Growing herbs, fruits, and vegetables at home is a popular choice for many gardeners who love to enjoy fresh, organic produce. Many gardeners are turning to hydroponics for food growing, and it’s easy to see why. Hydroponic gardens are convenient, accessible for novices, and can provide superior plants when compared to traditional vegetable gardens.
This guide contains all the information you need to start and maintain a home hydroponic garden. We’ll explain what hydroponic gardening is and why you should do it. We’ll also go into detail on choosing a system, setting up your garden, and maintaining your system and plants.
- 1 What is Hydroponic Gardening?
- 2 How To Choose a Hydroponic Gardening System
- 3 Starting Your Hydroponic Garden
- 4 How To Maintain Hydroponically Grown Plants
- 5 How To Maintain Your Hydroponic System
- 6 Conclusion
What is Hydroponic Gardening?
Hydroponic gardening is a gardening method that uses water to deliver nutrients to a plant’s roots without the use of soil. In conventional gardening, the soil acts as an anchor for the plant and contains nutrients the plant needs, which are pulled from the soil through moisture and absorbed into the roots. In a hydroponic system, your plants grow in a soilless growing medium where their roots reach into a water and nutrient solution.
Types of Hydroponic Systems
Hydroponic systems can be categorized into two types: active and passive. In an active system, the nutrient solution is mechanically pumped to the plant roots. A passive system has no pump but rather uses other actions, such as wicking or flooding, to get the solution to the roots.
In a very basic hydroponic system, the roots are simply suspended in a tank of water; this is known as a deep water culture system. This method may not allow your plants’ roots to get enough oxygen, so a more complex system may be preferred. These are some of the more common types:
- Wick System – A candle or lantern wick is used to deliver water and nutrients to the plant roots through capillary action.
- Ebb and Flow – The water and nutrients are in a reservoir and a mechanical pump pushes them up into a tray where the roots are growing through the growing medium. The water is then drained back into the reservoir.
- Drip System – This system is essentially drip irrigation, where water and nutrients are pumped through a hose with holes in it where water drips onto your plants’ roots.
- Nutrient Film – Similar to the ebb and flow system, the water and nutrients are contained in a reservoir and pumped to your plants. The roots are suspended in shallow channels where the water is continuously moved over the roots and then back to the reservoir to be recirculated.
There are also two subtypes of hydroponic systems: aquaponics and aeroponics. An aquaponic system uses the symbiotic relationship between fish and plants to supply both with all the necessary conditions to thrive. An aeroponic system does not use a growth medium, and plant roots are suspended in the air. They are sprayed with nutrient solution instead of being submerged in it.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Hydroponic Gardening
Gardeners are increasingly choosing to grow their own food, and with good reason. Home gardening is more sustainable and free from pesticides and chemicals, and people like to know where their food is coming from. Fresh produce also just tastes better, as any grower will tell you.
Growing food hydroponically offers several of its own advantages over conventional gardening. It may not be for everyone, however, so you’ll need to weigh the pros and cons for yourself.
- Space efficient – Because they don’t use soil, hydroponically grown plants don’t compete for nutrients, so you can grow more plants in less space. You can even have a small table-top hydroponic system and grow herbs right on your kitchen counter.
- Indoor, year-round growing – Hydroponic gardens are also great for indoors; no outdoor garden space required. Many systems also come with grow lights, so a sunlit location is not required. Because you can grow your plants indoors, you can garden all year long.
- No soil – Not needing to use soil provides several benefits. It’s less messy, and it helps your plants avoid soil-borne diseases and pests. And perhaps best of all: no weeds.
- Water efficient – Soilless growing uses less water. When you water plants growing in soil, some water is lost when it is not used by your plant and either drains off or evaporates. Hydroponic systems apply water directly to the roots, so the water is not lost, and many systems recirculate the water for continuous use.
- Higher yields – Hydroponically grown plants typically grow faster and produce higher yields. The tightly controlled conditions and direct nutrient delivery mean more fruit and vegetables. Many hydroponic systems see a plant yield increase of 30% to 50%.
- Save money – Growing your produce at home hydroponically can save you money over time (we did the math!) Many home systems are relatively inexpensive to run and the higher yields mean more food compared to a conventional garden.
- Initial Cost – Compared to a conventional garden, hydroponic gardens are typically more expensive to get started. Even if you build your own system, you will have to spend some money on your materials.
- Maintenance – Although hydroponic gardens save you time not having to weed or deal with as many pests, they do require quite a bit of monitoring. You’ll need to spend time adding water and nutrients, and you’ll need to monitor conditions like temperature, light, and water pH.
- Requires electricity – Almost all hydroponic systems require electricity to run. Your grow lights and pumps both need to remain connected to power to work. Your garden will be at risk if you lose power.
