currently a topic of much debate.

In short, the committee that advises the National Organic Standards Board did not recommend allowing hydroponic produce to be certified (a position that is held by Mexico, Canada and Holland which produce the most hydroponic produce outside the US) but the NOSD chose to move ahead with certification. Many organic farmers and producers worldwide know that you feed the soil, not the plant, which is the main goal of organic farming and the standard that organic farmers are hoping to protect. They are protesting the organic certification of hydroponic produce because hydroponics are grown entirely apart from the ecosystem that organic farming actively preserves and cultivates. Is there an easy answer to this debate? There isn’t, but it is up to everyone to educate themselves and make their own choices on the issue.

Can hydroponically-grown produce be just as healthy, just as clean, just as pure? Yes, it can! Whether a plant is grown in soil or in a nutrient solution, the minerals it needs- phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium, etc.- are the same and the question of how those minerals are harvested and supplied to the plants is really what’s at the heart of the matter. Do they come from natural sources (or are they chemically synthesized and manufactured)? Are they supplied to the plants as needed (or are they dumped on them indiscriminately)?

These are the critical questions, and hydroponic systems definitely have the potential to come up golden on all counts. Plus, as we noted above, there are an enormous number of environmental benefits offered by hydroponics that make this growing method stand apart in a field, as it were, of its own.

So next time you come across a fruit, vegetable, or herb that’s been grown hydroponically, you can munch away with confidence, knowing what you’re eating has been raised responsibly and with both the environment, and your health, in mind!