How to Start Hydroponic Gardening at Home
Hydroponics is the practice of growing plants in nutrient-enriched water instead of soil, as has been the custom for millennia. Hydroponic growers cite faster growth rates and increased production as top reasons explaining their practice. Others include needing less space and having increased control over every aspect of a plant's growth.
In North America, it is typical for lettuce, basil, and tomato crops to grow hydroponically. Not all plants are well-suited for this method of production. Plants such as corn, melons, and flowers typically require more room than is found in an average greenhouse.
Benefits Associated with Hydroponic Gardening
A hydroponic growing system allows plants to reach more potential in less time. Plants grow as much as 20% faster when grown hydroponically and produce up to 25% more than plants grown in soil. A growing body of evidence supports claims that hydroponic foods contain a higher level of nutrition, particularly at the micro-nutrient level.
Hydroponic gardening eliminates the need for soil tests as well as worries about the weather. As long as the grower is careful to supply the plants all of the nutrients they need at the correct concentration, no soil is required. Benefits to the use of hydroponics include requiring less space and labor, and versatility. A city dweller with a farmer's heart may grow their salad on their high-rise apartment building's balcony.
Choice of Methods for Each Circumstance
Growers have the option of several different types of hydroponic methods, including Deep Water Culture (DWC), Flood and Drain (also known as Ebb and Flow), Automatic Drip, Wicking, Aeroponic, and the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT). Each of these has its place, adherents, pros and cons, and is the best method for some individuals depending upon their desires and circumstances.
Hydroponics get as fancy as the grower desires. Still, entirely satisfactory results are possible from a five-gallon bucket or a rubber storage tub. Start small and learn as you go is the tried and true way of learning any new gardening technique. All of these methods are water-based and soilless hydroponic growing methods. The difference between them is in how they deliver water, oxygen, and nutrients to the plants.
Set up a Simple DWC at Home
An easy-to-learn method to try when just starting in hydroponics is the DWC method. It is inexpensive, easy to establish, and easy to maintain. Below are step-by-step instructions for creating a simple DWC hydroponics system at home.
You will need the following supplies:
- Water reservoir – This can be as simple as a five-gallon bucket or a rubber storage tub.
- Young plants or seedlings need to be of a species known to do well when grown hydroponically, such as lettuce, basil, mint, strawberries, or tomatoes.
- Net pots – These are small, plastic, mesh-type planting pots, available at any well-stocked garden center.
- Air pump, line, and stone – This apparatus consists of an air pump that sits outside of the solution, connected via a cord to a bubbling stone. Alternatively, one may use a submersible air pump. Either way, the pump provides oxygen to the water solution, thereby saving the plants from drowning.
- Sheet of Styrofoam – Styrofoam sheeting is sold inexpensively in packages of varying sizes at building supply stores such as Lowes and Home Depot.
- Nutrient mix – This may be liquid or powdered, and suitable to the needs of the particular plants you've chosen to grow.
- Water – Sensitive young plants respond negatively to chlorine and fluoride in the water, chemicals commonly added to municipal water supplies. Well water is often too hard, or its mineral content is too high. Minerals prevent plants from absorbing all of the nutrients they need. The best water is a) distilled or b) run through a reverse osmosis filter to remove harmful minerals.
- Light – this can be natural or artificial, but six hours of direct light per day is the minimum amount of light plants should receive. Natural and artificial lights may be successfully combined. Without adequate light, plants will not realize their maximum growth potential.
- Perlite or volcanic rock – A bit of perlite or volcanic rock in the bottom of the net pot will support the seedlings' slender stems as they grow.
Once you've gathered everything together, fill the chosen reservoir with the nutrient mix and water. This simple system aims to suspend the roots in the solution via the net pot so that they receive a continuous supply of nutrients, oxygen (once the air pump is operational), and water.