- Water-related problems – The core element of any hydroponic system is water, and because your plants will rely on it so heavily, there is a lot to watch out for. Bacteria and algae grow easily in water, so cleanliness is a must to keep your plants healthy. Root rot is also a potential hazard if roots are not aerated properly. Also, if you have hard water, you may need to filter it or dilute it with other water sources to avoid nutrient problems.
How To Choose a Hydroponic Gardening System
When it comes to deciding what type of hydroponic system you want to use, you have many options. First, you should decide if you’re going to purchase a manufactured system or build your own.
Building a Hydroponic System
Building a hydroponic system does not have to be complicated. If you like DIY projects, you can find tutorials online with step-by-step instructions for some relatively simple systems.
Constructing a hydroponic garden allows you to customize your setup. You can make it just the right size for your space, customize it for what you want to grow, and can use whichever type of hydroponic system you like.
A DIY system does have some disadvantages, namely, it’s not exactly beginner-friendly. If you’re not particularly handy, new to gardening in general, or just don’t have a lot of free time, this might not be the route you want to take.
Buying a Hydroponic System
With the rising popularity of hydroponic gardening, several manufacturers sell pre-built systems. These systems range in size, features, and type. There are several factors to consider when selecting a hydroponic system to purchase.
- Size – How much space do you have for your hydroponic garden? You might just have a couple of square feet on your kitchen counter available, or maybe you have a whole room to dedicate to your growing. You should also think about how much produce you want to be able to grow. Even with hydroponics’ space efficiency, you won’t be able to feed a family of four with only a small system.
- Location – Your hydroponic system will minimally provide water and nutrients for your plants, but plants also need adequate light, temperature, and humidity. Depending on where you put your garden, you may need additional equipment to meet these needs. For example, if you are not going to grow in a location with plenty of light, you’ll need to purchase grow lights or choose a system that comes with them.
- Plants – Think about what you want to grow in your hydroponic garden. Herbs, lettuce, peppers, and tomatoes are popular choices for hydroponic gardens and some systems are more ideal for your choice than others. Smaller plants like herbs and lettuce work well in countertop gardens. Tomatoes and peppers need more space to grow taller.
- Features – Some hydroponic manufacturers make systems loaded with lots of cool features. Light timers, water and nutrient reminders, and even AI assistants are all available features.
- Price – Like any purchase, your budget is a major limiting factor. Larger systems with more features are, not surprisingly, more expensive.
There are several manufacturers of home hydroponic systems, and some of the most well-known are AeroGarden, Gardyn, and iDOO. AeroGarden makes hydroponic systems in a wide range of sizes from the three-pod Sprout to the popular Harvest 360 Elite with a six-pod capacity, to 12-pod systems, to the Farm 24XL with 24 pods. These systems come with grow lights with timers, pre-seeded growing pods, and water/nutrient reminders, making them great choices for beginners or growers who want a more automated system.
iDOO systems are similar to AeroGarden in setup and have many similar features. They don’t come with seeds, however, and lack some of the advanced features of the Harvest 360 Elite. We put together a comprehensive product comparison of iDOO and AeroGarden models if you want more information.
While the AeroGarden and iDOO systems are configured to grow plants horizontally, the Gardyn is a vertical hydroponic system. The Gardyn is pricier, but it comes with an AI assistant that can let you know what your plants need, so it’s pretty foolproof.
Starting Your Hydroponic Garden
Starting a hydroponic garden for your home clearly provides many benefits and you have many options to ensure you have a system that will work for you. When you’re ready to start, these are the steps you’ll need to take.
Step 1: Choose your plants
The first thing you need to decide is what you want to grow and if it can be grown hydroponically. Technically, just about any crop can be grown hydroponically, though some are more suited to it than others, especially in a home setting.
Corn, for example, needs lots of space vertically, which is typically not available indoors and is inefficient since you only get 1-2 ears per stalk. Root vegetables like potatoes and carrots also present some challenges since the roots need lots of space and the right growing medium.
Compact, fast-growing plants are ideal for a hydroponic garden. Some popular crops for hydroponic gardens include:
- Lettuce and other salad greens
- Tomatoes, especially cherry tomatoes for their high yields
Step 2: Choose a location
Establish a location where you will put your hydroponic system. You can grow hydroponically outdoors, but only if your location has plenty of direct sunlight, does not have wide temperature fluctuations, and has access to power. Some hydroponic gardeners set up in a greenhouse where factors like temperature and humidity can be controlled.
One of the nice things about hydroponic gardens is they are very easy to maintain indoors. You can easily control the environment, have access to power, and can use grow lights when sunlight is not available.
