What are soilless methods of growing plants?
A revolutionary and earth-friendly means of cultivating plants, soilless methods refer to agricultural techniques wherein soil is not used as a growing medium. Although traditional farming has been with us for several millennia, this has significantly contributed to our planet's degradation.
For one, greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere mostly come from agricultural farmlands. The usage of nitrogen fertilizers is one of the significant contributions to greenhouse gas emissions in crop production. These fertilizers emit nitrous oxide (N2O), 300 times more harmful than carbon dioxide (CO2). Soil degradation and water scarcity are other environmental issues that emerge from soil-based agriculture.
Ironic as it may seem, traditional farming has become the culprit and the victim of water pollution. The United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a newsletter that mentions agriculture, which accounts for 70% of global water withdrawals, as a significant contributor to water contamination. This claim is based on the large amounts of agrochemicals, organic waste, drug residues, sediments, and salty drainage discharged into bodies of water. Additionally, crop production has increased primarily due to the extensive usage of growing substances such as pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Pesticides have a global market of more than USD 35 billion each year. Pesticide use has increased by double digits in several nations, including Argentina, Malaysia, South Africa, and Pakistan.
Soilless cultivations are viable, sustainable alternatives to traditional farming. Since soil is taken out of the equation, the challenges that come with it are effectively met.
Three soilless methods have emerged and taken the interest of researchers, farmers, gardening hobbyists, and consumers. These are aquaponics, hydroponics, and aeroponics.
What are the advantages of soilless growing plants?
Much of the concerns we now have about traditional or industrial agriculture are addressed by soilless agriculture. Because it is not dependent on land space or fertility, soilless agriculture can be practiced in controlled circumstances and established anywhere. This is why, in many regions of the world where there is little or no arable land, soilless agriculture is perfectly adaptable.
- Protection from harmful elements - One of the most recognizable disadvantages of traditional and industrialized agriculture is your crops are subject to changing, even damaging, environmental factors. Drought, wind, floods, and climate change, for example, are wreaking havoc on the agricultural industry, resulting in unfortunate losses for farmers and their families. Crops are produced indoors in soilless agriculture, insulated from the elements' possible detrimental effects.
- Conservation of water - Water is absorbed into the ground in land-based farming, and a large part of the water consumed does not immediately benefit the plant. The amount of water consumed is monitored and managed as you shift to a controlled and soilless growing environment, allowing the right amount of water to be used.
- Closer location - The soilless farm can and should be much closer to the target consumers, reducing the carbon footprints while at the same time preserving the products' freshness.
- Healthy and nutritious food - Due to food production and distribution processes, today's consumers are doubtful of the actual nutritional content included in their food. Consumers can choose from a variety of foods with a higher nutritional value in vitamins and antioxidants made possible by soilless agriculture. Furthermore, fewer chemicals used and a shorter supply chain are beneficial for both personal and environmental health.
- Faster growth - The plants in soilless systems directly contact the nutrients in the water, which means their development is expedited.
What are the challenges of soilless growing plants?
Soilless cultivation is not an impeccable growing approach. It also has its downsides that you need to look out for. Here are some of the challenges posed by growing plants without soil:
- Special skills required - Maintaining a soilless setup is not easy because you need to ensure that specific parameters are met, affecting the plants' health. Some growers address this challenge by using automation, such as using sensors and switches.
- Clogging issue - This challenge is common for soilless growers because certain elements (such as pebbles or plant roots) might obstruct water flow throughout the system. To fix this issue, you should always do a maintenance check of the setup you are using.
- Electricity consumption - This difficulty stems from the fact that you are using particular apparatus and machinery (e.g., pumps, lighting systems, HVAC, etc.) to maintain an optimal environment promoting growth in soilless farming. The effect of this is the continuous use of electricity leading to a higher electric bill. To mitigate this situation, you have the option of using solar panels to harness solar energy that transforms into electricity. Wind turbines for windy places also work as an alternative electricity source.
What are the similarities between aquaponics, aeroponics, and hydroponics?
- All of them are soilless. The three techniques do not depend on soil to promote plants' growth and development. This is a revolutionary approach because the long-established agricultural farming has become a notable contributor to several ecological issues threatening our planet.
- All of them depend on water for their essential nutrients. Nutrients that are vital for the growth of plants are mixed with water. The setup allows the plants' root system to have direct contact with the nutrients, wherein in soil-based growing, the soil absorbs some of the nutrients before they reach the roots.
- All of them are scalable. These three can be applied anywhere, regardless of the terrain; the approaches can be employed in non-arable environments, including deserts, deteriorated soil, and salty, sandy islands. This feature explains why humanitarian groups are adapting aquaponics, hydroponics, and aeroponics. People from suffering countries can be supplied with nutritious foods even if no hectares of land are available.
- All of them are indoor. Soilless systems are doable in any indoor space. Soilless systems do well in these roofed areas, from small home space to commercial offices to abandoned warehouses.
- All of them expedite growth. The immediate contact between nutrient-rich water and plants root speeds up the development of the organism. Plants nurtured in a smaller space grow twice as quickly as soil-grown plants when nutrients are given straight to the roots. There is less evaporation and water consumption when the root system is enclosed in a closed channel.
