Hydroponic gardening, or “Hydroponics”, refers to the practice of growing plants without soil, utilizing only mineral nutrient solutions, water, and/or a soilless growing medium.
The article Hydroponic Gardening For Beginners appeared first on Big Blog of Gardening.Hydroponic gardening, or “Hydroponics”, refers to the practice of growing plants without soil, utilizing only mineral nutrient solutions, water, and/or a soilless growing medium.
The article Hydroponic Gardening For Beginners appeared first on Big Blog of Gardening.Read MoreBig Blog of GardeningCC: Photo by Pragyan Bezbaruah

By Guest Author Nicole McCray

Hydroponic gardening, or “Hydroponics”, refers to the practice of growing plants without soil, utilizing only mineral nutrient solutions, water, and/or a soilless growing medium. In hydroponic systems, plants are grown with their roots submerged directly in a nutrient solution or by using perlite, gravel, rockwool, coir (coconut fiber), clay aggregate, or other mediums for soilless cultivation.

This form of growing food has revolutionized farming as well as the food industry. It is an innovative and efficient way of growing plants, especially in urban environments where space is limited. While it’s true that setting up an indoor hydroponic grow system requires special equipment, one can easily assemble a low-cost and straightforward system without much trouble once you understand the basics of hydroponics. 

In this article, we dive into how hydroponic gardening works and how you can start growing hydroponic plants.

What is Hydroponics?

Hydroponics is a technique to grow plants without soil, using water-based nutrient sources. In a hydroponic setup, plants are grown in a controlled space, such as a greenhouse or any well-lit indoor or outdoor space, and are fed with a nutrient solution that contains all of the essential minerals and nutrients needed for healthy growth. Hydroponics can be used to grow a wide variety of plants, including vegetables, herbs, and ornamental plants, and is often used in urban farming and commercial agriculture. Plants receive optimal nutrients, water, and sunlight to support growth and maximize yield in a well-maintained hydroponic system.

Reasons To Choose Hydroponic Gardening

There are many reasons to grow your plants hydroponically; limited space, maximum yield, and faster growth being the most common.

Faster growth: In hydroponic systems, plants have immediate access to all the nutrients they need, including oxygen, through a precisely controlled nutrient solution. This allows the plants to grow faster and produce larger yields than soil-grown plants, which may not have access to as many nutrients in perfect balance, especially in compacted, polluted, or depleted soils.Higher Yield: Hydroponic systems have shown higher yield compared to soil-based farming. The image below shows the yield comparison for different crops per acre. CC – by Nirmal Chandra Barman at researchgate.netNo Soil Needed: Another benefit of hydroponic gardening is the absence of soil. If you live where the soil is not fertile, is polluted, or have limited outdoor space in an urban area, setting up an indoor hydroponic garden can greatly benefit you.Say No To Weeds:  For many gardeners, weeding can be a tedious, lengthy, and time-consuming task. With hydroponic gardening, there are no weeds (or at least, very few).Fewer Diseases: Hydroponic systems eliminate the need for soil, which is a common host for pests and diseases. Space Saving: By growing your plants hydroponically, you can grow more in a smaller area. This is particularly beneficial for residents in urban areas with little or no outdoor space who want to grow vegetables, herbs and other crops.Saving Water:  In hydroponic systems, water is circulated and reused instead of being lost to evaporation. This can greatly reduce water usage compared to traditional gardening methods.

All You Need To Set Up Your First Hydroponic Garden

Watercress and herbs growing in rockwool in a hydroponic system.

Buy on Amazon: Hydroponic supplies

Choose a suitable location for your hydroponic garden

Your hydroponic garden can be set up anywhere in your home or even outdoors. The location should be well-lit, ventilated, and away from extreme temperatures.

Choose a hydroponic system

With simple and easy-to-afford setups, here are four hydroponics systems that are suitable for beginners: wick system, water culture, ebb and flow, and NFT.

