Hydroponic systems allow gardeners an unprecedented amount of control over their plants’ environments, making it easier to produce large, luscious specimens at home. Newcomers to hydroponic gardening often find themselves feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work that goes into setting up new systems and learning how to maintain them, but they shouldn’t.
Hydroponic growing is just like anything else. It takes some time and practice to get the basics down, but once newcomers have gotten their toes wet, they’ll find that maintaining a hydroponic garden is no harder than growing plants outdoors in soil. Read on to find out how to get started.
The Basics: How It Works
In nature, most plants grow in soil. It isn’t the soil, itself, that supports the plants, though. Their roots pull nutrients and water from this medium, but the soil itself is superfluous.
In a hydroponic system, the plants extend their roots into a carefully tailored nutrient solution. They get all the water, macronutrients, and micronutrients required to sustain healthy, vibrant growth without the risks of soil-borne illnesses and pests.
Since up taking nutrients directly from a hydroponic solution is more efficient and growers can choose exactly which nutrients to feed their plants and when, the plants can also grow larger and perform better over the course of their lifecycles. Those who have never worked with hydroponic systems can find tips from Agron for how to develop feeding schedules and use feed charts to maximize their plants’ potential.
There are several types of hydroponic systems. They include wick systems, deep water culture, the nutrient film technique, ebb and flow systems, drip systems, and aeroponics. Each has its own unique set of benefits and drawbacks, but all of these systems have a few things in common. Here’s what’s required to start a hydroponic grow:
- Grow chambers
- A reservoir
- Submersible pumps
- Delivery tubes
- An aeration system
- Grow lights
- V Growing media
- Nutrient solutions
Once indoor growers have all these basic system components in place, they’ll be ready to start gardening at any time of year. Most indoor growers eventually outfit their greenhouses or grow rooms with intake and exhaust fans, air filters, and other equipment to support optimal air quality, as well.
Choosing the Right Growing Media
A growing medium is any material that provides plants’ roots with oxygen, moisture, and nutrients. There are tons of options out there, but all good growing media have a few things in common. They’re lightweight, have good aeration, are reusable, and are pH neutral.
Coconut coir, also referred to as coco coir or coco peat, is an organic growing media made from the husks of coconuts. It holds both air and water well, is a renewable resource, and is 100% organic. Most growers mix it with other media to improve drainage, though, and it must be replaced after several uses.
Rockwool is a man-made material composed of bundles of filament fibers. It’s a versatile media that holds water well, has good oxygen retention, and can be used as a stand-alone growing media for most hydroponic systems. It’s not pH neutral, though, so novice growers will have to learn how to change the pH before using it.
Expanded Clay Pellets
These small, marble-shaped pellets are made by heating clay until it expands. They have excellent oxygen retention but poor water retention capacity. Most growers use them in conjunction with other media like coco coir. Natural, mined materials like vermiculite and Perlite also need to be mixed with other media.
Let There Be Light
Since most hydroponic systems are set up indoors, gardeners will need to provide the plants with artificial light. The best products are designed to mimic natural sunlight by providing a full spectrum of light. More advanced options also come with timers, adjustable light spectra, and other features.
The price points vary significantly between different types of lights. Those who are starting hydroponic gardens for the first time on a budget may prefer to go for CFLs since they’re less expensive, but long-spectrum LEDs are generally considered the best option.
All plants need five things to survive: oxygen, carbon dioxide, light, water, and nutrients. They get the oxygen and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the lights from artificial lighting, and the water from the reservoir. That still leaves nutrients, though.
Growers can add nutrients directly to the water to create hydroponic solutions. Each plant species has slightly different needs when it comes to nutrient levels, but they all require some amount of the key macronutrients and most micronutrients to grow and thrive.
The macronutrients are the ones plants need in large quantities. Here’s what they need:
- Nitrogen (N) for vegetative growth and chlorophyll synthesis
- Phosphorus (P) to aid in the formation of seeds, roots, flowers, and fruits
- Potassium (K) to help synthesize sugar, starches, and carbohydrates
- Calcium (Ca) for cell formation and development
- Magnesium (Mg) for chlorophyll production
- Sulfur (S) for amino acid synthesis
Plants don’t use micronutrients in large quantities, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t essential for healthy growth. Here are the most important micronutrients:
- Zinc (Zn)
- Manganese (Mn)
- Iron (Fe)
- Boron (Bo)
Look for nutrient solutions that contain trace amounts of these key micronutrients. It’s also important to keep an eye out for nutrient deficiencies and excesses. Growers can correct these as they come up if they know what to look for.
The Bottom Line
Plants grown in hydroponic setups have all the same requirements as those grown outdoors in soil-based gardens. Gardeners may have to put in a little extra effort to make sure their plants’ needs are met, but the tradeoffs are worth it. Hydroponic gardens can produce food and flowers year-round and once growers get a feel for their systems they can expect healthy plants and heavy yields. The only way to learn is through experience, so don’t be afraid to get those hands dirty. Buy the supplies and get started setting up a new hydroponic garden as soon as possible.