Yes! you really can grow your own food out of thin air! No, it’s not magic, but it is a little futuristic. Aeroponics is a special method of growing plants without using any growing medium. Just water, air, and nutrients!
Helping to revolutionise the way we grow, aeroponics is a sustainable method which encourages faster growth and higher yields, whilst taking up less space, and with less water usage!
Find out all you need to know about aeroponic growing, and how to set up your very own sci-fi-style aeroponic system, with our definitive guide to aeroponics.
What Is Aeroponics?
Although it might sound pretty high-tech or even a bit space-age, the principles behind aeroponic gardening are actually quite simple.
Expanding on the more well-known principles of hydroponics, where plants are grown in soilless substrates, aeroponics is the process of growing plants without any soil or alternative substrates at all.
Instead, the plants are suspended in the air using specially made frames or baskets, leaving their roots constantly exposed to air, providing vital carbon dioxide and oxygen. Grown under artificial lighting, the plant roots are regularly misted with nutrient-enriched water to deliver all the ingredients they need to grow and thrive.
Water and nutrients are delivered to the roots via a pressurised irrigation system every few seconds through spray nozzles and misters. The pressurised water disperses into microscopic droplets to create a consistently misty environment.
The smaller the droplets, the more oxygen can reach the plant‘s roots for faster plant growth, and the more efficiently the roots can absorb the nutrients, boosting plant health.
The History of Aeroponics
Aeroponics is a fairly new technology, having only emerged as a serious alternative to conventional agriculture towards the end of the 20th century.
The novel approach to growing was developed in 1957 by the Dutch biologist Frits Warmolt Went, but it wasn’t until almost thirty years later that an experimental and eco-conscious grocery store owner named Richard Stoner first brought aeroponically grown food crops to the mass market.
Stoner was concerned about resource scarcity in agriculture and food production and saw aeroponics as a more sustainable solution to traditional food production.
Since then, aeroponics technology has advanced hugely, with a little help from NASA. On the hunt for ways to keep astronauts well-fed on long space missions, NASA funded Stoner’s experiments with aeroponics in the late 1990s. An aeroponics system was even set up on the Mir Space Station, allowing astronauts to nurture and grow their own food crops to sustain them whilst on board!
Over the past twenty-five years, aeroponics has experienced an explosion of popularity which has taken it from a maverick sci-fi concept to a mainstream gardening and food production technique.
What Are The Benefits of Aeroponics?
You’re probably wondering why NASA was so interested in this unusual way of growing plants, and why this seemingly obscure growing method is so popular? The answer lies in the massive range of benefits that aeroponics has to offer.
By eliminating soil and substrate, plant roots are exposed to a much higher oxygen concentration than in conventional growing. This oxygen helps plants grow and mature much faster. Root exposure to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also boosts photosynthesis, which creates healthier, stronger, and faster-growing plants.
Boosts plant health
The ability to deliver nutrients directly to the roots means plants are able to absorb nutrients more efficiently, creating healthier plants. In aeroponic systems, the nutrient content can be customised to deliver exactly what each type of plant needs at each stage of its growth cycle to ensure they are as healthy as can be. Healthier plants deliver bigger, more nutritious, and tastier yields!
Reduces water usage and harmful runoff
Water is one of our most precious resources, and its increasing scarcity poses a huge problem for our planet and all the forms of life it supports.
Aeroponic systems are incredibly water efficient because only a very fine mist is precisely administered to the plant‘s roots, rather than dousing them in water like traditional gardening or growing them completely submerged in water like in hydroponics systems.
This means the plant only receives exactly the right amount of water needed to survive, typically using around 95% less water than traditional growing. Any water runoff is collected in a reservoir below the plant, before being recycled and recirculated back into the irrigation system.
And because aeroponic systems are set up in enclosed, indoor spaces, there’s no risk of any chemically enhanced water runoff contaminating the wider environment and ecosystems.
Increases yield in a smaller area
Aeroponic systems maximise potential productivity even in small spaces because they can be set up vertically, rather than horizontally. This is especially beneficial for urban farming and gardening, where space to grow is often limited. Vertical systems also allow the roots plenty of space to spread out, which helps to promote healthy plant growth.
A solution to soil degradation
Intensive agricultural practices and climate change are contributing to the devastating depletion of our planet’s soil stock. Over-cultivated soils lose their nutrients and structure over time, becoming less viable and less capable of supporting future crops, and the crops they can support tend to be less healthy and less nutritious.
Because aeroponics is soilless, it prevents over-cultivation. It also means that farmers and growers aren’t reliant on poor soils. Using aeroponics as an alternative growing environment allows our soil stocks to recover from prior damage so that they can support our vital ecosystems in the future.
