Hydroponics—Where to Begin?
However you’ve grown a green thumb, hydroponics is a great way to get into the gardening game. It’s clean, low cost, and takes as much or as little space as you choose. It can work in 5th-floor apartments and grow plants in basements all winter long. Hydroponics refers to growing plants without soil. In hydroponic growing the water functions the same as soil would in any other garden.
But before getting into the basics of hydroponics, it’s important to consider your goals. Your goals will help you focus on which variety of plants and setups benefits you best. Ask yourself some questions. Is the goal of your hydroponic system to create a sustainable addition to what you eat? Is your goal to grow flowers? Do you want to expand the system over time to include more plants? How much money are you willing to put toward your hydroponic system? How much time do you plan to spend on setup and maintenance?
By setting up goals and expectations in advance, you will avoid frustration down the road. Growing things hydroponically both richly rewarding and cutting edge. A new hydroponics system was developed as recently as 2009.
What Advantages does Hydroponics have over Traditional Gardening?
A hydroponics system offers many features that outdoor, soil gardening lacks. Hydroponics has always been possible, but advances in nutrient feeds and grow lights make it possible to grow plants with a proper balance of nutrients in water alone.
The Indoor Advantage
While not all hydroponic systems will be located indoors, they can be placed in basements, apartments, garages, and even closets. Operating your garden indoors allows you to grow plants any time of year without concern for bad weather. Growing crops indoors without soil protects them from organisms in the soil that attack plants. From rabbits to microscopic bacteria—all manner of organisms like to eat plants, but none of them can assault an indoor, soil-less system.
Hydroponic growers enjoy faster growth than traditional gardens. Since you can expose your plants to longer hours of light, your plants grow faster. Additionally, the energy a plant usually spends burrowing through dirt to find nutrients is redirected to plant growth. While animals deteriorate in confined cages, plants excel. Some estimate that their harvest times are cut in half when compared to outdoor gardens.
No soil means no labor digging in dirt required by you. It’s shovel-less gardening. Since the plant nutrients get fed directly to the water, there’s also no possibility of soil exhaustion. Soil is home to thousands of things that aren’t plants. Since we want to grow plants and nothing else, growing them hydroponically saves us the extra work of messing with soils. Weeding gardens takes a lot of time. Not only that, weeding can harm your own plants since you might end up ripping out your own plant roots along with an invader.
With hydroponics there’s no possibility of your plants getting contaminated since no pesticides need to be used and no chemicals lay hidden in your dirt. Contaminant-free growing is a big boon to hydroponic growers. You control the complete formula of what the plants acquire. Additionally, hydroponics save space when no soil is used. Plants can be located closer together as well as arranged vertically. The weight of soil would make any vertical design to a system difficult, but many swear by vertical systems and the extra plants that can be grown in the same space as a result.
Most systems recirculate water. This saves huge amounts of water. While it’s true that a rainy day is free watering for you outdoor garden plants, much of rainwater turns into runoff that the plants can’t access. A five-gallon bucket used for a deep water culture requires four gallons of water to conduct almost the entire life cycle of the plant. The ability of hydroponics to waste as few resources as possible is what makes it possible to be used by astronauts. There’s nothing else as resource-efficient.
Are there any Downsides to Hydroponics?
Hydroponic growth comes with many benefits, however, you should be aware of some of the downsides.
First, a hydroponics system relies on electrical power to operate. In fact, some of the systems will kill the plants in as few as 48 hours if the pumps fail. While it’s uncommon to lose power to a home that long, beginners should know that a dead water pump is more than an annoyance—your plants will die!
Secondly, some plants don’t fit hydroponic gardening well. Vegetables requiring a large amount of space to grow top the list. This includes melons, corn, anything grown on a tree, and squash. Plants that require pollination to produce fruit are not impossible to use, but the increased labor make them not recommended for beginners. Also, vegetables which come from the root of the plant, such as carrots, potatoes, and turnips will need some modifications to a system to ensure that they grow correctly.
Ultimately, a shovel, seeds, and a plot of dirt is cheaper than any indoor garden. However, due to increases in competition and expanding consumer interest, hydroponics is more affordable than ever.
What do I Need to Set Up Hydroponics at Home?
Hydroponics don’t require much setup which is why they’ve proven so popular. Today, we’re covering a basic setup for beginners. One of the first considerations will be the amount of space you have available. Do you plan to use a closet? The corner of a basement? Since the set up will include grow lights and a pump, you’ll need access to a power source whenever you plan to place your plants.
