Hydroponic gardening is a great way to extend the growing season in your area or to grow plants that normally do not thrive in your climate. Hydroponics give you the ability to control every aspect of your plants' environment, but this control means you have several decisions to make before you can enjoy freshly picked fare in the middle of winter.
Decide What to Grow
You can grow almost any plant hydroponically, but keep common sense in mind. Lettuces, tomatoes and herbs all do very well in a hydroponic environment. Fruits such as strawberries that grow on vines or small bushes also do well.
The types of plants you want to grow will determine what type of hydroponic system to build. If you want a variety of lettuces as well as tomatoes, corn and radishes, you may want to consider two separate hydroponic systems.
Choose the Right System
Lettuces and some herbs thrive in a deep-water culture, in which the roots dangle directly into the nutrient reservoir. Plants that need a dryer environment, such as rosemary, will quickly become waterlogged in this type of system.
Ebb and flow, also known as a flood-and-drain system, is a good choice for mixed gardens. It most closely matches the natural cycle of rain and drought, so most plants will do well in an ebb-and-flow garden. The plants sit in an elevated growth tray filled with a growing medium (usually HydroClay pebbles, rockwool or perlite). A pump floods the growth tray for 15 minutes, then shuts down, allowing the nutrient solution to drain back into the nutrient reservoir.
More advanced hydroponic gardeners can experiment with aquaponics, which is a combination of deep-water or ebb-and-flow hydroponics and raising fish. The fish waste supplies necessary nitrogen to the plants.The plants filter the water, keeping it from becoming toxic to the fish. Carp, trout and koi are popular aquaponic fish.
Set Up the Hydroponic Garden
The tools needed for a homemade hydroponic garden are fairly straightforward. You will need a large plastic container for the nutrient reservoir. Choose a container that is opaque, as any light that enters the reservoir will encourage algae to grow. Depending on the system, you may need a second bin as a growth tray. Be prepared to drill several holes in this container. A power drill or hole saw is the best tool to use for this project.
A pump and plastic tubing will be needed to aerate the water and deliver it to the plants. An aquarium or pond pump will work well. Make sure the pump can handle the amount of water needed to aerate or move. When in doubt, buy a size larger than you think is necessary.
Finally, a growth medium is needed. The simplest choices are perlite or vermiculite. Each acts very much like soil. As you gain experience, try rockwool, coconut coir or HydroClay pebbles. Each offers the plants distinct advantages, but they are more complicated to use.