What is hydroponics? Hydroponics means working water. To put it simply, hydroponics is gardening without soil. Building your own hydroponic system is not only fun, but can provide you with food in a sustainable way. Just remember, it’s not just a garden – it’s a gardening system, and a hydroponic system at that. A standard hydroponic system has 4 major parts:
- Water (nutrient based solution)
- Water flow system (pump and hoses unless the roots will sit directly in the solution)
- Plant holder (net pots, rockwool or another suitable method/medium)
- Plants (you’ll want to research varieties that will work in your temperature)
As you begin, you’ll want to do a bit of research. Where will you be building your hydroponic system? Is it going to be on the back porch, in the barn, out in the yard, in the garden, in the greenhouse, in the basement? We need to know these things so you can determine how hot the plants will get.
Most people have hydroponic systems set up in a small greenhouse or have turned an existing structure into a greenhouse. This is important so we choose the right variety of plants. If it is very hot, some varieties of lettuce will bolt and not produce very well, meaning they put out a short bit of leaves and then bloom (poof – no more to eat). Broccoli will do the same, as will other plants. There are usually some varieties that can tolerate warmer or colder weather – so keep this in mind.
The 6 Hydroponic Systems you can Create
- Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)
- Nutrient rich water is pumped into channels holding plants. The channels are sloped allowing the nutrient solution to flow through channels with plant roots and back into the reservoir.
- Deep Water Culture (DWC)
- Plants are suspended in a nutrient solution while air is provided to the roots using an air diffuser or air stone and air pump.
- Wick Hydroponics
- The wick system is simple and has no moving parts. Plants are placed in an absorbent grow medium with a nylon wick running from each plant to the reservoir of nutrient solution.
- Ebb & Flow
- Also known as the flood and drain method, is similar to the NFT yet the channels are not slightly tilted to allow for drainage. The water/nutrient mix is flooded into the channel/container, and the sits for a predetermined amount of time and then the pump turns off, allowing the water mix to flow back into the reservoir.
- Drip Hydroponics
- The system pumps the nutrient solution through tubes to the base of the plants, with drip emitters at the end of each tube controlling the amount of solution each plant receives. These systems may or may not circulate the excess mix back to a central reservoir.
- A simple system where plants are suspended in air and nutrient solution is sprayed over the root system of each plant using misting nozzles. Ideally, the dripping solution will be collected and returned to the reservoir.
Planning out a Hydroponic System
I think it’s best to start with the NFT method. Take a piece of paper and draw, using your imagination, how you want your setup to look. Take into consideration that water flows with gravity – downhill, and plan accordingly. The water will need to go in at the top and will flow out at the bottom.
Remember those goofy shows in the movies and television where inventors made a special contrivance to cook them breakfast with an elaborate mechanism to crack the eggs, turn on the stove, drop the toast into the toaster and so forth?… Same principle but your contraption should be much simpler and just show how you’ll put water in and how it will flow through your plants and into the water container. It’s that simple.
There are a few areas of focus here. Some systems take a central flow line and have openings into multiple shoots where all plants are fed equally from individual troughs (imagine a comb approach). Another would be a laisser-faire winding stream back and forth irrigation with a central trough through which all plants are watered as it flows through a single trough that is manipulated to flow from a single irrigation inlet.
Another thought, you may consider having a few containers with the ability to let them flood for a few minutes and then drain (via hoses, holes, etc..) or any other method. Just remember gravity will make your life easier.
Layout Decisions to Make
- Decide where to set up your hydroponic garden.
- Decide on how you want to layout your garden, with supports, and drainage
- Decide on how you want to store the water for the system.
- Decide on how you are going to move the water to the top of the garden and collect it back into the storage area.
- Decide how to hold your plants in the system (net pots, vermiculite, rockwool, pea gravel)
How to Set Up Your Hydroponic System
- Layout your design and assemble, using slight angles to allow the water to flow instead of stand in the system.
- Set your plants evenly in the system, securing them in their containers with the medium you chose to hold them.
- Set your method for water delivery in place, using either a manual method (you pour the water), with hoses and pumps or another method you find suitable.
- Set up your water collection system so the water flows back into the water storage system (barrel, pond, etc..).
- Start pouring water into the top of your system until it runs all the way through and starts coming out of the other end. The water should be non-chlorinated.
