If you’re curious about how to get started with hydroponics, you’ve come to the right place.
When most people think of hydroponics, they think of a highly complex, scientific process that is the most modern of all growing techniques.
In reality, hydroponics has been around practically forever. Both the Aztecs and the Babylonians have done research into how plants can be grown in water, meaning this is actually an incredibly ancient technique!
When it comes to hydroponics as we know it, though, it really didn’t come into existence until the first half of the 20th century or so. This is when more extensive research was done on its effectiveness at the University of California Berkeley.
Today, hydroponics is one of the most popular growing techniques, especially for indoor growers.
Here’s how you can give it a try at home!
What is Hydroponics?
A hydroponic grow system is a gardening system that uses primarily water instead of soil as the method of distributing nutrients. The word comes from the marriage of two different root words: Hydro meaning “water” and ponic meaning “to work.” Hydroponics is literally “the work of water,” the art of growing plants using water.
In hydroponics, your plants don’t grow in any kind of soil but instead are suspended in water. There are several different kinds of hydroponic systems you can take advantage of, but what they all have in common is that your plants will receive the nutrients they need directly to their roots from a water-based solution of nutrients.
Most of the time, this fertilizer is a commercial fertilizer diluted in water, but there are also some organic systems that take advantage of more natural sources of nutrients like bone meal, manure, kelp, and wood ash (though it does take some special configuring if you use these, since they have the ability to muck up some types of hydroponics systems).
When you grow in hydroponics, the plants are being grown in an inert medium, the purpose of which is to support the weight of the plant while also making oxygen and the nutrients available to the roots. There are several kinds of growing media you can use, including coco coir, rockwool, and perlite.
Those are the basics of hydroponics that you need to know – let’s dive in a little deeper.
Benefits of Hydroponics
The benefits of a hydroponic grow system are two-fold. Not only do hydroponics systems grow vegetables that are healthy, easy and affordable – it’s also great for the environment. Here are some of the reasons why hydroponics work for protecting the environment:
Traditional produce is transported by land and sea, and occasionally by air, using gas and oil while producing exhaust. When you grow your own food, you completely eliminate these pollutants.
No Pesticides or Herbicides
Pesticides and herbicides are highly damaging to the environment. When plants are sprayed, and then watered, the water pushed pesticides into the ground, with some ending up in the groundwater.
It then makes its way into ecosystems, killing all kinds of insects and other small animals. That damages the food chain, having a powerful negative impact on a wide range of species. With hydroponics, you take yourself out of this harmful cycle.
No Harmful Fertilizer
Fertilizer production is actually a very toxic process., producing compounds like ammonia and fluoride. A lot of fertilizer production byproducts need to be disposed of as toxic waste. By avoiding the use of commercial fertilizer, you also reduce your environmental footprint.
Of course, this is something you can do with all kinds of growing systems, but when you specialize your hydroponics system (for example, by adding fish to make it an aquaponics system), you can really cut down on the number of fertilizers used.
Even if you do use commercial fertilizer on your hydroponic plants, you’ll be able to use far less. The nutrients are being pushed to exactly where the plants need them – at the roots. There’s less risk of the fertilizer running off and harming the environment.
Less Waste Water
Did you know that a huge portion of the world’s water supply goes to growing food? That’s right – we literally dump most of our water straight into the ground.
Meanwhile, water prices are rising all over the world and many places are facing water shortages. Hydroponics on the other hand recycles its water, so you aren’t wasting enormous amounts of water on gardening.
Here are a few other benefits of hydroponics:
- ☑ No weeding or tilling (seriously – no weeding at all. Isn’t that great?)
- ☑ Improves efficiency
- ☑ It’s not limited to just places that have good soil
- ☑ Lets you use space more efficiently
- ☑ Can be done in urban environments and indoors
- ☑ Allows for year-round growing and maximum control over growing conditions
- ☑ Plants grow faster and healthier for better yields
- ☑ Easier to harvest
Getting Started with Hydroponics: A Few Basic Tips
Before you get build your own hydroponics system, there are a few things you should keep in mind:
- You’ll want to have a few days of free time to get the system set up. Once it’s setup the system requires less time than traditional gardening; but you should set aside some time to get everything up and running.
- Research the specific plants you’re planning on growing. Different plants need different types of lighting, different pH levels and sometimes different nutrients.
- Start simple, then move up. Don’t get bogged down in the minutia of equipment and options. Just get your first garden started. It’s much easier to add to it later down the line.
What Can You Grow in a Hydroponic Grow System?
You can grow just about any vegetable or fruit using hydroponics. That said, there are some plants that are easier to grow than others. You’ll want to pick non-fruiting plants that are hardy, fast-growing, and with shallow root systems.
