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Hydroponics: Your Complete Guide to Building an Indoor Garden

Posted by Melisa on

Thinking about building your own indoor garden? Soil-less gardening is not a new concept, the idea has been around since the 7th century BC. However, it was only in the 1950s when soil-less gardening became popular. Building a hydroponic garden is easier than you think! But before we get into that, let's talk about the finer details of hydroponics and how you can incorporate this concept into your garden!

What is Hydroponics?

Hydroponics is a form of gardening method that does not use soil at all. Instead, the plants are grown using a mix of mineral nutrient solutions and water. This method involves circulating the water and providing an aerated environment to grow the plants. The nutrient levels of the solutions must be closely monitored to ensure the survival of the plants.

While hydroponics garden comes in a variety of systems, all these are rooted in the same method, which is using solutions in place of soil for growing plants or crops. When it comes to delivering nutrients to the plants, the solution is applied to the roots using different methods. All the essential elements that play a critical role in plant growth and photosynthesis must be provided to the plants. These elements include the proper amount of light, temperature, and so on.

Apart from using a mix of mineral nutrient solutions and water to grow plants, this gardening technique also utilizes a variety of mediums such as expanded clay, rock wool, perlite, vermiculite, sand, and gravel. These mediums are popular for hydroponic growing because of their ability to hold more moisture for longer periods. That said, there are hydroponic gardens that do not utilize any growing medium at all.

Since hydroponics isn't your ordinary, run-of-the-mill garden, it's best suited for veteran gardeners. This gardening method requires a certain level of expertise and commitment; it’s not something that you can simply walk away from.

What is Hydroponics Used For?

Traditionally, hydroponics is used for growing crops when traditional farming is no longer an option. This technique is often used in large cities with limited to zero access to agriculturally viable lands. In addition, hydroponics can also be used to increase the local food supply. It can replace commercial farming, providing fresh produce on a large scale or feed a small household too.

Hydroponic farming is commonly paired with vertical farming in urban areas. Usually, farmers would buy and convert unused buildings, empty warehouses, and old shipping containers into hydroponic farms. That said, even small rooms can be used for hydroponic farming.  
Hydroponic gardening is also gaining in popularity among experienced gardeners.

With this technique, a gardener can grow a variety of indoor plants despite the limited space. Small-scale hydroponic gardening is not as messy as traditional soil gardening and it suits small spaces common in urban areas. Growing plants indoors can also reduce plant diseases and pests. This technique can also rid the indoor air of pathogens, toxins, and allergens that cause sickness.

Factors to Consider Before Building a Hydroponic Garden

The Plants You Want to Grow

As we mentioned earlier in this guide, hydroponic gardening can be done using different systems. The system you will choose depends on the varieties of plants you want to grow. By matching the right types of plants to the proper hydroponic system, you will save more time and money. The perfect pairing of plant varieties and proper hydroponic system means there is no need to upgrade your system for a long time.

The Cost and Additional Expenses

This gardening method is more complex than soil gardening. You have to buy certain equipment and systems to build a hydroponic garden. The best thing to do is to plan your expenses well and then choose the right hydroponic system that suits your budget. You have to factor in the additional expenses to the overall cost of building a hydroponic garden. Thankfully, there are affordable hydroponic system options out there; it's just a matter of knowing the right places to look for these deals.

Available Space

The amount of space you can spare for a hydroponic garden is also an important factor that you have to consider. Yes, this gardening method doesn't necessitate a sizable space but you'll use different tools and equipment to complete the setup. Hence, the system should suit your space requirements. Don't forget about sparing space for maintenance. Water changes, draining the reservoir, refilling the reservoir and maintaining the entire system are other factors that will come into play when determining the amount of space needed for the hydroponic garden.

Gardening Time

How much time do you have for gardening? Again, a hydroponic garden is no ordinary garden; it will take a while to establish the system. Sure, soil-less gardening does not require much weeding but apart from setting up the system, you have to monitor your hydroponic garden's pH, temperature, etc. This means you should have ample time to maintain the garden. If you are busy and you cannot spend at least a couple of hours maintaining a garden, building a hydroponic garden might not be the best idea for you.

Pros and Cons of Hydroponic Gardening

Growing plants without using soil may sound like an odd concept but it’s really a great way to grow a variety of plants and put more food on the table. Below are just a few of the many benefits and some drawbacks to building a hydroponic garden:

The Advantages of Hydroponic Gardening

Faster Plant Growth

Plants in hydroponic gardens grow 20% faster compared to plants grown in the ground. Since the plants in a hydroponic garden absorb nutrients directly from the mineral-rich solutions, they grow rapidly. Building a hydroponic garden minimizes the wait time in between crop harvesting, allowing you to enjoy your crops quickly.

Double the Yield

Crops that are grown indoors are not subjected to growing seasons. You can plant a variety of crops year round and enjoy more yields with less waiting time! In fact, growing crops in a hydroponic garden lead to double the production yield of soil-based farming. Since the growth cycle is constantly restarting, you can harvest more crops and maintain the quality of the crops at the same time. Research shows that growing crops indoors increase yields by at least 20%.

Space Efficient

A hydroponic garden is perfect for people who live in urban areas where limited space is always a problem. You do not need a large space to set up an indoor garden. As long as your hydroponic system is all set up, space won’t be an issue at all. No need to make room for clunky planters and plant stands. Since a hydroponic garden does not require soil for growing plants, you can pack more plants in a small space.

Save More Water

Gardening is inherently eco-friendly but you can make your gardening activity even friendlier to the environment if you conserve water. Water conservation is easy with hydroponic gardening; you can save 90% of your water with this setup. A typical hydroponic garden setup requires the installation of water reservoirs. The reservoirs are kept sealed to prevent evaporation. The water released is just enough to grow the plants, no spills or wasted water to worry about. All the water that remains in the reservoirs can be re-used too.

