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You might think you know what gardening is: It’s growing plants in soil, right?
Hydroponic gardening will make you think again. No soil is required for this type of gardening—water, or another soil substitute, delivers the nutrients the plants need to grow. Best of all, you don’t need a big garden or outdoor space (or any at all) to grow plants hydroponically—your hydroponic garden can be set up on a kitchen shelf or other indoor space.
Hydroponic farming is becoming increasingly popular as its potential to provide food year-round is realized. Want to try it yourself? Here’s everything you need to know to get started with hydroponic gardening.
As the “hydro” in the name suggests, hydroponic gardening relies on water. However, a water-based system is not the only type of hydroponic garden you can build. The supplies you’ll need will vary depending on how you want to deliver nutrients to the plants. Peat moss, coconut fiber, aged bark, perlite, or clay pebbles can be used instead of water. If you want to use these soil substitutes, we recommend buying a kit to get started (see more on kits below).
There are also several different types of water-based DIY hydroponic systems you need to know about:
- Kratky method
- Deep water culture
- Drip system
- Nutrient film technique
- Flood and drain
Each of these hydroponics systems has different benefits and drawbacks and is suited to a different type of plant. Skillshare instructor Caleb Johnson teaches a comprehensive course on hydroponic gardening and introduces each of these methods in detail. He also walks students through setting up a DIY hydroponic system using a pipe system that combines elements of the nutrient film and flood and drain techniques. The thorough and detailed course is a good place to begin learning about hydroponic gardening.
If you’d rather construct your own hydroponic garden, here are the supplies you’ll need for DIY hydroponics.
- Growing containers
- Artificial grow light (you may not need one of these if you set up your hydroponic garden in a place with ample natural light)
- Water (dechlorinated tap water or rainwater)
- Hydroponic nutrients (dry or liquid), also called hydroponic fertilizer
- pH testing strips or electronic monitor
- Seedlings: The best plants to start with include microgreens, lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, kale, basil, parsley, oregano, cilantro, mint, tomatoes, strawberries, or chiles.
- Starter plugs, for germinating seeds
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A hydroponic garden takes a bit of effort to set up, but once you’ve laid the groundwork, it should be easier to maintain than a regular garden. Pests and weeds are less of a problem, and hydroponic plants have the ability to grow bigger and better.
Step 1: Decide What Types of Hydroponic Plants to Grow
Deciding what types of plants you want to grow will help you determine what kind of hydroponic setup will work best for you. Lettuces are particularly good for beginners because they adapt well to hydroponic conditions. Herbs are also great because they grow easily and can save you a lot of money at the supermarket.
Step 2: Germinate Your Seedlings
You can’t put seeds directly into nutrient-fed water (they’d die) so you need to germinate them first. Hydroponic starter plugs are made of composted materials or other spongy materials that hold water and oxygen so your seeds can germinate.
Step 3: Set Up Your Hydroponics System
The seeds will take a week or two to germinate, so use this time to set up your hydroponic system. You can either do this from scratch (following Johnson’s class is recommended) or buy a starter kit. If you can set up your hydroponic garden near a window, the natural light will be good for your plants. Otherwise, set up an LED lamp, too.
Step 4: Add Water and Hydroponic Nutrients to the Hydroponic Garden
Right before the seedlings are ready to be translated, put the water and nutrients (or hydroponic fertilizer) into the hydroponic garden’s containers. Follow the instructions on the nutrients’ containers regarding quantities. Plants are sensitive to the pH levels in the water, and it’s easy to get this wrong. Wait about 15 minutes after adding the nutrients to the water and then test the water with a pH testing strip or electronic meter. You may need to adjust the balance of water and nutrients, and you’ll need to keep monitoring the pH levels periodically.
Step 5: Transplant the Seedlings
When you see roots emerging from your starter plug, it’s time to transplant the seedlings to the hydroponic garden. If you’re using natural light, you can let nature take its course! If you’re using an artificial light, you’ll need to set a timer corresponding with the amount of time different plants will take to grow.
Hydroponic kits make setting up a hydroponic garden easy because you don’t have to construct the growing containers from scratch. They come in different designs, sizes, and price points, and many have built-in lights and timers that you can set and forget.
1. GrowLED Smart Indoor Garden
Designed to sit beside a window, GrowLED’s Smart Indoor Gardens come in different sizes and start at an affordable $39.99. The company also sells grow lamps, in case you don’t have a natural light source or want to ramp up your indoor hydroponic gardening.
2. AeroGarden Bounty Basic Indoor Hydroponic Herb Garden
AeroGarden’s Bounty Basic Indoor Hydroponic Herb Garden is ideal for growing several herbs or other leafy green plants all at once. They have adjustable lamps and extra support for taller plants. They’re priced in the mid-range, at around $200.
3. Gardyn Home 30-Plant Indoor Smart System
The large Gardyn Home 30-Plant Indoor Smart Garden is designed to be able to grow enough to feed the whole family and act as an indoor substitute to a productive outdoor veggie patch. At around $900, it’s not cheap but it’s a good investment if you want to go all-in with hydroponic gardening. Hydroponic gardening towers are handy if you live in a small space.
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