Your Comprehensive Guide to Hydroponics
Plants are traditionally grown outdoors in fertile ground. Ideally, Mother Nature provides everything they need to mature and produce healthy yields. With demand for produce surging and viable farmland dwindling in proportion, though, the search is on for a more effective alternative.
Quite a few people believe sustaining the Earth’s population means turning to hydroponics rather than breaking ground in the traditional sense. It’s an efficient, environmentally friendly farming method with quite a few benefits. Many experts insist this growing technique is the future of the agricultural sector as well as humanity’s survival.
What Is Hydroponics?
In a nutshell, hydroponics is the process of growing plants without the use of soil. Instead, they’re cultivated in a soilless medium and given water mixed with growing solutions. Some hydroponics systems are relatively small and simple whereas others are intricate, large-scale setups. Either way, they’re quickly becoming the go-to option for commercial farmers as well as at-home growers.
With conventional farming, plants glean their nutrients from the soil. Water in the ground helps their roots take in those nutrients and distribute them as needed. Plants’ leaves draw in sunlight to convert nutrients into energy via photosynthesis.
Hydroponics takes soil out of the picture. Rather than getting nutrients and moisture from the soil, plants’ roots are exposed to water and the previously mentioned growing solutions. Those solutions provide the vitamins and minerals plants need to flourish while the water serves its typical role of keeping the plants hydrated and promoting nutrient distribution.
Hydroponics isn’t a new concept by any means. In fact, it dates back thousands of years. One of the earliest recorded examples of hydroponic growing is the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Those early soilless systems were elaborate affairs that served both functional and decorative purposes. Today, hydroponics involves more of a utilitarian, scientific approach, but it’s no less miraculous than the water-based world wonders of past millennia.
Advantages of Growing at Home Using Hydroponics
You’ll find there are numerous advantages to growing crops at home using hydroponics. One of the main benefits is being able to choose what goes into your garden. Controlling which products are used in the process is definitely a benefit as well.
These days, finding what you need at a local store isn’t always an option. Whether you’re looking for spaghetti squash, fresh cilantro, or a specific strain of flower, it may not be available from outside sources. Growing at home gives you the guarantee that you’ll always have what you need on hand.
Having a steady supply of fresh ingredients gives you unlimited versatility. Using your crops as they’re picked is always satisfying, but that’s not the only option by far. You’ll have the freedom to create customized vegetable soup blends, stir-fry, fresh salsa, and numerous other items. At the same time, you can create a sizable stockpile in the freezer and pantry for future use.
It’s certainly possible to buy cheap produce from the supermarket. This could lead to several problems, though. You never know exactly what you’re buying or where it came from. Growing your own crops requires a bit of an upfront investment especially if you choose one of the more complicated hydroponic setups. Still, even an in-depth system will ultimately pay for itself in the long run. On top of that, you can’t put a price on having a virtually endless supply as well as complete control over the quality and customization of your crop.
Many crops require a great deal of water. When they’re grown outdoors in the ground, this could make for excessive water consumption. Hydroponic systems allow you to cultivate far more crops with much less water. In most cases, these systems use at least 20 percent less water than conventional farming depending on the size of the setup and how much you’re growing. You’ll conserve water and save money when it comes to your monthly utility bills.
Although hydroponic growing can be done outdoors in the open, it’s usually done either indoors or in a greenhouse. This means your crop isn’t as vulnerable to the dangers of the outdoors, like extreme heat, dry spells, early frosts, and pests to name a few. You won’t have to worry about stripping the soil of vital nutrients as you would if you were repeatedly planting the same crop in the same spot each year via in-soil farming.
Indoor hydroponic farming means you can grow crops all year long. You don’t have to worry about cultivating enough during the summer to last until the following spring. That’s not the case when you grow outdoors because you’re limited to the growing season in your area.
Downsides of Growing at Home with a Hydroponic System
It’s been said that every cloud has a silver lining. On the other side of that ideal, in order to reach the silver lining, you have to get through a certain amount of cloud. Though several benefits come with using a hydroponic system to grow your own plants, a few downsides exist as well.
Time and Effort
Purchasing ready-made products that other people have grown and created is a simple matter. Cultivating a garden outdoors requires a certain amount of time and effort, but most of the real work happens naturally. Using hydroponics is a more time-consuming and labor-intensive process.
