20th Century Fox, actor Matt Damon playing an astronaut growing potatoes in Martian soil
The topic of whether to garden in organic soil or utilize a hydroponics setup is one hotly debated in gardening circles. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil, utilizing a solution containing solely the 16 or 17 minerals plants need to grow. With hydroponics, plants are either hung in the solution or grown in an inert media, like sawdust, that allows the solution to pass through and make contact with the roots. These nutrient solutions are usually prepared by the grower utilizing prepackaged lab synthesized chemicals and are recycled through the hydroponic system, causing the environmental impact of hydroponics to be extremely minimal. Hydroponics has an advantage in places where the soil or climate is unsuitable for growing, however even on Mars soil is suitable for growing plants as this NASA research shows.
Organic gardening on the other hand is a more traditional method of gardening which utilizes biologically active soil in order to produce crops. Most countries in the world do not allow hydroponically grown food to be sold with an organic label. The reason for this is that organic soil management is dependent on the organisms present within the soil to break down and recycle nutrients, rather than the application of synthesized nutrients to plants. With organic farming even the fertilizers and nutrients that are used to supplement the soil are derived from waste products like manure, guano, and vegetable matter that are processed via biological decomposition into a form which plants can utilize. Where hydroponics emphasizes growing in the absence of all other biology, organic gardening fosters ecological balance by allowing plants to grow in the presence of microorganisms that render otherwise inaccessible trace nutrients available to the plants as they grow.
There are undoubtedly advantages and disadvantages to both methods. Advocates for hydroponic systems state that the method utilizes less space and produces higher yields than organic growing, whereas gardeners that stick to organic methods cite an increase in crop quality that is unable to be matched by anything produced outside of biologically active soil. Soil provides a natural buffer for nutrients and pH, causing fluctuations in soil attributes to occur slowly but also disallowing any fluctuations from being corrected instantaneously. With hydroponics however, plant nutrient uptake is extremely quick and the pH and nutrient content of the growing solution is calculated and controlled precisely by the gardener. This means that fluctuations can be quickly corrected, but also that any slight error due to miscalculation or lack of diligence could swiftly spell disaster for the entire crop. Because of the manner in which nutrients are delivered to the plants in hydroponics, setups utilizing the method require time and commitment to ensure success in a way that organic soil grows do not. Hydroponics also eliminates the need to worry about soil-borne diseases, however most organic soil mixes today are treated to prevent the occurrence of plant ruining afflictions.
All in all, the debate over the superiority of one growing method over another will continue until further research is conducted by the scientific community. Hydroponics promises a solution for gardening when quality soil is not readily available, whereas organic gardening allows for plants to be grown in conditions that mirror those found within nature. The important thing to remember is that when considering what you eat how it was grown matters; a fact that is even more relevant with the establishment of links between cancer and low quality food. At the end of the day, which would you rely on to produce your food?