Cut holes in the sheet of Styrofoam to accommodate the net pots. The Styrofoam becomes a floating platform that prevents the pots of plants from sinking to the bottom. Alternately, cut a hole in the lid of the tub or bucket you are using to a size that fits the net pots.
If the seedlings are presently in the dirt, gently remove them from that medium and rinse and separate their roots. Next, thread these roots through the bottom of the net pot and surround the fragile stem with perlite or another support substance. Finally, fit the net pots into the floating platform or lid and gently submerge the plant roots into your prepared nutrient solution.
Use a submersible air stone or pump to add oxygen to the water. Plants take in CO2 through their leaves and exhale oxygen via the process of photosynthesis. However, plant roots require oxygen, which they absorb through their roots. The grower provides this through an air pump connected to an air stone, which bubbles fresh oxygen through the water, continuously providing the oxygen necessary to keep young plants from drowning.
Hydroponics Maintenance and Management
Anyone truly serious about growing a hydroponic crop is also interested in obtaining the best results possible, consistent results, time after time. Growers are wise to keep careful notes on what they did and any changes they might have made. Keep nutrient solutions at the correct level (higher for seedlings, to the bottom of the plant), and ensure that the plants consistently have their light requirements met.
Nevertheless, a hydroponic gardener must stay conscious of two things. One is humidity, and the other is air circulation. Plants in a greenhouse or grow room must have a source of fresh air and a way to exhaust stale air. Also, the air must circulate. Stagnant air and high humidity are likely to end up attracting conditions such as mold, mildew, algae, and even viruses.
Things to monitor:
- Temperature – The ideal temperature in the average hydroponic operation ranges between 68°–70°. Dangers from temperatures that are too low include failure to thrive, yellowing, and lack of vigor. Temperatures that are too high are apt to stunt plants. Use multiple thermometers throughout the growing area to determine what you must do to maintain an ideal temperature continually.
- Humidity – The ideal range of relative humidity in a hydroponic greenhouse is between 40% and 60%. If there is too much humidity, then there is the danger of fungal infections, such as powdery mildew. Use a humidifier to add moisture to the environment. Use a dehumidifier to remove it.
- Air circulation – Exactly what a grower must do to keep air circulating in their hydroponic greenhouse depends significantly upon the grower's particular set of circumstances. Some have doors they prop open and fans they turn on. Others have vents operated by a remote control that help them control the influx of fresh air and the exhaustion of stale air. Plants must have a consistent flow of carbon dioxide. Those that have it will optimize significantly more of their potential than those that struggle to breathe.
- Nutrient solution levels and concentration – Tiny seedlings need the solution to come up to the plant's base. Established plants may be elevated from the water slightly, so long as the great majority of their root structure stays immersed in the solution. Use a PPM/CE meter to monitor nutrient concentrations in the nutrient solution to ensure that the balance is what the plants require.
Pests and diseases – Pests and plant diseases are less prevalent in a hydroponic operation as there is no soil to foster bacteria and fungi. Nevertheless, when crowded too closely into too-small spaces with too much humidity and not enough airflow, molds and mildew are bound to occur. Prevent pests and disease and encourage healthy plants by providing them adequate space to grow and unimpeded air circulation.
- pH – Most hydroponic seedlings favor a pH level between 5.5-6.3. Plants thrive and produce well when grown in this pH range, and give less than desirable results when their nutrient solution is too alkaline or acidic. Check pH daily and correct immediately any imbalances. The pH of most tap water is between pH 7.0 and 8.0. If necessary, add acidic or base pH additives to the nutrient solution to reach the proper pH. Maintaining proper pH throughout the plant's life is vital so that it might receive the maximum nutritional benefit. A plant's ability to absorb nutrients is impaired when the pH of the solution is incorrect.
In conclusion, hydroponics has never been more popular than at present, with so many people awakening to the benefits of growing their food. Not only do they get to choose the varieties they desire, but they also get to control the nutrients, pesticides (or lack thereof). For many people, the best thing about hydroponic gardening is the lack of weeds to hoe or pull.