Step 3: Set up your system
Once you know what you want to grow and where you’re going to put your garden, it becomes easier to choose a hydroponic system. Using the criteria outlined in the previous section, purchase or build your system and set it up. Purchased systems come with setup instructions so you can follow those steps to get up and running.
Step 4: Choose a growing medium
Hydroponic systems do not use soil, but most still require a growing medium of some kind. A growing medium helps anchor your plants and give the roots something to grow into. It also helps deliver nutrient solution to the roots and keeps them aerated.
Depending on what type of hydroponic garden you have, you might buy medium in bulk and place it in net pots (pots with slits or holes in the side for roots to grow through). Alternatively, you may need pre-made plugs that are inserted into the system.
Some hydroponic systems, like ones made by AeroGarden, come with pre-seeded plugs that are ready to be germinated. You can also buy empty plugs and plant your own seeds in them.
Here are some of the more popular growing medium choices for hydroponics:
- Rockwool – Versatile medium made from superheated rock and chalk that has great aeration but is not biodegradable.
- Perlite – Heated and expanded ore that is inexpensive and effective.
- Coconut coir – Made from coconut husks, so it is organic and sustainable.
- Pumice – A lightweight volcanic rock that has good water retention and airflow.
Step 5: Germinate or transplant your crops
The best way to germinate your seeds is directly in your chosen growing medium, or you can buy the plugs that already contain seeds. This keeps your seedlings clean and disease-free from the start. Your growing medium should be completely damp prior to planting, so soak it in water beforehand.
Place a couple of seeds in each pot of growing medium. Follow instructions on the seed packet for planting depth. You can also use starter cubes of growing medium to germinate your seeds.
Cover your pots with a plastic lid and place your seeds in a warm, dark place. The plastic lid is essential for maintaining the humid conditions necessary for germination. A heat mat can help provide consistent temperatures.
When you see your first sprouts, you can remove the plastic cover and start exposing your seedlings to light. Once your seedlings have their first true set of leaves and they are around six inches tall, they are ready for placement in your hydroponic system.
Some hydroponic systems, like the AeroGarden, allow you to germinate your seeds right in the system. You can use AeroGarden’s High Growth Mode option after all your plants have germinated.
If you decide to germinate your seeds in a regular potting mix or buy seedlings from a nursery, ensure the roots are completely clean and free of soil before transplanting so that you do not introduce dirt to your system.
Step 6: Supply nutrient solution and start your system
Since your plants will not be drawing nutrients from the soil, they will need just the right ingredients in the solution that will be fed to their roots. When preparing your water for your hydroponic system, test the pH to ensure it is ideal for your plants.
You should test for pH before and after adding fertilizer in case the fertilizer changes the acidity. If you have hard water, you may need to test more often to ensure the alkalinity of your water does not raise the pH.
You can purchase ready-made hydroponic fertilizer designed specifically for your crops. This is the easiest way to make sure you have the right nutrient balance. If you want to grow more than one crop, keep in mind that different plants have different requirements, so you don’t want those plants to share a nutrient solution. This requires a larger hydroponic system with separate reservoirs, like the AeroGarden Farm 24XL.
Once you’ve got everything your plants need, it’s time to turn your hydroponic garden on and watch your plants grow!
How To Maintain Hydroponically Grown Plants
Just like any garden, hydroponically grown plants will need regular tending to ensure they are getting everything they need to thrive. Light, water, and nutrients are the three key necessities, but hydroponic gardeners will need to think about a little more than that.
Most plants need 6-10 hours of sunlight per day. In most cases, you would need an outdoor growing space to achieve this. Using grow lights helps solve this problem with indoor hydroponic gardens and many systems you can purchase include them.
Grow light hours do not directly correlate to daylight hours, so if you’re using them, your plants will actually need about 14-18 hours of exposure. To minimize work and potential for error, use lights that have an automatic timer so you don’t have to worry about turning them on and off.
Water and Fertilizer
No matter what type of hydroponic system you use, the system will be watering your plants for you. However, as your plants’ roots absorb water, you will need to top off your water supply to ensure the roots keep in contact with the water. Each time you top off, don’t forget to add your fertilizer at the concentration recommended on the label.
Some plants, like peppers and tomatoes, have a longer growing period, and you will probably need to do a full water change-out at least once or twice. Every 2-4 weeks is recommended. This prevents your water from growing bacteria or algae.
You’ll need to monitor your water conditions for pH and conductivity as well. You can purchase meters to help you measure these conditions in your water. Your water’s pH and conductivity affect your plants’ abilities to absorb nutrients, so if these levels are not correct, your plants may not grow optimally.