Since aeroponic systems are set up indoors under artificial lighting, aeroponic growers are not bound by the whims of the weather. Growers can have full control over the temperature, light conditions, and moisture levels of their crops. Crucially, they can also choose to deliver more nutrients or less nutrients to meet the specific needs of their plants at any given time
Aeroponics systems are typically sterile environments. This means there’s less risk of harmful pathogens or pests being introduced and damaging plants. Soilless growing also eliminates the risk of soil-borne diseases which can quickly spread from plant to plant.
Because plants are completely isolated from each other within their suspension frame, any diseased plants can be quickly removed from the system before the problem gets a chance to spread. This also reduces the need for potentially harmful chemical pesticides.
What Are The Disadvantages of Aeroponics?
Whilst the benefits of an aeroponic system far outweigh the drawbacks, there are still a few small problems with aeroponics that growers may encounter.
Regular maintenance is needed
One of the main disadvantages of aeroponics is the intensive maintenance required to maintain a healthy growing environment.
The system relies on machinery so any malfunctions could be disastrous. To ensure plants receive the right amount of water and nutrients at the right time, growers must monitor their setup continually to make sure it’s working correctly.
Grow lights and irrigation systems use up energy
The grow lights and automated misting systems used in aeroponics can be energy intensive to run, offsetting some of the eco-friendly credentials of the aeroponics system. Many growers get around this by using renewable energy sources like solar panels to reduce energy use and increase sustainability, whilst still boosting plant growth.
Increased risk of fungal problems
Because aeroponic systems deliver water droplets to the plants every few minutes, the aeroponic growing environment is incredibly humid. Excess humidity is one of the main causes of fungal problems in plants. That’s why all the equipment in the system must be cleaned and sterilised regularly, which can be quite labour-intensive, especially in a DIY aeroponics system.
Aeroponic Systems Vs. Hydroponic Systems: What’s The Difference?
Aeroponics is actually an extension of the more well-known technique of hydroponics, with just a few subtle differences. Both growing systems work on the principle of growing plants without using soil. Hydroponics systems use a soilless growing medium like coco coir to anchor the roots of the plant, whilst aeroponics systems expand on this technique by using no growing medium at all.
In a hydroponic system, the roots of the plant and its growing medium are always at least partially submerged in water, meaning that hydroponics isn’t suitable for growing root vegetables and tubers like potatoes or turnips since they’ll quickly succumb to root rot. Aeroponics poses no such trouble for root vegetables, and can actually dramatically increase their yield!
Aeroponics uses less water overall than hydroponics, so it’s great for the eco-conscious, high-tech gardener, but the pH level of the water must be monitored more closely in aeroponics than in hydroponics.
What Are The Different Types of Aeroponic Systems?
There are three different aeroponic systems which all work in slightly different ways to create a nutrient-rich misty environment.
Low pressure aeroponics (LPA systems)
Low pressure aeroponic systems, also known as ‘soakponics‘ are the most common type of aeroponic system used by home growers. They are generally fairly cheap, easy to set up, and simple to maintain, although they are less efficient than the more high-tech systems.
A pump supplies water to sprinkler heads or misting nozzles which are automated by a timer to deliver short bursts of nutrient-enriched water to the plant‘s roots. The lack of a high pressure pump means the water droplets are bigger than in high pressure aeroponics, so nutrient absorption is generally less efficient.
Low pressure systems, whilst more accessible for the average gardener, require a little more maintenance than high pressure systems since equipment must be manually sterilised.
The pH level of the water must also be checked and adjusted regularly to ensure plants can absorb enough nutrients. They also lack a water purification system, so plants are at a higher risk of being exposed to harmful pathogens than in a high pressure system.
High Pressure Aeroponics (HPA systems)
High pressure aeroponics systems are far more advanced than low pressure aeroponics systems, and are most commonly used by commercial growers. High pressure aeroponics utilises complex automated machinery to purify, pressurise, and atomise the nutrient-enriched water, creating a ‘true’ mist which lingers in the air. Because of the high pressure, the water droplets are delivered in a very fine mist, allowing even more oxygen to reach the root zone.
In a high pressure aeroponics system, the atomised water droplets are delivered automatically at regular intervals by a powerful pump. The system automatically regulates the ph levels of the water.
High pressure aeroponics systems are generally complicated and expensive setups, although they are more efficient and reduce the need for manual labour when it’s time for maintenance.
They also tend to yield better and more precise results than low pressure aeroponics systems. The efficiency of high pressure systems offsets the initial higher startup costs for large-scale growing.
