Let me start by saying that I am no gardener. In fact I can kill a rock and that’s not easy to do! Hydroponic gardening at home is really taking off around the country but if you aren’t looking for it chances are you don’t know it’s out there. Not only are there several methods available, there is a system that will meet anyone’s needs.
One day we saw a show about Disney’s garden towers that really got our attention so we did some research and a couple of weeks later we got started ourselves. The people we spoke with and the research we did made it sound easy, even for me. We did have some sharp learning curves along the way but they were worth it.
Here it is October and the bibb lettuce, bell peppers and yellow squash photos above were taken just this morning.
Benefits of Hydroponic Gardening
- Organic, pesticide free
- GMO free
- No dirt, no weeding
- Plants take less time to mature
- Fewer pests and fungus, issues can be controlled organically
- You can grow fresh produce, herbs or flowers year round
- You can grow inside with lights or outside on the patio or in the yard
- There are several methods available
- Nutrients don’t wash away with rain and sprinklers
- You can grow as little or as much as you want
- Great for small spaces
- Perfect for a single person or a large family
Common Types of Hydroponic Gardening Systems
Plant roots are suspended and misted with nutrients and water. The solution drains back into a reservoir and recycled via a timer.
Drip system aka Dutch Bucket method
Plant is supported by a medium such as clay pebbles. Nutrients and water slowly drip from the top then drains back into a reservoir.
Ebb and Flow system
Ebb and flow works by flooding the plants for a specific amount of time then the nutrients and water drain back into the reservoir.
Deep water system
Plants are supported above and the roots are submerged in the nutrient solution. Air stones are usually used to keep the water oxygenated so they don’t drown.
It’s been 3 months since we started and what have we learned?
- Start plants from seed or buy established seedlings from a hydroponic nursery. It was our experience that plants already growing in dirt didn’t seem very happy when you wash all the dirt off and stick them in a different growing medium. Who knew?
- Find a local hydroponic supply store, a couple if you can. The people that work there typically grow as well and they will be your lifeline for any questions, training or issues you will have in your own growing zone from getting started to frost protection.
- Use the internet to research as well. You can also buy supplies online. I’ve even ordered some products from Home Depot and had them shipped to the store for free.
- Check plants every day for pests and fungus.
- Check water levels regularly. As the plants mature they will suck it up. Don’t forget to adjust nutrients and check your PH every time you add water.
There are many hydroponic nutrient companies to choose from. Choose one that does not require additional nutrients for specific plants, otherwise it will get costly. Some will tell you to drain the water and start over every 1-3 weeks. We discovered that we didn’t need too. Follow their feeding measurement’s, experiment until you find what works for you but don’t waste your money.
The photo above was our first attempt using the deep water method. It was inexpensive and easy to make but most of the plants didn’t do well after a couple of weeks. All the strawberries but one plant and 4 of the six watermelon died, however the basil and oregano did well. We moved the surviver’s to the drip (dutch bucket) method and had better results. We may have tried growing too many plants.
We learned that some plants that flower and grow fruit change the way they use their root systems. As a result, those types of plants end up drowning if the roots are constantly in water air stone or not. We were told lettuces and other leafy greens do very well in a deep water, but we elected to go another route. This has all been part of the learning curve! If you’re interested in this type of system but don’t want to make your own set up, you can buy a similar kit on line.
The Drip System
At the same time we were trying the deep water system, we also had two drip buckets working. In these we had tomatoes and bell peppers. The tomatoes did really well, the bell peppers, not so much. In fact, we tried bell peppers a couple times and couldn’t get them to take. The system above is also easy to make and inexpensive as well. It uses an air pump like aquariums use to bubble water up a tube into the ring you see in the picture. The ring has small holes in it letting the water drip out providing a constant flow of water and nutrients to the plant. The water drips through the medium (in our instance clay balls) back into the bottom of the bucket and the cycle starts over again. You can buy 5 gallon kits like this for about $25.00 – $35.00.
We purchased 2 kits in the beginning then decided to try another approach. I asked the manager at my local grocery store bakery department if they had any large plastic buckets and lids that I could have, and they did. These are 3 gallon buckets not 5, but work just fine. If you do this, I suggest getting a couple extra, they make great storage buckets for your supplies. The black baskets (net pots) were purchased at a hydroponic store for under $4.00, they fit perfectly. These come in all different sizes so there are plenty of options. The reservoir is a $6.00 tote from Walmart. We have 4 buckets per reservoir, so we have two reservoirs in the system shown in the picture on the right.
To make this kind of system, you will need to drill a hole near the bottom of the bucket for drainage back into the reservoir. We used 1/2″ fittings and tubing easily found at the local big box stores in the lawn irrigation areas. Insert a rubber grommet in the hole then add an elbow. Connect a piece of drain hose between the elbow and T connector as shown in 2nd photo. Repeat for the remaining buckets. Make sure your drain runs downhill towards the reservoir. This was done by making each buckets drain about an inch longer than the previous one, then connecting all the buckets to a common drain line. You can see a section of this in the picture on the left. We found that connecting your first bucket to the main drain line with an elbow and the last bucket in line with a T fitting works really well. The last bucket’s T fitting has the bucket drain, the other bucket drain lines and the return line to the reservoir connections.
The pump (a small fountain pump, again easily found at the big box stores) is used to bring the water to the buckets. You need make a manifold so you can have multiple lines coming from the one pump. Using 1/2 tube, cut a length that fits easily in the reservoir, connect one end to the pump,and the other to a termination end. Then punch holes for each water line you want, we used 1/4″ tubing and fittings for this. The number will depend on how many buckets you have, at least one per bucket. We run two, but thats mostly because this grew from our deep water system. The 1/4 inch stuff is, you guessed it, easily found at the big box stores, and it’s cheap too! Make small holes in the pump hose, insert irrigation connectors, connect irrigation hose, finish with drip emitters (you can find these anywhere too). This entire project took 2 of us about 2 hours total for eight buckets, so essentially two separate systems. All said and done we spent less than $200.00. Most of the cost was 2 pumps and 1 timer. We plan to expand and improve this system later. I’ve discovered buying supplies online proved to be cheaper for many things.
Another Drip System
The tower is my favorite but this particular tower is also the most expensive system we have. There are less expensive tower gardens out there and I’ve seen that people have built there own. They are not easy to build, and this one worked as advertised out of the box. It took maybe 20 minutes to assemble.
Water is pumped up a tube then trickles down through drain holes in each section back into the reservoir at the bottom of the tower. We run the timer 15 minutes on and 15 off during the summer. The plants take what they need as they need it. Planting is simple, smaller plants at the top, larger plants at the bottom.
Leaf miners – I tried to kill off the pests that caused them however there are pros and cons to that. I stressed my plants by spraying organicide too often. One pest is the little black fly. Turns out they fly from flower to flower pollinating as they go. Since we no longer have bees where I am, they proved to be useful so I’m not too hard on them now, within reason.
White powdery mildew – A nationwide issue and if treated correctly it’s easy to contain.
Little green caterpillars – Complete destruction in a tiny body. For best results, remove by hand and smoosh them. Look for leaves that are tuned over on the edge like a taco, open it up and there it is. You rarely have just one.
Your initial cost is in your set up. Once your up and running all you need is nutrients and those last awhile. I harvest my own seeds and save for new plants later. Harvesting and replanting your seeds actually produce stronger plants as you go and you know where they came from. You’ll have plenty to trade for different seeds with other growers in your area too if you wish.
It’s not too late to get started, do some research to determine what system you want to start with and don’t forget to talk with your local hydroponic suppliers to help you along in your own zone. You really can have fresh produce year round right at your finger tips.