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20 January 2019

Hydroponic Growing Systems

Most of the systems we use ourselves and sell are small-scale and suitable for amateur gardeners, but similar systems are used commercially.

The Hydroponicum wick system

A commonly used method of protecting the roots from drying out is to use an inert growing medium to hold a reservoir of nutrient solution around the roots of the plants. This buffers the roots against any interruptions in nutrient flow. A growing medium also makes it possible for larger plants to be grown in pots by providing a means of support for the plant.  There are several hydroponic systems which use growing media. The wick system was developed at the Hydroponicum in Achiltibuie over many years and uses uniquely designed 'Pyramid Pots' consisting of a tapered removable top and square base. This reduces the top surface area of the growing medium and minimises the loss of water by evaporation. Each pot is fitted with a capillary matting wick which takes up nutrient solution into the growing medium. The design of the pot is such that it can be used either with or without the tapered top, depending on the type of plant being grown. Small, fast crops such as salad leaves and herbs are easily grown in the base portion of the pot, while larger plants like houseplants and tomatoes use the whole pot.

Our Pyramid Pots are very popular because they are suitable for a wide range of plants. We fill our pots with our 'Gold' growing medium (see Growing media for details) which absorbs water and nutrients and holds lots of air too. Pyramid pots form the basis of many of our most widely used systems, both by ourselves and many of our customers. They are designed to fit inside our green planters (each planter can be fitted with 1 to 4 pyramid pots); these can be used either singly or joined together as a larger system. We also use the pyramid pots fitted inside a long channel and grow all our tomatoes and strawberries in this way.

For a single planter, the nutrient can be topped up manually so it is perfect for placing on a windowsill for growing salads or herbs. On a larger scale planters can be joined together with pipes and the nutrient can be pumped into the first planter from a tank. The nutrient flows round the circuit and recirculates into the tank. This saves a lot of work and the tank can last up to 2 weeks.

Floating raft system

One of the simplest forms of hydroponics involves floating plants over a tank of nutrient solution with the roots growing down into it. The plants are usually grown in small pots which are held above the tank on a polystyrene raft. Oxygen is supplied to the roots of the plants by aerating the solution with an airstone running off an air pump. Small leaf crops such as lettuce and other salad leaves grow very fast in this system. They are not competing for nutrients with other plants, so a large number can be grown in a small space. This is a great system if you only have a small space for growing.

Nutrient film technique (NFT)

Another commonly used system is called Nutrient Film Technique or NFT. The plants' roots sit in a channel or tray with a constant thin film of hydroponic nutrient solution pumped from a tank flowing along it which then returns to the tank. Like other methods of hydroponics, NFT produces very rapid growth.  There is no growing medium other than that which was used to propagate the plant from a seed or cutting (see propagation for details of suitable media), thus saving on cost. However, the lack of a growing medium means that the roots of the plants will dry out if the pump stops working and nutrient stops flowing. Also, if a disease gets into the roots of the plants then it may be transported throughout the system very quickly.  This system can be used for a wide range of crops, commonly tomatoes and herbs. Kits available from our on-line shop which use NFT are the Polar gully kit and the DualFlow NFT kit.

Flood & drain (ebb & flow)

This system is sometimes called 'Flood and Drain', sometimes 'Ebb and Flow'. The plants are grown in a tray which is intermittently flooded with nutrient solution from a reservoir tank; this is then allowed to drain back to the tank. As the water fills the tray it pushes stale air up and out of the pots, then as the water drains back out of the pots, fresh air is drawn into the growing medium round the plants' roots. The solution is pumped from a tank and is controlled by a timer so that the cycle is repeated several times a day. The overflow controls the height to which the medium is flooded.

This system can be used with a wide range of growing media and is used for a wide range of plants. The tray can be filled with the medium or individual pots can be placed in the tray to make it easier to move plants in and out of the system. We grow courgettes in our Flood & Drain system. The courgettes are planted in a tray of clay granules. We also grow a range of flowers, houseplants and salad crops in small pots placed on the tray.

This system needs a little more vigilance than some other systems.  Pump and timer failures leave the plants vulnerable to drying out, whilst the tank must be checked regularly to adjust nutrient strength and pH.

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