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Many people have asked me questions about growing houseplants in a soilless system (hydroculture); how it works, why roots don’t rot, how to feed, and so on. But it’s not the basic questions that have persuaded me to include this post; it’s the widespread confusion that many seem to have about what hydroculture really is and how it works. In view of the fact that it’s so widely unfamiliar, there is an automatic (and understandable) merging of
- a) growing plants in a hydroculture setup and
- b) growing plants in water.
The only thing both methods have in common is that water is involved. Aside from that, everything else is different. The two methods are not two peas in a pod. They are in fact poles apart. Growing houseplants in water is exactly that – growing them in water. The roots are submerged in the water 24/7. On the other hand, growing houseplants in hydroculture is not growing plants in water. In hydroculture you are growing plants above water. The roots are not sitting inside the water; they are sitting above it. The setup is equivalent to plants in soil minus the soil. The clay pellets actually replace the soil.
Growing Plants In Water
There are several reasons someone would want to grow their houseplants in water. Watering soil-grown plants properly is one of the most difficult things to master. Improper watering can damage and kill a plant. The number one killer of houseplants – more than any other reason – is over-watering. Plants take in air through their roots and if the soil is constantly drenched they can’t breathe. This leads to root rot, which eventually leads to plant death.
Houseplant lovers don’t intentionally set out to kill their plants with water; it’s unintentional. Wanting to fuss and pamper over their leafy beauties, they tend to carry around a watering can with them, which they use at the slightest hint of a thirsty plant. Many times, that plant may not necessarily be displaying signs of thirst, even with wilted leaves or dry, brown tips. There could be other reasons for signs of stress. But the houseplant enthusiast sometimes jumps the gun and misdiagnoses, pouring water into soil that is already waterlogged. In the end, the plants are killed by kindness, not neglect. The plant lover is simply trying to feel like they’re doing something for their plant; fussing and mollycoddling them is just a way to be involved. Unfortunately, lavishing the wrong type of care on a soil-grown plant can bring on devastating results and a fatal outcome that no amount of proper care can undo.
I have met several individuals that have removed their plants from soil, washed away the dirt and placed them in vases of water. Others have chopped off the top of a declining plant, in an effort to save it, and also placed it in water. These actions have been a last resort to an ever-ailing (and possibly dying) houseplant with no other recourse. These are people who are tired of the watering game; trying to guess how much, when, how. No matter how hard they try or what road they take, they still can’t seem to get it right – the plant withers away. Eventually they turn to growing specific plants in water. And it’s not their fault. Despite popular belief, watering your houseplants properly is difficult to learn; it’s not a given. No amount of advice and no book – no matter who writes it – can teach you how to properly water your plants. There are too many factors involved in determining when and how much to water for it to be an exact science – type of soil, temperature in room, the plant in question, season, humidity levels and on and on.
So I’m never surprised when plant owners keep new cuttings in water indefinitely or transfer a plant into a water-filled container. There are several obvious advantages to ditching the soil. No more worrying about giving your plants too much or too little water, no messy soil or drain dish to be concerned about and no more time-consuming hassles associated with soil-grown plants such as repotting or dealing with eternal battles with soil pests.
Basic Rules For The Water-Grow
If you are determined to grow your plants in water, there are a few basic rules to consider if you want to keep your plants healthy – and alive.
Clean and Clear Containers
It is always better to choose glass containers over anything else. Other containers – pottery, plastic, ceramic, metal – may release harmful chemicals into the water over time that can damage or kill your plants. If you don’t like glass and prefer to use one of the other types, make sure to rinse the container now and then to keep it clean, and change the water often to keep it fresh.
Help Them Breathe
When plants are grown in water, they develop water roots. But even water roots need to breathe. Fresh water contains dissolved oxygen that your plant will use to breathe. You must make sure that there is plenty of oxygen in the water at all times for your plant to survive and avoid root rot. Change it often and do not let it go bad! If the water smells, it is an obvious indication that it lacks oxygen. That is a big no-no! Freshen it up pronto if you want your plant to survive.
