No Garden? No Problem Let’s talk about hydroponics

By Geneva Pattison

Urban landscapes often present the issue of having little space for growing at home. With less city houses with gardens being built and apartment complex living on the rise, we have to think outside the box.

In recent times, people have been turning to hydroponic growing to solve this problem. Hydroponic gardening is the practice of growing plants or vegetables through a growing medium, usually clay pellets or moss, with just water and nutrients.

The premise of this method is that you’ll be providing a higher oxygen content for your plant, with a consistent supply of fertilised water that is filtered. You may have seen hydroponics used in sci-fi movies like “Passengers” or “10 Cloverfield Lane”, but this method has been used for thousands of years.

The word hydroponic, is derived from the Greek words “hydro” meaning water and “ponos”, meaning labour. Historically, the method was first alluded to in relation to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, in a text from the third century BC, which quoted the Babylonian monk Berossus.

It is believed that the Hanging Gardens used a system of irrigated channels on top of ziggurat structures of varying heights. The ancient people devised a system of chains and pulleys to get water from the nearby Euphrates river, directing it towards the city. Eventually, it was dropped on the landing of the Hanging Gardens, trickling down to lower levels. Babylon, now modern Iraq, has a very dry climate with little rain. Thus, the hydroponic theory made perfect sense.

Hydroculture methods were even used by the Aztecs. Around the 10th and 11th century AD the island city of Tenochtitlan, which lay on lake Texcoco, devised a series of floating man-made islands to grow crops. Because sections of the lake were shallow and marshy, they pushed the rafts to the centre of the lake, where roots could access non-stagnant water through breaks in the wood. The swampy deposits along the shores were then harvested and utilised to nourish the plants.   

Map printed 1524 AD of Tenochtitlan (Wiki Commons, pixabay)

Benefits of hydroponic gardening 

One of the major benefits of hydroponic gardening is overall water conservation. Hydroponics use less water than traditional growing methods, as the water is re-circulated or stored in a reservoir for later use.

Another positive aspect of hydroponic growing is that your plant’s growth rate will speed up by around 25% with it’s produce yield improving by 30%, as opposed to traditional cultivation in soil. By eliminating the element of soil, you’re also promoting a higher oxygen intake for your plants as soil can often block the oxygen uptake for the root systems, making it difficult for plants to truly flourish.

In traditional farming, plants only absorb a fraction of the water you give them when in soil. When you choose to grow using hydroponics, you’re much more in control of your growing environment. Usually the systems are raised high off the ground, so insects will have a harder time destroying any vegetation.

Hydroponics are in essence, portable growing devices, if the growing environment is wrong, pack up and move it . Best of all, there’s no need to worry about soil-based diseases like root rot and you never have to pull weeds again. 

Potential difficulties with hydroculture 

There are some aspects to keep in mind when choosing hydroponic growing. For example, in traditional cultivation the soil is used as a buffer for stabilising the environment’s PH level. Hydroponics leaves little room for error with regards to PH changes – if too many nutrients are added to the growing solution, the entire crop could fail.

You really need to know your plants well and be acutely aware of their specific nutritional needs. In the same vein, the steady availability of water promotes a more humid environment, which could lead to mildew or fungi developing on your plants. Until you get the hang of hydroponics watch your plants.

Impact in Ireland

Urban Farm is an initiative created by Andrew Douglas. The project enables communities to work together on sustainable horticulture projects specialising in aquaculture and hydroponic growing.

One of the many innovative projects Urban Farm has been involved in was creating a rooftop indoor farm for the students of Belvedere College S.J. The students used a glass-roofed Science Laboratory aptly named the GROWlab, to cultivate their own fungi, crops and fish for year-round sustainable produce.

One of Urban Farm’s aims was to educate the students on the technology associated with hydroponics and alternative farming methods, as quoted on the website:

“Using smart technologies like interactive displays, students monitor and record variables in humidity, temperature, PH, EC, DO and the environment inside and outside the GROWlab helping to educate in biology, physics, earth sciences, the living environment and helping to provide tomorrow’s decision-makers with an elevated set of skills, a broader perspective, and a lasting sense of commitment to lead the global community in an environmentally efficient way”.  

Urban Farm has also successfully created an indoor allotment project called LOST THE PLOT in Dublin, it’s main aim being to reduce our reliance on imported goods and reduce food waste. The project hopes to create a space for people to utilise for growing crops and shared learning, while also playing host to cultural events such as talks, poetry readings and community get togethers. LOST THE PLOT also has the benefit of being assisted by knowledgeable hydroponic gardeners, so beginners can learn as they go along, with no pressure.   

The farming of tomorrow

The United Nations have predicted that by 2050 the world’s total population will rise to almost 10 billion people from our current population which stands at 7.7 billion. With this forecasted increase, there will be gargantuan pressures put on agricultural sectors across the globe to provide adequate amounts of food per person. Similarly, considering the predicted upsurge of extreme weather events set to occur, a protected hydro-farm seems like a far more functional option long-term, as opposed to a flooded field and ruined crops. 

Farmers from less arable countries with dustier climates like Yemen and Bangladesh have already started to explore the possibilities of hydroponics. It takes 1,000 years to generate the first 3cm of topsoil and with the rate of soil degradation occurring right now, we have to start viewing alternative means of growing.

Once the feasible and sustainable methodologies have been put in place, hydroculture should be a very real and viable option for keeping up with food demands on a global level. 

Urban Farm’s website:

United Nations population forecast graph:

Scholarly article on Hydroponics:

History of Hydroponics:

Information on Hydroponics:

Image: Map printed in 1524 AD of Tenochtitlan