Sunday, Dec 21, 2014
Agri Leader

Growing plants without soil offers growing solutions

ANN MARIE O’PHELAN
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Central Florida’s Agri-Leader

Imagine not worrying about soil pollution, benefitting from higher crop yields and shorter times between harvests, gaining further use of limited space and employing greater control over pests, diseases and weeds—all of this can be obtained through hydroponic gardening, a process that involves growing plants with nutrients and water and without the use of soil.

W.E. Gericke of the University of California first coined the term, hydroponics, in the 1930s.

Gericke, often referred to as the “father of modern hydroponics,” experimented with the idea of planting without soil and working with water instead. However, earlier civilizations, such as the ancient Babylonians and the Aztec Indians had floating gardens.

With hydroponic growing, the plants themselves are attached to physical supports while their roots are basically allowed to float.

There are several types of hydroponic systems all based on this principle, including the nutrient film technique, a water-culture technique without the use of media; Media-filled plastic nursery pots or upright bags that use a drip irrigation technique and incorporate composted pine bark or combinations of peat, perlite and vermiculite;

Perlite systems that use drip-irrigated, perlite-filled, lay-flat plastic bags;

Rockwool production, a system that is similar to perlite lay-flat bags but instead incorporates the use of rockwool;

Soil mix raised beds that use a drip irrigation system inside of a greenhouse;

Floating raft hydroponic systems that employ Styrofoam rafts with drilled holes, which are floated on nutrient-rich water;

Vertical systems that utilize stacked pots.

Although we have better than average growing conditions in Florida—thanks to our year-round sunshine and sub-tropical climate—as any grower knows, it’s not quite perfect. Florida farmers and grower still contend with a wide range of weather conditions, including droughts and torrential rains, pests like nematodes and armyworms, and diseases such as citrus greening and late blight.

The hydroponic process makes even more sense especially in an environment where water is scarce, soil is less than ideal, farmland is expensive, temperatures are too high or too low and there is inadequate space to grow.

While the outdoor growing limitations in specific climates would be similar to in-ground crops, indoor growing could be limitless.

There are plans for a large-scale greenhouse operation in Saudi Arabia, using the stacking towers. This hydroponic farm facility will be 20,000 square meters and will produce 1,000 times more produce through its vertical farming technique. Nature Fresh Farms, the largest greenhouse grower of sweet colored bell peppers in North America, and the largest greenhouse grower in Canada, recently expanded their greenhouse production, which now exceeds 225 acres.

Hydro Harvest Farms, a U-Pick farm located in Ruskin, grows everything from lettuce, tomatoes, eggplants, green peppers, strawberries and even flowers, through an outdoor vertical system. Using stacking pots, the farm is able to grow six times as much food in the same space that it takes one plant to grow in the dirt.

Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm in Tampa also incorporates an outdoor, stacked pot system. They grow organic crops, such as green beans, broccoli, okra, eggplant, turnips, cabbage, sweet onions, arugula, spinach, scallions, yellow squash, zucchini, herbs and more. Once harvested, the crops are sold on-site at their fresh farm market.

“We have had success with all crops that will grow in Florida’s climate, except for potatoes, “said Cathy Hume, who owns the farm with her husband, Dave. In Florida, the most common types of crops grown hydroponically are: herbs, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, mixed vegetables and herbs, and strawberries.

According to Hume, the benefits of hydroponic farming goes even further than offering greater yields and better pest and disease control.

“This farming method could meet the ongoing needs of urban populations, reduce transportation costs, and increase the nutritional benefits—thanks to consuming fresh, locally grown produce,” Hume said.

In addition to offering workshops, guest speaking and field trips, Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm offers residential and commercial consulting. “In addition to many home growers, we have worked with other farms, restaurants, schools, and arenas,” said Hume who explained that they can also customize a system to meet individual criteria and have placed tower systems on roofs, decks and inside enclosures.

Due to extremely high winter light conditions, an important factor for the highly popular hydroponic tomato production, Arizona has one of the most rapid growths of hydroponics in the United States.

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