In Latin, the term hydroponics literally means “working water.” Plants grown hydroponically are suspended in an inert medium and the plant’s roots are bathed or sprayed with nutrients dissolved in water thus eliminating the need to search for food allowing energy to be used for growing, producing foliage, flowers, fruits, and vegetables. As a result, hydroponically grown produce is typically larger, mover flavorful, and more nutritious than similar produce grown in soil.
Hydroponic gardening is undoubtedly the future of gardening. The ability to grow food from water™ is one of the first steps we can all take to begin saving money and stabilizing our personal economy. The idea of hydroponic gardening is so simple most of the items you’ll need to assemble your first hydroponic gardening system are already in your home. Although hydroponic gardening is fairly simple getting started can be a bit overwhelming, so we’ve created a Hydroponic Gardening for Dummies guide to help get you started.
Choosing Your System
The three most common techniques for hydroponic gardening beginners are the Deep Water Culture, Drip, and Ebb and Flow systems.
- Deep Water Culture
The oldest hydroponic gardening system, and one of the simplest, a platform of planters simply floats in the nutrient reservoir while the roots of the plants dangle in the solution. Sometimes, an air pump is introduced into the system to oxygenate the solution. If you are a beginner, this is an easy and inexpensive way to get started.
Drip systems are probably the most widely used type of hydroponic gardening system in the world. Operation is simple, a timer controls a submersed pump. The timer turns the pump on and an advanced nutrient solution is dripped onto the base of each plant by a small drip line.
- Ebb and Flow
In this most common method of hydroponic gardening, plants are set in a growth tray over a nutrient container, and a pump is used to flood the tray(s) with the advanced nutrient solution. The good thing about this method is that advanced nutrients that aren’t absorbed by the roots are drained into the reservoir and recycled. The drip hydroponic gardening system, where a pump continuously drips the advanced nutrient solution into the growth tray, is a variation of an ebb and flow hydroponic gardening system.
Inside Tip: Recirculating systems can use up to 90% less water.
Choosing Your Lighting
If your hydroponic garden is indoors, you will need a light source. Lighting is very important and depending on the size of your grow room and understanding “what to buy and why” can become pretty complicated. Open any hydroponic gardening catalog and you’ll soon be bombarded with hoods, bulbs, ballasts and timers. We’re going to keep it short today and cover just enough hydroponic lighting information to get you started. And if you want to learn more about hydroponic lighting our clear and easy to understand guide will help you choose the perfect lighting system for your indoor hydroponic garden.
Plants require a minimum of 12-18 hours of light. In your indoor hydroponic garden, you will need to duplicate the sunlight. Plan on 12-18 hours of bright artificial light and by 6-12 hours of total darkness. Don’t forget your plants will need to “sleep”, the same as you, in order to metabolize and energize. To make sure your maintain a consistent lighting schedule remember to include a timer on your lights.
T5s Florescent lamps are a vast improvement over the traditional fluorescent lights you’ll find for $12 at Lowe’s or Walmart. Although florescent lighting is not recommended for larger gardens it’s perfect for lettuce, leafy greens and most herbs gardens. We have had great success with lettuce rafts using a complete T5s Florescent lighting system.
Although these lamps give off a tremendous amount of heat, they are the best lamps for your indoor hydroponic garden. You can grow any leafy, flowering or fruiting plant under HID lighting. They can be expensive, but we offer an excellent reasonably-priced all-purpose system below. Learn more about HID lighting, tips on wattage, and how to save on electric consumption here.
LED lights are more expensive than HID lights, however LED lights offer enhanced durability, extended usage hours and better performance. Although upfront costs are a bit steep, LED grow lights offer a viable alternative for hydroponics gardening lighting systems. Read our synopsis on these lights with a caution before you buy.
