At the most recent agricultural census, the U.S. government found that about 40% of the country is farmland. Growing enough food to feed the world’s population is difficult, and getting more so. That’s why so many people are turning to hydroponic systems instead of traditional farming.
Hydroponic farming can be cost-effective if you have a good home setup. There are more and less expensive ways to do it, but if you plan carefully, hydroponics can be a smart investment.
In this article, I will explain how hydroponic systems work, and explore the disadvantages and benefits of setting one up in your home or backyard. I’ll also break down the costs of running such a setup and explain how to decide if it’s worth it for you.
How Hydroponic Systems Work
Plants get carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen from the air around them. Other nutrients—like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—are harder to come by.
In the wild, plants grow roots through the soil in search of nutrients. The problem with this kind of agriculture is that it takes up a lot of space and energy.
Hydroponic farming replaces dirt and surrounds plants’ roots in water. Then, different nutrients and growth hormones are added to the water in carefully measured amounts, making sure the plants get what they need to grow. Artificial lights designed to give off the exact kind of light plants need also optimize their growth.
Costs and Benefits of Hydroponics
Here are a few items to consider when thinking about the financial viability of hydroponics:
In the wild, or even in cropland, plants often end up growing in far from perfect conditions. Hydroponics allows the grower to optimize things like pH, nutrient content, the amount of light, and the spacing of the plants.
It’s also easier to keep an eye out for diseases and keep pests away from your plants.
All this means that hydroponics-grown plants mature faster and produce more food per unit of space. In 1936, a biologist named William Gericke “was able to harvest nearly one ton of tomatoes in just 10 square feet” of space using hydroponics.
A more recent experiment found that tomatoes raised in water grew 20% faster than tomatoes raised in traditional soil!
Another advantage of hydroponics is that growing plants this way requires fewer resources than normal farming, both on a large scale and for personal gardens.
Because hydroponics systems reuse water instead of losing it, they “can actually save up to 10 times the amount of water used in traditional farming”.
Another example is space. By stacking plants vertically and packing them closer together, hydroponics gardens take up much less space than normal farming methods do.
Just to give you an example, the balcony you see below is that of my niece. She lives in the city and the balcony is really tiny. Nevertheless, with the vertical stacking system, my niece enjoys three main advantages: dense covering vegetation, a space-saving system, and a rich harvest.
Costs of Hydroponics
Not only does setting up your hydroponics system cost money, but it also takes energy to keep it running. In the winter, plants have to be kept warm. Plus, you need electricity to keep the lights on and the water or air pumps running. The two main expenses are utilities and nutrient additives.
The monthly cost of a hydroponics system could be as low as $40 or as high as $150. Your electricity bill will tell you how much you pay per kilowatt-hour, or kWh, of power, and by asking around online, you can get an estimate of different hydroponics systems’ energy usage. Just multiply the two numbers, and that’ll be the added monthly cost of electricity.
Heating a hydroponics system also eats up energy. Indoor hydroponics uses less heating energy since it benefits from your house or apartment’s indoor heating systems, but for outdoor hydroponics, you may have to warm up the water in which plants are grown.
here I feel compelled to accentuate the word “may” because if it is true that the ideal temperature for hydroponic cultivation is around 64F to 74F (18-23C), it is also true that your hydroponic system will be able to survive very well a mild winter with 32F to 50F (0-10 C) thanks to the continuous flow of water.
Looking at the specs of the hydroponics system you want to use will tell you how much energy it pulls for heat.
Nutrients and Additives
You also have to pay for the nutrients added to the hydroponics system. According to cultivation management platform Artemis, “small hydroponic farms spend on average 6% of total operating expenses on seeds, growing mediums, and nutrients.”
Companies like General Hydroponics often have web features to find stores near you that carry their products.
If you’re shopping for plant nutrients online, check out sites like HTG Supply, Blue Planet Nutrients, or even Amazon.com for affordable options. For a simple system, the base nutrient mixes will be enough, and buying them in quart- or gallon-sized jugs shipped to your door makes feeding your plants pretty easy.
Lucky for you, there are plenty of affordable hydroponics systems on the market for individual growers.
The SuperPonics 8 system is small enough to fit on a kitchen counter and grow common kitchen plants like basil, lettuce, and other seasonings, and it only costs $125 for a fully automated system.
Anyone shopping on a bigger budget can look at the Tower Garden series of hydroponic systems. For a little over $600, you can grow twenty full-sized plants, which lets you grow and harvest your own kale, Swiss chard, lettuce, and other, bigger crops that are more filler than spice.
How To Decide
The easiest way to decide if a hydroponics system is right for you is by figuring out how much you spend on produce already. If you’re dropping hundreds of dollars a year on store-bought greenery, a hydroponics system could save you money.
The best crops to grow in a hydroponics system are leafy greens like lettuce, kale, spinach, and Swiss chard. Tomatoes also do well in hydroponics systems, although they need a lot more nutrients than leafy plants. If you eat a lot of these kinds of plants, you’re more likely to benefit from home hydroponics.
If you save more on produce than you would spend on powering a home hydroponics system, it will eventually pay back the cost of buying it in the first place.
Plus, you get the benefit of having fresh produce right there in your home! Hydroponics may not be right for everyone, but it’s easy to determine whether it’s right for you.