Hydroponics for Beginners
Welcome to Hydroponics 101, a single article overview of the basic decisions and questions that will need answers to build your first hydroponic garden. These are the issues and problems faced by every amateur or expert who is starting a new project from the ground up. While a full description of every technique and necessary piece of equipment is outside the scope here (that would take a series of books to properly explain and educate), our aim is to give you the knowledge needed to start your journey into the world of hydroponics.
In this case, space is the first, rather than the final, frontier. How much room do you have and how much will you need? If you have a greenhouse already built, then you’re set with a large space that’s roomy enough to accommodate multiple plants, but, if you’re staring at a 3’x3’ closet you’ll need to seriously consider what kind of plants you can grow. Small spaces need to be wary of plant sizes. Tall or sprawling plants require a lot of room, which is something that can’t be remedied by vertical grow structures. For small spaces, it’s better to use short plants and a vertical structure with artificial lighting.
Supplying the “hydro” in “hydroponics,” water is the life blood of all things on Earth and the core element of your hydroponics system. As the most important aspect of your new system, you need to know where it’s coming from and in what form. Your reservoir will feed your plants, but do you need a large supply of water or just a regular re-wetting of your plant’s roots? Depending on your answer, the system you use to deliver water from the reservoir will change. Drip, NFT, and top-down systems all use constantly flowing water to feed plants. All of these require water pumps that will run for most of the time, and will keep your plants fairly wet at all times. Alternatively, you can use an ebb-and-flow system which pumps water into a secondary reservoir, then allows it to drain again (using the pump only part of the time) or a simple bucket system that requires a manual refill (no pumps or electricity required).
Water also needs to be oxygenated, to keep the roots from drowning. Anytime that water is agitated, oxygen is dissolved into the water. Sprayers and air stones will add oxygen to your water, so incorporating them at some point within your system is essential for plant health.
Do you live in a hot climate? Is the weather outside cool for most of the year? Are you growing plants out of season? Temperature control is essential for plant health (and even plant size), but it can also run up the cost of growing plants depending on the season. If you need to run extra heating during the winter, you’ll pay a hefty sum in utility bills (and vice versa for the summer). So think about whether having the juiciest tomatoes in the world during winter is worth the added heating bill, then design your grow room to compensate for indoor and outdoor temperatures. There are a few tricks you can use to mitigate temperatures as well, such as leaving plants in the dark during the hot portion of the day (to reduce heat from the lights) and using artificial light during the cooler portion of the night instead.
Are you growing outdoors or in a greenhouse? Then your lighting is taken care of by that wonderfully life-giving fusion reaction we call The Sun. But, if you’re growing inside and away from windows, you’ll need a substitute. Artificial lighting comes in a variety of options, so you’ll need to double-check a few things to see if fluorescents, HIDs, or LEDs are the right source for you. Consider heating first, will your room be colder than it should be? HIDs (or any incandescent for that matter) put out heat that can
mitigate cold environments. You’ll still need heating, but maybe just a little less than normal. On the other hand, if your room is stiflingly hot, LEDs and fluorescents are both cold burn lamps that put out little to no heat, preventing an overheated growing room. Both of these lamps have the added benefit of costing a lot less in terms of energy as well. Lighting for your plants is as essential as water, so it’s a good idea to get further education on the subject as plants need different requirements as they grow older.
Hydroponic systems don’t use soil, but a plant still needs to stand up, and few varieties can do that without something to grab hold of. So which growing medium should you use? There are many kinds, but you should choose a medium based on water retention, replanting needs, and system type. As an example, an ebb and flow system works best with media that drains quickly, making heavy rockwool blocks a poor choice. At the same time, the retention of rockwool makes it a great system for wicking or drip systems where the plant needs an abundance of water. Likewise, if you have plants that will need to be moved to a larger system or a different location, clay pellets or lava rocks are a poor choice because they can shift and damage roots.
How are you planning on growing plants? If you want to start with seeds you’ll need an incubator or germination kit to get them started. You could also clone new plants from a cutting, but for that you’ll need to buy a starter plant to begin with. Bulb plants are extremely easy to clone from a scale, meaning no seeds or expensive cutting clone kits. If you start with very small pots or cups you’ll eventually have to transplant to a larger container, meaning you should avoid heavy media such as clay pellets. So consider the starting state of your plants and whether or not they’ll need to be moved later on.
Throughout the lifecycle of your plants you’ll need to watch for discoloration (such as yellowing), dropping, or leaf curling which can be symptomatic of nutrient deficiencies. Molds and fungi are a danger when humidity levels are too high, and are relatively easy to encounter when growing indoors. Outdoor gardens tend to have issues with pests, so it’s a good idea to keep a pesticide of some kind on hand. Watching out for these three things is an excellent way to make sure you don’t miss any more advanced problems as well, since you’ll already be looking into obvious problems as or before they happen.
When you’re planning a new system you should always keep these things in mind first. Plan around the space, your water system, relative temperature, style of lighting, and the medium you intend to use. Everything on this list interacts with everything else, so once you start selecting things the other decisions will fall into place, so start with what’s most urgent for you (typically space or temperature) and move on from there.
As always, if you have any additional questions you can ask them in the comments below. We have many other hydroponics articles explaining the topics discussed here more in-depth which you can read for further understanding. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or Instagram where we’ll post new article and content updates weekly.
Hydroponics lighting image used courtesy of Peter Kirn.