It’s not hard to find a starter kit online for less than fifty dollars that’ll cover everything on our list here. These kits generally grow about ten plants at a time which isn’t much of a hassle for first-time gardeners. They’re an excellent way to get in the game.
Here are the key components you’ll need:
- a light source
- a hydroponic system
- a growing media
- monitoring tools (pH kit)
Let’s break these down a little further.
A Light Source
If you’re planning to use natural light, you still need to consider how much time your plant receives light. Younger plants need less light regardless of what species. Also, positions next to windows don’t always get enough direct sunlight. Most growers utilize some sort of lamp or lighting fixture to meet their plant’s lighting needs.
The goal of an indoor lighting system is to imitate natural light for the plant in an optimal manner. A wide range of lighting setups exist with specific bulbs to aid specific plant growth stages. For now, the important part is getting everything properly placed. If an artificial light source is placed too close, it can burn from the heat of the light.
Advances in light technologies have made energy-friendly bulbs available that use significantly less power than previous ones. LEDs also emit less heat which is important to keep in mind since often the youngest and most sensitive plants will want to be placed closest to the lights. With artificial light it’s necessary to consider having full-spectrum light. Full-spectrum light mimics real daylight more closely and ensures that growing continues at a proper rate.
A Hydroponic System
Your crops need a structure to hold them while they grow. Plastic components are often used for all parts of housing the plants. Plastic is lightweight and water-friendly. Containers such as tubs and totes can be easily adjusted and relocated when they’re plastic. Plastic is also inexpensive. The use of plastic also allows gardeners to build their gardens into towers and vertical arrangements, saving significant space.
Six main systems exist each with their own pros and cons. For our purposes today, we’ll be covering a single hydroponic system which is beginner-friendly. If you’d like to learn more about hydroponic systems, please refer to our other article on the topic. Each of the various hydroponic systems carry benefits and difficulties beyond what beginners should spend their time considering. For the ambitious gardener, there’s plenty to tinker with and study.
One of the most beginner-friendly hydroponic systems is a DWC or Deep Water Culture. It involves filling a bucket or shallow tub with water and placing the plants on top near the water line. This system includes an air pump and an air stone to add oxygen to the water. In some ways, it’s similar to keeping an aquarium. The oxygen provided to the plants through the water keeps the roots from drowning despite being immersed. Many veterans of hydroponics encourage newcomers to consider a Deep Water Culture as the first hydroponic system to pursue. They are self-contained and sold in kits that provide everything you’d need except water, light, and a wall outlet for the pump.
Deep Water Culture hydroponic systems require little maintenance. They’re cheap to assemble, have few parts, and can grow a variety of plants. This makes them a recipe for beginner success.
Two other common systems are ebb and flow and film technique. In an ebb and flow system, water enters the system and floods it on a timed basis before draining away. This mimics a sprinkler system by delivering water on a set interval. In a nutrient film technique system a shallow stream of water is constantly run under the roots to a recirculating drain. Both these systems can be expanded to include hundreds of crops which is why experienced gardeners begin to try out other systems as their operation expands.
A Growing Media
Once you’ve chosen a system, you’ll need to choose a growing media or growing medium. ‘Medium’ is a fancy word for the soil replacement that will hold the plant in place while itself providing no nutrients for the plant. The roots and stalk stabilize in the medium almost like a scaffold. A growing medium might come in a wide range of material types, prices, and sizes.
Many hydroponic gardeners favor coconut plant fibers, also called coir, as a growing medium. The husk of a coconut, when shredded, makes an excellent home for plants to grow in. It’s lightweight, environmentally friendly, and holds oxygen and other nutrients well.
Clay pellets are another favored growth medium. The pellets come in sizes from one inch in diameter and below. They look like little stones or pebbles. However, the clay they’re made out of contains tiny holes that let water and air pass through. They can be pricier, but unlike other mediums covered here, they’re reusable. The fact that they’re reusable and don’t introduce complications (such as clogging hoses and pumps) to the system make them excellent for beginners. The only downside is the possibility that roots in the medium might dry out if you don’t keep good watch.
Rockwool or stonewool is another common medium that many pros swear by. Rockwool appears almost like ceiling insulation in texture and as is made from melted rock spun out into fibrous cubes. Rockwool holds water and air for growing better than almost any other substance. The downside to rockwool is that it never truly decomposes and there is growing concern about its long-term impact once it’s discarded.