- All of them lead to higher yields. This one is the result of the quickened growth of the plants. Growers can have multiple harvests in a year. Plants cultivated in soilless systems often yield 30-40% more than plants grown in traditional methods. This phenomenon is due to the thorough monitoring of nutrients in water solutions, ensuring that plants receive ideal food levels, lowered disease and insect influence, and finer-tuned growing conditions.
What are the differences between aquaponics, aeroponics, and hydroponics?
At this point, I will outline the unique features of the three soilless systems under consideration. Afterward, I will disclose their pros and cons. My aim here is to help you clarify any confusion about the three techniques. Let me also help you decide which soilless method is perfect for your situation and preference.
What is aquaponics?
A soilless technique where growing fish and growing plants are done simultaneously, aquaponics provide you with foods high in nutritional value. Aquaponic systems produce a high output of crops while also allowing fish to be caught. Unwanted vegetable bits can become food for the fish. Nutrients are extracted from fish excrements. Bacteria act as nitrogen-fixing agents for converting fish waste to organic nourishment plants need. This water can subsequently be injected into the crop's root zone. Because organic nutrients are employed in aquaponic systems, the crops receive a balanced nutrient boost. However, some parameters, such as the water's pH, can be regulated.
Pros of Aquaponics:
- You get to harvest fish and vegetables, which are good sources of nutrients and proteins.
- The system is akin to a natural ecosystem, so there are few to zero synthetic fertilizers.
- There is no waste in this system. Since the plants make use of the nutrient found in the effluents of fish, the water is filtered and recirculated to fish tanks.
- Soil-borne diseases are avoided.
- The garden chores are modest compared to traditional farming methods; the sole responsibilities are feeding the fish and ensuring that the system is functioning correctly.
- Aquaponics enhances the ambiance of a home or office.
Cons of Aquaponics:
- You will have to monitor two systems -- hydroponic system and aquaculture system.
- Roots of plants may clog, affecting the free-flowing water.
- Limited species of fish grow in this technique, primarily freshwater ones.
What is hydroponics?
The term "hydroponics" is derived from the ancient Greek words "hydro" (water) and "ponics" (work). Essentially, water is doing the principal work in allowing plants to develop quickly. Since it is soilless, hydroponics relies on a nutrient-rich water-based solution to provide the plants with the necessary nutrients. Hydroponics entails very precise and calculated exposure to an accurate mixture of nutrients. To achieve this, the grower uses various artificial and natural materials, including Styrofoam, certain types of plastic, and even PVC. The idea is to keep the roots in a standardized medium to enhance their exact nutrient solutions absorption.
Pros of Hydroponics:
- The other two soilless techniques, aquaponics and aeroponics, emanate from hydroponics.
- Plant growth is expedited because the roots access the nutrients they need immediately.
- Plants are protected from soil-related diseases.
- This system helps in producing food in a local setting, within your immediate community.
- Carbon footprint is reduced because less travel time is needed to supply the food.
Cons of Hydroponics:
- This system would demand a lot of time and monitoring. The water needs replacement at specific intervals or else, the plants' growth might be affected.
- Electricity and water are two essential components in hydroponic cultivation. The Hydroponic system will not thrive unless you have enough water and a reliable supply of electricity. The result of this, of course, is a costly monthly utility bill.
What is aeroponics?
Aeroponic systems rely solely on nutrient-rich mist to sustain the plants. The idea is attributed to hydroponic systems, in which the roots are held in a soilless growing media, such as coco coir, and nutrient-rich water is pumped over them regularly. However, in aeroponics, the need for a growing medium is entirely out of the equation, allowing the roots to float in the air and be misted by specially designed sprinkling devices.
Pros of Aeroponics:
- The absence of any intermediary medium makes it possible for farmers to experience three times more yield than the traditional soil-dependent farming method.
- Aeroponics establishes a closed-loop system that can save farmers up to 60% on fertilizer and other resources they usually utilize in conventional agriculture.
- Aeroponics allows you to move plants around effortlessly without affecting their growth potential. If it becomes necessary to build a set up in a different area, producers can even transfer a complete nursery.
- Because your growth is suspended, there are no clogging issues to deal with. The root systems are ensured to receive the nutrient requirements they need to grow and glow.
- Because nutrient absorption is better in aeroponic plants, they use fewer fertilizers and water on average, and plants typically respond to this approach by producing even more roots.
Cons of aeroponics:
- The biggest concern of growers regarding the aeroponics' technique is it requires costly capital.
- The system would require constant care and attention from the growers.
- Mist nozzles, high-pressure pumps, and a timer make up an aeroponic system. If one of these fails, the growth of the plants is at a lot of risks.
Aquaponics, hydroponics, and aeroponics all fall under the category of soilless farming. If you have read this far, I believe you are interested in setting up one of the above systems. If you want less risk, I suggest you start with hydroponics because this is the foundation of aquaponics and aeroponics. If you enjoy cultivating fish and veggies, aquaponics is highly recommended. Lastly, you can try aeroponics if you are the type who wants faster results within a short time, although it might be pretty tricky and expensive. Anyhow, I hope this article enabled you to acquire practical working knowledge about soilless farming techniques.