Ultrasonic fogger aeroponics
Perhaps the most advanced and space-age-sounding of all aeroponics systems is ultrasonic fogger aeroponics. Known as ‘fogponics‘, these systems use ultrasonic technology to create high-frequency sound waves that shake the water into a fine fog of microscopic droplets. These droplets are easier for the roots to absorb, delivering nutrients and moisture most evenly, efficiently, and accurately.
This method completely eliminates the need for pumps, although the ultrasonic fogger system is a relatively new technology that is generally only used in large and sophisticated commercial growing environments.
What Can be Grown Aeroponically?
Aeroponic systems can be used to grow plants of almost any kind, ranging from fruit and vegetables to flowers, to houseplants! Most home growers tend to stick to food crops since they can reap the benefits of the fast maturity time and the flexibility to grow fresh produce all year round.
Leafy greens and salad greens
Leafy food crops are easy to grow in aeroponic systems. They are fast to mature, low maintenance, and of course, delicious.
Pretty much any type of vegetable will respond well to aeroponic growing, especially crops like tomatoes or strawberries which have limited growing seasons when grown outside. The artificial lights and controlled environments of aeroponic systems mean they can be grown and enjoyed all year round.
Aeroponic systems are ideal for growing and propagating all manner of houseplants, especially tropical houseplants which need plenty of warmth and moisture to thrive.
If you want to give your flowering perennials a head start, then aeroponics is a great way to go. Many tender perennials are sensitive to cold so an indoor aeroponics setup is a great alternative to a greenhouse or cold frame.
Even though they’re known for their drought tolerance and preference for dry environments, even arid plants like cacti can be grown in aeroponic systems. Just be careful that your sprayer nozzles are only set up to hit the plant‘s roots, and reduce the amount of water being delivered to the plant.
How to Use Aeroponics at Home
Whilst it might all seem a bit futuristic and complex, growing with aeroponics is actually pretty straightforward.
For the hobby gardener at home, a low pressure aeroponics system is the easiest and cheapest option. It may take some trial and error to achieve the perfect water pressure and nutrient density for your system. You’ll need to adjust the spray nozzles to make sure the water hits the roots, rather than the foliage, and you’ll need to set the time to deliver just the right amount of moisture.
You don’t need to buy any special seed mixes, standard packets of seeds will work just fine. In the absence of any growing medium, you’ll need to plant them in foam plugs or pads, miniature pots or special rings to get them started.
What Equipment do I Need for a DIY Aeroponics System?
There are plenty of LPA systems available that have been specially designed with the home grower in mind. However, if you’d like to save some cash, designing and setting up a DIY aeroponic system isn’t rocket science, and it will work just as well. You’ll be able to purchase all of the necessary equipment that aeroponics requires from most garden centres, nurseries, and specialist hydroponic shops. You’ll need the following equipment to build your own aeroponics system:
- A reservoir system – To hold the water and nutrient solution
- Pump – To pressurise the water and nutrient solution.
- Misting nozzles – To deliver the water droplets.
- Tubing – To carry the water from the pump to the nozzle. The tubing must be made from a watertight material such as PVC pipes.
- Grow lights – To enable photosynthesis.
- Nutrient Solution – To nourish your crops. These can be brought ready-made, or you can make your own nutrient solution by mixing beneficial chemicals and water-soluble plant food. The nutrients should be added to the water in the reservoir to create a nutrient-rich solution.
- Suspension system – To keep your plants suspended in the air. This can be a specially made frame, a trellis, a basket, an old pallet or even a net.
- Watertight Root Chamber – To sit underneath your suspension frame, enclosing your plant‘s roots and catching any runoff. This could be a storage bin, purpose-made box, or anything that will hold water, as long as it is airtight and isn’t transparent.
- A timer – To regulate the watering cycle and nutrient delivery in the system.
How much do aeroponics systems cost to set up?
The cost of your system will vary depending on the size, specification, and complexity of the system. DIY systems can be put together fairly cheaply by sourcing recycled or repurposed materials. Specially made aeroponics kits tend to run a bit pricier, with an entry-level system coming in anywhere between $100 and $500 dollars.
Is there anything that can’t be grown with aeroponics?
Theoretically, you can grow almost anything with aeroponics. It’s worth experimenting with a few different plants to see what works best for you and your lifestyle.
How much space do I need for an aeroponic system?
One of the best things about aeroponics is that they need very little space to be productive. Many growers opt for a space-saving vertical aeroponic system which fits neatly in a garage or storage cupboard, and there are even mini-systems available which are small enough to sit on a countertop.
Sci-Fi Spinach Anyone?
Setting up your own aeroponic system might seem complicated, but with a little planning and research, you’ll soon see your gardening productivity skyrocket. We hope our guide to aeroponics has taken some of the mystery out of aeroponics and encouraged you to try a more futuristic approach to growing. If it’s good enough for NASA, it’s definitely good enough for us!