The word “hydroponics” actually refers to growing plants in water. But researchers over the past ten years have come to the conclusion that there are a wide variety of media in which plants can grow. Nowadays, “hydroponics” is better defined as “growing plants without soil”.
No. Seriously. Gardening without dirt – and gardening without dirt is perfect for growing food indoors and in small spaces, like small greenhouses.
For the home-based indoor gardener there are a number of advantages to hydroponics. For one, you can configure your growing basins to fit any space no matter the shape or size. You can grow on the kitchen counter, in the shower stall or in your bedroom closet. You can have a big operation or a small operation depending on your desire or needs.
Because the roots will not have to spread out to find the nutrients and water your hydroponic garden will use much less space. And there are no weeds. Hydroponic gardening requires a sterile medium in which weeds will not grow. This also drastically reduces (or even completely eliminates) soil-borne diseases and the occurrence of pests.
The third advantage is in plant health. Hydroponic plants grow up to 50 percent faster than plants grown in soil and the yield is greater! Why? It seems that there is more oxygen available to the roots. That increase in oxygen allows the roots to absorb nutrients faster than in the soil. This saved energy allows the plant to produce more edible material. You will find that your hydroponically grown plants, because the growth solution makes all of the necessary nutrients readily available, will be healthier, bigger and in many cases will mature more rapidly so you’ll begin your vegetable harvest much earlier than you normally would.
Then there is the question of ease. With a timer and grow lights, you can actually automate the whole system allowing you a lot of free time or even the ability to go away for extended periods of time without having to worry about watering or feeding your plants. Other benefits include less use of water, less use of artificial nutrients, no pesticides, no erosion….A hydroponic garden is perfect for the greenhouse.
This is the most important part of your hydroponic garden. There are thirteen elements required for solid plant growth and few if any fertilizers contain all thirteen elements so you will need to seek out a nutrient solution that is especially formulated for a hydroponic system. Be sure to follow the dilution rates recommended by the particular product you buy! You will also need a simple pH test kit to make sure your nutrient solution is correct (that would be between 5 and 6 for most systems). You will have to change out your solution every 14-21 days as it gets depleted. If you notice any deficiencies, simply change out your solution more often.
There are a very wide variety of hydroponic systems out there. The idea in an of itself allows for a vast amount of creativity and innovation.
This website, hydroponics at home has a number of great ideas on how you can build your own system. How-To Hydroponics has great plans (not to mention a ton of other fun and important information) for building your own system. Ready-made systems can be purchased at gardening centers, like the one pictured above.
A few system examples…
The aeration method is the simplest and cheapest hydroponic method in my opinion. For this, you will need a container that holds water such as a shallow aquarium or a plastic tub with a drain drilled into one end. Place an aquarium air bubbler into the bottom of the container (this will make sure your plant roots get the proper oxygen). Next, insert a 2-inch mesh tray into the container, attaching it to the upper edge of the container so that there remains several inches of empty space at the bottom of the container. This will be the area where the water and nutrient solution will go. Then pour a layer of material such as pea gravel, vermiculite, marbles or pebbles into the tray. This material will provide the plants stability as they extend their roots down through the material and the mesh to the area where the nutrient solution will be placed.
The nutrient-film technique sees the plants suspended through holes cut in a slightly sloped, hanging plastic tube. A constant flow of nutrient solution flows through the tube and down to the nutrient reservoir from which it is pumped back up to the top of the system. Simple and flexible for the home gardener.
Other Things to Consider
Keep in mind that hydroponically grown plants are still plants. They still need water, light, air and nutrients to thrive. Therefore, you will need to make sure that your plants get adequate sunlight and good air circulation. You can use a wide variety of lighting types for your hydroponic garden: gro-lights, CFLs used in conjunction with normal incandescent bulbs, metal halide lamps or sodium vapor lamps. You will also need a small fan to keep the air moving around the leaves of your plants. This will help with photosynthesis and prevent any fungal growth.
Not sure where to get started?
Here’s a good resource for beginners: Hydroponic gardening for beginners. It’s a good place to go to get started. Also, there is a lot more information available through the Hydroponic Society of America. And, here’s a helpful resource on germinating and transplanting in a hydroponic system.
Jim O’Donnell gardens in the mountains of northern New Mexico. A certified permaculture designer and ecological restoration specialist, Jim’s first book Notes for the Aurora Society was published in 2009.