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Photo courtesy of MAUREEN GILMER via Scripps Howard News Service Hydroponic vegetable-growing revolutionizes off-season availability of seasonal produce.
Sunday, January 29, 2012

Hydroponic gardening may aid food supply

I grew up in NASA’s Apollo years from 1961-72, when space-age technology yielded such essentials as memory foam, smoke detectors and water filters.

The agency helped fine-tune other products, such as cordless tools for Black & Decker, to make them better suited to space.

It shows how a new industry can have an unexpected impact on everyday life. That was on my mind recently as I strolled through the Maximum Yield Indoor Gardening Expo in Long Beach, Calif. Such expos focus exclusively on hydroponics, the science of cultivating plants in soil-less media with little more than water and nutrient solutions.

In hydroponic gardening, science and chemistry replace the old traditions of gardening. For we horticulturists, it’s a brave new world in which demand for hothouse lettuce and tomatoes allows them to be grown almost anywhere there is a greenhouse and water.

The profits generated by botanical medicine cultivation have put this new method of growing plants front and center. Startups are rife here, and they represent a broad range of materials and techniques.

Many companies develop nutrient solutions that range from the Sunshine Advanced two-formula system to a complex series of bottled plant food. There is no soil, just growing media, which range from volcanic cinders to finely ground organic matter.

You need a background in heating, ventilation and air conditioning to understand the pots and watering systems, as well as climate control for indoor cultivation.

The demand for hydroponics has led to an innovative environment in which small companies are working to grow better plants without soil.

It’s downright difficult to reproduce Mother Nature’s soil, element by element. Soil has at least 16 vital nutrients, and hydroponically cultivated plants need each one in the right concentration. Too much, and the media become toxic; too little, and plants fail.

Recently, growers learned that microbes living in natural soil need to be introduced to these growing media so they can help plants via a natural symbiotic relationship. They also learned it’s essential to test plant tissue to make sure the applied nutrients actually reach the plant.

As I studied, I realized that what was going on someday would prove vital to human survival on a shrinking planet. Here, I found the genesis of food crops where soil is absent. In areas that lack arable farmland, it could be the foundation for a sustainable food supply on Mars. It’s certainly the foundation for a sustainable food supply on Earth.

Like NASA, these growers, manufacturers, plant breeders, climate controllers, rooting media makers and so many others are using old-fashioned American ingenuity in a free market. Not only do they supply goods and services, they also strive to make the whole technique feasible.

It isn’t easy to get started in hydroponics, and it can be expensive. But the greatest minds in horticulture are seeking to streamline the hydro world.

Crops can bring high profits for those successful in this form of horticulture. The freebies and sales displays of these companies are far more than mom-and-pop operations. Representatives from Holland and Australia were at the trade show, evidence that there is a sizable market.

By the end of the day, I concluded this is the birth of a globally sustainable food supply. Although one may not agree with some of the plants they cultivate, the way they cultivate benefits us all.

Anything that helps us grow food where none could be grown before will closely resemble the benefits yielded from sending man where he had never gone before.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at mogilmer@yahoo.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.