Wick System

The Wick system is the simplest of all hydroponic systems, since there are no moving parts or electrical components. However, this method may not be suitable for water-intensive plants such as tomatoes or lettuce, which may consume the nutrient solution faster than the wicks can replenish it. The wick system is best suited for growing herbs, peppers, and microgreens. 

The plants are placed in a wicking medium like perlite or vermiculite. The container is positioned directly above the water and nutrient reservoir, and a wicking rope or felt strips link the medium to the solution. As the wicking medium becomes dry, the wicking rope or felt strips naturally draw more water and nutrient solution from the reservoir. 

Suitable plants to grow: Best suited for non-fruiting plants such as lettuce, herbs, etc.

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Water Culture (Lettuce Raft) System

Water Culture, also known as the lettuce raft system, is another easy hydroponic setup that takes only a short time to set up. In this hydroponic system, plants are placed on a Styrofoam platform that floats atop nutrient-rich water. Roots are submerged in the nutrient solution for constant feeding. 

Water Culture is a simple and inexpensive hydroponic system, and is often used to grow leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, and herbs. The system requires minimal maintenance and can be easily scaled up or down depending on the number of plants being grown.

One of the benefits of Water Culture/Lettuce Raft is that it provides a high level of oxygenation to the roots, which can promote faster growth and healthier plants. 

Suitable plants to grow: leafy greens and herbs such as parsley, chives, dill, and basil grow well in the water culture system. Other lightweight plants include hot peppers, cabbage, and bok choy.

Ebb & Flow System

The Ebb & Flow system is also known as a flood and drain system. In this setup the plants are grown in a tray or container filled with a growing medium, such as gravel or clay pellets. The container is filled with nutrient-rich water periodically and then drained, creating a cycle of ebb and flow.

This hydroponic system is usually set up with a water reservoir below the growing tray. A submersible pump is used to pump water from the reservoir into the container, filling it to a level. As the water level rises in the setup, it soaks the roots, and the excess water drains away through an overflow tube. 

The main advantage of Ebb and Flow systems is that the setup provides plants with access to both water and air, promoting healthy root growth and faster plant growth overall. However, it’s important to monitor the nutrient levels of the water regularly to ensure that plants are getting the proper nutrition they need to thrive. This method is slightly complex to set up, but it is very versatile.

Suitable plants to grow: Strawberries, Cucumbers, Tomatoes, Peppers, Spinach, Beans, Herbs, chilies, etc. 

NFT (Nutrient Film Technique)

Another popular and simple hydroponic system for home gardening is the Nutrient Film Technique. It includes a continuous flow of nutrient solution that circulates from a reservoir through a growing tray, where roots are suspended down and absorb nutrients as the solution flows past them. 

Unlike the Ebb and Flow system, this hydroponic method does not rely on periodic cycles and provides a constant flow of nutrients. The plants are grown in a long, narrow channel or trough, with their roots bathed in the flowing nutrient solution.

Suitable plants to grow: The nutrient film technique is most effective for fast-growing, shallow-rooted plants like lettuce, spinach, radishes, and herbs.

Select your plants

For those new to hydroponic gardening, starting with a live plant rather than growing from seeds is often recommended.  It is advisable to look for seed companies that offer varieties specifically recommended for hydroponic growing. However, if you choose to begin with a seedling, it’s important to thoroughly rinse the soil from the plant’s roots to avoid contamination of your water and nutrient solution. 

Some considerations when choosing plants for hydroponic systems:

Growth habit: Plants with compact growth habit tend to work well in hydroponic systems. Examples include leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, and kale, and herbs like basil and mint. 

Nutrient requirements: Choose plants that can thrive with the specific nutrient solution. For example, lettuce and herbs have relatively low nutrient requirements and can do well with a basic nutrient solution, while fruiting plants like tomatoes and cucumbers may require a more complex nutrient solution.

Select your lighting

Growing hydroponic plants outdoors during the summer is the easiest option. This is particularly convenient for those who have access to a sunny side patio or open space. Indoor hydroponic systems, on the other hand, require grow lights. Although you may achieve satisfactory results growing plants indoors with abundant sunlight from a south-facing window during winter, artificial lighting is typically necessary. For small-scale hydroponic systems, the most commonly used lighting options are fluorescent bulbs and LED.