Sand, gravel, volcanic rock, sawdust, peat moss…there’s a long list of mediums to consider. For beginners clay pellets represent a good place to start since they’re low fuss and reusable. If you mess up your first round of plants, you can reuse your pellets without needing new ones.
Nutrients usually found by plants in the soil will be added directly into the water in a hydroponics system to make your plants grow. Without the proper mix of nutrients plants will shrivel and die. Seventeen essential nutrients make up healthy plant development. Thankfully, most nutrient mixes available for purchase contain the right balance. With proper monitoring, you’ll never need to worry about the specifics of which seventeen your plant need for what. Much of the regular maintenance of your systems will come from monitoring nutrient content and adjusting it. Since there is no soil to buffer the chemical makeup of the water, it’s entirely up to the grower to check and change the water’s content to protect and develop the plants.
A single stage feed is recommended for beginners. This means you only add the same food throughout the growth cycle. Gardeners with more experience will use different nutrient solutions at different times in the plant’s life to maximize growth, but we want to start simple.
Water takes the central place in the plant growing process when soil is absent. Since water is your only nutrient delivery system, you will need to carefully monitor the water in your system. Some more advanced systems like aeroponics use a mist rather than water flow to deliver nutrients.
As a beginner it is fine to start with tap water. Later on you may want to use distilled water or a reverse osmosis process for your hydroponics. The important part is getting the garden started and adjusting things as you go.
Surprisingly, distilled water is more volatile than tap water when it comes to pH and will need to be monitored regularly. Tap water contains minerals already which keep the pH from easily swinging into acidic or alkaline territory which will be harmful. More important than the source of the water is correct pH and EC measurements. These numbers will need to be monitored regularly to ensure success. For that we will need some measurement tools.
How do you know if you’ve mixed the correct amount of nutrients into your system? Hydroponics gardeners pay close attention to the contents of their nutrient solutions. As plants grow and develop they take in different nutrients at different rates. When the nutrient solution loses balance, the plants will suffer. Two main testing factors in hydroponics are pH and EC ( or electrical conductivity).
Monitoring the pH of your nutrient solution should be a regular task. This means having adequate tools. Water pH affects plant growth by determining which nutrients plant roots can absorb. Too high or too low and the plants become unable to withdraw the compounds they need. The sweet spot for hydroponics sits around 5.5-6.5 pH. Since distilled water and tap water have higher pH, you will need a product to add to the water to create the perfect pH for your growing plants.
EC (Electrical Current) Meter
Once the nutrient solution reaches the correct pH the next test checks to see if the water contains enough of the nutrient solution. Electrical Current or EC indicates the quantity of the nutrients present. It’s a simple test which determines the density of the growing solution found in the water. Devices to check EC are cheap and some include pH checking capability on the same device.
Most plants prefer a specific air temperature to ensure that the CO2 mixture in the air can be absorbed at the right rates for optimal growth. The added benefit of growing plants indoors is the ability to control what would otherwise be weather conditions.
Last, here are some additional parts to a home hydroponic system to consider in the future:
- Fans. Fans move air over the leaves which keeps them breathing and growing at their best.
- A separate germinating bed. Consider putting seedlings in a separate location until they reach a significant size.
- Growing cups. Most kits come with small cups or baskets, but you might need your own if you’re not using a kit.
Good Plants for Beginner Hydroponic Gardeners
Plants that excel in hydroponic gardens tend to be plants that grow shallow roots and need minimal space. Carrots, potatoes, and other tuber vegetables do not well work in hydroponic systems unless additional modifications are made. Here’s a list of some of the simple, hearty plants that many growers have seen work time and again in their hydroponic gardens.
Some of the better herbs to grow in your garden include basil, chives, cilantro, coriander, dill, mint, oregano, parsley, sage and thyme. These herbs do not generally need much space to grow and can reach full growth quickly in a hydroponic system.
Lettuce, tomatoes, radish, kale, spinach, beans, and peppers can all be grown well hydroponically. These plants also generally create larger yields and respond well to the unique hydroponic environment.
Mistakes Will be Made—Don’t Let them Scare You!
Like anything in life, hydroponics take practice. It requires learning your plants, learning your nutrient solution products, and learning your lights. Successful gardeners are those committed to making consistent tweaks and changes to keep their plants happy. Hydroponics takes costs time and money upfront, but later on it becomes a simple, clean way to grow. Be sure to observe your plants daily, noticing any changes and potential problems. The joy of growing your own food and watching your hard work come to life is worth the effort. Take it one step at a time and keep improving. The pros only got there by long hours and practice. Now get growing!