Hydroponic gardening is a method of growing plants in a water-based solution. The solution provides the nutrients they need to flourish. While some hydroponics systems include a growing medium like coconut fibers, peat moss, pumice or sand, there is no soil.
Home hydroponic systems range from affordable, easy to build, do-it-yourself units, to quite sophisticated and expensive indoor gardens. You can grow a wide variety of plants using hydroponics. But before you dive in, it’s best to be familiar with the basics.
How Does a Hydroponic Garden Work?
Advantages of a Hydroponic Growing System
A hydroponic growing system offers several significant advantages. Plants in well-maintained systems can grow 30% faster than those grown in the soil. When you water your garden, a large percentage of that water will either leach away or evaporate. An indoor hydroponic garden can use as much as 95% less water than is required to maintain a traditional outdoor garden.
In a traditional garden, your plants are subjected to environmental conditions that are beyond your control. These include severe weather and poor soil. You are in control of the environment where your indoor hydroponic system is located as well as the nutrients that your plants receive.
Disadvantages of Hydroponic Gardening
Hydroponic gardening systems can be expensive. If you enjoy DIY projects, this shouldn’t be an issue. If not, high-end hydroponic systems can cost upwards of $500 and that’s before you buy supplies.
Plants in a hydro garden don’t access nutrients like those in soil. This means that, if you forget to add nutrients or if your system uses a pump and the pump breaks, your plants may not get what they need. A home hydroponic garden requires more monitoring and maintenance than a traditional garden.
Basic Components of a Home Hydroponic System
The simplest home hydroponic system consists of:
- A water reservoir to hold the nutrient solution
- The nutrient solution – a combination of nutrients and water that feeds the plants
- The growth tray where the plants are placed
- A wick delivers the nutrient solution to the plants
Note that there is no pump required for this basic system. In this wicking system, nutrients are not delivered as quickly as they are in active systems that use pumps. For this reason, the range of plants you can grow using wicking is limited. Smaller plants do best.
Research online for more information about types of home hydroponic systems and sources of step-by-step DIY instructions.
Some Good Plants to Grow in a Hydroponic Garden
In an active (pump-fed) hydroponic garden with enough space, you can grow many of the same flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruits that can be grown in a traditional garden. If you’re just getting started, and especially if you’re using a passive wicking system, consider growing herbs and leafy greens like lettuce and spinach.
If things go well and you upgrade your hydroponic setup to an active system with adequate space, you could grow tomatoes and strawberries with harvests as early as two months. Bell peppers mature within three months. With a well-maintained, active hydroponic system, you can garden indoors and harvest your crop in a shorter amount of time than growing outdoors in soil.
Maintaining Your Hydroponics System
Because your hydroponics system uses a liquid solution to feed your plants, it is critical that the pH, or acidity level, of that solution is monitored and adjusted when needed. How quickly the nutrients dissolve and can be absorbed by the plants depends on the acidity of the solution.
When pH gets too high or too low, the resulting lack or overabundance of nutrients can harm or even kill the plants. Test strips are very inexpensive, are available at most garden centers and can be used to periodically measure pH.
Of course, you’ll need water-soluble nutrients for your hydro garden. These are widely available online and at garden centers and beginners guides are available to learn about the necessary nutrients.
It’s important to keep your nutrient mixture at a constant temperature between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit (18 – 21 Celsius). That shouldn’t be too difficult if your system is inside your home.
You’ll need to filter your nutrient solution to remove any harmful materials. Changing out the water and nutrients every two to three weeks is also recommended.
Is Hydroponics Gardening Right for You?
If you’re in an area with a short growing season or if you have limited gardening space, consider giving hydroponics a try. You can start out with a small system and a minimal investment to find out whether hydro gardening is for you.
For a fun way to introduce children to growing plants in water check out The Garbage Garden. Kids will love watching plants grow from scraps that would otherwise get tossed in the garbage or compost pile.