If you think hydroponic gardening is something new, listen up! The Aztecs were growing vegetables in water in the Chinampan region of the Valley of Mexico in the 15th-16th century. These floating gardens, chinampas, were even named after the region. According to Britannica’s definition, “a chinampa is a small, stationary, artificial island built on a freshwater lake for agricultural purposes.”
Fast forward to the 21st century where greenhouses have replaced lakes and traditional, soil-based systems are being swapped out for controlled-environment agriculture (CEA). Crops are grown in water or on a plant-based, matrix material. CEA farming produces a variety of crops that include tomatoes, mini peppers and cucumbers, spinach, Swiss chard, arugula, and berries.
Indoor cultivation has both economic and ecologic advantages. Growing conditions like pH, CO2, heat/humidity, added nutrients, air movement, and water are precisely controlled. Hydroponics are sustainably grown without herbicides or pesticides, as they are not prone to diseases and pests like dirt-grown crops. Hydroponic plants can grow 40-50% faster than plants grown in soil and don’t need the extra cleaning step to remove dirt before getting shipped off. Local growers can get also their products to market quicker, as transportation costs are reduced; hence, produce is fresher and lasts longer at home.
CEA farming reduces water and food waste because of the controlled environment; in hydroponics, water is recirculated. Some farming systems grow vertically, boosting production of crops in a smaller amount of space, and further minimizing the environmental footprint.
The USDA’s National Organics Program has not endorsed that hydroponic vegetables can be labeled organic, yet. The sticking point is that these plants are not grown in soil like traditional organic farming, so regulations need to be revisited. For now, look for labels on packaging that cite declaration of local cultivation, freedom from pesticides, and promote sustainable farming practices.
Check them out and support your local growers next time you go shopping!