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Soilless cultivation of outdoor crops

Due to high nutrient emissions, many crops in open field production in the Netherlands do not meet the requirements of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) and EU Nitrates Directive (ND). Additionally, growers are facing difficulties complying with new market requirements, such as minimal pesticide residues, quality requirements and constant deliver. Moreover, growing crops is often labour intensive, working conditions are demanding and soil borne diseases are difficult to manage. Within conventional cultivation systems, only a few methods are available to reduce emissions without affecting crop productivity and quality. Therefore new cropping systems are needed.

Aim of the program

The programme soilless cultivation of outdoor crops develops cost effective closed cultivation systems for outdoor horticulture that comply with European regulations for water quality. The new cultivation system allows growers to produce in a cost effective way with minimal emission from fertilisers and pesticides.


In the programme, researchers from Wageningen UR en Proeftuin Zwaagdijk work in close collaboration with growers and consultants from the outdoor market gardening, tree nursery, flowerbulb and fruit sectors. The first phase of the program started in 2009. The second phase of the program was launched in 2014 to continue the development of new cropping systems and to resolve remaining issues. The questions in the second phase focus on:

  • The improvement of the robustness and resilience of systems to continuously grow without bottlenecks and economically viable.
  • Closing cycles of water, energy, nutrients and materials to be environmentally sustainable.
  • Scaling, chain development and logistics also in combination with the two points above to actually make the step from pilot and demonstration scale to commercial scale.
  • Indicate the sustainability, profitability and social acceptance of the systems.


The first program period of soilless cultivation has shown that soilless cultivation provides many new opportunities for intensive outdoor horticulture sectors. These opportunities range from increased production through better growth and space utilization, better product quality, improved working conditions, lower labor input to opening of new markets. In the first program period, we have shown that soilless cultivation is possible for almost all crops and that in these cultivation systems, the emission of fertilizers and plant protection agents can be greatly reduced. We expect that the systems for most crops can compete with the traditional cropping in the soil.

Involvement of commercial growers

In all sectors, growers are active in the development of soilless cultivation in their own business. They have built their own system which they use to do experiments and learn to work with this new method of cultivation. Researchers accompany growers here. Bottlenecks that entrepreneurs encounter while experimenting are taken up by researchers.

Publications in English

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