Hydrogels can be found in many common applications, but how can they be employed when it comes to your hydroponic garden? Already used in biomedical, environmental, and pharmaceutical industries, modern hydrogels have a longer service life, more strength, and higher water capacity, and can be designed with controllable responses to expand or shrink depending on the surrounding environment.
What Are Hydroponic Hydrogels?
Hydrogels, also called hydrophilic gels, have been used since the 1970s in horticulture. Prior to the ’70s, they were made of natural materials before being synthetically engineered with three-dimensional, ultra-absorbent polymers, usually proteins such as gelatin and collagen, and polysaccharides like agarose, alginate, and starch. Water can be absorbed at several hundred times the structure’s own weight thanks to the strong polymeric backbone within the hydrogel.
Once water is absorbed, it can seep with regulation into the surrounding environment, making hydrogels an attractive tool for gardeners. Not only can they absorb water, they can also absorb liquid nutrients that are then released in a predictable fashion.
What Makes Hydroponic Hydrogels so Useful?
So, the technology is cool, but how can it be practically applied for gardening purposes? For starters, in areas where water is hard to come by or there is drought, a slow release of water will reduce evaporation, allowing more of the water to benefit plants while conserving resources.
Also, even the most enthusiastic gardeners enjoy some vacation time. Employing hydrogels creates a worry-free method of keeping plants hydrated while you’re away without having to bother the neighbors.
When discussing the future of growing, hydrogel water is being used on the International Space Station (ISS). Hydroponics is great for growing fresh produce for astronauts, but water can be cumbersome in the tight quarters of the ISS. This is sure to be studied more as plans are being fleshed out to put humans on Mars and other space explorations.
Benefits of Hydroponic Hydrogels
When it comes to your grow set-up, there are a few benefits that can be gained from using hydrogel water or gel crystals.
- Water is slowly released
- Nutrients can be slowly released
- Easily replenished
- Conserves water
- Good for people that forget to water or cannot water plants regularly
- Can be added to soil or used in a hydroponic system
- Can be a fun way to get kids involved with growing produce
- Future applications are exciting
Drawbacks of Hydroponic Hydrogels
When it comes to drawbacks, there really is only one: they release a restricted amount of moisture. Hydrogel water and gel crystals work rather well with seedlings, grass, leafy greens, and other similar plants because they can keep up with the necessary moisture supply needed for these types of plants.
However, hydrogels just don’t have the capacity, at least not yet, to water heavily fruited plants like tomatoes and peppers, which require much more water to grow. Large crops would also pose a challenge.
This may change in the future, however, as scientists are already working on ways to improve using these materials for growing. In Japan, high-tech polymers were used in a thin sheet to minimize the issues with growing in this fashion and maximize the benefits.
This experiment worked as a way to spread nutrients and encourage root growth while working as a medium. Scientists grew tomatoes, melons, and spinach using this method, but only the smaller plants were successful. While not a complete win, it’s a step in the right direction.
Depending on your current growing set-up, hydrogel water can be a convenient, inexpensive addition for releasing water and nutrients into your system. This method may not work for everyone, but it at least offers another tool in your hydro set-up.