The Huntsville Item, Huntsville, TX

Local News

January 25, 2014

Gardening without soil?

HUNTSVILLE — The concept of “soil less” gardening, or hydroponics, has actually been around for centuries. The word hydroponics comes from two Greek words, “hydro” meaning water and “ponics” meaning labor. The Hanging gardens of Babylon and the Floating gardens of China are two of the earliest examples where hydroponic gardening may have been employed.

Dr. Merle Jensen of the University of Arizona describes hydroponic gardening as growing plants in nutrient-rich water without soil. In hydroponic systems water is delivered directly to the roots of the plant. The roots may hang directly into the water or be misted by it. The plants could also be enclosed in a container or trough filled with a substrate or “soil replacement.” The substrate may consist of materials such as perlite, peat moss, vermiculite, rock wool, gravel or sand. Substrates must provide good water retention yet be porous enough for gas exchange. Between watering intervals substrates serve as the storage location for water and nutrients for the plants root system.

There are many techniques or systems for delivering water to a plants root zone. Let me briefly describe few of the basic hydroponic systems and how they work.

Wick system — By far the simplest hydro system and a “passive” system because it has no moving parts. Water and nutrients are drawn into the substrate with wicks to the individual plants. A small air pump and air stone keep the reservoir aerated.

Water culture system — This system is the simplest of all active hydro systems. A platform, usually Styrofoam with holes cut out to support the plants, floats directly on the nutrient solution with the root totally submerged. An air pump with air stone supplies oxygen to the plants.

Ebb and flow system — This systems works by temporarily flooding a grow tray with nutrient solution then draining it back into reservoir. This function is normally performed with a submerged pump connected to a timer. When the timer turns the pump on the nutrient solution is pumped into the grow tray.  When the timer shuts the pump off the nutrient solution flows back into the reservoir. The timer is set to come on several times a day depending on the size and type of plant, temperature, humidity and the type of medium being used.

Recovery/non-recovery — These are drip systems. A timer controls a submersed pump which pumps the nutrient solution through a drip line directly onto the base of each plant. A “recovery system” collects any runoff of the nutrient solution and returns it to the reservoir. A “non-recovery” system does not collect the runoff.

Nutrient film technique — N.F.T. systems have a constant flow of nutrient solution which eliminates the need for a timer on the pump. The nutrient solution is pumped into the growing tray and flows over the roots of the plants then drains back into the reservoir. No growing medium is needed (substrate) and the plant is supported in a small plastic basket with the roots dangling into the nutrient solution.

Aeroponic — Like the N.F.T. system no growing medium is needed. The roots hang in the air and are misted by the nutrient solution. The misting cycle is only for a few seconds every few minutes so this type of system must be carefully monitored to insure the misting cycle is not interrupted.

Some advantages of hydroponics are it is ideally suited to areas with poor soil unsuitable for plant growth and provides a twelve month growing season. In addition, hydroponically grown plants tend to grow faster and produce larger yields.   

The disadvantages are these systems can be complicated and use a lot of electricity for the pumps, timers, lights and lamps they often require.

The biggest consideration for you to make as a gardening hobbyist is which hydroponics system is best for you and this will require a little research on your part. There is a wealth of information available to you over the Internet and thousands of vendors to answer your questions and provide you everything you need to get started. If you think hydroponics is something you would like to try, visit the following website, It’s good information to help you get started.

Don’t forget, the 2014 Walker County Master Gardener Spring Plant Sale is 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 8 at the Walker County AgriLife Extension Office. (102 Tam Rd., off Highway 75 North)

FYI: The Walker County Extension Office is now on Facebook! WalkerCoTxAgrilife has been established to provide updates and information to Walker County residents and landowners on a timely basis. For more information on the Walker County Master Gardeners, please call (936) 435-2426 or go to The WCMG website is a bounty of useful gardening information and citizens are encouraged to peruse it often.

If you have any questions about the information in this article or any of the Extension programs, please contact the Walker County Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Office at (936) 435-2426, or Extension programs serve people of all ages regardless of socioeconomic level, race, color, sex, religion, disability or national origin.

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