Have you ever grown a sweet potato vine or avocado pit in water? If so, consider yourself a hydroponic gardener! My first experience with a simple hydroponic grow system was a sweet potato from my mom. I suspended the potato in water and put it on the kitchen windowsill. Tiny hairy roots started working their way into the water. I wound up with a beautiful vining specimen, trained to frame the entire window.
Now I admit the term hydroponic grow system was not part of my plant vocabulary. But I was hooked. I experimented with growing other plants in water. Lentil and pea sprouts were easy to grow with abundant yields. Rooted watercress cuttings from my woodland spring supplied me with fresh watercress for salads.
I was delighted to learn that tulip bulbs could be grown hydroponically. Again, the method was not high tech. Just a tall vase with the bulbs suspended in water. I enjoyed monitoring the growth and was rewarded with colorful blooms.
Roots in Antiquity
Hydroponic or soil-less gardening has been around for thousands of years. The word comes from the Greek “hydro” meaning water, and “ponos” meaning labor. In other words, working water. The hanging gardens of Babylon and floating gardens of ancient China are examples. During War ll, the United States Army used hydroponics to grow fresh produce for troops stationed in the infertile Pacific islands.
Today there’s a demand for fresh, clean produce all year. People are living in smaller spaces and urban environments. That’s why gardening with a hydroponic grow system is affordable and sustainable.
Growing without the help of Mother Nature appeals to millennials, who embrace the technology and portability that a hydroponic grow system offers. Others are attracted to the possibilities of growing plants right at home in less space, indoors and out. It’s said that hydroponically grown produce is superior in nutrition and flavor than produce grown in soil.
Are you growing lettuce in containers? Or growing radishes in the garden? Try growing them hydroponically. The lettuce can be “cut and come again.” Radishes don’t seem to develop pithy cores or too pungent a flavor when grown hydroponically.
Choosing Your Hydroponic Grow System
Hydroponic grow systems fall into two basic categories: water culture where plant roots grow in a nutrient solution, or an inert system where the roots grow into a medium. You can start with seeds or seedlings, depending on the system. In both categories, the system will supply water, nutrients, and oxygen.
There are lots of different types of systems within the two categories, but these four are recommended for beginners: wick, ebb and flow, deep water culture and top drip. They come in a variety of designs, sizes, and costs.
It’s basically a vessel on top of a reservoir, with wicks connecting the two. The nutrient solution is drawn from the reservoir to the vessel by means of the wicks.
To see how the wick system works, put a stalk of celery in some red colored water. The celery acts as a wick. After a few days, the stalk turns red.
I use a simplified version of this system with children. Cut a stalk of lettuce down to a couple inches above the core. Cut two holes in the bottom of a plastic cup. Put wicking through the holes, allowing it to come about halfway up the cup, with a couple inches hanging out of the holes. Fill the cup with clean pebbles or glass disks. Nestle the core in the pebbles. Run it under tap water to thoroughly wet the core, pebbles, and wick. Let the water drain out. Pour the nutrient solution in the bottom of a larger, dark-colored cup. This prevents algae from forming around growing roots. Insert the smaller cup into the larger cup with the wicks touching the bottom. Check every few days to see if more solution needs to be added.
Kids love to watch lettuce grow in their own hydroponic system. The bonus? It encourages them to appreciate the way plants grow.
It’s fun to experiment with hydroponics in simple ways, but if you’re serious about eating hydroponically throughout the year, you’ll need to grow on a larger scale.
Ebb & Flow/Flood & Drain System
You can have a single pot or more depending on the system. Pots are placed on a drain table with a reservoir underneath. A nutrient solution is pumped into the table. The holes in the pots draw the solution up. After a few minutes, the reservoir is drained. This is done two to four times daily. Plants that do well include lettuces and some vegetables, with proper support.
Deep Water Culture System
A deep water culture system is all about the aerating bubbles. Plants are grown in plastic net pots suspended in a nutrient solution. The roots grow through the pots and literally dangle in the solution. An aerator provides oxygen to the roots. Lettuces do well, along with some annual vegetables properly supported.
Top Drip System
In this system, the nutrient solution is kept in a reservoir and pumped through tubing to the bottoms of potted plants. Excess solution is released through the holes in the bottom of the pots and returned to the reservoir. This is done two to four times daily. A large variety of produce thrives in this system including flowers.
Lighting & Nutrients
Depending on your location, you may have to augment with grow or fluorescent lights.
Hydroponically grown plants don’t have the benefit of soil nutrients, so nutrients must be added. Research the best for your system and plants.
There are so many choices for growing mediums! They include sand, perlite, rock wool (made from rock, melted and spun into fibrous cubes) coconut coir/fiber, clay balls and gravel.
DIY Hydroponic Grow System: Yes You Can!
Build your own hydroponic grow system and have it large enough for a constant supply of produce. It needn’t be complicated. There are many books and websites available. Due diligence will pay off when designing and building your hydroponic grow system.
Hydroponics -vs.- Aquaponics
Aquaponics takes hydroponics one step further. They both use aerated, nutrient-rich water but aquaponics utilizes live fish as a healthy source of nutrients for plants. Aquaponic books are excellent sources of information. Step-by-step instructions guide you through the whole process.
Do you have a hydroponic grow system at home? If so, what are you growing? Share your success with us!