The ideal pH range for your water is 6.0 to 6.5. If your solution’s pH is too high (alkaline) you can lower it by adding something acidic, like citric acid or vinegar. If the pH is too low (acidic), add potassium carbonate or potassium hydroxide to raise it.
Electrical conductivity measures the amount of salt in your solution. The salts present in the water are from your nutrients. Both too much and too little salt will negatively affect your plants. The ideal range varies depending on the type of plant, so you should familiarize yourself with what your plants need.
Pest and Disease Control
While hydroponic gardens tend to be less susceptible to pests and diseases than traditional gardens, you still want to monitor for these issues. Hydroponic systems placed outdoors will still be accessible to any pests that aren’t soil-inhabiting. Even indoor systems may attract insects such as aphids and whiteflies, which can quickly become a problem if not managed.
Ensure your hydroponic system, seeds, and growing medium are all clean to avoid disease. Also, ensure your roots are able to get enough oxygen to avoid root rot. Monitor your plants regularly for disease and pests and remove any plants that are damaged or infested.
Pruning and Root Trimming
Many plants benefit from regular pruning to help stimulate growth for higher yields. It is also important in hydroponics because plants can quickly become overcrowded in your limited space. If you notice your plants’ leaves starting to turn yellow, this could be a sign of nutrient deficiency and an indication that it is time to prune.
Root trimming is a maintenance task unique to hydroponic gardens. You don’t trim roots in your outdoor garden, so why is it necessary for hydroponics? If your roots grow unchecked, your reservoir can become too full, leading to problems with nutrient uptake, rot and fungus, and even interference with your system’s operation.
Pollination is a hydroponic gardening chore that is sometimes overlooked. The pollination process occurs naturally outdoors where beneficial pollinator insects visit your garden. Indoors, you will have to pollinate yourself.
Only your flowering fruits and vegetables will need pollination assistance. Leafy greens like lettuce, herbs, and beans will self-pollinate. Plants like peppers and cucumbers will need manual pollination. Tomatoes, while technically considered self-pollinating, will have higher yields if you do supplemental pollination. AeroGarden makes a cute little bee-inspired tool for manual pollination.
Now for the part of hydroponic gardening you’ve been waiting for: harvesting your plants for eating! Before you dive in, make sure you’re up to speed on how to tell when your individual plants are ready to harvest.
Harvesting too soon can lead to poor quality food and lower yields from your plants. Some plants you harvest all at once like determinate cherry tomatoes. Lettuce and basil are plants you can harvest continuously over their growing cycle.
In some cases, you may want to move your plants from your hydroponic garden into the ground or a container. It is possible to transplant hydroponic plants.
To avoid transplant shock, gradually introduce your plants to soil and decrease their access to water slightly. This will allow your plants to get used to new growing conditions slowly. If they are not allowed this adjustment period, they could have stunted growth or die.
Occasionally our gardens don’t turn out the way we want, even when we think we’ve done everything right. Seeds don’t germinate, plant leaves start to look yellow and unhealthy, or food doesn’t taste quite right.
If you’re having these problems, you can do some troubleshooting by checking all of the factors listed above to make sure your plants are in the right conditions. You can also check the FAQ section of your hydroponic system’s website or ask other gardeners in forums and Facebook groups.
How To Maintain Your Hydroponic System
When you grow your plants in a hydroponic system, the system itself will need some regular maintenance too in order to avoid problems. Here’s what you should keep an eye on.
If your system uses a pump, it is a vital part of maintaining your system as it is how your plants will get their nutrient solution. Check periodically to ensure your pump has not stopped running or that it does not make odd sounds that could indicate a problem. If your pump is on a timer, make sure the settings are configured correctly.
Observe your lights to ensure they are working properly and no lights are out. LED lights have a 2-4 year life span, so eventually you will have to replace them. Ensure your light timer is on the right setting for the growing conditions you need.
As previously mentioned, you should completely empty and replace the water in your hydroponic system every 2-4 weeks. This will help keep the system clean and prevent the growth of algae. Some algae growth is normal and will not adversely affect your plants, but too much will build up and be detrimental, so make sure you’re changing out that water.
You will also need to thoroughly clean your system between plantings. The reservoir should be scrubbed and sanitized after each growing period.
Moving Your System
You may decide that you want to try a different location for your hydroponic garden after you’ve already gotten started. Keep in mind, if your system uses a panel to control light and pump settings, unplugging it may cause the settings to be reset. If you unplug and move your system, check to make sure your system is still configured how you want it to be.
Hydroponic gardening is a fantastic way to grow your own food and provide your family with lots of fresh, delicious produce. Although it can present its own set of challenges, even inexperienced gardeners can give it a go with the right crops and system. The advantages to hydroponic gardening are numerous and make it worth a go if you want a small garden from the comfort of your home.