Hydroponic Gardening Systems for Beginners - Grow Hydroponic Vegetables

In this time of economic stress, many are returning to gardening as a way to save money and guarantee that they will always have food to eat.  Hydroponic gardening accomplishes these goals, and others you may not have considered. 

The ability to increase production in a small amount of space makes hydroponic gardening ideal for people living in the city with small yards, or even those in apartments who have only a patio or small bedroom space.  Hydroponic gardens can be made to fit into a space as small as a closet, while still producing a steady supply of nutrient rich vegetables . 

Hydroponics is the science of growing plants without soil, in water enriched with the nutrients required for plant growth.  Plants growing in a hydroponic system are fed all of the nutrients required for growth without exposure to harmful toxins , pesticides,  and diseases that may be present in the soil. Many areas have experienced toxic spills on or near the land where people now live.  How can you be sure that your backyard soil is a healthy growing environment for food?  Hydroponic growing eliminates all of these worries.  So let’s learn a little more about this system of growing plants. 

Are vegetables grown using hydroponics nutritionally equal to those traditionally grown?

Vegetables grown hydroponically are nutritionally superior to those grown in soil. In a vegetable garden, the nutrients available to the plant must come from the soil. After years of production, nutrients are depleted from the soil. The main nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) are added to the soil in the form of fertilizer. Micro-nutrients are not replaced. Even organic fertilizers and compost may not solve this problem. Even if the soil contains the needed nutrient, it may be in a form that is not be readily available to the plant.


Nutrient solutions used in hydroponics supply all of the nutrients needed in a manner that makes them readily accessible to the plant. Produce grows faster and is more healthy, it has all the flavor and nutrients that it was always intended to have. Hydroponically grown produce is superior in size, color, taste and nutritional value to traditionally grown produce.

Other advantages of hydroponic growing:


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Eliminating soil from the system eliminates a lot of work in vegetable gardening.  Soil introduces weeds that must be pulled and diseases that must be treated.  Plants can be grown closer together and even stacked to grow more in less space.  In general, you can grow five times the crops in the same amount of space when using a hydroponic system.  And has it occurred to you yet that hydroponic gardens can grow year round.  Imagine an endless supply of fresh salads and vegetables year round. 

Growing Mediums

Soil is never used in a hydroponic system.  Sometimes plants are grown in water, supported on a raft or nutrient film, but in most systems a growing medium is used to aerate and support the roots of the plant. 

The choice of growing medium will depend on the hydroponic system that you choose. 

Expanded Clay and Expanded Shale

An expanded clay system such as Hydroton works well in an ebb and flow system.  It drains quickly and allows plenty of oxygen to penetrate the root system.  Expanded shale also works well, but will break down over time.  Both expanded shale and expanded clay are very stable and have little effect on the pH of the nutrients. 

Rockwool

Horticultural Rockwool is a popular growing medium.  Rockwool is compressed to make growing cubes capable of holding 10 to 14 times more water than soil while retaining more air.  Rockwool can raise the pH of the nutrient system, so gardeners using rockwool must maintain the pH of the system. Rockwool is usually used only once, a new cube is required for each subsequent planting. 

Perlite, Vermiculite and Sand

Perlite, vermiculite and sand are stable mediums that rarely affect the pH of the nutrients.  These options are inexpensive, but not the best for most hydroponic systems.  They tend to hold too much moisture for most plants. 

Nutrient Solutions

The nutrient solution is one of the keys to success in a hydroponic system.  Nutrient solutions are pre-formulated to provide all of the nutrients that your plants require.  A small amount of nutrient solution is added to the water used to irrigate your plants. 

Nutrients come in different formulations, one for the grow cycle and one to encourage blooming. They are concentrated solutions so only a small amount is needed, 2 to 4 teaspoons per gallon of water.  Some solutions have a built in pH buffer, which helps maintain the best pH for growing.    

Organic Nutrient Systems

Hydroponic systems can be fertilized with organic nutrients.  Organic systems are more work.  Some hydroponic gardeners choose to use chemical nutrients and supplement them with organic nutrients.  This method is less work than maintaining a hydro-organic system. 

If you prefer a purely organic hydroponic system, you will need to learn more about this, but it is a viable option. 

Learn how to use organic hydroponic nutrients for your garden's benefit in this free educational video series.

Video on Organic Hydroponic Nutrients

Can You Use Miracle-Gro to Provide Nutrients?

