Hydroponics is a system of gardening where plants are grown in nutrient-rich water without soil. Gardeners who want to try hydroponic growing will find the process requires low maintenance and produces fast growing plants. Many gardening retail stores sell full setup kits for hydroponic gardening; however, a beginner may want to try the technique with a low-cost homemade system.
There are several types of hydroponic systems that you can purchase through garden retail stores. The types include ebb and flow, nutrient film technique, drip system and aeroponic system. Purchasing a full setup is costly; so many beginners choose to make their own system as a starting point.
The items needed to make a basic deep water hydroponic system include a dark-colored storage container or tote with lid (18-gallon size works nice), a water pump that is at least 3 watts, a 12-inch aerator stone, and netted pots for hydroponic plants. Cut holes in the lid of the container to fit the netted pots. Place the stone in the bottom of the container to aerate the water and supply oxygen to the root system. Attach the aerator stone the pump, which stays on the outside of the tub. Fill the container with water and add plant food based on the package instructions. The plant food must contain micronutrients, which will be listed on the package. The netted pots must be submerged at least 1 inch in water once the container lid is closed.
Lights are needed for hydroponic systems kept indoors. Tomatoes are a high-light plant requiring at least 40 watts per square foot. Leafy plants are low light and require 25 watts per square feet. Purchase the correct wattage based on the size of hydroponic unit. Day-neutral plants require 15 to 18 hours of light per day and include tomatoes, peppers and roses. Short-day and nonclassified plants require 12 hours of light per day. Plants in this category are lettuce, herbs, peas and broccoli.
Bags of hydroponic medium for use in the pots are available at garden retail stores. The medium used in hydroponic gardening is not soil; instead it is similar to rock and is fast draining, airy and light. The brand name Hydroton is a clay aggregate stone that does not break down easily and will not change the pH of the water solution. A low-cost alternative to hydroponic medium is pea gravel.
Hydroponic system maintenance requires minimal work. The water levels must be monitored to replenish water when levels are low and replace with nutrients when needed. If one-half of the water level has been restocked over several weeks, you should replace the entire reservoir with fresh water and nutrients.