How to Set Up a Simple DIY Hydroponics System

DIY Hydroponics

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

Supplies

  • 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

Directions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Place a single seed into each pot. Let sit for about 15 minutes or until the seeds are thoroughly soaked.
  4. 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.

Light

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!

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Comments

  1. I’ve been reading here and there about hydroponics for the last couple of years and have always been intrigued. Our food co-op sells hydroponic tomatoes and they are always so tasty and “perfect”. I was wondering if a cool basement room with only one east window is even conducive to this set up. (My husband doesn’t like the thought of having food growing inside the house out in the open by the few windows we have and thinks it looks messy. So, I can’t utilize the south slider in the kitchen for this purpose, dang.) I supposed if I set up enough grow lights in the basement room, but not sure about the constant cool temperature being a problem. That first step to trying something new is always the hardest. I know I just need to do a simple small set up first to see if it is even viable. I know to keep doing research myself and looking things up on the internet but thought perhaps someone here might have the same question or an answer. Thanks so much!

    • You may need a heat mat, Martha. They are available in many garden catalogs and on the internet. Or you can use an old heating pad. Many things, like tomatoes, need warmth for germination, but do ok if the weather is cool. And for many tomatoes, daylight hours are a key factor, so set your lights to go on and off at 12 hour intervals. You can also look for daylight neutral tomatoes. Many of the specialty places have them. Like you said, trying is the best thing you can do.

  2. Love this idea!! I wonder if using a system like this to start seeds indoors before outdoor planting would result in plants that are stronger and more resistant to disease? Just a thought…:)

  3. I started with an aerogrow system. The setup was $100 and small. I still use the system, however, I make my own coir pots rather than buying replacement pots/seeds from Miraclegro. We live in ND with a short growing season. The herbs I started in Jan. of last year were ready for transplant in the spring. I also have a worm compost apartment in my garage throughout the cold winter (garage is heated to 55 degrees) and once I planted my herbs in soil amended with worm compost in my tiny side yard garden – they grew to enormous size! I supplied many neighbors in our retirement complex. Similar to the friend who grows zucchini and supplies the city! I wish I had the room to start all of my plants hydroponically but it’s all about space. I highly recommend using this for starters if that’s all you can handle.

    • Grandma Jean, thanks for the advice. I live in SD so I’m with you on weather. I was also thinking of trying an AquaFarm that has the fish in the tank to start (dual purpose since my kids want fish). That looks nicer, so that might fly better, eh. I looked up the Aerogrow system and there are vertical ones too.

  4. I’m interested in finding out if this can be done without the toxins that leach from plastics. If any one knows of a system, I’d love to hear about it. Thanks.

    • I’ve done a lot of checking, Mary, and there are some plastics that are less toxic than others. Look at the triangle on the bottom of plastic containers. The safer ones are 1, 2, 4 and 5. These are plastics that do not leach as much into the soil. I contacted the BioBusiness Network here in North Carolina about this. Part of their jobs is to find out what constituents are in certain plants, such as how much phenol is in lavender. I asked about plastics and what I was told is that even if the plastics listed were to sit in the hot sun all day for months (as many of them do at nurseries) or be subjected to water all day, such as in a hydroponics system, there is virtually none of the compounds that end up in the finished product, like tomatoes. This is why most nursery containers are either 1 or 2 grade plastics. It sure took a lot of worry off of my mind.

  5. Thank you for the information, I would love to try this. Any chance you can attach some images? Or links to images of the different types of systems you talk about?