Commercial growers have been using hydroponics to cultivate tasty fruits and vegetables without relying on Mother Nature for years. Take a look at some labels the next time you’re browsing through the produce section at your local grocer. You’ll find that all kinds of fresh foods, including tomatoes, lettuces, and herbs, often come from a commercial hydroponic facilities.
Hydroponics allow for the cultivation of robust, healthy plants in an indoor environment, and it’s a technology that isn’t just limited to the pros. You can set up a hydroponics system of your own and have fresh eats in almost no time.
Here’s how to get started.
Choosing a System
Passive vs. Active Systems
Passive system configurations are the best option for the beginner hydroponic grower. It can work in two ways: using a growing medium with high wicking ability to draw nutrients upward toward the plants’ roots or using a medium-less setup where the lower portion of the plants’ root ball is submerged in the nutrient solution. These systems are ideal for smaller scale grows supporting smaller plants, such as herbs or greens.
Active systems, on the other hand, use a pump and timer to saturate the plants’ roots with water and nutrients. And, like passive systems, they can be used with or without a growing media. The main benefit of using an active system is the ability to grow larger, heartier plants.
Media-Based vs. Water Culture Systems
The next step after deciding between a passive and active growing setup is to choose between a media-based system or a water culture system.
Media-based systems utilize a neutral growing medium to secure the plants’ roots while they grow. They come in a few different configurations, including flood-and-drain, top-feed, and bottom-feed. Systems that use media are more involved to set up, require additional maintenance, and are reliant on electrical power. Therefore, you assume some risk of losing a crop during power outages.
Water culture systems, on the other hand, forgo a growing medium and use a plant suspension apparatus that allows a small portion of the plants’ root system to remain submerged in the nutrient solution at all times. Gravel, rockwool cubes, and other supplementary accessories like trellises and foam rings can be used to help secure larger plants as they grow, but water culture systems are typically best suited for smaller water-loving plants.
Choosing a Grow Light
The light source that you choose for your hydroponics system is arguably the most important pieces of equipment for success. High intensity discharge (HID) varieties are the most popular and effective since they provide light that comes closest in spectrum and power to natural light from the sun. Although you may be able to use LEDs or fluorescents in certain situations, HID lights tend to provide the best results. Here are the three most popular types of HID lights:
Metal halide bulbs output light primarily in the blue spectrum, making them ideal for green leafy growth and small, dense plants. They typically last for 10,000 total hours of use. They’re incredibly efficient when it comes to their ratio of lumens to light produced, which is roughly 125 lumens per watt (fluorescents are around 39 lumens per watt, and incandescents are roughly 18).
High Pressure Sodium
High pressure sodium bulbs (HPS) emit light in the orange-red spectrum, which is ideal for flower production. They also increase stem growth, which in turn promotes a higher number of flowering nodes. They tend to be more cost effective than metal halide bulbs, because they have a life cycle of around 18,000 hours of total use and output roughly 140 lumens per watt. Due to type of growth they encourage, gardeners often start their plants on metal halide bulbs to produce vegetal growth and switch them to HPS bulbs for flowering.
Son Agro bulbs are somewhat of a hybrid between metal halide and HPS bulbs. They produce notable amounts of light in both the blue and red-orange spectrum, meaning growers can often use them throughout the entire grow cycle, never having to switch between metal halide and HPS. They’re also one of the most economical of bulb choices, producing 150 lumens per watt and lasting around 16,000 hours of total use.
Should your system of choice require one, selecting a growing medium is the last step in compiling the necessary supplies to start growing. There is a plethora of options when it comes to choosing a growing media, but there are three types that are suited best to beginners and that work well in most systems. Also, these three mediums can be mixed to attain optimal drainage and moisture retention for specific plants and gardens. Note: each of these mediums can be flushed with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water; just rinse thoroughly after cleaning and reuse them in your next grow!
Coconut Coir is arguably one of the most popular growing mediums being used in hydroponics today. It’s a fantastic organic growing medium with wonderful moisture and oxygen retention, and it also contains beneficial bacteria that can ward off pests.
LECA aka Hydroton or Clay Balls
These spherical clay balls are made from lightweight expanded clay aggregate (LECA). They drain impeccably, yet still hold adequate amounts of moisture.
Manufactured in a similar manner to LECA (heating an inert material, in this case glass, until it puffs and expands), perlite is a highly versatile growing medium that can be used on its own or mixed with coconut coir.
Are you excited to start your own indoor garden? Hydroponics aren’t your only option. Check out the graphic below for more ideas and inspiration.