Hydroponic Basics – What Equipment Will You Need?
Hydroponic gardening is when plants are grown in a media that is not soil. And water is used to provide the necessary nutrients in a moderate level of parts per million and at a Ph level suited to the plant you wish to grow. At least that is what hydroponic gardening meant in the early days. Now, just about any type of gardening can be modified to include hydroponic techniques so that every gardener can grow plants the way they are comfortable growing them. Planting media manufacturers have even confused the issue. It is really quite rare to find any potting blends that have any actual soil in them. Almost all are based upon either peat or coir fiber as the primary media with additions of perlite or vermiculite. Potting mixes today would qualify as hydroponic media in the past. Today we are just interested in the most basic of basic needs for a hydroponic system.
Reservoir and Tray
The first two things you will need are a reservoir and a tray. The reservoir will hold your nutrient solution most of the time. You will need something large enough as your reservoir to accommodate the number of containers you will have sitting on your tray. The reservoir can and often takes up less floor space but is quite a bit deeper. The reservoirs commonly sold start at the small 10 gallon size and can be found to hold up to 100 gallons for the family size systems.
The tray will also need to be able to hold nutrient solution as well. The tray is often shallow so that plant net pot containers can be distributed over a larger area. The tray is usually placed above the reservoir so that gravity can be used to return your nutrient solution back down to the reservoir where it will wait until the next pumping cycle.
Pump, tubing, timer and fill and drain fittings
The tray and reservoir are connected with tubing. A water pump in the reservoir is attached to a length of tubing so that the water can go up in to the tray. There is another piece of tubing that is attached to a fill and drain fitting in the tray so that the water that was pumped up to the tray can drain back in to the reservoir. A timer is used to tell the pump when to pump. The timer should ideally have some on/off tabs for more than 1 cycle through the day.
Pumps come in a range of sizes. They are rated in a number of ways. I generally like to look at the number of gallons per hour a pump is able to lift water a few feet when trying to decide how large to buy one. You want a pump large enough to move the water fairly quickly. A pump that is too small will move water too slowly and could burn out faster. Similarly if the pump is too large for your system then that is overkill. A good middle of the road size water pump is best for the size of system you are setting up is best.
In general it is best to provide your plant roots with as much air as possible. I recently saw some hibiscus on a friend’s deck planted in some SmartPots where the roots had penetrated the fabric and were sticking out a bit. Most of the roots were coming out of the bottom of the SmartPot where they receive a bit less light but there were some coming out of the side too. The plant was beautiful and blooming well. Usually for hydroponics you will see people use net pots. These look like baskets woven out of plastic strips. There are a lot of air holes all over the pot. Some really large plants can be grown in exceptionally small net pots. This is because you are providing the nutrient rich water at intervals that provide the necessary food and water so the roots can be small and compact. In regular soil gardening the roots have to spread out to seek both width and depth for good growth. With smaller root mass and small net pots you will find that you will often have to support the plant since it no longer has the anchorage to counter balance the top growth of the plant.
This is one of those ever changing concerns for the hydroponic gardener. One old fashioned media is rock wool. This looks like fiberglass insulation. It is manufactured out of rocks in a similar fashion. Good quality rock wool is made from nutrient rich stone. While most of these nutrients in the rock are sealed up in the glass structure, there is still some small amount your mycorrhizae can collect. I have seen 20 foot tall hydroponic tomato plants being grown in a 6x6x6 inch cube!
Another all time favorite, though the original version manufactured in the Netherlands is no longer available, is an unglazed fired clay product that is spherical. It was called Hydroton and came in really small (about an eighth of an inch across) to fairly large size (a bit over a half inch across). There are some unglazed similar types of product produced in the US that are fairly similar. Some have “lumpy” shapes. All the new replacements are fairly well liked. These all provide a more substantial place for roots to grow. The unglazed clay absorbs water without holding too much. The roots like to fit into and around the substrate as in nature. After proper sanitation one can reuse these unglazed clay media.
There are other products as well. One I liked that did not quite take off was sort of similar to Hydroton only it was an unglazed silica (sand) product. You can use marbles. You can choose to use small round water gravel. A new and exciting product is made from recycled glass. This is produced sort of the way perlite is made. It is lighter in weight than hydroton and more porous. This is fast gaining momentum.
The last is a bit complex but can be simplified a bit. There any number of nutrients, both micro and macro formulas, growth regulators, vitamin B formulas, leonardite, liquid humus, compost teas, and on and on and on. To start just get a good macro formula as well as a well balanced micro formula. The macro elements provide the necessary nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium a plant needs. The good micro element formulas contain most if not all those rare elements needed for durable plant growth, blooming, and fruiting needs. My best advice when starting is to ask a clerk what sells the best. That always points the way. From my experience I like the General Hydroponics threesome. Their growth, bloom and micro nutrient blends are great for mineral based formulas. If you prefer a more natural organic product line than I suggest the threesome from FoxFarm. Their Grow Big, Tiger Bloom and …. Triplet is really excellent and consistent too.
You may need to change the Ph of your water to provide great growth. Plants needs to grow in specific Ph level media so that the plant can absorb chemicals they prefer easier. For example tomatoes like quite a bit of calcium so a Ph that is a bit above 7 is better because that is where you will find it more.
If you are growing indoors you will need a light system. This is a rather complex topic for another blog. My preferred supplemental lighting indoors is fluorescent. I really like the sort of new T5 tube size bulbs. They are cool and provide all the right light I need. Many still like the high intensity lights. These require a special ballast and come in different light wave frequencies specifically to stimulate growth or bloom as needed. There are new lights coming on the scene now too. These include LED and plasma.
Optional Though Recommended Equipment
This should be a reliable and accurate combination Ph and TDS meter. They can be purchased as separate units too. Ph determines what nutrients are easier or harder for a plant to absorb. For example calcium tends to be in higher Ph concentrations than lower. Some plants like tomatoes require a lot of calcium. The TDS meter determines the total dissolved solids in solution. Some plants prefer a richer percentage of nutrients per volume of water and some like lettuce do not require as much for excellent growth. This too makes for another blog in the future.
This small list equipment is all you need to set up a hydroponic system.