The Advantages of Hydrogel For Water Retention In Gardens

Jose MartinezJose Martinez | May 13, 2020
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I strongly believe that one of our major capabilities of survival is adaptability. I am an engineer, but it seems that I won’t be able to survive unless I become a small scale farmer, more like a gardener.

The way things are going, I will become a teacher, a builder, and more. I have to give thanks to because of providing me with an inquisitive mind, and no vice to cloud it. This crisis has forced us to those living in “underdeveloped” countries to use our creativity.

I wonder if that underdevelopment is really true because I could see one of the largest refineries in the world from the inside at its best moment, and those guys beat a few world records in plant maintenance in the refinery Complejo Refinador Paraguana.  

Back on topic, this has made me invest hours of my time in the latest trends that will allow me to improve the features of my patch of land, and to overcome the climate conditions that I already know from the experience, of having lived most of my early years there. I know the weather can be dry as the moon and every drop of water is valuable.

And I know as well our house is raised 40 cm because of that incredible amount of rainwater in “winter”. The good thing is, those mountains are not densely populated. If they were I am sure there would be plenty of Australian tanks to collect rainwater. These have a good reputation as reservoirs here but are incredibly expensive. Another solution I found and plan to implement is a pool with a waterproof membrane but that will be a couple of articles for the future.

One in theory, with a few details about extension, shape, depth and purpose; the next one, once I start digging. That will be interesting, so stay tuned. If I (being a sedentary guy) can do it without suffering a heart attack, you surely can do it better. I’m not going to kill myself, as I know what time of the day to work in our hot environment.

I have to make something clear, for those who don’t know my profile. I’m a guy with a technical profile. I just know a LOT of theory in a bunch of technical stuff: engines, pipelines, vessels, tanks, corrosion, and about chemical and metallurgy processing. Welding, and some similar stuff.

I have a strong feeling the world is going to change drastically in the next few years, and I´ve been preparing myself to surf the wave, within my capabilities and my technical background. 

One part of me feels gratitude because this change is coming while I’m still, young, energetic, active, and handsome. To be honest, the weaker and cowardly part of me is almost terrified. But when I see my kiddo’s little face, smiling me with that blind trust on his daddy…I know I will be able to overcome whatever we go through. 

That being said, I should add that the only motive to write about this is because I feel confident about the new methods of water-saving to complement my meager water reserves. Maybe our small patch is not going to feed the 5 of us, but it should provide a fair amount of trading goodies. I am willing to learn plenty of stuff, like skin handcrafting, among other several ones. But surely you will see that in my next articles once I can come back to my country. 

Hydrogel can help me meet the food growing goals I have.

Let’s define what hydrogel is, for those less familiar with the terminology. Once this hydrogel is mixed with soil, it becomes a gelatin-like mass, over 80% water; this has properties of absorption and desorption for an extended period of time, acting as a slow but steady supply of water. It is a compound that works as a water reservoir, in the form of a gel, underground, where the roots of our garden/orchard/greenhouse plants can reach it.

This is a great video on the benefits of hydrogel. Check out the end of this post for links to hydrogel you can easily buy and try out.

Maybe you have seen it used in some decorative fashion by some people in transparent glass vessels holding flowers. Of course, this is a cheaper version, with low absorption capabilities. As far as I know, the main needs plants need to produce are sun, water, and nutrients. In my neck of the woods, sun is so plentiful that it is indeed more of a nuisance. Jeez, sometimes even when it rains, sun is shining.

Someday I will have to upload a video of one of those times. The abundance of sun generates a lot of evaporation. In the dry season, this is not so good. It´s part of the cycle of nature, though: weak plants die and generate compost for the next generations. 

Hydogel is able to store 500 times its volume in water. It will work as an underground tank buried next to the root of each plant. My soil is rocky and with a limited depth of composted layers so it is natural to see why I am so interested in using hydrogel.

Hydrogel allows you to use less water for crops. This can be very useful if you have metered water or during times of drought.

If you live in a place where water is not limited, good for you. You may want to skip this article then. But if you are a prepper, you surely will keep reading. Water scarcity can happen anywhere in the world, and you should know this already.

Worldwide water supply is rapidly shrinking. Anything we could work on now to use less water to produce our food is going to be a huge step in our overall level of preparedness. Increasing the efficiency of our production facilities without consuming valuable resources is going to be an excellent sales promotion, if we win the race of life and need to sell our BOL to go to end our last days in a retirement home and our grown-up kids don´t want/can´t take care of the place.