Salad greens and herbs, therefore, are good choices. Bibb lettuce is one good example of a plant to start with – it requires less light than fruiting crops and since it matures quickly, requiring just a month or so to grow, it offers a quick “bang for your buck” so you feel good about your efforts.
Of course, those aren’t your only options – the sky’s the limit when you’re growing in a hydroponics system, with some people even growing large plants like blueberries or watermelon.
Some good plants to start with are:
You’ll want to start these as seeds in starter plugs, then transplant into the main hydroponics system. As you get more confident with the growing system and how it works, add different fruits and vegetables to get a year round harvest.
What Do I Need to Start a Hydroponic System?
When you are first getting started with hydroponics, you’ll need to have a few things on hand. Although a hydroponics system isn’t necessarily costly to set up, there is some expense when you’re first getting started.
Here are some of the things you’ll need.
The Hydroponic System
We will go more into detail on this below, but know that you’re going to have to invest some money upfront in the building or purchasing of your hydroponic system. There are many different types you can use – again, we’ll break down a few of the options for you below.
It makes sense that the most important thing you need for hydroponics, aside from the plants and the actual system, of course, is the water.
If you are on city water, check with the municipal authorities to get a report on its quality. If you’re using private well water, you’ll need to send it out to have it tested. This is something that’s good to do anyway, ideally once a year, to check for quality.
When you’re considering water quality, the most important thing to consider for hydroponics is the amount of total dissolved solids. If there is more than 50 ppm of hardness, this is considered hard water. It can throw your nutrient formulas way out of whack, leading to plant toxicities or deficiencies. This can kill your plants.
If you have hard water (generally water that is above 200 PPM is considered hard water), you can simply use distilled or filtered water.
You’ll also need a nutrient solution. Although you can use an organic fertilizer in your hydroponics system, most people opt for commercial fertilizers simply because they don’t have to worry about organic fertilizers clogging the system (something that can happen with heavy, non-liquid fertilizers like regular compost).
Liquid fertilizers dissolve easily and you can use a two- or three-part solution that is tailored specifically for your plants and for each and every unique stage of the growing process.
When monitoring your nutrient solution, there are a few variables you need to keep in mind to ensure that your plants stay healthy.
Temperature is one of the most important variables. Ideally, you should keep the nutrient solution around 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature, but this varies depending on what you’re growing.
The pH also needs to be monitored closely, and like temperature, the ideal range for pH varies depending on what types of plants you are growing.
As you get more proficient with hydroponics, you’ll be able to gauge the pH easier, but when you’re just getting started, test it daily. You can use test strips, a digital meter, or a liquid test kit.
Again, the average ideal pH for plants varies.
The nutrients that you use in hydroponics will, for the most part, be made of mineral salts. Therefore, you can check the strength of your nutrient solution by using an electrical conductivity, or EC, meter.
The ideal EC levels for your plants vary depending on the stage of growth that they are in. Most plants need it to be somewhere between 1.2 and 1.6 during the vegetative growth stage. It fluctuates, since it rises in a system because of evaporation and the uptake of water by your plants.
The problem with EC is that when it becomes too high, the solution will become toxic to your plants. You need to monitor and adjust the solution every day.
There are a few different types of lighting you can use in your hydroponics system. The best choice for you will vary depending on how big your garden is and what kinds of plants you want to grow.
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Generally, compact or T5 fluorescent grow lights work well. These produce minimal heat, are inexpensive, and can allow you to maximize your growth of plants like leafy greens.
That said, if you’re willing to make a larger investment upfront, go with LED grow lights. They are more reliable, efficient, and energy-wise, so while they will cost more at the beginning, the lifetime cost of running these lights will be much lower.
Once you’ve decided which kinds of lighting to buy, you need to figure out how many. Determining the light intensity needed by your plants is the first step in this process. Small, leafy plants like lettuce need only about 20 watts per square foot, so an output of 300 watts will cover about 10 square feet of lettuce.
Plants that go through fruiting and flowering stages, of course, will likely need more light.
Some people also go one step further and install reflectors. These help maximize the efficiency of the lighting so that none is wasted. You can add air-cooling reflectors to cut down on how much heat is produced.
Something else that is important to keep in mind regarding lighting is that you want a system that is full-spectrum. This will support your plants through all growing systems.
Some people add fans to their hydroponic systems. Outside, plants have the benefit of natural wind, which reduces the amount of moisture and humidity around plants to reduce the likelihood of fungal problems.
How can plants grow without soil?
Plants just need to be able to absorb air, minerals, and water through their roots – the soil facilitates this but it’s not the only way they can get what they need.
The roots can also get nutrients by the process of osmosis, as well as by absorbing air and light through their leaves. This is how they conduct photosynthesis.
However, you do still need to give the roots something to hang onto for support. This is where a good growing medium (a soilless medium) comes in.
