Horticulture program using hydroponics to cultivate plants on Salem Campus

Step into the greenhouse on the Kent State Salem Campus and you will see plants growing in traditional and non-traditional ways: some with soil and others without soil; some in pots and others in high-tech growing systems.

Welcome to the world of hydroponics: a method of growing plants without soil, in which the roots are submerged in a nutrient-rich water solution.

Cutline A: Horticulture student Chris Weeden checks the roots on a plant growing in a hydroponic system on the Kent State Salem Campus.

According to Dr. Sheren Farag, academic program director for the horticulture program at Kent State Salem, hydroponic systems involve growing plants in containers filled with inert materials (such as perlite, vermiculite or coconut coir), which provide support for the roots. The plants receive all the necessary nutrients through the water solution, which is typically oxygenated to ensure proper root development.

“Hydroponic systems can be used to grow a wide variety of plants, from leafy greens and herbs to fruits and vegetables,” she explained. “However, some plants may be better suited to hydroponic growing than others, depending on their specific nutrient and environmental requirements. For example, plants that require high levels of oxygen in the root zone, such as lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens, tend to do very well in hydroponic systems.

“On the other hand, some plants that are adapted to nutrient-poor soils may not perform as well in hydroponic systems unless the nutrient solution is carefully calibrated to mimic their natural growing conditions,” Farag continued. “Overall, hydroponic systems are versatile and can be adapted to suit the needs of many different types of plants, but it is important to research and understand the specific requirements of each plant species before attempting to grow them hydroponically.”

To an outsider, the hydroponic systems in the Kent State Salem greenhouse appear to be designed in a vertical as well as horizontal manner.

Farag explained that the technical terms for the two systems are the nutrient film technique (horizontal) and the aeroponics (vertical) technique.

“The hydroponic nutrient film technique (NFT) and aeroponics each have several advantages for growing plants,” she noted. “The NFT system recirculates nutrient-rich water through a thin film, reducing water and nutrient waste while also reducing pest and disease issues since plants are not in contact with soil. NFT systems provide a constant supply of water, nutrients and oxygen to plants, resulting in faster growth and higher yields. Additionally, NFT systems are space-efficient, allowing growers to produce a high yield in a small area.

Students JB Mason and Jessica Palo working with one of the hydroponic growing systems in the greenhouse at Kent State Salem.

“Similarly, aeroponics delivers water and nutrients directly to plant roots, reducing water and nutrient usage and resulting in faster growth, higher yields, and reduced pest and disease issues,” Farag said. “Aeroponic systems can also be designed to maximize vertical space utilization, making them space efficient.”

Horticulture students took active roles installing the hydroponic systems on the Salem Campus, allowing them to learn not only how to grow plants with this technology, but also how the systems actually operate. As the horticulture program helps prepare future employees for the green industry, it is important that students are exposed to cutting edge techniques and technology.

“Students can benefit in several ways from using hydroponics, including getting hands-on experience by using these systems and allowing them to learn about plant biology, chemistry and engineering principles in a practical and engaging way,” Farag noted. “These systems can help the students learn about sustainable solutions which can use resources more efficiently than traditional agriculture practices and reduce waste.

“Additionally, students learn about the business side of hydroponic farming, including marketing, sales and management skills, and even develop their own hydroponic farming businesses. Overall, working with hydroponic systems can provide students with a unique and valuable learning experience.”

When considering future jog opportunities, it is important that students understand that hydroponic systems have become increasingly more popular, as more growers look for sustainable and efficient ways to produce crops. In Northeast Ohio, hydroponics is a viable option for growing plants, particularly during the colder months when traditional outdoor gardening is not feasible.

Dr. Sheren Farag, program director and horticulture professor at Kent State Salem.

Farag noted that there are several hydroponic farms and businesses in Northeast Ohio that offer locally-grown produce through farmers' markets, CSA programs and online sales. Leafy greens and herbs are among the more popular crops grown by these businesses.

For larger, commercial growers, there are several advantages to using hydroponics. For instance, Farag shared, hydroponic systems provide precise control over environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and nutrient levels, resulting in higher crop yields. These systems use less water than soil-based farming, and the nutrient solution can be precisely calibrated to meet the plants' needs, reducing fertilizer and pesticide usage.

“Hydroponic systems can also be operated year-round, allowing for consistent production and a more predictable harvest schedule. Additionally, these systems can also be automated to a large extent, reducing labor costs associated with tasks such as watering, fertilizing and pest management,” Farag said. “Hydroponic systems can also be designed to minimize environmental impact and waste, making them a sustainable option for larger commercial growers looking to improve efficiency, reduce costs and produce high-quality crops on a consistent basis.”

She added that it is important to understand that hydroponic systems have some cost considerations, because they can be more expensive to set up and maintain than traditional soil-based farming methods, which could be a barrier for smaller growers or hobbyists.

For larger commercial growers, however, the initial investment can be offset by increased yields and reduced operating costs over time, Farag offered. The selection of crops is also important, because not all plants are suitable for hydroponic systems. Regular maintenance is required to ensure proper nutrient levels, pH balance and environmental conditions, and growers must be prepared to address issues such as pest infestations or equipment malfunctions.

“Overall, hydroponic farming is a rapidly growing industry with many potential benefits, but it also requires careful consideration and planning to be successful. By understanding the advantages and challenges of hydroponic systems, growers can make informed decisions about whether this method is right for their specific needs and goals,” Farag said.


Cutline A: Horticulture student Chris Weeden checks the roots on a plant growing in a hydroponic system on the Kent State Salem Campus.


Cutline B: Students JB Mason and Jessica Palo working with one of the hydroponic growing systems in the greenhouse at Kent State Salem.

Cutline C: Dr. Sheren Farag, program director and horticulture professor at Kent State Salem.

POSTED: Wednesday, June 14, 2023 11:39 AM
Updated: Monday, July 17, 2023 02:15 PM