What Exactly is Hydroponics?
The word hydroponics derives from the Greek and is composed of hydro (water) and ponos (working). Hydroponics is a way to grow plants without using soil. Instead of soil, cultivation takes place in highly-oxygenated, nutrient-enriched growing solution. Using a nutrient solution instead of natural soil does away with the need to frequently use commercial fertilizers or completely replace the soil in greenhouses.
History of Hydroponics
Down the ages, hydroponics has been practiced by many ancient civilizations. More recently, in the year 1699, John Woodward, an English scientist, began experimenting with growing mint plants without soil. Woodward came to be considered the founder of present-day hydroponic growing systems. Around 1860, two Germans, Sachs and Knap, developed laboratory techniques to make nutrient solution cultures.
Hydroponics in the United States
About 1925, experimentation with the use of hydroponics for large-scale crop production in greenhouses began. During World War II, troops stationed on non-arable Pacific islands were supplied with fresh food grown in specially established local hydroponic facilities. In the Space Age, hydroponics has been integrated into the space program. For a more complete history of hydroponics and how it works, click here.
Hydroponics and Sustainable Agriculture
More and more people are coming to understand the importance of sustainable agriculture and the future for hydroponics looks bright. Hydroponic systems are becoming more user-friendly and readily available for the average person to grow their own food.
Seniors and Hydroponics
Hydroponic gardens are turning up in assisting living communities such as Concord Place in Northlake, Illinois. David Friedman, the head of F&F Realty that owns and runs Concord Place, is a passionate advocate of the sustainability agriculture movement and believes in using local food sources. In 2014 he hired a gardening design firm to transform the existing greenhouse on the rooftop, which was growing flowers the traditional way, into a modern hydroponic growing facility. To quote David:
“The rooftop hydroponic garden has become a place that is easily accessible for the residents and encourages them to learn, grow, share knowledge and enjoy the harvest. It has given many of our seniors a sense of purpose. They are able to grow their own food which is used in Concord Place’s kitchen. They are actually taking part in feeding their own community while learning about local food sources and sustainability.”
Seniors Involved in the Hydroponic Garden’s Design
Concord Place’s production manager, Samantha Lewerenz, and the facility’s residents helped to design their hydroponic garden they have named the Harvest Rooftop Garden. Lewerenz is involved in the ongoing training of the residents to teach them how to plant, harvest, and increase production.
What Does the Harvest Rooftop Garden Grow?
The seniors grow a variety of vegetables, fruits, and herbs including basil, cilantro, dill, fennel, mint, and oregano. They also produce several kinds of lettuce, including a gourmet blend, and are experimenting with microgreens, sugar snap peas, and Swiss chard. Lettuce production is so good that approximately thirty pounds of lettuce are harvested at a time. Surplus produce that the residents of the assisted living facility are unable to eat is shared with some local restaurants that are committed to using local ingredients.
“We wanted to make sure that we didn’t waste any surplus produce,” said Friedman, “so we arranged for the surplus to be used by our company’s restaurants.”
Seniors Become Committed Hydroponic Gardeners
Hydroponics is a system that requires seniors to learn new methods of gardening. The garden uses ninety percent less water than a traditional garden because the water is recirculated. There was a definite learning curve before the garden became stable and increasingly productive. Here are the steps that the seniors are involved in:
- Plant seeds are placed in seed starter trays on the propagation table and carefully watered for one to three weeks. (All garden tables are tall so that residents don’t need to bend over.)
- When they are ready, the young plants are moved to a second table, where they spend another two weeks developing a root system.
- When their root system is sufficiently developed, the plants are placed in the hydroponic medium which contains all the necessary nutrients to enable them to grow to maturity.
What the Seniors Need to Learn
“In some ways, this is easier than traditional gardening,” said Lewerenz. “But since it’s a new way of doing things, there are many aspects of the process that need to be learned.”
A good pH balance must be maintained in the water for the plants to do well.
Because the garden is a greenhouse environment, its temperature is controlled as much as possible. However, because the outside air temperature changes with the seasons, the inside temperature does vary somewhat. This has led the seniors to discover that summer crops, such as cucumbers and tomatoes, grow better in the summer, while cooler weather vegetables, such as peas, are more suited to being grown during the colder months. Herbs tend to grow well throughout the year.
“We are still expanding the garden and haven’t reached full capacity yet,” said Lewerenz. “We are experimenting with other specialty greens and edible flowers such as violas and nasturtium, which has an edible, peppery-tasting flower. We also have a Dutch bucket system in which we are growing tomatoes and cucumbers. We are using as many natural and organic methods as possible to produce the best nutrient-rich products. Hydroponic gardening systems use up to ninety percent less water than traditional irrigation systems; the system recirculates the water. We are hoping to incorporate a compost system, and we may be able to install some raised beds on the roof area outside the hydroponic garden.”
The Benefits of the Hydroponic Garden
The residents who work in the garden can come and go as they please, and visiting family members and friends are welcome to join in. The reactions to the garden have been very positive. The number of gardeners keeps growing, and some are growing a few plants in their apartments. One resident said:
“So much work goes into getting those little seeds into those pots. But then you see what comes. It’s very rewarding.”
“It has been great to bring the residents together through a food-based program,” said Lewerenz. “This is a very good way to interact, and the residents are learning to try new things and enjoy new flavors. We plan to work closer with the residents to get them more involved, providing them with educational opportunities and helping to facilitate more community relationships within the residential community. There are many hydroponic gardens being set up in the area, but none in a retirement community that involves and benefits the community like this one. We’re really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish so far. We hope to provide many of the greens used at Concord’s kitchen. It doesn’t get any more local than that!”