Lighter Gardening Tasks

If you want to lighten your gardening load then consider setting up a hydroponic garden. Yes, the setup will require time to complete but once the garden has been established, your gardening load becomes much lighter. For one thing, weeds will not grow in a hydroponic garden. Plants grown indoors are not vulnerable to soil-borne diseases and pests. No need to drag heavy loads all over the garden, an indoor garden allows you to grow plants in the easiest way possible, less bending needed!

The Drawbacks of Hydroponic Gardening

The pros of hydroponic gardening outweigh the cons but there are certain drawbacks that you should keep in mind before building an indoor garden:

Initial Cost

The initial cost of setting up a hydroponic garden is steep, especially when compared to soil-based gardening. The cost is much higher if you are setting up a large-scale hydroponic garden. The setup will also require a variety of specialized equipment and a deep understanding on how to utilize these tools. This is the reason why a hydroponic garden is best suited for experienced gardeners as opposed to newbie gardeners.

Constant Monitoring

Again, if you don’t have a lot of time to spare maintaining a hydroponic garden, this is not the best setup for you. Maintaining a hydroponic garden requires constant monitoring and supervision. You have to keep a close watch at the nutrient solution; the oxygen and temperature level as well as the lighting to ensure the health of the plants. Power outages are also a problem if you are maintaining a hydroponic garden; you will need backup power so you won’t lose your crops.

Electric Consumption

Because hydroponic gardening requires a variety of electric equipment, expect your electricity bill to go up. This goes especially for large-scale hydroponic farms that depend on artificial lighting at certain seasons. To save more money on electricity, try exploring eco-friendly solutions.

4 Methods of Hydroponic Gardening

There are 4 different types of hydroponic grow systems that are popular on the market. These systems can be applied to large-scale hydroponic farms or a small hydroponic garden. Some of these systems can be made on your own using basic materials; others will require specialized tools and materials:

Ebb and Flow Systems

Also known as flood and drain systems, these systems are comprised of a flood root system and nutrient-dense solution that drain away. These systems feature a grow bed or a tray and a water reservoir beneath it. A drain prevents the water from overflowing, ensuring that the water gets only to a few inches below the top of the growing medium. A pump is also installed to control the flow of the water while a timer is used to time the water draining.

The water is either drained away as waste or drained back into the water reservoir to be reused. Most gardeners prefer to recycle the nutrient solution several times before being replaced with fresh water and nutrients. The trays are flooded with nutrient solution two to three times per day for a few minutes, depending on the plants’ stage of growth. Ebb and Flow systems utilize a variety of growing mediums for the plants. The most popular are netted pots, which can be filled with hardened expanded clay (HEC) or clay pebbles. Of all hydroponics systems, the ebb and flow systems are the easiest to use.

Top-Feed Drip or Spray-Emitter Systems

Top-Feed drip systems are some of the most common hydroponic systems for indoor gardening and indoor farming. These systems are popular among growers because of the added control over the exact amounts of nutrient solutions fed to individual plant sites.
 
The drip systems are versatile; they are suitable for indoor and outdoor applications. The setups could vary depending on the builder but generally, a reservoir holds the nutrient solution, which runs through the main water line. Smaller lines lead the nutrient solution to the base of the plant sites. Drip systems feature timed operation, allowing growers to feed the plants at specific times of the day. Water can be reused several times or run to waste.

On the other hand, the spray-emitter systems are typically used with either Rockwool or soilless mixtures placed inside trays to collect the runoff. The Rockwool medium is available in different formats including long slabs, large cubes, etc. Soil-less mixtures are often stored in container pots or bags.

Spray-emitter systems utilize small lines to carry the nutrient solution to the plant sites. The nutrient solution is dispensed using fine spray nozzles staked in the medium. The solution is distributed at a specific schedule to keep the plant roots moist all the time. Because the nutrient solution is released as a fine mist, these systems will require higher water pressure, resilient lines, and powerful pumps. The systems’ spray nozzles are prone to clogging so regular maintenance is needed to keep the systems in tip-top shape.

Deep Water Culture Systems

Also known as DWC systems or Bucket systems, Deep Water Culture systems are built using a system of buckets that are hooked to the main reservoir using hoses. The plants may be rooted in peat plugs or Rockwool as seedlings and then transplanted into netted pots that are suspended in a hole cut in the lid of the bucket. Air stones are added to ensure proper root oxygenation.
   
The main reservoir holds the majority of the nutrient solution. The nutrient solution circulates into each attached bucket and into the plants. The reservoir floods the buckets while a submersible pump works to fill the buckets with water and nutrients at different intervals. When the pump stops, the nutrient solution drains back into the main reservoir to be used in the next feeding.

Nutrient Film Technique Systems

Also known as NFT systems, these user-friendly hydroponic systems are best used for indoor horticulture. NFT systems feature a long grow chamber – usually a channel or PVC pipe – with holes that contain either collars or baskets where the plants are held. The plant roots hang down into the hole so the root tips are in contact with a shallow stream of water.

A pump is installed in the main reservoir to move the water around the plant sites. The goal of the growers is to provide oxygenated water to the plant roots. Most growers conduct several feeding cycles per day, some lasting half an hour at a time. Constant monitoring is needed to ensure that the plant roots stay bright white, not brown, which could be a sign of oxygen deprivation.
 
Building a hydroponic garden has a lot of benefits. However, this is the kind of project that requires a lot of time and effort so arm yourself with information first. Just keep all the tips we’ve outlined above in mind before building a hydroponic garden. For more gardening tips and useful resources, sign up for our newsletter!


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