The most common growing mediums include coco coir (made from the outer husk of coconuts), expanded clay pebble,s perlite, phenolic foam or peat foam, sand, rockwool, sawdust, perlite, peat moss, vermiculite, and other soilless mixtures.
When choosing a medium, ask yourself the following questions to find the one that’s best for you:
- How easy is it to handle?
- Is it affordable?
- Is it available for purchase where you live?
- Are you going to be using it for seed starting?
- Does it offer root stability?
- Does it offer some thermal insulation?
- Is it free of pathogens, contaminants, and toxins?
- What is the cation exchange capacity (this is the ability of a medium to retain elements from the nutrient solution without upsetting its balance)?
- What is its ability to hold water and ensure that there are, at times, air pockets in the medium?
- Will you be using a pest management system?
- Can it be reused or recycled?
You will also need containers in which to plant your seedlings. Most people use net pots but they aren’t the only option. You can even use small three-inch growing containers or just cut the tops off plastic bottles, if you’d like.
The Best Hydroponic System for Beginners
There are a few different types of hydroponic systems you can use, some of which are better for beginners than others.
The three main types of hydroponic systems include water culture, wick system, drip system, nutrient film technique, ebb and flow (also known as flood and drain), and aeroponics.
If you want to truly DIY your hydroponics system, go with a wick set-up. This is completely passive, meaning your hydroponic grow area won’t rely on mechanical parts.
You can build it yourself with just a growing container, reservoir, and wick, all of which can be fashioned out of materials you have lying around the house. The only specialized things you need are the nutrients and the growing medium.
Another option that’s great for newbies is water culture hydroponics. You won’t rely on wicking action or a pump to provide nutrient solution to your plants. Instead, the roots will be suspended in the solution. There are several ways you can design your water culture system but the most popular is the Kratky method.
A deep water culture system is similar and just about as simple. However, you’ll need to buy an aerator to make sure oxygen can get to the roots. Although this can make it slightly more expensive, it will also be more productive.
Starting with a drip system is a good idea if you want to start out small and make your system more sophisticated over time. You can be creative when you’re selecting construction materials and how to set up your system, but at the most basic level, you will need some irrigation tubing and a pump.
This kind of system does need to be monitored a bit more carefully, since there are more moving parts. You will want to make sure your plants get enough moisture, for example, and that the drip emitters don’t get clogged.
Building a DIY Hydroponics System
When you’re just getting started with hydroponics, again, you’ll need to choose the ideal system. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll go with a basic DWC, deep water culture, system that you can DIY at home.
Again, in this system, the roots of your plants will be suspended in a water and nutrient solution and oxygenated through an external source.
You can use some kind of tank or bin if you want to make your own. A 20-gallon aquarium tank and pump will work perfectly. You can plant your seedlings in styrofoam with holes in it, with the spacing depending on the plant (about eight inches would be ideal for lettuce).
Of course, you’ll need the nutrient solution and water, too.
Once you get the tank set up, all you need to do is install the lights and the grow tray.. When you cut the Styrofoam, measure it based on the surface area of the reservoir (the tank). You can then put the plants in their containers (usually net pots) inside the holes that you punch in the Styrofoam.
If you already have the aquarium lying around, you probably have a pump with an airstone attached. If not, you can buy them, and they aren’t very expensive. This will help keep the water oxygenated. Just connect the pump to the airstone and plug it in.
Add the nutrients and the water, then plant your seedlings. It’s as simple as that!
Ideal Amount of Space for Hydroponics
When determining the ideal space for hydroponics, the first thing you need to know is that hydroponics is extremely space-efficient – therefore, you don’t have to worry too much about squeezing in a massive system if you don’t really have the room for one.
You do need to be careful about overcrowding the plants still. This can increase the likelihood of fungal problems like mold and blight.
Hydroponic plants tend to grow larger than regular plants, so while the system itself requires very little space, you do still need to make sure the plants themselves are given room to grow.
Provide at least 18 to 30 square inches of space for plants that grow less than three feet tall – and more space for those that tend to get taller.
Starting Your Plants
The easiest way to start plants in hydroponics is with live plants. You can start with seeds, too – if you decide to start from seed, you’ll start these in the same way you would for plants grown outside. Sow them in seed starting mixture, in trays, beneath grow lights in an unused room of your home.
However, when you start from seed, you do add another variable to the mix, which can increase the risk of failure. If you want to make things easier on yourself, go with clones. These are just live plants.
Although it sounds complex and highly scientific, it’s really a simple process. Let’s take herbs as an example. Just acquire an herb seedling and gently remove it from the soil. Wash away all dirt so you don’t contaminate your water.
Then, add the seedling to the net pot or container. No need to add more soil, since you don’t need it for hydroponics! If the seedling has roots, you can pull it through the net pot into the water. Cover the roots with the growing media – that’s it!
