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Could Hydroponics be the Answer to California’s Latest Drought?

HydroponicsCalifornia’s latest drought has been a fixture all over national news for the past few months. Throughout history the unpredictable climate of the Golden State has always left farmers guessing into the amount of rain the state will receive during the year. The Governor of the State, Jerry Brown, recently ordered all citizens to cut their water usage by 25 percent, further hammering home the point that this drought is becoming a very serious problem. Knowing that farmers in California have already suffered the brunt force of this drought, Brown has left farmers exempt from this 25 percent slashing, but has ordered some holders of water-rights claims to stop draining water. The fact is though, most farmers have close to no water left, and with no end to the drought in sight, many farmers are considering all alternative options to save water.

One of these water-saving alternatives is hydroponics. Hydroponic growing is attracting much attention due to the loss of fertile farmland and large scale droughts around the world. Hydroponics may simply be described as growing plants with nutrients and water, while leaving the dirt behind.

Crop watering

Traditional watering methods

To California growers in particular the most important advantage of hydroponics may be the water-saving feature of the technique.  Take into account how the average famer waters their plants. Usually every few days they dump a good amount of water into the soil, ensuring good penetration into the soil so the roots can absorb it. The drawback with this is that only a small percentage of that water is used by the plant. Hydroponics solves this problem by using a re-circulating nutrient reservoir.

This means that a plant’s roots will only take up the amount of water they need at any one time and return the rest to the reservoir for later. The reservoir is covered to prevent evaporation, and no water can seep out of the bottom.

This allows the same amount of water that was used to water a plant in soil for a day to water a plant in a hydroponics setup for days or weeks at a time. Farmers can save around 90 percent of the water used in soil gardening simply by switching to a hydroponic setup. Some studies have even shown a savings of nearly 97 percent.

Hydroponics

There are a few different kinds of hydroponic growing, the real key to picking a system is figuring out what system works well for your specific crop and growing area. The most popular systems are:

  • Wick Systems: Seen as the most simplistic hydroponics system. The wick system is described as a passive system, meaning there are no moving parts. From the bottom reservoir, your specific nutrient solution is drawn up through a number of wicks into the growing medium.  This system can use a variety of mediums, including perlite, soil or coco.

Wick System

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  • Water Culture: This system is an active system with moving parts. As active hydroponic systems go, water culture is the simplest. The roots of the plant are totally immersed in the water, which contains specific nutrient solutions. Adding an air pump will help oxygenate the water and allow the roots to breathe. It’s good to note that very few plants other than lettuce will do well in this type of system.

Float bed

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  • Ebb & Flow System: This hydroponic system works by temporarily flooding the grow tray. The nutrient solution from a reservoir surrounds the roots before draining back. This action is usually automated with a water pump on a timer.

Ebb & Flo system

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  • Drip System: Drip systems are a widely used hydroponic method. A timer controls a water pump, which pumps water and the nutrient solution through a network of elevated water jets. A recovery system will collect excess nutrient solution back into the reservoir. A non-recovery drip system will avoid this allowing the pH of the reservoir not to vary. If using a recovery system, be sure to check the pH level of the reservoir regularly and adjust using either pH UP or pH down solutions on a more frequent basis.

Dutch Bucket SystemDripper stakes close up

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  • N.F.T System: The N.F.T system is at the forefront of people’s minds when hydroponics is mentioned. The Nutrient Film Technique uses a constant flow of your nutrient solution (therefore no timer is required). The solution is pumped from a reservoir into the growing tray. The growing tray requires no growing medium, because the roots draw up the nutrients from the flowing solution. The downward flow pours back into the reservoir to be recycled again. Pump and electric maintenance is essential to avoid system failures, where roots can dry out rapidly when the flow stops.

NFT System

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  • Aeroponics: Aeroponic systems are seen to be the most high tech method of hydroponic growing. Like the N.F.T system, the growing medium is primarily air. The roots are suspended in the air and are misted with nutrient solution. The misting of roots is usually done every few minutes. The roots will dry out rapidly if the misting cycles are interrupted. A timer controls the nutrient pump, much like other types of hydroponic systems, except the aeroponic system needs a short cycle timer that runs the pump for a few seconds every couple of minutes.

Aeroponic systemAlbion Strawberry in Aeroponic system

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 By using hydroponics, farmers are no longer limited by climate, season or water supply in their pursuit of growing and harvesting their crops. Farmers from all over can now grow virtually any plant at any time of the year using this technique.

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