Hydroponics is the next step in sustainable and high-efficiency agriculture. However, the promises and benefits of hydroponics are coupled with a steeper learning curve and a higher barrier to entry which some people may not be ready to try.
Hydroponics is difficult to learn and start because 1) it is an uncommon way to grow plants, 2) easier to fail, 3) intimidating learning curve, 4) high technical knowledge, 5) higher start-up cost, 6) utility costs, 7) maintenance, 8) and even aesthetics.
The reasons connect to one another and eventually culminate why hydroponics can be so daunting for some people. Hydroponics isn’t for everyone but if you’re willing to try, it’s a good idea to know why it might be so intimidating in the first place.
Hydroponics is a massive step up from soil cultivation in terms of complexity but also growth rate and yield. The following reasons give us a fair understanding of the higher requirements in hydroponics compared to soil cultivation.
Traditional soil cultivation is the norm in the collective consciousness of the public. When the public thinks of gardening, farming, or planting, they think exclusively of soil.
From our earliest interaction with nature to our formative years in education, we were taught that plants grow on soil and that too much water can drown them. Because of this, the thought of growing plants solely on water is such an alien concept that many people I talk with have no idea that it can be done! So no surprise that the majority of us have a few pots here and there but not a hydroponic system.
You might think that hydroponic is some kind of new and lab-developed technology. Well, it’s actually not!
Hydroponics is a tried and tested process with plenty of history behind it. Hydroponics may be a 17th-century innovation but it’s only in the 21st century where it’s becoming more prevalent since the equipment, materials, and tools for its operation are now more accessible to the layman.
However, this belated rise to prominence means a lack of accessible, expert-verified information available to the public to guide them in operating a hydroponics system.
The blessing of hydroponics is the greater control over the growing conditions. However, this is also why hydroponics has a higher chance of failure. Lots of variables to control means a higher chance of failing the whole system.
In hydroponics, the gardener needs to directly and constantly monitor and control. To list:
- Water nutrient content
- Water temperature
- Water pH
- Water oxygen levels
- Water flow
- Root position
- Water Electric conductivity
In a plant growing on soil, the only thing you need to control is probably the water level (and if you have a cactus you can water them once a month).
However, since there are more independent variables that can be manipulated, it also means there is a greater spectrum of mistakes which can arise. There can be a problem with the temperature of the reservoir, the acidity level, the amount of dissolved oxygen in water, nutrient unbalance, the water flow provided by the pumps, and so on.
Compared to soil cultivation where the issues are caused by external factors which require human intervention to fix, in hydroponics, the issues are often perpetuated and fixed by human intervention.
Hydroponics has an intimidating learning curve especially for a beginner because of the attention required to properly monitor and control many variables
Soil cultivation starts and ends with the planting process. There is regular watering and observation, however, the truth is that the plant is already self-sufficient to a considerable extent, able to live and thrive without regular human intervention. This is in stark contrast to hydroponics which requires micromanaging.
This is a lot to take in for a beginner. Not only does a beginner have to become intimate with horticultural knowledge but also the intricacies of hydroponics. The biological needs and quirks of growing a certain plant may be best suited to a certain hydroponic technique.
There is a fair degree of technical knowledge required to start and succeed in hydroponics. A beginner must have the knowledge of what plants need, which hydroponic systems better cater to those needs, and build a system around those needs.
Hydroponics systems come in different forms such as deep water culture (DWC), nutrient film technique (NFT), ebb and flow, and wick system, among others. Each one of them has its pros, cons, and caveats to effectively use. To know which technique is best for which plant will significantly affect plant growth, health, and the gardener’s experience.
For example, lightweight, leafy and fast-growing plants such as kale, lettuce, or broccoli are best grown in a nutrient film technique (NFT) system because NFT systems are better suited to fast-growing plants with small root systems.
For an enterprising gardener who wants to try growing plants with large roots or root crops (i.e. potatoes, it’s possible to use an ebb and flow system to make sure that the roots have enough space without the risk of drowning the root system.
Hydroponics often has a higher start-up cost compared to soil cultivation. The basic hydroponic system might cost ~$100 or more. This includes the nutrient reservoir, the PVC pipes, the grow trays, the nutrient solution, the air pumps, and the water pumps, among others.
Depending on where you are in the world, these costs may be higher due to the lack of available materials or the limited presence of a hydroponics niche.
Fortunately, many hydroponic systems are modular, requiring a bit of tweaking to increase the number of plants they can grow. A gardener can start off comfortably small and gradually progress to a larger system by implementing the necessary components.
Pre-made hydroponic sets are also becoming more popular and provide for a diverse set of configurations which will definitely make the initial setup in hydroponics easier. For example, there’s this NFT system on Amazon which may be a good starting point for any gardener.