Ideally, you would collect rainwater or use a stream or other natural body of water. If natural freshwater is not available, let your water sit out in an open container for about a week to naturally lose its chlorine. Measure this amount and double it. This will be the minimum amount of water you’ll need to keep in your system. Mark the storage tank/container to indicate when the water is at this level, so you know when to add more (adjust weekly or as needed).
- Add nutrient mix to the water. Your initial mix should last you at least one to two weeks before replenishment is required. My personal preference is to add 2 (two) teaspoon of Miracle-Gro® “All Purpose Water Soluble Fertilizer with Micronutrients” and 1 (one) teaspoon of Epsom salt for every gallon of water.
- Mix the nutrient mix and water thoroughly before the first use.
You have everything assembled and are now ready to set test your system. If you are using a pump, connect it to a timer and adjust it to run for about 5 (five) minutes every hour. This will keep the roots moist and allow them to drain in between. Test the system for a day to see how the plants are adjusting. You may have to increase or decrease our frequency of water due to the heat and humidity of your setting. Should you be out of direct sunlight, you may have to add additional lighting or find methods of reflecting the sunlight to increase yield. A popular method for hydroponic enthusiasts is LED lighting. Check out our article on the best LED grow lights for any budget.
Hydroponic gardening will allow you to increase your yield in a shorter amount of time than traditional soil gardening methods. The plants do not work as hard to pull nutrients and water from the solution as they do soil and able to thrive once all of your kinks are worked out. Should your water be especially hard or soft, you may have to adjust your pH levels. The ideal pH should be between 5.5 and 6.0 for optimum growth. This may vary depending on the variety of plants you are growing. Either way, you’re best bet for testing your pH levels is through the use of a pH meter that’s good for hydroponics.
Other Considerations and Observations:
- Watch your water solution for insects. You may need to cover the container to keep insects and other animals out of the water supply.
- Consider covering in between plants to reduce evaporation.
- Determine your water use and evaporation rate. Different times of the year may require adjusting your flow rate and water replenishment rate to keep your plants hydrated.
A hydroponic garden is a great Do It Yourself project for adults or families to complete together. The variety of plants and the starting methods can be adapted to complete most anyone’s desires. If you do not have a suitable place to buy your plants, or just want to grow your own, you can use a modified Wicking Hydroponics setup.
Use a kiddie pool from the local department store – inflatable or hard-sided. Look online or at your local farm supply or co-op for foam seed-starter flats. These can be bought in a variety of sizes. They are usually about one and a half to two inches deep and two by three feet in length and composed of numerous square or round tapered holes.
You fill these with one of the best hydroponic growing mediums such as perlite, rockwool, or even growing mix (yes, a little bit of soil can be used). We wrote a handy guide on how to use rockwool in hydroponics that showcases our favorite growing medium. Simply fill all of the cells with your medium and then put a seed in each one to grow your plants.
How to Start Seeds for a Hydroponic System
- Buy seed-starter flats
- Buy a small kiddie pool that will hold flats
- Fill flats with growing medium
- Place a seed in each cell
- Cover seeds with a thin layer of growing medium (sprinkled over them)
- Float starter flats in a pool filled with non-chlorinated water (no need to add nutrients)
Don’t worry if some of the seeds do not germinate and grow into plants. This is normal, though most of them should if the seeds were good. The growing medium wicks the moisture up through the bottom to hydrate the plants enough to grow. Remember that the seeds will need light and warmth to grow, so if you’re doing this outside remember to cover them with clear plastic and if inside you might have to add some artificial light.
When the seeds have grown into small plants, about 2″ high, they are ready to transplant into the hydroponic garden. Hopefully, the water in the system is room-temperature by now and not cold, as we do not want to shock the plants.
How to Harvest Hydroponic Plants
When you are ready to harvest the plants from your hydroponic gardening system, have another plant to go back in place of your harvested plants for optimum efficiency. In the case of some plants, such as broccoli or leaf lettuce, you may choose to harvest the tops of these type plants and let them regrow their edible flowerets and leaves.
Resources & Bonus How-To Video
I hope that this diy hydroponics guide has inspired you to begin your start to hydroponic gardening. Don’t let obstacles stand in your way, as the trial and effort of establishing your garden are well worth the time and effort. To learn more about hydroponic gardening, there is a plethora of information on the internet and in your local library.