Though plants generally grow on their own once you get the ball rolling, you’re essentially taking on much of the role of Mother Nature. You have to constantly take care of the plants. It’s your role to ensure they’re getting the right amount of water, and it’s up to you to regulate the types and amounts of light they receive. You’re also tasked with making sure they get the proper nutrients at the right times among other responsibilities. It’s an ongoing job, but it’s well worth the time and effort in the end.
Knowledge and Skill Required
Hydroponic growing isn’t something you can simply jump into and muddle through. You’ll need at least a basic knowledge of the equipment, methods, and other aspects that are involved. This means doing a great deal of research and studying beforehand. Of course, we’re here to help.
Once you read our in-depth hydroponics growing guide, you’ll have all the knowledge you need to not only get started but see your plants through to a bountiful harvest. Even after doing your due diligence, it’s often an ongoing learning experience. As you practice the techniques and gain more firsthand knowledge, though, you’ll become a master hydroponics grower in no time.
Growing at home takes up space. Hydroponic systems come in various sizes. Some take up about as much space as a telephone booth while others can fill an entire warehouse. In the case of a hydroponic system, you’ll need either enough outdoor space for a small greenhouse or, at the very least, a spare closet. Still, finding even a little extra square footage to transform into a garden is a challenge for some people.
We’ve listed cost as one of the benefits of at-home gardens because it’s less expensive to grow your own product than to buy it from outside sources. Hydroponics systems are an investment, though. Purchasing all the equipment you need for the initial setup can be costly, but after you get past the startup expenses, you’ll start to see the savings build up.
Pests and Other Problems
While pests are less of an issue with an indoor grow, keeping plants inside doesn’t altogether rule out the possibility of insect invasions. Some are determined enough to make their way inside to get to your crop. If they do, they could certainly venture outside your grow room and try to take over the entire house.
Mold and other types of fungus tend to be more likely when growing indoors as well. This generally happens because of inadequate ventilation and humidity control. Sometimes, it’s more difficult to ensure roots are properly aerated with a hydroponic system as well, which further increases the risk of fungal infections.
All that brings us to the finer details of hydroponic systems and growing requirements. First of all, it’s important to take a few things into consideration. From there, you’ll need various types of equipment to get started and keep your garden up and running.
Indoors or Outdoors?
Before jumping headlong into the growing process, you’ll need to decide whether to cultivate your crop inside in a grow room, outdoors in a greenhouse, or in a traditional garden. We’ve already gone over the pros and cons of those alternatives, but your unique circumstances will help determine which is best for you.
If you have the extra outdoor space, a standard soil-based garden is the simplest and least expensive option. In the event outdoor space and invasive wildlife are issues you might contend with, a hydroponic system in an indoor grow room is your best bet. An outdoor greenhouse offers an acceptable compromise as long as you have enough room in the yard for one.
Soil is the obvious instrument of choice if you choose a conventional garden. For hydroponics, though, you’ll need a different growth medium. Growth media provide support for the plants, aid in getting moisture to the roots, and help keep the roots oxygenated so they won’t decay. They also serve as a vessel for channeling nutrients through the roots.
Several options are on the market. Each one has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Think about those pros and cons before deciding which medium will best serve your needs and those of your plants.
- Perlite: Perlite is a common choice because of its highly porous composition. It’s also sterile to help prevent fungus and other plant pathogens. Perlite is readily available as well. That being said, it’s one of the most expensive options. Since it tends to crumble and wash away over time, you’ll need to replace it regularly. It’s also made of chemicals that can potentially cause lung inflammation, so wearing a mask while working with this medium is advised.
- Clay: In a natural setting, clay would be one of the least desirable types of soil for planting. Clay pellets specifically designed for use as a grow medium are an entirely different story, though. They’re incredibly absorbent while providing suitable aeration, and they don’t negatively affect nutrient concentration or the pH of the water. Clay pellets aren’t as easy to find as other options, and their cost is comparable to Perlite. They can also break down and eventually clog your hydroponic system.
