If you are wondering if a hydroponic garden might be for you, read on. In this article, I’ll show you how to grow hydroponically, what you can grow and the best systems to try if you are new to hydroponics. You could soon be harvesting your own fruit and vegetables with no need for outdoor space.
What is a Hydroponic Garden?
Gardening hydroponically is growing plants without soil. You can cultivate any plant this way, but some are easier than others. Hydroponic gardens are getting more popular, especially with people who don’t have a garden.
Hydroponic gardens work by feeding plant roots with water and nutrients. Plants also need oxygen, so hydroponic systems have different ways of circulating and adding oxygen to the nutrient-rich water.
Plants need light too of course – so if you are planning on growing indoors, you may need to buy a grow light. If you have lots of natural light on a patio or balcony, you probably won’t need extra lighting.
What Can I Grow in a Hydroponic Garden?
This depends on the type of set up you have. Some of the best plants to start with are salad greens such as lettuce, spinach, rocket and chard. Herbs such as basil, oregano, mint and marjoram are also good choices.
Fruiting plants including tomatoes, strawberries and peppers can all be grown hydroponically. Think about the things you like to eat, and then consider if you have space for them. Look for dwarf and patio varieties, which are designed for small spaces.
Big fruit and veg such as melons and squash could be trickier to grow. You will need plenty of space for trellises and roots in some cases. If you have a garden, garage or patio, you could look at setting up a more advanced hydroponic system to grow larger plants.
Starting off with some salad vegetables and herbs is a great way to see if hydroponic gardening is for you.
Types of Hydroponic Systems – for Beginners
It can all sound a bit complicated if you’re a beginner. But some of these systems are very straightforward. There are three basic hydroponic set-ups to consider if you have never tried growing this way before. I’ll run through them below.
- Wick System
The simplest of the three systems here with no electrics required, unless you need to add a grow light if you don’t have access to enough natural light. A growing tray for your seedlings sits over a larger basin or bucket of nutrient-rich water (the reservoir). Make holes in the base of the tray. Attach two or three lengths of cotton cord, the wicks, which will dangle down into the reservoir below. Plant your seedlings in perlite or vermiculite straight into the tray. Water will automatically be drawn up through the wicks by capillary action.
- Water Culture (lettuce raft) system
Great for lightweight lettuces, salad leaves and herbs – not so much for big plants. Your salad leaves grow on a foam raft which floats in a tank of nutrient-rich water. The water needs to be well-aerated in this system, much like a fish tank. You can buy an air stone and pump that will do the job for you. The stone sits in the bottom of the reservoir. The pump sits outside the tank, pumping air through the stone into the water.
- Ebb and Flow System
Plants stand in a tray that is regularly flooded with nutrient-rich water from a reservoir of water. In between floodings the roots dry and get aired, before the next watering. A timer lets you control how often plants are watered. This is an excellent set up for reliable growing results because it allows your plant roots to get fully aired.
Growing from Seedlings
In all cases above, you will be growing from seedlings, not seeds. This is because your plants must already have roots for hydroponic systems to work. Your seedlings should be potted up in a growing medium such as coir or perlite. For the raft and ebb/flow systems look for ‘net’ pots – those ones that have lots of holes in the bases, like the plant pots you use in a pond. This allows the water, nutrients and air to reach the plant roots.
Other Hydroponic Systems
Other systems work without any growing media at all. When I say growing media, I mean the soil substitutes you use in hydroponic gardens such as perlite, coir or wool. These systems rely on a constant flow of nutrient-rich water to feed plants.
With the nutrient film technique, plants grow at intervals in covered gutters. A constant supply of nutrient-rich water runs along these gently sloping gutters. This relies on a pump operating 24/7 to keep the flow of water going around the system because there is no growing medium to retain moisture for the plant roots.
What’s in the Nutrient-rich Water?
The water solution in a hydroponic garden has a mixture of nutrients to make plants grow: nitrogen, potassium, magnesium, sulphur and phosphorus. It also contains much smaller amounts of other nutrients and elements like copper, iron and zinc.
Refresh the Water in Your Hydroponic Garden
You should change the water in your hydroponic garden at least every two weeks. The old water still has nutrients in it and can be used to water other plants.
Check Your pH Level
One thing to remember about growing hydroponically: check your pH levels. This tells you if you have the right balance of chemicals to keep your plants healthy and growing. You can buy test kits. Your pH level should be around 5-8-6.2. Citric acid can lower pH; the baking soda can raise it. Check the instructions on pH-balancing products before you add them, to avoid sending your pH level too far the other way.
Start Growing a Hydroponic Garden
I hope I’ve inspired you to start a hydroponic garden. There are lots of tasty plants to try; you could be growing your own fresh food sooner than you think. You can make the three systems I mentioned above at home with a few easy to find household items. Why not give it a go?