Hydroponics is a great way to enjoy fresh produce year-round, and to experiment with crops that do not normally grow in your climate. Commercial hydroponics systems can be expensive, and most come as kits with "some assembly required." If you have to assemble the system, why not go one step further and design a DIY kit that is optimized to the crops you want to grow and the space you have available?
Choose the Right Hydroponics System
Choosing the right type of hydroponic garden depends on several factors: what type of plants do you want to grow? How much space do you have? How comfortable are you with power tools?
The simplest type of hydroponics system is a deep water culture, or DWC. In a DWC garden, perforated pots filled with growth media hang over the nutrient reservoir. The roots grow down through the growth media into the nutrient solution. This method is best for watery plants like lettuces. Plants that prefer dry conditions do not thrive in this type of garden.
Ebb and flow systems are a good all-purpose system. Nutrient solution is pumped out of the nutrient reservoir and floods the grow tray filled with growth media and plants. After a few minutes, the pump turns off and the nutrient solution drains back into the reservoir. Most plants will thrive in this system, but it does require some plumbing to get the pump system set up correctly.
If you want to really optimize your hydroponic crop, or cultivate cuttings, try a nutrient film technique (NFT) system. This is similar to a deep water culture, except that the nutrient solution is sprayed as a mist over the roots. This is the most complicated system, but it often produces the biggest plants and highest crop yields.
Decide on Growth Media
The growth media you choose depends upon the plants you want to grow and the type of hydroponic system you choose. Root vegetables like carrots or potatoes need a soil-like media for support. Perlite or vermiculite are good choices for root vegetables.
Plants grown in a deep water culture or nutrient film technique need to be able to grow easily between the particles of growth media. HydroClay pebbles are ideal for these plants.
Rockwool slabs or cubes are perfect for starting seeds. Rockwool is best suited to an ebb and flow system.
Choose Hydroponic Nutrients
If you are just starting out in hydroponics, choose an all-purpose hydroponic nutrient solution. Do not be tempted to buy liquid fertilizer meant for soil application--these are designed to augment the nutrients already present in the soil.
To optimize your crop, choose a two-stage nutrient solution. Start with a growth solution, which will encourage root growth and leaf production. When the first buds begin to appear, switch to a flowering solution. This will result in large, strong plants and high crop yields.