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In horticultural crop production, the definition soilless cultivation encompasses all the systems that provide plant production in soilless conditions in which the supply of water and of minerals is carried out in nutrient solutions with or without a growing medium (e.g. stone wool, peat, perlite, pumice, coconut fibre, etc.). Soilless culture systems, commonly known as hydroponic systems, can further be divided into open systems, where the surplus nutrient solution is not recycled, and closed systems, where the excess flow of nutrients from the roots is collected and recycled back into the system (Fig. 4.1).
Soilless culture systems have evolved as one possible solution to avoid soil-borne diseases that have always been a problem in the greenhouse cultivation industry.
Nowadays, soilless growing systems are common in horticultural practice in most European countries, although not in every country does this occur on a large scale. The advantages of soilless systems compared to soil grown crops are:
Fig. 4.1 Scheme of open cycle (a) and closed loop systems (b)
In most cases, open loop or run-to-waste systems rather than closed loop or recirculation systems are adopted, although in more and more European countries the latter are mandatory. In these open systems, the spent and/or superfluous nutrient solution is deposited into the ground and surface water bodies, or it is used in open field cultivation. However, regarding economics and environmental concerns, soilless systems should be as closed as possible, i.e. where recirculation of the nutrient solution occurs, where the substrate is reused and where more sustainable materials are used.
The advantages of closed systems are:
A reduction in the amount of waste material.
Less pollution of ground and surface water.
A more efficient use of water and fertilizers.
Increased production because of better management options.
Lower costs because of the savings in materials and higher production.
There are also a number of disadvantages such as:
The required high water quality.
The risk of rapid dispersal of soil-borne pathogens by the recirculating nutrient solution.
Accumulation of potential phytotoxic metabolites and organic substances in the recirculating nutrient solution.
In commercial systems, the problems of pathogen dispersal are tackled by disinfecting the water through physical, chemical and/or biological filtration techniques. However, one of the main factors that hinder the use of recirculating nutrient solution culture for greenhouse crops is the accumulation of salts in the irrigation water. Typically, there is a steady increase in electrical conductivity (EC) due to the accumulation of ions, which are not fully absorbed by the crops. This may be especially true in aquaponic (AP) settings where sodium chloride (NaCl), incorporated in the fish feed, may accumulate in the system. To amend this problem, it has been suggested that an added desalination step could improve the nutrient balance in multi-loop AP systems (Goddek and Keesman 2018).