The hydroponic method of cultivating and propagating plants is almost too good to be true. There is no soil involved, it uses a fraction of the water, and yields incredible produce, and although it might seem like a science experiment – which I suppose it is in a way – you don’t have to be intimidated by it.
The principle behind hydroponics is that plants receive diluted nutrients through a constant stream of water washing over its roots, eliminating the need for soil. This delivery system is incredibly efficient and precise, meaning you have greater control over the variables involve when growing your plants.
There are essentially only three main elements to the hydroponic setup: the growing channels, the irrigation system and the lighting. The irrigation system is the mechanism that will feed and cycle the water through the roots of the plants. You will need a small electrical water pump – available from garden centres, some piping, guttering and a water tank. Here’s how to do it:
The growing channels are the homes of your plants where the nutrient rich water will pass over their roots. There are virtually endless ways you can construct these, but one of the simplest and easiest is to use gutters. They’re cheap and the perfect shape to lay out your plants in organised rows – just make sure you’ve got the square ones because the round ones will give you balance issues. Then place your plants in the pots with LECA, or just put the LECA straight into the growing channels so that the plants’ roots have something to latch on to. Place your channels at a slight gradient so that the water will flow down under the influence of gravity.
This is your water tank that will hold all the recycled water used to deliver the nutrients to your plants. It can be any old tank – or even a bucket, just make sure that it is big enough. An important thing to note is that apart from it being water proof, it must also be light proof. Algae and micro organisms can start growing in very low light conditions and will affect the nutrients in the reservoir, so cover it up, paint it – do whatever you need to keep it dark in there!
The water pump is the mechanism that will deliver the nutrient water from the reservoir to the growing channels. You put the pump in the reservoir and connect it to a timer. Then you are going to need an aeration stone in your reservoir to keep the water oxygenated. This simply dissolves oxygen from the air into the water in the form of a fine mist that will supply your plants with additional oxygen. You can find both the pump and the aeration stone at your local nursery. They come in a wide range of sizes and are very easy to maintain.
A.K.A. pipes. It’s that simple. The easiest is to use PVC piping or hose piping to carry the water being delivered by the pump from the reservoir up to the growing channels. The water then flows over the roots of the plants before making its way back into the reservoir to be recycled.
The timer is simply to automate the entire process so that it will run when you’re not around. I’ve found that the digital ones are best because the analogue timers wear down after a while. You can set it to whatever interval and duration that you need so that you don’t over or under water your plants. I’ve got it on about 5 minutes every hour for the course of the day until I get home. If you’re really a pro, you can custom set the intervals to increase as the day gets hotter – but figuring out all the details is part of the fun, so I’ll let you figure it out. Every system will also work differently depending on your setup and what you’re growing.
And it’s as easy as that! But this is where the experimentation starts. Getting the nutrients levels, PH balance and various elements of the system to work in harmony requires some mistakes. It took me about six months to finally get the hang of it, but after all that time of subtle tweaking and tinkering, it’s working like a dream, plus the experimenting is part of the joy of having your own hydroponic system!