- Rockwool: Rockwool resembles steel wool scrubbing pads, but it’s mainly made of granite and limestone. The rocks are melted and spun into threads. Rockwool allows plenty of moisture, oxygen, and nutrients to flow through plants’ roots. Unlike Perlite and clay, rockwool can alter the pH levels of the water, so this needs to be monitored carefully.
- Pine Shavings: Pine shavings are inexpensive, easy to find, and commonly used in both commercial and home-based hydroponic systems. They’re incredibly absorbent but require adequate drainage to keep from water logging plants’ roots.
- Coco Fiber: Coco fiber or coir is made from the outer husks of coconut shells. Like the other options available, it holds moisture well while still allowing oxygen to circulate around plants’ roots. It’s also a neutral product, so it doesn’t raise or lower the pH levels of the water.
These are the most common growth media for hydroponic systems. Others are available as well. Some hold up well while others need to be replaced over time and sterilized after each use. Most experienced growers have their preferences, but you may want to experiment a bit to find out which one works best for you.
All hydroponic systems are based on the concept of growing plants without soil. Different types of systems are available. Each one works in a slightly different way.
These are the simplest hydroponic systems in terms of setup and use. They have no moving parts and don’t use electricity, so they’re also less expensive to operate. You simply place the growth medium and plants into individual pots or chambers within the system. Wicks placed around the plants soak up moisture and distribute it to the plants’ roots.
Wick systems aren’t necessarily the best choices for plants that require excessive amounts of moisture and nutrients because they can’t always fulfill those needs. For first-time growers with small-scale crops and limited budgets, though, this may be a suitable setup.
Drip systems are more complicated than wick systems, but they’re still fairly easy to set up and use. They deliver water and nutrients to plants via tubes. Some systems drip continually whereas others are intermittent. Runoff from the plants is collected in trenches and sent back to the nutrient solution chamber to be recycled through the system.
Ebb and Flow Systems
In ebb and flow systems, plants are positioned in grow mediums and suspended in beds. Water and nutrient solutions are then pumped into the beds where it flows across plants’ roots. After a specified amount of time, a timer automatically switches off the water pumps, and the liquid drains away to allow for aeration.
Water Culture System
Water culture systems are similar to wick systems in terms of simplicity. Instead of being suspended above the water and nutrient solutions, though, plants’ roots are submerged directly into the fluid. This makes for better water and nutrient absorption, but it can increase the risks of root rot and other diseases.
Nutrient Film Technology Systems
With a nutrient film technology, or NFT, system, water and nutrients are pumped into channels where they flow over the plants’ roots. Those channels have a slight slope that keeps the fluid in motion and directs it back to the system’s reservoir for reuse.
Aeroponic systems entail suspending plants in mid-air. Sprayers positioned below the plants spray water and nutrients onto their roots. Any excess runs off the plants into a waiting reservoir. These are among the most expensive systems on the market. While they’re relatively easy to use once they’re up and running, the initial setup is somewhat difficult.
Since indoor plants aren’t exposed to sunlight, they need artificial alternatives to encourage photosynthesis and foster growth. Many plants need different types of light during various phases of their growth cycles. Blue light is best for vegetative stages and non-flowering plants whereas red and orange light work best during the flowering stage. This variation most closely mimics the changes plants would experience in nature. Several types of grow lights are at your disposal.
- Metal Halide Lamps: Metal halide bulbs primarily give off blue light, which is the type of light plants crave during their vegetative states. This is the same type of sunlight that would filter through the atmosphere during late spring and summer.
- High-Pressure Sodium Lamps: High-pressure sodium grow lights mainly produce yellow light, so they’re best for plants’ flowering stages, which would be during late summer or early fall with an outdoor grow.
- Fluorescent Bulbs: Fluorescent lights are the most popular grow lamps because of their versatility and minimal heat output. They’re generally recommended for green, leafy plants and those in their vegetative phases because of the type and amount of light they generate.
- LEDs: LEDs produce broad-spectrum lighting, so they’re suitable for all plants and growth stages. They tend to last longer than other types of bulbs and require less energy to operate.
Some growers choose LEDs due to their flexibility, longevity, and low cost of operation. Others prefer to switch between metal halide and high-pressure sodium grow lights because this technique gives plants the types of light they’d receive from the sun. While fluorescent bulbs are effective alternatives, they’re not always the best choice for larger setups.
