What do you think of when you hear the word “garden”? A small patch of tilled soil filled with beautiful flowers and vegetables? Rows of corn, lettuce and tomatoes proudly sprouting out of the ground?
What about a huge greenhouse full of plastic pipes sprouting a wild variety of flowers and vegetables? No? Well… think again! As crazy as it seems, it’s possible to grow plants above the ground without any soil at all.
Researchers discovered hundreds of years ago that soil simply holds mineral nutrients close to plant roots, but the soil itself isn’t necessary for plant growth.
Using a growing method called “hydroponics,” you can grow plants in a watery solution of mineral nutrients instead of soil. The word “hydroponic” comes from the Greek words hydro (“water”) and ponos (“labor”).
The keys to plant growth are a variety of mineral nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. If you can add these necessary mineral nutrients into a plant’s water supply, you no longer need soil for the plant to grow. Just about any plant can be grown with hydroponics.
Hydroponic containers can take many forms. Large hydroponic farms use vast networks of plastic pipes with holes for plants. The pipes supply mineral nutrients in a watery solution to the plants’ root systems.
It’s also possible to grow plants hydroponically by placing their roots in a mineral nutrient solution contained in a non-soil material, such as gravel, coconut husks or shredded paper. These non-soil materials can provide greater support for the plants’ root systems.
Hydroponic plants tend to grow well and produce high yields. Plant roots have a constant supply of oxygen.
They also have access to as much or as little water as they need. Water in hydroponic systems is also reused constantly, thereby lowering water costs.
Hydroponics has many benefits in the modern world. In areas where good soil is scarce, hydroponics allows residents to grow fresh food. Since hydroponic farms can be set up indoors, fresh food can be grown all year long.
Hydroponics also may enable astronauts to spend longer periods of time in space, as future missions may require long travel times.