The word “hydroponics” comes from two Greek words that together mean “working water.”  To put it in one sentence—hydroponics is the process of growing plants in water, without the use of soil.

The idea behind basic hydroponics is to provide plants with the essentials they need for growth—essentials they normally get through the soil—through alternative means.  In simplest terms, plants need the following four things to grow:

•    Light
•    Water
•    Nutrients
•    A growth medium (i.e., an anchor for the roots)

Plants generally rely on the soil for three of these four elements—water, nutrients and an anchor.  However, the only thing the soil provides directly is the growth medium (water and nutrients come through the soil, but aren’t provided by the soil).  So if you provide an alternative anchor for the roots, you don’t really need soil—as long as you provide water, light and nutrients to the plant.

In basic hydroponics, plants are set up in a growing tray, anchored by some sort of alternate medium, which can be any of a variety of substances ranging from Rockwool to vermiculite. A ph-balanced solution of water and nutrients is supplied directly to the roots, often with the use of a simple pump-and-recycle system.  All that’s left is to provide proper lighting (natural sunlight, specialized grow lights or a combination of the two), and plants will grow without soil.  In fact, when these elements are provided properly, growth can be even better than that of plants grown conventionally.

Of course, all of this begs the question from some: why go to all this trouble when you can just grow plants in soil?  There are two basic answers to this question:

1.    With hydroponics, we can grow plants just about anywhere.  As long as we can create a controlled environment, we can grow food; we are no longer limited to places with soil and sunlight.  This means, for example, that people in urban areas without access to a garden have the option to raise their own food using hydroponics.  It also means that we can grow food in the dead of winter, in arctic regions where it is dark six months of the year, and theoretically, even in space!

2.    Hydroponics can be a preferred solution when other growing conditions are hostile.  For example, in parts of the world where the soil is depleted of nutrients or contaminated by pollutants, it is preferable to grow food hydroponically. Not only can it protect people from contaminants, but the plants can also be fed richer nutrients to yield better harvests than growing in the soil of these areas.

In short, hydroponics opens up new options to societies and individuals alike.  Not only are governments like Holland and Canada using hydroponics to grow food on a broad scale, but with a knowledge of the basics of hydroponics, individuals now have the ability to benefit as well.