It allows not just using less water generally speaking; it means that we are going to have some sort of a buffer zone if rains get delayed as it has happened in Venezuela a few times. Drought can happen most anywhere and with changing weather patterns, it may be more likely in your area than you realize.

This is my main goal, indeed.

Rains were expected to start 3 weeks ago? No problem. Just open the valve of the gravity-fed, underground or semi-underground drip irrigation system, and let the hydrogel start working on. You could even control the humidity level remotely, as a means to verify the correct functioning of the irrigation system.

These sensors can be easily wired up, and in my case, with just three of them, one at the beginning, other in the middle, and one at the end it should be a good indication the pipe is unclogged (common problem in underground irrigation pipes) and working. Good thing is, being a corrosion engineer I can even makeshift a little rig for this, one to be remotely monitored with a computer, and another one that won´t need computers, but the natural resistivity of the dry soil itself.

Stay tuned, as this design is another improvement I am planning for the next articles once I can come back.   

With a careful choice of the gel properties, it should be innocuous and non-harmful to the soil.

Being very careful with what I eat and where I get it from, I did good research, and found out there are some hydrogels NOT suited for growing food (usually dirt cheap), and some others that are, indeed, non-harmful and don´t contaminate our soil. This contamination can be because the gel is based on a plastic that won´t degrade EVER (which is not good) or by introducing foreign elements like high sodium in the water our plants are going to drink. Not good neither, usually. Using the wrong gel could lead to a potential disaster.

My advice? Buy a small batch and run a test first before applying it at a larger scale. Nothing wrong with trying something out on a small scale first.

A plus is, this product has been subject to enough field trials to allow a good amount of confidence. However, it´s highly advisable that anyone looking to implement it, better look for a technical consultant to achieve optimum results. There is enough data available in the public domain, though.

When you read specialized literature, like peer-reviewed articles. That means only that the results and methodology used in the research have to be approved by a team composed of experts; among these guys, can be your colleagues and other people working and related to the area. After that team has found the study is proven to be valid, only then is released to the public.

When you read in the papers words like “significant difference between samples” and the amounts of the products are between the grams of hydrogel per kilo of soil, it has to be good. This gel is sold by the kilo. Better brands are usually expensive, but their performance is usually much better, and according to the manufacturers it´s proven to be nonharmful. I read a paper where a maize planting with 0.4% of hydrogel resulted in a healthier, taller, and better-rooted plant despite being grown in an arid climate.

It is quite interesting to learn that this capability of water storage is not the only benefit; most of the plants benefit as well from a ventilated soil. Air is important because of the nitrogen content. As the gel loses water, its volume diminishes. This change in volume generates cavities in the soil that allow airflow to circulate, and that is a side effect that usually results in positive benefits for plants.

Even better; if the water used is classified as a “grey” water, and primarily filtered by a trap grease, subject to a process described already in one of my previous articles using swamp plants to purify and clarify it, our water usage will be quite efficient.

However, the response of this compound to below zero temperatures is not clear. They have been created mainly for arid environments. This being said, it is very likely to be used in a greenhouse, where temperatures are meant to be more or less controlled and stable year around. 

The industrial use is starting to increase, because the investment can be quickly returned

It´s particularly interesting to think about some other side effects of this gel. In Venezuela, a known problem (and I am sure in the USA as well) is the rainwater washing out the fertilizers in the fields, that end up contaminating the water streams, and kill all the native fauna and flora in the rivers.

With this washing out, the soil loses valuable nutritional elements; in the Venezuelan case, the farmers needed to ask loans to the State and keep their crops fertilized. The money then would go to kill the rivers. Interesting, isn´t it?

With the implementation of the proper combination of hydrogel, the absorbed water would be rich in a solution of fertilizer. These would not be washed out and would not end finally contaminating the rivers. Much of these producers did not even produce food, but tobacco.

Go figure

It was relatively cheap to produce because the tobacco companies would provide everything to the producers: fertilizer, poison for bugs, consulting, and so on.

Producers would just harvest, dry, and send. Big tobacco would even send their own semi-trucks. This generated huge contamination in our rivers. Producers would find hard to change to other crops because of the risk, like corn. There were times where banks would not allow credits to be taken.

Drought risk was too high and they would find hard to recover their money. With proper consulting and adequate methods, this risk would be quickly reduced to manageable levels. An added benefit is, that the investment made in pesticides and herbicides wouldn´t go to the water tables, contaminating them as well.

These nutrients will be available to plants for a long period of time.

