Do you know the right questions to ask yourself when considering venturing into hydroponics and indoor growing? In this article, we will address the basics as well as look at some popular hydroponic setups for developing a thriving crop environment.
First, it’s important to define your goals. Try to make them concrete and measurable, and challenging yet achievable. Establish a time frame in which they can be accomplished.
To get a snapshot of where your operation stands or where it could be, use a SWOT analysis. A SWOT analysis focuses on critically analyzing Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats = SWOT.
Strengths and weaknesses are a reflection of you and your company, and are internal. Generally, these are factors controllable by you. Examples of internal strengths may be your productive and loyal workforce, a history of permanence and leadership in your niche or even a strong internal drive. It is what separates you from your competition. Opportunities and threats are largely dictated by the industry that you are in, and are generally factors outside your control. Examine the environmental, social, regulatory and even political environment. Examples of opportunities may include an ability to enter into a high growth rate subset, such as organic or non-GMO crops, or innovation such as the ability to provide produce hydroponically year-round. Threats may include the ability to deliver produce to the consumer through constrained distribution or inventory channels, as well as overall competition in the industry and influence of the macro economic environment.
High value crops
Is the produce considered a high value crop? Although relative, a high value crop allows (justifies) more complicated systems and increased spending on initial setup.
Just like traditional farming, the vast majority of costs are associated with getting started and are fixed. Once the operation is up and running, the variable costs are relatively minimal by comparison.
Suitability of crops
Be sure to consider if your strain or type of fruit/vegetable is suited for hydroponic cultivation. Most herbs (basil, chamomile, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, lavender, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme), flowers, and fruits and vegetables (artichokes, asparagus, beans, beets, berries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, grapes, lettuce, peas, peppers, spinach, tomatoes) are candidates for indoor gardening. Not all crops are suited for hydroponic systems. Avoid corn, melons and some squashes, as they aren’t compact, space efficient or therefore practical. In essence, some crops don’t give you the return required to justify the expenditure of capital and resources.
Since there are many types (and hybrids) of indoor gardening techniques, finding a system that works optimally for your crop could be a process of trial and error. Don’t be afraid of testing a few systems out on a small scale to determine which works best for you. You may even find that some systems work best for cloning or germination, or early vegetative growth, whereas others excel at finishing (fruiting/flowering) the crop.
The largest benefit of utilizing any of these systems is the increased growth rate of most plants. It’s common for a plant to grow 20 percent faster and yield 25 percent more than their traditional counterparts. The reason is that the plant’s roots can better access the water, nutrients and oxygen that they need to grow. By allowing the roots to access these more easily, the plant can devote more energy to growth.
This is the system that is likely most familiar to those with farming experience. With drip irrigation, water is pumped through a feeder hose to a drip emitter or drip line on the top of the medium (like rain to outdoor crops).
By far the easiest indoor setup involves use of wicks. This is considered a passive system, because there are literally no moving parts. A plant’s container has a wick that runs from the medium into the nutrient solution. The wick carries nutrients to the plant’s roots, which are above and do not touch the nutrient solution.
Deep water culture
The next system popular among indoor gardeners is a deep water culture setup. The plant is placed on a platform that sits slightly above a nutrient solution where the roots will be submerged in highly oxygenated water. Sometimes the plants are placed on a Styrofoam raft, which floats directly on the solution.
Ebb and flow
Ebb and flow systems have been a staple of hydroponic horticulture for decades. The plant is placed in a tray, which can and will be flooded. A pump located below the tray with a timer intermittingly floods the area with a nutrient solution, which then utilizes gravity to drain back into the reservoir under the tray containing an oxygenated nutrient solution.
Nutrient film technique
Nutrient film technique is a popular choice among professionals in the industry. The nutrient solution continuously flows down through a sloped channel on which the roots form and then feed from. Once the solution reaches the end of the channel, it is pumped back into a reservoir, and the process repeats infinitely.
Aeroponics is a setup that commercial indoor growers utilize often. It is one of the more recently developed and high-tech setups. Plants generally have a collar that fits in preconstructed holes located in the top of a reservoir. Similar to the nutrient film technique, the medium is primarily air. Roots are suspended in air in a misting chamber, which is a reservoir that contains specialized sprayers and a pump. Many people provide additional oxygen to the roots through use of air stones. Some prefer to use a timer similar to the ebb and flow method, although the time between cycles is much shorter.
Hopefully, this month’s column has shed some light on the types of hydroponic systems available, and has moved you a little closer to understanding the questions you should ask as you contemplate the various options.
Read more: Hydroponics 101: What Is Hydroponics?