Hydroponics Hunting

At Open Biotecture, we view home-grown food as a central element of self-sufficiency. However, the reality for most of people is the scarcity of land, even more so in urban areas, which depend heavily on the hinterlands. Hence, since about 2 months, we started experimenting roof-top gardening. It has been quite a success and in the process we also have established a small network of Urban Food Growers which is to launch an on-line interactive platform very soon.

Yet as we got concerned with the efficiency and ease of food production in urban households, it seemed roof-top gardening wasn’t enough and so we investigated into and became very enthusiastic about hydroponics. Why get excited about hydroponics? Hydroponics consists of growing plants by feeding them with water and nutrients, which is put in contact with the roots, without the use of soil.  By not using soil, hydroponics saves space and also reduces risk of contaminations (especially so if grown indoors). Hydroponics also allows complete control of the amount of water and nutrients used to feed the plant. In hydroponics systems, plants usually thrive more than when grown from soil.

There are 3 basic types of hydroponics (in fact much more, but I like to reduce them to these to keep things simple):

  1. Rafting: the plants float on a raft and the roots deep into oxygenated water with nutrients.
  2. Irrigation: the plants are set in a growing medium which is irrigated with nutrient water (either in ebb-and-flow, continuous flow or drip)
  3. Aeroponics: the plants hang in the air and the roots are sprayed with nutrient water.

Of these the 3rd the one that brings the most oxygen to roots, roots love oxygen, and when roots thrive, the plant thrives.

Besides hydroponics we should also think of aquaponics, which uses water from fish-tanks (full of healthy nutrients) to feed plants and the water is then fed back to the tanks. Although aquaponics is quite interesting in terms of creating a closed loop, it disables control over the nutrition of plants, which is what makes hydroponics interesting. We’ll keep it in mind for now, because growing fish at home is also very healthy and empowering.

Hence, for the past 3 days, Ruchu Adhikari, permaculturist, and myself, have roamed in the Kathmandu valley to find various hydroponics installations and hydroponics experts. This trip was tough and dusty, because Kathmandu has no proper address system and there was no GPS coordinates available. During our tour we have visited four institutions:

  1. Garden of Wisdom
  2. NARC
  3. New Life Handicapped Home
  4. Hope Nepal

Garden of Wisdom is located in Koteshwor, Kathmandu. Its owner, Sanjay Panta is a chemist and biologist by training and has imported some hydroponics material from the UEA and is soon going to start his own installation. Sanjay is also planning to produce is own nutrients from “juices”, by blending different kinds of weeds, extracting and synthesising nutrients from them. We are quite happy about Sanjay’s ideas and we do hope to collaborate with him in our future researches.

Ruchu and Sanjay at Garden of Wisdom

Ruchu and Sanjay at Garden of Wisdom

The National Agricultural Research Center (NARC) is located in Godawari. Its Potato Research Department has tried successfully growing potatoes in a hydroponics system. The system is currently not running but they will soon start a second round of experiments. We have had no documentation from the NARC on this matter yet, but we hope to get some soon.

New Life Handicapped Home, in Chalnakhel, had a aquaponic system set up by Hope Nepal. Unfortunately, they demolished the installation to increase the size of their house. So we were left with nothing to see.

Hope Nepal, situated in Godawari, has a demonstration farm exploiting aquaponics. The system itself is quite impressive, with several tilapia fish ponds, from which the water is extracted and fed to several hydroponics installations (rafts, irrigated tables and tubes). However we were left unimpressed with the plant growth at the farm. It seemed the system was much too complex and expensive for the output it appeared to yield. This said, we got no stats in our hands to verify this.

So far thus, there seems to be very little applied hydroponics in Nepal. This leaves us with the task of researching and developing some systems ourselves. Ruchu and I have already found some material in Kathmandu and we hope to start soon with a simple rafting system enclosed in a mini greenhouse, we’ll also set another in-soil plantation to compare our yield. More on this will come soon.

Nutrients available in Kathmandu.

Nutrients available in Kathmandu.

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10 responses to “Hydroponics Hunting

  1. My only question about a hydroponics system is if it can be really organic. Most of the fertilizer solutions used in a hydroponic systems are highly chemical. Do you have a picture of the ingredients of the water soluble fertilizer solution in the picture?

    • Hi Timila. It’s a great question and in fact studying hydroponics made me think a lot about this topic. And in this way I realised I didn’t really know what “organic” really means.

      In hydroponics, the nutrients you add to water are basic minerals and such:
      Macro Nutrients:
      – Nitrogen (N) is primary to foliage plant growth.
      – Phosphorus (P) Phosphorus helps build strong roots and is vital for flower and seed production.
      – Potassium (K) increases chlorophyll in foliage and helps regulate stomata openings so plants make better use of light and air.

      Secondary Nutrients are Magnesium (Mg), Calcium (Ca).

