The city gardener: Don’t like dirt? Consider trying hydroponics

I magine picking a lettuce from your garden – a lettuce as pretty, healthy and fresh as any you can imagine – but with an additional bonus: it has no dirt clinging to its roots. This is possible if you garden using a hydroponic system. Instead of picking lettuce from a planter or a patch of soil, you’d pull it out of a plastic channel of some sort, with a nutrient solution swishing down it, usually containing water, minerals and a variety of other additions such as beneficial microbes and pH adjusters, all designed for the purpose of ­hydroponic growing.

To me, hydroponics has at times conjured images of humans trying to preserve life on some space station (think Elysium, Oblivion and so on). Other times, I've fantasised about growing vegetables hydroponically, as it doesn't involve bags of compost or sand and it does away with a large number of pests and soil-borne diseases.

Last week, the topic resurfaced, as I read about one of the winners of a vegetable gardening competition, organised by Dubai Municipality, who has been growing a range of produce on his balcony using hydroponics. Though hydroponic gardeners are often teased about not wanting to get their hands dirty, I suspect that his major motivation for hydroponic farming is rooted not in avoiding soil, but in the small size of his balcony.

For gardeners who obsess over the health and appearance of their plants, precision and control over providing nutrients can be a very attractive feature of hydroponics, as opposed to traditional soil-based gardening in which a plant is left to send invisible roots into the secret world of the underground to fend for itself. Plants grown hydroponically are also good-looking and typically produce yields that are greater and more uniform in appearance and taste than soil-grown ones.

Most of the above makes hydroponic gardening sound a bit dull. For me, growing things begins with soil. Soil is the blank canvas that suggests all kinds of possibilities and promise. Soil is alive. To do away with soil is to do away with live organisms and nutrients in a complex bio-system that’s impossible to imitate.

I’m not surprised that hydroponically grown vegetables are sometimes criticised for lacking taste and texture. Top-class restaurants and their picky chefs have been known to turn up their noses at dirt-less produce. But such reports remain sporadic. A more heated debated is centred on whether hydroponic growing can also be organic. Considering that the nutrients used in the growing medium are synthetic, the answer is generally “no”.

But the question of defining organic is also not simply a matter of certification. The term represents a bundle of standard criteria as well as personal values and preferences. Locally grown food that has been evaluated for its environmental and social costs and benefits is always more attractive for me, as it’s not only infinitely fresher and tastier, but somehow more “real”. So a hydroponic lettuce, grown ­anywhere from a local farm to my own terrace, always beats one flown in from Europe.

At the moment, I’m more curious about the cost of setting up a small hydroponic system at home. I don’t suspect that it will replace soil-based gardening for me, but for growing herbs and greens, I may just give it a chance. Perhaps then I can report more reliably on the merits of hydroponics at home, particularly when it comes to taste and texture.

Shumaila Ahmed is a Dubai-based gardener, teacher, researcher and writer.

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