The search for more environmentally friendly options to incorporate into our lives and workplaces is becoming more important in the modern day. For the home gardener, growing with soil is one of the least eco-efficient options available. Let’s look at my personal favorite alternative to growing in soil: aeroponics!
Aeroponics is a method of growing plants through the delivery of oxygen directly to the roots of the plant. The roots sit in air, and are misted with nutrients and water. While this may sound strange at first, the process of aeroponics is not as difficult as you’d imagine, once you get the basics down.
In this article, we’ll go through the differences between aeroponics and other growing method such as aquaponics, how aeroponics work, and what you’ll need to create your very own aeroponics system at your home!
Aeroponics is widely used for commercial grow operations, due to the low resource requirements and the ability to increase the scale of the project.
To begin, we need to lay an educational foundation of what aeroponics is, and how it differs from other means of plant production. Aeroponics has some similarities to other forms of gardening, particularly hydroponics, but some key distinctions offer the growing method an array of pros and cons.
The two methods are similar in the essence of what your goal is when beginning; you’re looking for an alternative method to grow crops that uses less resources than traditional soil farming, and also grows crops at a faster rate. The main divergence comes in the way the plants are structured to receive the components necessary for growth. To fully understand this concept, we’ll need to dive into the process of aeroponics and how it provides the necessities of life for plants.
Using aeroponics, the roots hang down through the net cup, where they are misted with a mixture of water and nutrients.
Aeroponics works by compressing water, oxygen, and nutrients into a fine mist that is sprayed consistently onto the roots of the plant. This operates in a chamber-mister system. The plants will sit in a net cup, with some type of growing medium within that net cup to offer the plants’ root system a structure to build into. The roots grow through the medium, dangling from the top of the chamber down to the bottom. Because there is nothing in the chamber to block the roots (like soil), the roots are completely exposed to the air in the chamber.
Now, this is where the mister portion of the aeroponic system comes into play. Misters on each side of the root mass will gently spray a mixture of water and fertilizer onto the roots directly, giving them a saturated amount of the products they need to grow. I like to think of it as getting medicine through an IV, versus taking a pill.
A pill slowly works its way through your body, taking much longer to work than, say, getting medicine through an IV line. The IV places the medicine directly in your bloodstream, offering an almost instantaneous effect of relief. That “instantaneous”direct contact of nutrients to the plant’s roots creates an environment that can lead to the plant growing at rates much higher than other traditional soil-based methods, making aeroponics highly effective.
Now, how does oxygen play into this equation? The answer to this lies directly at the heart of the difference between hydroponics and aeroponics. Roots need a level of oxygen to perform at their highest function. Without it, the roots will experience a form of shock, and will rot away in a process called root rot.
For hydroponics, this is a major challenge. Hydroponics is similar to aeroponics, with the main difference coming in the contents filling its chamber. The chamber is filled with a water-nutrient solution as opposed to being filled with air. To combat root rot, hydroponic systems typically use air pumps to infuse tiny oxygen bubbles to the roots through the water. Aeroponics takes this issue completely out of the equation.
This serves as one of the big pros of using the aeroponic method. With this method of gardening, air is the main component applied to the roots. Instead of the roots being submerged in water, they lay in air and have supplemental water and nutrients misted onto them. It’s basically a reversal of hydroponics. This prevents root rot issues, while also saving water per plant.
With that in mind, let’s dive into the pro’s and con’s of growing with aeroponics.
Pro’s and Con’s
Green, leafy plants aren’t the only crops that thrive in aeroponic growing operations. Tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini are all examples of plants that love aeroponics.
-Less water usage: a huge benefit to aeroponics is the low water requirement necessary for growing. It’s estimated that aeroponics uses 98% less water to grow plants than soil, and 60% less fertilizer. Not only does this save money in the long term, but is an excellent option for conserving resources.
-No soil needed: another pro to using aeroponics is the lack of soil itself. Soil is a huge vector of disease, serving as the home of many pathogens that infect our gardens. Without it, the chance of disease destroying your plants drops dramatically.
-Personalized system: An additional benefit to aeroponics is the customizability of each system. As the constructor, you have full control of each component that you build into your system. This gives you the choice to include upgrades that can automate the system, like timers and extra water reservoirs, to truly make the unit your own!
-Grow all year: With aeroponics, you can grow indoors, making your favorite plants available to you year round!
While aeroponic gardening offers many benefits, there are some issues with this system that are worth addressing. Let’s examine some of these cons to making an aeroponic garden.
Higher maintenance: Aeroponic systems need to be properly cleaned more often than other alternative methods to gardening. Neglecting this process can lead to harmful pathogens building up in your system, infecting your plant’s roots and causing disease.
Delicacy: When creating your own aeroponics system, a major roadblock to success is the delicate nature of the machine. Each part of the system must operate together to work efficiently. One faulty part of an aeroponics system can lead to a quick demise of your plants.
