by Joe Marotta
Step into a room with the sun shining down on you as if walls did not exist. Rows of tables line the room. On top of the tables heads float on styrofoam rafts with hundreds of roots, like veins in a mine, reaching for soil that is not there. In another room large cylindrical chambers hold plants. While these plants sit or slowly rotate, spray nozzles gently mist nutrient-saturated water on the outstretched roots. Tubes connect to measuring equipment in this mad scientist-like scenario.
In reality these are heads of lettuce with their roots soaking in a nutrient solution. The tubes and measuring equipment monitor the plants’ growing condition. The plants located in chambers are a part of the soilless growing process called aeroponics.
The word hydroponics stems from the word “hydro” meaning water and “ponos” meaning labor. “Hydroponics is broadly viewed as a variety of soilless growing techniques,” Professor George Crosby, a hydroponics instructor at SUNY Cobleskill stated. In a hydroponics system the plants being grown are floated in nutrient solutions on rafts with their roots submerged in the solution. In the hydroponics class, the material used for the raft, is a type of styrofoam. In a media-based system other materials like coconut fiber can be used.
Here at SUNY Cobleskill there is class taught by Professor George Crosby called hydroponics. “It is a term that more people can make a connection with,” stated Crosby. The class is a three-credit, bachelor level course in the plant science department. Prerequisites for the class include Soil Science, Botany or Biology, and Chemistry. Each person in the class gets to grow plants hydroponically and manage their plant environment. After the plants have grown, the class makes a salad and gets to eat some of the plants they have grown. A majority of the plants grown go to the dining halls here on campus.
There are three main types of water culture systems: raft based systems, nutrient film technique or NFT, and aeroponics. A raft-based system is the one that was described earlier, where the plants float in the nutrient solution. In an NFT system the plants are situated in troughs. These troughs are like “common house hold gutters,” Crosby said. A small amount of nutrient solution trickles down the trough to give the roots enough nutrients grow well. The water can then be collected at the end, treated and reused. “People think that hydroponics is water-intensive, but it is really water conserving,” Crosby pointed out. In the third hydroponics technique, aeroponics, the plants are placed on a cylindrical tube and spray nozzles located in the tube mist the roots.
Hydroponic culture is a common practice in much of the world. “In this country we are not cutting edge because we have soil resources,” Crosby said. In the United States the idea of hydroponics did not start to take off until the 70’s, but not a majority of vegetables and herbs are hydroponically grown. “One might call it mainstream,” Crosby noted.
In addition to being water friendly, hydroponics farming is also healthy. Chemical pesticides are rarely used. Instead, beneficial insects are used to control invasive pests. Insects that will not harm the plants are used to kill other insects that could harm the plants. Plants grown in a greenhouse generally have less pesticide residue than those grown outside.
Research has gone beyond growing just vegetables hydroponically. Many flowers can be grown using hydroponic techniques. Also, with the growing want for phyto-pharmaceuticals or plant based remedies, research has gone into growing MAPS or medicinal and aromatic plants. Very few things cannot grow hydroponically. In addition to growing the above mentioned plants, things like lemon and other fruit trees can be grown using hydroponic methods.
“In my opinion hydroponics as a growing technique isn’t the exception, something you only see at the Land at Epcot Center; a futuristic approach. It is a well-ccepted growing practice worldwide,” Crosby mentioned. Hydroponics can help the environment in the sense that it can help preserve wildlife. Hydroponics can be used to grow specific crops that have medicinal value. When the plants are grown hydroponically, plants from the wild are not destroyed when their roots are harvested. It also lowers the risk of collecting undesirable roots. Hydroponic farming would ensure that the right plants would be grown while preserving the environment.
Hydroponics is not limited to being in a greenhouse; however, about 95% of hydroponics is found in a greenhouse. Advances in technology have helped monitor the growing conditions of the plants. Because of computers, temperature, water and humidity can be managed at levels like never before. Also due to changing technologies, the electro-conductivity of nutrient solutions can be measured more easily. Sensors are used to manage and adjust things accordingly. When growing plants in a controlled environment, one wants to make the environment perfect. “The technology we have now is pretty amazing,” summed up Crosby.