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EPCOT's Hydroponic Wonderland: The Wonderful World of Disney Horticulture

Tomatoes grown at EPCOT epitomize advanced hydroponics techniques. Tomatoes grown at EPCOT epitomize advanced hydroponics techniques.

What if we could grow food and medicine anywhere, regardless of climate, soil erosion and degradation, insect infestation or drought? Those of us who work in the hydroponic industry know that this is not only possible; it's already a reality. Since 1982, Disney's EPCOT in Orlando, Florida has hosted a state-of-the-art, always expanding and evolving interactive hydroponics experience, mixing Aquaponics, Aeroponics, Nutrient Film Techniques (NFTs) and basic Flood & Drain hydroponic technology to create exciting new innovations in the field of indoor horticulture.

From the moment visitors enter the "Living With the Land" attraction at The Land Pavilion in Disney World, they are treated to a host of exciting new possibilities in the field of agriculture. Horticulturists here not only play around with fun and quirky innovations, such as growing pumpkins shaped like Mickey Mouse, they also experiment with much more meaningful advancements, like developing the skills to grow much larger fruits and vegetables.

Another innovation is called sand-culture. By using sub-surface irrigation, they have been able to grow a variety of products, from cotton to giant citrus fruits, in desert sand. The implications of this are enormous.

The fact that they have been able to grow fruits and vegetables that are multiple-times their normal size, without hormones or pesticides, is a testament to the amazing potential of hydroponics.

However, for the majority of their consumable goods, horticulturists at The Land utilize what they call bag-culture. Plants such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and of course the famous Mickey Mouse pumpkins, are hung in bags or pots, with their roots suspended in a growing medium like coco coir, perlite, or rock-wool, and are flooded with a nutrient-rich solution at predetermined intervals. Most of us are probably familiar with this as a Flood & Drain or Ebb & Flow system, and it's arguably the most popular and inexpensive form of hydroponics in use today.

The similarities between your small home Flood & Drain setup and the massive-scale operation at EPCOT end there. The hydroponic gurus at The Land have created an indoor garden of epic proportions, with plants that would be welcome in any Lewis Carroll story. The fact that they have been able to grow fruits and vegetables that are multiple-times their normal size, without hormones or pesticides, is a testament to the amazing potential of hydroponics.

For creativity in design, however, the award goes to The Land's use of Nutrient Film Techniques, or NFT. This technique uses suspended root systems, like other hydroponic technologies, but without any growing medium. The roots dangle into a shallow stream of slow-moving nutrient solution, which is constantly recycled back into the system. NFTs typically use a combination of gravity and pumps to move the nutrient solution around, and the staff at The Land have been able to build some creative looks with their NFT set-ups, like double-helix designs. This technique, along with the similar system of Aeroponics, where roots are suspended in the air and sprayed with nutrients, is how The Land grows a majority of their herbs and leafy green vegetables. The produce is used at the restaurants nearby, which is ideal from a nutritional and environmental standpoint.

Visitors don't need to stress over how well those leafy greens are washed, either, because The Land uses no pesticides. Rather, they utilize what is known as Integrated Pest Management, which means that they release "good" insects into their gardens to control "bad" insect populations. Their use of beneficial fauna doesn't end with flying creatures, either. For a large area of their greenhouse, The Land uses a system called Aquaponics - a cross between Aquaculture and Hydroponics. This form of dual-farming is becoming increasingly popular on a smaller scale in private gardens as well. In this system, a pond filled with certain beneficial fish is used as a reservoir, and the water from that pond, containing vital nutrients that are by-products from the fish, is filtered and used to water the plants. This symbiotic relationship could be the key to more successful hydroponics in the future.

Though it originally opened almost three decades ago, the increasing popularity of hydroponics, combined with new developments in growing and an increasing necessity to combat ecological woes like soil degradation and drought, has brought a renewed interest worldwide for what the technology at EPCOT's The Land can bring. One thing does seem clear - nowhere is EPCOT's full name, The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, more appropriate than at The Land Pavilion. They strive to teach visitors how to live in harmony with their surroundings, and the ability to grow amazing, nutritious food with a minimal ecological footprint is an excellent start to a promising tomorrow.

For more information on The Land Pavilion at Disney's EPCOT, or to schedule a "Behind the Seeds" tour, visit http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/tours-and-experiences/behind-the-seeds/

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A look at Disney’s EPCOT hydroponics garden.
Last modified on Wednesday, 25 July 2012 16:52

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