Complex design: Building your own aeroponic system comes with a unique set of challenges that few alternative gardening methods pose. Making a hydroponic garden, for example, does not require the mechanical knowledge that aeroponics does.
With those pros and cons in mind and the foundations laid of what aeroponics is all about, it’s time to construct the system!
The first decision we need to make when beginning our aeroponic build is picking between a low-pressure system or a high-pressure system. Both types of aeroponics will work, but have some slight differences.
Building Your System
The visual steps above show my personal go-to when it comes to building an aeroponic mister system.
The main difference between the two systems lie in the size of the water particles. A low pressure aeroponics system uses larger droplets to dispense the water and nutrients, while a high pressure system uses atomized mist, meaning the droplets are much more fine. Using the high pressure system is ideal, as it increases the ratio of nutrients to water in each particle of the spray. This means you’ll use less water to deliver more nutrients to the roots.
Regardless of which spray delivery method you chose, both systems will require similar pieces to function. I alluded to the main components that you’ll need to build an aeroponics system earlier in the article, but let’s review the necessary parts in greater detail for each pressure system.
Set-By-Step Building Guide
Low Pressure Aeroponics: For this system, you’ll need a few key items. To begin, get an opaque container, with a depth of at least 6 inches. This will serve as the “chamber” portion of the system. For this item, I’ve had a lot of success using the large, plastic storage totes sold at hardware stores. These are useful for this project because they also come with a fitted lid, which will be a great tray for our plants to rest in.
After picking out a container for this function, the next item to select is the pump. For low-pressure aeroponics, a normal pond pump will work great. The pump will sit at the bottom of the container, completely submerged in the nutrient solution. The higher the power of your pump, the more of a “misting” effect your aeroponics system will dispense onto your plant’s roots.
Now that we have sorted out the pump, the next part we need to build is the mister system. Since the plant’s roots will be suspended in air, the misters will be responsible for supplying them with the nutrient liquid necessary for growth.
My favorite way to make the aeroponics misting system is building a grid out of PVC pipe that connects directly to the pump. For this method, you’ll make a square grid of PVC pipe to place inside your container. This grid is going to be supplying the water and nutrients to the roots, so it is imperative that it’s constructed in a way that allows each plant’s roots access to the water source.
To build your grid, you’ll need PVC pipe, PVC T’s, a threaded pump connecting PVC piece, and PVC corner pieces. Before you put anything together, however, take measurements of the space inside your container. This will give you an idea of the length to cut your PVC pipe segments to fit perfectly together. The most important measurements are going to be the length and width of the container.
After you’ve taken your measurements, you can start building your misting system. Let’s start from the ground up. Begin by attaching your threaded PVC connector piece to the pump. Then, place a PVC T pipe going upwards into the connector piece. This is where the rest of your misting system will branch off from.
Cut two segments of PVC pipe and attach them to each end of the PVC T pipe. Once in place, attach another two PVC T pieces to the ends of those PVC segments. The length of the PVC segments will vary depending on the dimensions of your container.
After you’ve done this, attach a PVC segment into each end of the PVC T pipes. There should be four total PVC segments that are attached during this step. Next, add a PVC corner piece to each end of the PVC segments. You should be attaching four PVC corners in total.
Lastly, fill in the final two pieces of your grid with PVC pipe segments. Place them directly into the exposed PVC corner pieces. They should complete the grid, once placed!
Congratulations, you have completed the most difficult part of this project! To finish off our misting system, we simply need to add the mister heads into the PVC segments.
To accomplish this, first determine where you will be placing your plants on the plant tray (the container’s lid), to plan the location of each mister head. By figuring out where you plan to place your plants, you can get an idea of where their roots will rest.
Next, get some mister heads to dispense the liquid. It’s wise to get these before you start making holes in your pipe, so you don’t overdo the size of the hole. I always make as small of a hole as possible to start off with, because you can always increase the size later on!
Place two mister heads for each plant you’ll be growing to ensure full coverage. Place them on both sides of where you determined the root mass will grow. Once this is done, press your mister heads into the holes. You are officially done with the watering system!
High Pressure Aeroponics: For this method, there is really only one difference in the building process. Instead of a pond pump, you will need an accumulator. This device will atomize your nutrient solution, making the mist incredibly fine. You can add a collection tray to feed back into the accumulator to maximize your water conservation. I would highly recommend taking this extra step, as it can increase your plant yield exponentially!
For more on high-pressure aeroponics, check out this video!
Aeroponic gardening can be a bit tricky to set up, but is one of my favorite methods. Living in a colder environment greatly shortens my growing season, so having this eco-friendly option indoors is a lifesaver. From my own experience, I find that aeroponics uses water a bit more efficiently than hydroponics.
In terms of the build, aeroponics is a great middle ground between hydroponics and aquaponics regarding complexity. I would highly recommend giving this system a try. It could become a staple in your gardening life forever! Stay patient while building, and have fun with it. You’ll be amazed by the results!