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Hydroponic Farming: A Beginner’s Guide

Visitors to this website will likely already know what hydroponics is: the technology to grow plants without soil and instead finding ways to ensure a cocktail of nutrients is directly accessible by the plant roots. It's an old set of techniques and all entirely accessible to home growers and everyday farmers

If you think hydroponic farming is difficult, think again

The major aspects to consider are what you intend to grow, the space you have available, the economics and the amount of time you have.

Let’s look closer!

Guide to Hydroponic Farming Systems

Starting your Hydroponics Farming System

Advantages of Going Hydroponics

The advantages are very well documented but worth a reminder:

  • Yield: the amount of usable crop per square foot of space goes up 20-25 percent compared to traditional soil systems
  • Time: plants grown hydroponically can grow 20 per cent faster
  • Medium: no soil is needed, making hydroponics an easier solution for anyone without access to arable outdoor space - from container shipping container farmers to apartment dwellers.
  • Space: as the plant doesn’t need an enormous root network to source their own nutrients, plants can be packed much tighter.
  • Water: despite often using a liquid growing medium, hydroponic systems need less water as the growing tanks as usually sealed and enclosed to prevent excessive evaporation.

Setups for Hydroponic Beginners

There are three main types of system you’ll want to look at:

  • Wick Systems are the easiest to set up as there are no moving parts and it’s easy to see how everything works. The system starts with a reservoir of water containing nutrients. Above this is another container with a growing medium. Between the two is a wick, drawing liquid up to the growing medium where the plant roots can easily access it. This is perfect for microgreens and herbs, but less useful for water-hungry plants like lettuce.
  • Water Culture systems are also simple to set up. This time the plant sits in a styrofoam raft with holes punched through so roots can get through to the underside. The raft sits in a nutrient reservoir. This usually has an air pump in it so the nutrient solution can be oxygenated for the plants. This system is good for water-hungry plants like lettuce but less so for more long-lived plants, like tomatoes.
  • Ebb and Flow Systems can be complex but the principle is simple: the growing medium is periodically flooded with nutrients which then drain back to a reservoir. The system requires lots of fine-tuning and reliable pumping. However, with practice the system can be made bespoke for the plant and is highly adaptable to space - it works for potted plants of for whole tanks

What Can I Grow Hydroponically?

Theoretically, almost anything but beginners should always start small. The best choices are herbs and vegetables that grow quickly, require little maintenance, and do not need a broad range of nutrients - microgreens are a classic example. The aim here is to learn how the systems work: don’t run before you can walk!

Get your Lighting Right

Most plants used in agriculture need 6 or more hours of sunlight per day to thrive. Unless you are lucky enough to have a spare greenhouse or sunroom, chances are you’ll need supplemental lighting for a spare room. Basic kits usually come with their own lighting but if you are building your own system from scratch you will need to source your own. Setting up your own lighting system may also consider as additional maintaining cost for your indoor farming system.

You should try to look for HID (High-Intensity Discharge) lighting. This comes in two basic types: HPS (High-Pressure Sodium) or MH (Metal Halide). The light from HPS bulbs emits a more orange-red light, which is great for plants in the vegetative growth stage.

If you are aiming at plants with short growth cycles like cuttings, you could also look at T5 fluorescent lights which have lower heat and energy consumption.

Room Setup for Hydroponic Farming

Even with the right lighting, the environment needs to be controlled. You may need further equipment for the following:

  • Constant flow of air to make sure plants get CO2
  • Temperature control to ensure an optimum 70 degrees
  • Humidity controlled between 40-60%

Water for Hydroponics

As you may imagine the water quality will be critical. Most important is the ability to deliver nutrients. If the water already has too many mineral salts it will not absorb nutrients properly. You can measure this by looking at the water PPM and pH levels. If PPM is too high, you may need a filter. Water will need to be slightly acidic for most plants. The exact figure will vary according to your crop but look for PPM of 1260-1540 and pH level of about 6.2.

Nutrients for Hydroponics

This can be sourced in either liquid or solid form to be dissolved. You will need
Macronutrients such as nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium. You will also need micronutrients, which include trace amounts of iron, manganese, boron, zinc, copper, molybdenum, and chlorine.

You will still need fertilizer but do not use general soil fertilizer! Invest in specialist hydroponic fertilizers instead or specialize natural and organic prolific living soils.

What do I grow?

Your choice is huge but for a beginner, looking to learn the ropes, consider this starter list:

  • Greens: lettuce, spinach, and kale
  • Herbs: basil, parsley, oregano, cilantro, and mint
  • Tomatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Chili Peppers

What’s Next?

Once you have some experience and a few crop cycles under your belt you can begin to look at more advanced hydroponic methods.

Most will look at NFT Nutrient Film Techniques at some stage. NFT is a hydroponic technique where the plant sits in a very shallow stream of water. The stream contains all the dissolved nutrients required for plant growth and is re-circulated past the bare roots of plants in a watertight gully, also known as channels. The plant roots hang in the air, so if a pump failure occurs it can be catastrophic. Highly effective but needs tight monitoring and expensive set up.

We’ve kept the most complex for last! Aeroponics are the most advanced system - plant roots hang in the air and absorb the nutrients from a liquid mist surrounding them.

Address

Micro Lab Farms

3353 Needles Hwy

Needles, CA

(951) 266-6096