      Trace Elements are Sulphur (S), Iron (Fe), Manganese (Mg), Zinc (Z), Copper (C), Boron (B), Molybdenum (Mn).

      Plants naturally grow in soil because they drink the above nutrients from it. Whether Nitrogen is found in soil or in a plastic bottle, it is always Nitrogen. So there is nothing more chemical to adding nutrients to water than using the nutrients from the soil.

      When we are talking about organic food, I think of two aspects:
      1. food safety (is my food contaminated with poisons that will harm my health)?
      2. environment protection (is the production of my food sustainable or harmful to the environment it depends on)?

      In the case of food safety, the nutrients are not more harmful than those found in soil. This is what the plant eats no matter what.
      In the case of environmental protection, the nutrients are not added to the soil but kept in a closed system. The only question then is “what is the carbon footprint made by producers of such nutrients?” I don’t know.
      Sanjay Panta, of Garden of Wisdom, says such nutrients are present everywhere in plants, and they can be harvested to produce nutrients. This is an interesting aspect which I want to investigate in, because I would like to recycle as much of the garden waste as possible (is it feasible to get the nutrients out of my dead tomato leaves?)

      As far as I am concerned now, the concept of organic and non-organic does not apply to hydroponics. Organic applies to soil-cultivation, because soil is a living organism and organic cultivation consists in cultivating in respect of this organism. In hydroponics, we are not dealing with soil. However, food can still be fresh, green and healthy and non-harmful to environment, which for me are satisfying criteria on their own.

      I hope I answered your question.

  2. Can you say anything about its advantages in context of nepal? And what about the cost of product grown from this technique? Does this product cost more in comparison to our locally grown products?

    • Hi and thank you for your input.

      Could you be more precise regarding which aspect of the Nepali context you are refering to? The perspective of our research and development here is to find ways to produce home-grown food in an urban or indoor environment. When it comes to producing and eating food at home, there is little variation from country to country (at least I cannot see it). It seems a fairly human universal.

      Regarding the costs of the technique, this is what we are going to find out through experimenting. However, I would not try to compare the price of home-grown food with that found on the market, because we are talking about two different commodities. Comparing those two on a cost basis is much like comparing the cost of renting a house and that of buying one. Supposing a functioning hydroponic system can be set up in a home, it would provide food but also the capacity of producing food and the capacity of control over its quality. These two capacities are not included in the ready-grown food found on the market.
      What could be relevant however, is comparing the cost and quality of food grown in regular soil at home with that produced in hydroponics. In this case we would compare the technology behind two home-grown food systems.

      What’s more, the costs of hydroponics will depend on what system will be set-up. Some systems require little equipment (rafting merely requires a box, a lid, few pots and a regular aquarium air-pump). Other systems will require lengths of pipes and more powerful pumps.

      An additional concern for the cost of hydroponics is the costs of nutrients, which are imported in Nepal. The costs of ready-made nutrients or separate nutrients differ, but the exact cost and required amount of nutrients is unclear to us as of yet. We will have to see also how Sanjay’s home-made nutrients will do and at what cost.

      I hope I have met your question here. More details will follow as our research will proceed. Thank you.

    • Hi Rhona and thanks. I already know about window farming and the R&DIY project which spinned off from it. It was truly inspiring for us to see how they developed their project into a spontaneous open-sourced collaboration. We hope Open Biotecture will be such a platform in the future, where people will contribute to research and development.

  3. Hey Benjamin, This one is really interesting. I am looking forward to do the same and I have sent some details via contact form. Please do take a look. Thank You.

  4. Pingback: Hydroponics: First Test | Open Biotecture·

  5. Hi Benjamin,
    I found a company here in Kathmandu http://www.shalomagrodrip.com which grows cucumber and tomato on cocopeat. When I inquired about Macro and Micro Nutrients, they said that when they introduced liquid fertilizer the plants started dying so they just watered the damn things until cucumber and tomatores grew on it. (Cocopeat bought from Isreal) My question is if it is possible to introduce slow release nutrients on cocopeat or Pearlite(impossible to find) and use self-watering container? My priority is water and nutrient conservation.

    • Hi Ankit,

      For hydroponics you need specially blended nutrients not all plants take in the same stuff. Also I’m not aware of proper hydroponics nutrients being sold in Kathmandu. Cocopeat can be found cheaply though in Dahal Trade Concerns on Tripura Marg. I suggest you use the nutrients appropriate for the plants and hydroponics. Otherwise you can always test out various nutrients and compare. What self-watering container are you going to use? I think this may be expensive an installation compared to your local vegetable price. The tests I did with DIY selfwatering containers come to 500 NPR or more per pot. How much should I grow into one pot to get my cost covered? If you want to conserve water, make your system as closed as possible. Recycle your water, there is no reason nutrients should get lost if you do so.

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