This means that, provided good tracking has been done, the same soil can be used for other plantings after the cycle of the original plantation has ended and still take advantage of the unabsorbed nutrients.

This means all of the money invested in fertilizer and other substances is going to be used by the next generation, provided it is the same plant. 

Traditionally in countries with not so abundant water resources (in Venezuela there are plenty of resources, but mismanagement and unequal distribution is a problem) this method can mean a significant improvement. 

Talking by my own experience, in our hometown oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits, and other citrus plants are quite appreciated, but they´re not used to our soils. However, our neck of the woods up there in the mountains is wonderful for them. The only problem was (initially, like 30 years ago when my dad planted the first trees) water, but that was resolved with a 10K liters cinderblock tank for irrigation. It proved to be enough to keep the humble plantation alive and thriving one dry season after another.

Just with going there a couple of times a week, and gravity feeding the system, for over 20 years I ate so many tangerines, oranges, and other fruits that you probably never heard of, like the “pumalaca” or “pumagas”. Grapefruit juice was used to prepare cocktails with rum, ice, and some sugar. Quite tasty. I never had the opportunity to prepare some kind of beverage, but I will do my best effort, promise. But that will be material for another couple of interesting articles. LOL. 

With the current prices in town, the approximately $80 a kilo (plus shipping) this material costs, and the added benefits of helping plantations to resist drought, I would rather spend $160, but have two kilos handy, ready to be deployed at the first sight of a long dry season. 

The price for these days is one dollar per 2.5 kilos in my area. Back in those days, we usually harvested like 60 kilos a week, and we couldn´t even consume. For breakfast, as snacks, juice three times a day…it was just too much and my dad even give them away.  I remember using those plastic milk-like crates, only bigger, filled up to the top, to harvest. So heavy that we couldn´t lift them to our truck. My calculations, are that between 400 to 500 kilos per season. Meaning $200, with the water available.

Take $20 in insecticides, mostly for fire ants-like plagues that are common there, and there is still $180. For a cottage already producing meat (rabbits/cuys/carpincho/poultry), eggs, fish, and greenies, potatoes, carrots, lettuce, it would mean a good additional income, if sold to the final buyer and not the middle man. And let alone if the garden can be productive the entire year, no matter the lack of water, just using the soil to produce other valuable plants that don’t need that much water. 

In the links below you´ll find more information about this interesting and useful compound. 

Impact of Hydrogel Polymer In Agricultural Sector

POLYACRYLAMIDE HYDROGEL PROPERTIES FOR HORTICULTURAL APPLICATIONS

Thanks for your reading, fellows!  

Here are a few hydrogel options if you just want to try out a little bit of it and see how it works for you. You may also want to just use it on your most water-sensitive plants or your driest areas.

Root Naturally Soil Moist – 3 Pounds

Miracle-Gro Water Storing Crystals, 12-Ounce

Soil Moist Granules 3 lbs

 

 

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Updated May 13, 2020

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6 Responses to “The Advantages of Hydrogel For Water Retention In Gardens”

  1. Wouldn’t peatmoss work the same to hold water in the soil?

    Reply
    • Dear Matthew,

      Never tried peatmoss before. But I do made some experiments years ago with decorative plants and they worked. And that was plain gel without any special property, low quality and low absorption percentage. That´s why I trust in this technology. Peatmoss is organic, and therefore it will degrade sooner or later. The degradation rate of hydrogel is much higher.
      Please stay tuned and you will see the proofs of this working well.

  2. Also I dont see how long this last? Like does it swell and release over months?

    Reply
    • Dear Matthew,
      I wouldn´t like to mention any specific brand, but in the specification of the one I´ve selected the provider reports 10 years, and a water absorption percentage so high that it allows a water saving of over 85%. It is pricey but the amount you need is very reduced, depending on what you are raising.
      That works for me.
      Stay tuned and you will see in the next months how this results!
      Cheers.

  3. I am so greatful for the info you provide. I have found everything useful over the years to not only better prepare myself for self sufficiency but to be knowledgable enough to not buy into the fear being sold on the TV.

    Reply
    • Dear Denise,

      Thanks for your kind words. I haven´t seen TV in years. I decided to use my time improving my skills, learning, working online and into the conceptualization, visualization, initial design and developing of a line of products that will be quite useful for the prepper living in a secluded compound.
      Maybe you want to check my patreon website with some information available to the public.
      https://www.patreon.com/jmdemunck
      Our goal is to educate people in preparedness, so the impact of disasters and unforeseen negative events can be somehow mitigated.
      Stay tuned!.
      J.

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