Knowing Your Nutrients
Scientists believe that the reason behind hydroponic-grown plants’ increased growth rate and yield is due to a surplus of oxygen and direct water to the roots but plants grown hydroponically do not have access to the nutrients it requires, which is present in soil. Hydroponic gardening allows these nutrients to be delivered via a soft water source creating a perfectly balanced “advanced nutrient solution” thereby maximizing crop yields.
All plants require nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and sulfur (S) and 14 less known elements…click here for our advanced nutrient cheat sheet and a list of the remaining 14 elements. An all purpose advanced nutrient solution with secondary elements like calcium, sulphur and magnesium and trace elements boron, copper, molybdenum, zinc, iron, and manganese will get you through all stages of growth. But depending on the stage of growth, you can adjust different nutrient levels needed at different times to optimize your yield.
Do not over fertilize your plants as too much fertilizer will kill your plants. If you under fertilize, plants will take longer to grow but will not die. Follow the mixing instructions on your hydroponic solution package, if you aren’t sure, use less rather than more.
Remember to change the nutrient solution every 2 weeks. That is, discard the old solution and clean out the reservoir, pumps, and other equipment that is used with HOT WATER and 35% Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2). After cleaning, add tap water (distilled/purified water is best) that has been aged 3 days or longer to the reservoir and add the nutrient solution.
Choosing Your Medium
Soil-less gardening means just that, no soil but you must replace the soil with an inert medium. There are probably hundreds of different kinds of growing medium, anything that a plant can grow in can be considered a growing medium. Growing mediums can range from organic (natural) to man made mediums. The job you need to do will determine the growing medium you choose. There are three mediums suggested for beginners: Coconut fiber (also called Coconut Coir) and expanded clay pellets (also called LECA).
- Coconut Coir
Coconut Coir is made from coconut husks and is composed of tiny micro-sponges which absorb up to eight times their weight in water. Coconut Coir is a great medium, perfect for almost any system with the exception of the Ebb and Flow system.
Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate or LECA is made by heating balls of clay under very high heat until it expands. LECA is great in terms of drainage and do not move so they are great with the Ebb and Flow system.
Perlite is mainly composed of minerals that are subjected to very high heat, which then expand it like popcorn so it becomes very light weight, porous and absorbent. Perlite has a neutral pH, excellent wicking action, and is very porous. Perlite can by used by itself, or mixed with other types of growing media’s.
Choosing What to Grow
Just about any plant can be grown hydroponically, but we suggest beginners start small. The best choices to get you started are herbs and vegetables that grow quickly, require little maintenance, and do not have a huge variety of nutrient needs. You want fast-growing plants so that you can assess how well your system works and tweak it as necessary. It would be a real letdown to wait months until harvest time only to find out your system is not working properly. Maintenance-free plants are great for beginners because they allow you to focus on learning about your system- you can move on to more complex fruits and veggies later. If you are growing a variety of plants it is also important to make sure that they are similar in their nutrient requirements, so that they grow well together.
Good Starter Plants
- Greens such as lettuce, spinach, and kale.
- Herbs such as basil, parsley, oregano, and cilantro
- Hot Peppers
Seed Germination and Plant Propogation
Seed germination is the process by which a plant grows from a seed. The most common example of germination is the sprouting of a seedling from a seed of an angiosperm or gymnosperm.
While plant propagation is the process of creating new plants. There are two major types of propagation: sexual and asexual. Sexual propagation involves seeds, which are produced by the fusion of male and female reproductive cells. Asexual propagation methods use the vegetative parts of a plant: roots, stems, buds, and leaves. Division, cuttings, layering, budding, and grafting are all asexual methods.
Propagation is cheaper than buying large numbers of plants, so with a little time and effort you can fill your garden quickly at minimal cost. Propagating new plants will keep your garden full of vigorous specimens, and you’ll probably have plenty to give away, too.
