1-13-17 HydroponicsHydroponics is the practice of growing plants without soil—a process used in a variety of applications, from inner-city farming to small rural farms producing food for restaurants. Recently, the students in Malena Perry’s Horticulture and Landscaping program have installed their own hydroponics system as part of their hands-on instruction.

“You can’t just grow plants in tap water, or they won’t get the nutrients they need,” said Ms. Perry as she explained how the system works.

The students’ hydroponics lab has two tanks, one for fertilizer and one for acid, which are measured constantly by a probe to determine the appropriate levels of each. Then, they are combined and the nutrients are mixed into a stock tank of water so that the plants get everything they need. The system uses approximately 30% less water than standard farming techniques, although the water does need to be cleaned out and replaced periodically to prevent buildup of excess minerals from the fertilizer.

“We can have about 300 plants growing at once,” she said. “It takes about eight weeks from planting to harvest, and we can basically prepare new plants while things are growing and have a constant cycle of plant growth.”

Having a hydroponics lab in the program opens an entirely new career field for Ms. Perry’s students. Not only must students have the mathematical skills needed to operate the system, but they must also learn all of the work it takes to maintain the piping and other parts making everything work properly. If they put in the effort, students can earn jobs in a relatively new industry where there are many opportunities available.

“I never knew how well you could grow plants without soil,” said Austin, a student from Big Spring. “And I never realized how drastically chemicals can affect plant growth or how quickly plants can die from the wrong chemicals!”

The greenhouse holding the system is also fitted with special lighting used to facilitate plant growth. Ms. Perry said. “The lighting is used to trick plants into thinking it’s summer, which prolongs the growing season. Students learn how light waves interact with growing plants and how to use different colors of light to influence plant growth, particularly in the winter.”

Currently, the local industry uses hydroponics to grow leafy vegetables mainly for sale to restaurants (in the case of local farms), or in the inner city where cargo bays from tractor trailers are fitted with “grow lighting” to produce plants practically year-round using the limited space available. So far, Ms. Perry’s students are growing spinach, kale, and herbs (such as parsley and rosemary) which will be given to the Culinary Arts program once the lab is consistently producing plants.