Maintaining Your Hydroponic System
Once you’ve settled on the best system for your needs and you have things up and running, all that’s left to do is monitor the conditions to help your plants grow healthy and strong.
Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Maintain Adequate Lighting
When you’re using an indoor hydroponics system (by far, the most common way to grow hydroponically), you need to rigidly control the lighting.
Some people do this by putting a hydroponics system in an interior room of the house that doesn’t have any windows. You can go one step further and grow in a commercial grow room or even cover the inside of the room with mylar to enhance the effectiveness of the space.
When your plants are actively growing, they may need up to 18 hours of light per day. Once flowering and fruiting start, you can reduce the time to 12 hours. This mimics the seasonal changes that would occur outdoors, encouraging the plants to start reproducing as the summer is ending.
You can get all kinds of timers to help you automate this – no need to go in every 12 hours to turn lights on and off.
Humidity and Air Movement
Ventilation is key for successful hydroponics. If your room is small or not well-ventilated, you will want to place a regular fan in the room to circulate the room.
Larger rooms may require extractor fans. These will remove stale air and, paired with a ventilator, can bring in fresh air from outside.
Adding a fan will cut down on humidity, but don’t let it drop too low. The humidity level should be between 40 and 60 percent – this is ideal for plant growth. However, if it’s too high, mold can develop.
You can use a hygrometer to monitor humidity, many of which are designed specifically for hydroponics.
If your room is too humid, again, a fan can help, as can a dehumidifier. On the flip side, a humidifier may be necessary if your grow room is dry.
Monitor the temperature in your grow area carefully. Temperatures should be around 68 degrees at night and 75 degrees during the day, though this range can vary for different types of plants.
You can use any type of thermometer, but one that is able to record both minimum and maximum temperatures within a range of a given period will be ideal. That way, you can see the entire span of temperatures throughout the day rather than just one random sampling.
Fans can help with cooling, but if you notice temperatures consistently remain too low, you might want to add an electric heater.
Most hydroponic systems require a mixture of water and nutrients that is variable based on what kind of plants you are growing and in what stage they are in.
Generally, you’ll need to add more nutrients and water every few weeks as the plants absorb the solution.
Watch out for algae – it won’t hurt your plants, but it can be unpleasant to look at and indicate an overabundance of nitrogen.
Here are a few more tips for keeping your hydroponic system healthy.
First, keep it clean. If you see any plant debris in your system, remove it ASAP – this can increase the odds of fungi infesting your medium.
You can use a hydroponic cleaner to get rid of salt build-up and grease stains, too.
Keep your system as well-ventilated as possible and if you must use insecticides (rare, since hydroponic systems rarely have pests to deal with), you should use different ones each time to prevent the pests from becoming resistant.
Prune your plants regularly if they start to get out of hand. Since plants grow so quickly in hydroponics, this could be a very real concern for you! If you’re growing climbers or viners, like tomatoes or beans, install trellises early on in the growing process so you don’t risk damaging your plants.
Disadvantages of Hydroponics
Hydroponics poses few challenges. One of the most obvious, of course, is that there is some expense when you’re setting up the system at first. When you plant in the traditional fashion, it is entirely possible that your only startup cost could be seeds.
With hydroponics, regardless of whether you fashion your own system or buy one that has been pre-fabbed, you need to invest some money upfront.
Hydroponics also has a major disadvantage that is present in one of its benefits – you have more control. Obviously, the benefit is that since you have more control, you will be able to better fine-tune your growing environment to tailor to your plants. The disadvantage of this, of course, is that you’ll need to be more hands-on.
A hydroponics system requires more maintenance and is often less forgiving. If you leave things to chance, it’s easy to overdose your plants on nutrients.
Some people argue that hydroponically grown plants are either a)loaded with toxic chemicals because they grow so heartily or b) devoid of nutrients since they aren’t grown in soil.
Hydroponic gardening isn’t usually organic, but you can make it organic to eliminate the need for any synthetic fertilizers. Even if you do decide to use these, though, you shouldn’t have to worry about any toxicity as they don’t necessarily transmit that way.
Plants grow heartily simply because they are provided with the optimal conditions – not necessarily because they have been “messed with” in any way.
As for nutrient quality, studies have shown that plants are more nutrient-dense simply when they have access to the nutrients they need – how they get them doesn’t matter quite as much.
So there you have it! Hydroponics is a great way to grow all the fruits and vegetables you need, even with limited space.
Have you ever used a hydroponic system? What are your experiences with it? Be sure to pin this for later!
updated September 7th 2021 by Rebekah Pierce
Heather’s homesteading journey started in 2006, with baby steps: first, she got a few raised beds, some chickens, and rabbits. Over the years, she amassed a wealth of homesteading knowledge, knowledge that you can find in the articles of this blog.
Learn more about Heather and the rest of the writers on this page.