Miracle grow will work to grow some plants, but will not provide all of the micro-nutrients needed for most plants.  A properly formulated nutrient solution is the best way to feed your plants.  While Miracle-Gro may be an excellent fertilizer for your traditional garden, it is the nutrient equivalent of junk food for your hydroponic garden. 

pH in a Hydroponic System

Hydroponic gardens need a controlled pH.  Most plants prefer a pH of 6.3, but will grow in a range of 5.8 to 6.8.  Some nutrient systems come with an added pH buffer which helps to maintain this optimum pH. 

You can get an inexpensive pH testing kit from your local hardware store and test the pH the same way you would test the water in your pool.  The test is easy to use, and will help you be sure that you have a healthy pH range for your hydroponic system.  Electronic pH test meters are available, but more expensive and are really not necessary unless you are running a very large hydroponic garden. 

If the pH is too high, a small amount of phosphoric acid can be added to lower the pH.  A low pH can be raised using potash. 

A Simple Hydroponic System

Photo by J Wynia, Creative Commons License
Photo by J Wynia, Creative Commons License

Hydroponic Systems

Hydroponic systems are available as active and passive systems.  Passive systems are easier to use and set up for beginners, but usually supply too much nutrient solution and not enough oxygen to the roots for best growth.  Passive systems rely on a wicking system to deliver the nutrient solution to the roots. 

Active systems employ a system of pumps and drains to deliver the nutrients to the plants.  While this is a more complex system, and requires a little more expense to set up, it allows greater control over the system and optimum growth for your plants.  The following are popular active hydroponic systems:

Continuous Aeration

The continuous aeration method employs a submersible pump to constantly pump nutrient solution around the roots.  The plants are suspended above the water and the roots grow into the nutrient reservoir. 

Ebb and Flow

In an ebb and flow system, the plants are grown in a growing medium that is flooded with nutrient solution on a set schedule.  The nutrient solution is pumped onto the growing media for approximately 15 minutes, then drained away.  The cycle is repeated several times during the day.  The ebb and flow system is easy to maintain with good results.


Drip System

A drip system is set up, as it would be in a traditional garden.  The plants are supported in a growing medium and fed nutrient solution though drip irrigation.  The drip rate can be set with a timer to deliver exactly the right amount of nutrients for each plant. 


Aeroponics

Aeroponic systems do not use a growing medium.  Instead the plant is suspended in air and their roots are continuously sprayed with a nutrient rich mist.  Aeroponic systems require precise growing conditions and are not recommended for beginners. 

Nutrient Film Method

The nutrient film technique is a bare root system.  The nutrient solution is pumped over the roots at a depth of ¼ to ½ inch, forming a thin film of nutrients.  The roots have access to nutrients and air at the same time.  The reservoir is tipped at a slight angle to maintain constant flow and create the film effect. 

The nutrient film method is very effective, but can be more difficult to learn for beginners. Also, the nutrient flow must be maintained constantly, a power outage could cause the roots to dry out. 

Video of Hydroponic Lettuce Garden

A Vertical Hydroponic Garden

My next hub will discuss lighting systems for hydroponic gardening.  Until then, happy gardening.

Comments 8 comments

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

This is a wonderful amount of information to inform people about hydroponic gardening. You might want to add links telling people where they can get the supplies if they wish to try this type of gardening. Sounds very interesting!


Pearl 7 years ago

I too would like to see links for supplies and some more information on total organic.


WildAboutRoses 6 years ago

You make it all sound so easy! Great hub!


Suniil 5 years ago

where can i find the micro nutrient formula ?


john 5 years ago

i biult a vretical garden using a foutain pump 4" pvc driping back into the 10 gal bucket w/ 1 tea spoon of miracel grow all out side will be adding air stone w/ pump any advise? sorry bad speller


Derek 5 years ago

john

Almost everybody says that MG won't provide all the nutrients your plants need. I suspect you will need to find a way to provide some of the micronutrients that your plants need and add them to your water. Perhaps some compost tea might help.

Also, if you insist on going with MG, I'd get the orchid stuff (seems it has more micronutrients than the normal MG fertilizer).

One more thing. Try to keep all your water in the dark so it doesn't harbor algae. Oh, and keep an eye out for root blockage. If your plants do really well, they can block your pipes.


Derek 5 years ago

John

One more thing. If you don't have luck with the hydro nutrients/MG, you might want to get some fish and look into aquaponics.


Jonathan 4 years ago

I have to agree with a few other people - get links. More specifically, affiliate links. This is awesome content, might as well make some money off it and sell stuff. :)

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