Choose your hydroponic growing medium

Whether a growing medium is necessary depends on the type of hydroponic system you opt for.

Types of hydroponic growing mediums include:

CoirPerliteVermiculiteRockwoolClay aggregateRice hullsGrowstonesPeat mossSandGravelHydroponic sponges

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Tomatoes growing in a hydroponic system

Choose a hydroponic nutrient solution

Selecting a suitable nutrient solution is another important step in setting up your hydroponic garden. Choosing a high-quality solution appropriate for the particular plants you intend to grow is essential. 

While experienced hydroponic gardeners can create custom nutrient solutions, beginners should purchase a pre-made brand such as General Hydroponics or Advanced Nutrients.

Set up a support structure

Setting up a proper support structure is crucial for the success of a hydroponic system. The type of support you need will depend on the hydroponic setup that you’re using. For example, if you’re using a vertical hydroponic system, you’ll need a support structure that can accommodate the weight of the plants and the water.

For beginners, a wide range of hydroponic kits available in the market can come pre-assembled or with all the necessary components to help you start your hydroponic garden. 

 Other considerations for your hydroponic garden

There are a few things that your hydroponic system would need maintenance for, including water, insects, and disease.

Managing water

Although some hydroponics resources suggest a “set it and forget it” method where the water is not changed, this approach is only appropriate for short-term crops like lettuce, which can be harvested within 6 to 7 weeks.

In the case of long-term crops such as tomatoes or continuously harvested herbs, changing the water in your hydroponic system is important for promoting plant health and ensuring food safety.

Insect management

Although hydroponic systems experience fewer insect problems than soil-based gardening, there is still a possibility of encountering insects during hydroponic growing. The presence of insects will vary based on whether you are growing indoors or outdoors.

Sanitation is the primary way to manage insects in hydroponics. To prevent insects from infesting your hydroponic system, avoid bringing plants indoors from outside. Before bringing home plants purchased from a garden store or nursery, check closely for insects. 

Always begin with clean equipment and containers, and sanitize them between plantings. If insect pressure becomes substantial, consider harvesting all plants and starting over to break the insects’ life cycle. Maintaining distance between your hydroponic setup and other houseplants can also help minimize insect problems.

Disease management

Although hydroponic systems offer protection against various soil-borne pathogens, the risk of disease is still present. To manage diseases in your hydroponic system, it is important to adopt preventive practices. Use seeds only from healthy plants that have undergone hot-water treatment or a Hydrogen Peroxide soak before planting. Keep all materials, such as containers and tools, clean and sanitized between uses. 

Maintain a warm temperature of over 65°F in the growing area, especially during germination, and allow for proper ventilation. Follow spacing directions on seed packets, and consider adding a fan to improve ventilation. Regularly check the health of your plants and remove any diseased plants promptly. 

pH balance

Maintaining the right pH level is crucial for the health of your plants. It’s important to stay within the specific pH range your plant requires, although most plants thrive in a pH of 6.0 to 7.0. To keep track of your pH levels, use a pH testing kit and adjust the levels by adding pH-Up or pH-Down to your water reservoir as needed.

Harvest your plants

Finally, once your plants have reached maturity, it’s time to harvest them. Simply cut off the leaves or fruits as needed and enjoy your fresh, homegrown produce.

Herbs and leaf lettuce can be harvested multiple times by cutting the mature leaves or stems from the lower part of the plant as needed. The plant can continue to grow after each harvest. Eventually, the growth rate of the plant will slow down. 

Typically, hydroponic growers harvest 3-5 times from the same plants before starting with new seeds or plants. However, some varieties such as head lettuce are intended to be harvested only once and will not regrow after cutting.

With a little patience and attention to detail, you can create a thriving hydroponic garden that will provide you with fresh, healthy produce all year round.

Author bio: Nicole McCray, as a second generation farmer, takes great interest in learning and implementing sustainable and progressive farming methods on her apple farm. She also likes to share her knowledge through writing from time to time. 

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