Unlike soil-grown plants or plants in hydroculture systems, plants grown directly in water have their roots submerged at all times. Therefore the quality of water is even more important. If you suspect or know that your water contains high levels of fluoride or other harmful chemicals that do not dissolve over time, you might want to use bottled water instead. Either way, if your water is detrimental to your plants, your plants will let you know over time. Signs of stress and damage will be clues that your water is contributing to their problems.
Encourage New Root Growth
Don’t be afraid to trim back the roots, even halfway – all of them. After you have moved your plant from soil to water, the existing roots (soil roots) are going to be useless in the long run. They will probably rot or be shed, and new succulent roots will emerge in due time. The new roots will be used by the plant, the old ones will not. Cutting off excessive soil roots with a sharp knife or scissors is encouraged; new water roots will grow quickly in water rich in oxygen (remember to freshen up that water!). Make it a habit of checking the roots now and then. Remove any dead or dying roots immediately!
Provide The Right Space
There are plants that develop massive root systems. Certain Dracaenas, for example, make a lot of succulent water roots so it’s recommended to have a nice big opening in your vase/container to be able to pull the plant out whenever you need to change water or clean the container. Of course you can always start off your plant in a smaller container and then move it into a larger one as its roots grow.
Feed Very Carefully
Your plant’s roots will burn easily if fertilizer is applied to the water in full strength. Dilute the type of food you’re using to a very light application – 1/10th the recommended strength seems to work just fine – and change the water after one week. Do not leave fertilizer in the water indefinitely.
As you can see, there are just a few simple and basic rules to follow if you decide to grow plants in water. But is growing your houseplants in water, directly in water, the best way to go? Will your plants thrive as well as soil-grown plants this way?
The answer is no.
Is there an equivalent to soil-grown without the use of soil?
Get Growing With Hydroculture
If you want to grow plants indefinitely without soil – above water – with great results (many times better than with soil) you can move up a notch and adopt the hydroculture method. Although the plants are no longer in soil, they aren’t directly in water either. They also develop water roots like their water-grown counterparts but their roots sit on top of the water and capillary action moves the moisture into them. Beneath the roots you can add some clay pellets, which are standard in hydroculture, and then place more pellets around the rest of the stem all the way up to the top of the pot. The extra pellets are simply used to anchor the plant and keep it in place.
The advantage of this method instead of growing directly in water is that you never have to worry about the rooting system because of lack of oxygen, or worry about the roots rotting because they sit too long in water without that oxygen. The roots never sit inside the water and they are always able to breathe. You also don’t have to worry about changing the water more often than not for that reason. You just need to add water to the bottom every now and then when it starts to finish. No more soil, no more soil pests, almost never a need to repot, no more possible allergies developing from substances released from the soil and no more under or over watering. You’ll never make a mistake with watering again. There is hardly ever a pest to deal with and if there is the battle is easily won. If the plant is ever attacked by leaf pests, you take the whole thing apart, soak the plant for as long as you want to drown the critters, wash the plant from top to roots – pot and pellets included – and put everything back together again. That’s it.
Hydroculture is a highly successful method that requires little effort. There are so many wonderful reasons to adopt hydroculture and so many more benefits to it than simply growing plants directly in water. And your plants will love it. Just about any plant can be grown in this method – Aglaonema, Dracaena, Alocasia, Chlorophytum, Sansevieria, Ficus, Aspidistra, Spathiphyllum, Amaryllis, etc – unlike plants grown directly in water that are limited. Because the roots do not sit in water, there is no fear of root rot, therefore even cacti & succulents can be grown in hydroculture.
Both ways are possible – growing directly in water or growing in a hydroculture system – but the latter will allow you to grow plants that will flourish as much as soil-grown ones and the maintenance will be minimal. You have the option to choose between plants that are surviving – in water – and plants that are thriving – in hydroculture!
Contributed By Martha Plousos