Soil and Nutrients
In the great outdoors, plants would receive all the nutrients they need from the soil. Of course, you might need to add fertilizers and other implements to enhance the soil’s natural qualities. With hydroponic systems, the secret is in the nutrient solution.
Several nutrient solutions are on the market. Plants need ample amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium as well as minimal amounts of other vitamins and minerals. Their exact nutritional needs vary based on numerous factors. Research the plants you plan to grow to determine their specific needs, and be sure to purchase a nutrient solution that meets those requirements.
Planting Your First Seed
When you’re ready to break ground on your new hydroponic growing system, so to speak, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. Planting your first seed is a major milestone. You can certainly embed a fresh seed into a grow medium and set your hydroponic system into motion. Experts recommend germinating certain types of seeds first. This helps reduce stress on the plant right from the start and improves the chances of producing a healthy seedling.
Watering and Caring for Your Plants
Keep in mind, hydroponics systems aren’t set-it-and-forget-it solutions to growing. You’ll have to provide constant care for your plants. This means regulating the types and amounts of light, nutrients, air, and water they receive.
We’ve already covered the different types of hydroponics systems that are available. Each one requires certain components. Depending on the system you choose, you may need hoses, spray nozzles, drip lines, water pumps, aerators, humidifiers, digital timers, and a wide range of other elements.
Though you can purchase these parts individually and design your own hydroponic setup, it’s usually best to start out with a kit that comes with all the components you’ll need for your specific watering system. This takes a great deal of guesswork out of the equation and sets you up for a simpler, more successful grow.
Pruning and Other Techniques to Encourage Growth
Plants generally grow and thrive as long as they receive proper light, moisture, nutrients, and ventilation. Certain measures can help keep the plants healthier and increase your yields. Pruning is one of the simplest and most common techniques for promoting growth and development.
Produce generally grows near the tops of the plants where they receive the most sunlight. If you choose to prune, focus on branches near the bottoms of the plants where they’re not likely to flourish. Be sure to remove any dead leaves or branches you find on the way up as well. Getting rid of dead foliage will allow energy to be directed to the healthier, uppermost portions of the plant where it’s most needed.
Topping can also increase your yields in the long run. This involves clipping the tops off the plants. Doing so allows more of the plant to receive sunlight. In turn, the plant will grow bushier and may produce more. If you’re interested in speeding up the growth and maturation processes, there are several ways to change the lighting to achieve this goal as well.
Another proven method for boosting yields is low-stress training. This is a delicate and highly involved process. It entails gradually bending and tying off the branches of large, bushy plants to encourage them to grow in a specific direction. These techniques increase the viable surface area and ensures the entire plant receives plenty of sunlight.
Pests aren’t usually much of an issue if you’re growing indoors and using a hydroponic system. Certain insects may still try to encroach upon your crop, though. Most growers are leery about using chemical pesticides on their plants because they can pose numerous health risks and alter the taste and smell of the final product.
Some effective natural pesticides are on the market right now. You can also mix up your own homemade solutions using mint, chili peppers, garlic oil, and other completely natural products. You may even want to consider planting mint, peppers, basil, and other deterrents in their own little pots and placing them throughout your grow room.
Maintaining Your Plants for Future Yields
From the moment you plant the first seed until it’s time to harvest, it’s important to keep a watchful eye on your plants. Look for white, red, or black spots on the plants and their roots as this is a sign of fungal growth. If you find any mold or other fungi, it’s often best to remove the affected plants immediately to prevent the growth from spreading to healthy ones. You may also need to clean the entire hydroponic system.
Topping, pruning, and other measures aren’t crucial, but they’ll help promote healthy growth and improve your yields. Even if you choose not to prune, be sure to promptly remove dead leaves and branches. They can detract from a plant’s growth and lead to the spread of pathogens among other problems. Watch for withering, yellowing, and brown spots as well. These could be signs of too much or too little moisture, improper ventilation, and inadequate nutrients.
Taking the Risks with the Rewards
Hydroponics is an effective way to grow crops without using soil. Ample benefits can come from growing your own crops using this alternative. Certain downfalls are involved as well. Most experienced at-home growers insist the potential risks and the time and effort that go into the process are well worth the rewards.