Planting and Growing
Make up an advanced nutrient solution of concentrated minerals and water (or water gel crystals) to a strength of an average of 20-24 CF with an end Ph of 5.5-6.5. Carefully control the chemical balance of nutrients to water (check daily) by adding mostly water, since the water will mostly evaporate. Watch your plants grow for about 12 – 18 weeks. Help them by keeping pests away and watching for root-rot (when roots go slimy, turn brown and die).
Environment (CO2 Levels, Humidity, & Temperature )
Literally thousands of laboratory and field experiments have conclusively demonstrated that enriching the air with carbon dioxide stimulates the growth and development of nearly all plants. They have also revealed that higher-than-normal CO2 concentrations dramatically enhance the efficiency with which plants utilize water, sometimes as much as doubling it in response to a doubling of the air’s CO2 content. These CO2-induced improvements typically lead to the development of more extensive and active root systems, enabling plants to grow bigger and faster.
Assuming you have good air circulation/exchange, your garden room will naturally have between 300-400 PPM (parts per million) of CO2; higher CO2 levels should accelerate growth rates. If you choose not to supplement CO2 in your garden room, it is important to address the air circulation/exchange so that your plants will receive fresh CO2. Lower than normal CO2 levels will cause your plants to stop growing. Plants only convert CO2 to oxygen only when the lights are on as light is required for photosynthesis. If you are using a regulated/timed source of CO2, it should be synchronized to match the lighting schedule.
There are five common methods of generating extra amounts of CO2:
- 1. Burning hydrocarbon fuels
- 2. Compressed, bottled CO2
- 3. Dry ice
- 4. Fermentation
- 5. Decomposition of organic matter
Temperatures in your grow room should be between 68- 75 F degrees. However, determining the optimum environment temperature depends solely on the plants. Plants tend to grow best in climates approximate to human comfort…use common sense…if the plants are in 30-35 (C) degree temperatures and 60-80% humidity, it’s likely you would feel comfortable so will your plants. Temperature changes can also lead to variations in humidity levels. As a general rule of thumb you should avoid drastic temperature changes over a short period of time.
The level of maintenance your hydroponic garden requires will depend heavily on the size and complexity of your hydroponic gardening system. Regardless the size of your hydroponic garden their are a few things you can do to insure a clean and healthy growing environment.
- Make a schedule and keep a gardener’s journal.
- Most plants love humidity so mist them continually and they will be happy.
- Watch your system and make sure it is performing properly. Small bits of growing medium can clog your system and leave your plants ‘high and dry’ or continually flooded.
- As your nutrient solution evaporates, add tap water to refill it to where it should be. Never add more nutrient liquid/powder.
- Cleaning is critical to establishing a sterile growing environment, H2O2 is the best solution. Remember to clean the pots and tubing the plants are in before you start a new crop.
- Keep an eye out for pests and disease as well as nutritional deficiencies.
Pests and Diseases
Pests can eat away your harvest and destroy foliage, while plant disease can decimate the entire system. Insects will not only eat your plants, but, will also help to promote and spread disease among your hydroponic plants. Many people assume that indoor hydroponic gardens are free from these issues. In fact, the nature of hydroponic gardening system makes it easier for insects and plant disease to survive and thrive. Disease and pests can thrive because plants remain moist by immersion (as in true hydroponic systems) or wet with spray (as in aeroponic systems) and grow in a moist medium like sand or perlite.
Common Pests and Diseases
Many pests commonly seen in soil-based gardens also find their way into hydroponic gardens, including:
- white flies
- fungus gnats
- powdery mildew
- black mold
- sulfur-based compounds for thrips, white flies and mealy bugs
- pyrethrum as produced from flowers
- azatrol for many common pests
Make sure your fruits and vegetables are free from pests and plant disease by taking good care of your hydroponic garden.
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Hydroponic gardens are becoming popular because of their ability to conserve water and minimize pesticide use while providing a medium for urban gardeners to provide themselves with fresh produce. Join the trend…with these tips you should have your hydroponic garden up and growing in no time!