Some hydroponics systems require constant electricity to operate. In addition, grow lamps, heating, and ventilation are sometimes employed indoors and these also require electricity. Finally, water and nutrients have to be regularly added. These costs culminate over time.
To illustrate some of these utility costs: 1) electricity to maintain the pumps and the lights, 2) water has to be topped off and replaced after every cycle, 3) nutrients have to be added regularly into the nutrient reservoir to prevent nutrient deficiency, 4) space occupied by the hydroponic system has to be accounted for in rent/tax, and 5) heating has to be taken into consideration depending on the climate and season.
The costs add up and for some, it may be a bit more than what they would prefer. We have this helpful article where the utility cost of hydroponics is scrutinized in greater detail.
Another reason why hydroponic systems are not so popular is their maintenance. Indeed, not only is it vital to keep the hydroponic system clean but also the moving parts, like the pump, tend to break over time.
A hydroponic system will grow dirty over time and requires cleaning to make sure that the sterile conditions are maintained. The presence of biofilm accumulation, organisms in the nutrient reservoir, dirt, or cloudy water can negatively affect not only the plants but also the components in the system such as the drain, the pumps, and the pipes.
Hydroponic systems are often cleaned with either chlorine bleach or hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). In controlled solutions, these cleaning agents can help sterilize a system with some brushing and wiping.
This constant need for cleaning and maintenance would be a turn-off for some gardeners because it is an additional hindrance to a cultivation process that already requires so much observation and attention. Compared to soil cultivation where cleanliness is desirable but not crucial, in hydroponics cleanliness is a necessity.
Aesthetics can serve as a factor in motivating a person to learn hydroponics. Sometimes, beauty matters in overcoming the steep learning curve and barrier to entry.
Soil cultivation is more aesthetically pleasing because of clay pots with their earthy colors and textures. On the other hand, hydroponics is a construct made of plastic containers, PVC pipes, and air pumps. It may not be as aesthetically pleasing compared to ceramics, wood, and other materials.
However, hydroponics can be made beautiful by using alternative materials to PVC pipes such as bamboo, ceramics, and even copper!
The eight (8) reasons contribute to higher knowledge, cost, and maintenance requirements and why hydroponics is not in every house as potted plants are. Hydroponics caters to the grower who likes to optimize and exploit the principles of min-maxing to achieve the best version of a plant.
However, for all the hassle and difficulty of the initial setup, it does become easier with time and the benefits are unmistakable. Rapid growth, high yield, all while conserving space, water, and nutrients.
The rising prominence of pre-made hydroponic systems in the market is a good way for a grower to start off their foray into hydroponics. These also include testing equipment, nutrients, and some seeds. The best part is that they often come with guides that provide instructions to beginners for guidance and troubleshooting.
Pre-made hydroponic systems come in numerous configurations and these depend on the maker. A grower with specific needs can find the perfect pre-made system for his use case.
You can find an NFT system like this one on Amazon that has multiple configurations and can support up to 108 plants!
For something smaller and better for indoor use, a compact system like this one in Amazon is extremely convenient thanks to its built-in growth lamps.
A higher-end variant made out of stainless steel is available here on Amazon.
There’s a system out there for everyone – commercial, hobbyist, or ornamental. A quick hop on Amazon might be all that you need to start your hydroponics journey!
- Hydroponics is difficult to learn and start because of the steep learning curve and the higher barrier to entry compared to soil cultivation. There’s more investment in terms of knowledge, time, effort, and money required in hydroponics.
- Hydroponics requires more diligence and observation because there are more independent variables which can be manipulated. This will lead to rapid growth and yield if properly maintained or failures if not.
- Pre-made hydroponic sets are becoming more readily available which helps ease the initial learning curve and start up problems. They provide nearly everything for a hydroponic system with additional instructions.
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- “Hydroponics” by Abdullah Al-Ghafri in The University of Nizwa
- “Hydroponics – a Standard Methodology” by Asao et al in InTech
- “Hydroponics: A Better Way to Grow Food” by n/a in National Park Service
- “IMPACT OF HYDROPONICS: PRESENT AND FUTURE PERSPECTIVE FOR FARMER’S WELFARE” by Radhakrishnan et al in International journal of Environmental Science and Technology 5(2):19-26
- “No Soil. No Growing Seasons. Just Add Water and Technology.” by Kim Severson in New York Times
- “Student using hydroponics to grow crops” by Will Tracy in O’Colly Media Group
- “The Role of Hydroponics Technique as a Standard Methodology in Various Aspects of Plant Biology Researches” by Torabi et al in InTech
- “Vertical farming sector struggles with costs” by Hugo Claver in Future Farming