I’m all about gardening, even when the temperatures hover around zero. It’s only the beginning of January and already I have the itch. I’ve set up a few raised beds outside, and have started lettuce, chard, spinach, and kale. That’s just not enough for me. I want cucumbers! And tomatoes that don’t remind me of Styrofoam! I’m setting up a greenhouse in a few weeks, but I want to get a jump on my spring plants now. I know just how to do it.
What is Hydroponics?
Simply stated, hydroponics is the art (and very big business) of growing plants in a water-based system. There are many types of systems and most of them almost require a degree in chemistry. Make sure the pH is this and the potassium is that and the micro minerals are exact and blah, blah, blah. Don’t get me wrong, there is an exact science to it. But for most home growers, it’s just not necessary to keep fiddling with how much of what nutrients to keep up with. I’m going to show you a much easier way–DIY hydroponics!
Three Types of DIY Hydroponics Systems
While there are virtually hundreds of types of hydroponics systems, there are three that are easy to set up and maintain. We’ll look at these three and then you can choose what will work best for you.
The Dutch Bucket System
This system consists of some pots or buckets, usually filled with a fast-draining non-soil media, like coir, which is coconut fiber, lined in a row. There is a drain line hooked to the bottom of each bucket which drains into a reservoir. You water the buckets, wait for them to drain, and then take the water in the reservoir, add nutrients and use it to water the plants again. In a large scale system, the nutrients are carefully monitored so they can be adjusted to suit the plants they are feeding.
The Ebb/Flow System
This system is just about the easiest for the home grower. You can use a media bed, which is a large bed with raised sides much like a raised garden bed. It usually has a liner, like a pond, and has a drain. The media is usually clay balls (marble sized) that absorb water and hold onto it for the plants to use. The bed is flooded with water, allowed to sit for 15 minutes or so, and then drained. In a home system, you can drain it into a 5 gallon bucket and use it again later.
The Tower System
This system consists of an upright piece of PVC tube that has holes in it for the pots. The pots have media such as rockwool that will hold the plants and allow them to grow horizontally. There are many examples of tower gardens on the internet, including those that feed entire industries.
Setting up a Homemade Hydroponic System
- a leakproof pan, such as a kitty litter pan
- small pots (I got some empty K-cups from friends)
- seeds (find organic seeds here)
- a medium, such as gravel or cotton batting (if using batting, you may want an organic brand, since cotton is a heavily sprayed crop)
- another tray to move the pots to while you drain the pan
- Take your pots and line them up inside the pan. If they do not have holes in them, take a nail and poke a few holes in the bottom and sides. Fill pots with gravel or batting.
- Pour water into the pan to the top of the pots. Allow to soak into the pots. Tip the pan so the excess water drains into a bucket.
- Place a single seed into each pot. Let sit for about 15 minutes or until the seeds are thoroughly soaked.
- Take the pots out and drain the pan into the bucket. Place the pots back into the pan and repeat the process several times a day if possible.
Nutrients for Your System
A large scale hydroponics system needs to be monitored carefully and constantly to be sure the plants are getting the correct nutrients. In a small home system, you don’t need to be so precise. The reason for this is that you’ll have a much smaller scale system and the plants won’t use up quite so much nutrition. So you can use something as simple as manure or compost tea or diluted fish emulsion. Any of these will provide your plants with the food they need to not only survive, but thrive.
Dealing With Pests
Any type of gardening effort can have pests. You can use insecticidal soap or a pyrethrin based spray as long as you don’t return the water to a tank with fish. If you have an aquaponics system, you can use food grade Diatomaceous Earth (DE). This will eliminate bugs without harming the fish. As for disease, you can use a diluted copper spray for many types of disease. This will not harm the fish either.
Often the light in the winter is not enough and you’ll need to supplement with a grow light, or a type of light that mimics natural daylight. This will give your plants enough light to survive. If you’re setting the system outside or in a greenhouse, the sun will take care of it for you.
Have you ever used a hydroponics system?
What type did you use? How did it work? Share below!