Hydroponic gardens are the new style of gardening. My wife and I have been reading up on alternative backyard gardening methods and I’ve been particularly interested in hydroponic gardening. Do you love gardening but hate digging in the dirt? If yes, then you can ditch the traditional soil, build your own soilless garden and grow plants as much as you want using a hydroponic gardening system. As I started reading about these systems I found a lot of expensive options to buy, but in all honesty, they didn’t seem like they would be that complicated to build myself. I’m not a “handyman” so to speak, but I know how to use a few tools and this proved to be a simple enough DIY project.
So, how do you build a raised hydroponic garden? There are multiple steps to building a DIY hydroponic gardening system.
- Select the type of raised hydroponic garden you want to build.
- Select your site.
- Select your crops.
- Gather your tools and materials.
- Build the frame to hold your water basin.
- Build the stand for the frame.
- Add your plumbing and pumps.
Having a ready-made hydroponic system can be expensive. However, building a raised hydroponic garden will help save the cost and can even be an easy task, especially for an avid DIYer. The truth is: you will find that this task can be fun if you can follow and adhere to the given instructions.
Hydroponic – what does it means?
Hydroponic is a farming technique that allows you to grow plant in a soilless medium using only a growing medium (such as perlite, vermiculite, coconut coir, etc.), water and nutrients. This “plant growing” technique is a subclass of Hydroculture and involve ditching the traditional soil but using a mineral nutrient solution (nutrient enriched water) as an alternative to feed and nourish the plants. In a nutshell, the concept of hydroponic relies on the idea of removing barriers to plant nutrition and increasing the access of your plant roots to oxygen, mineral nutrients and water which are essential for it to grow and thrive.
How to Build A Raised Hydroponic Garden – Step by Step Guide
Step 1 – Site Selection
The location of your hydroponic system is very important. This is because the moment you set it up, you may not be able to move it from a place to the other especially where the whole hydroponic system is bulky.
You can locate the system in an enclosed structure like an outdoor deck or patio, your house basement, or a greenhouse. When selecting your location, you need to consider the following factors:
The stability of the area
Examine your available space and select a location that is on level ground and stable. An uneven, unlevel or unstable area where the supporting elements of the hydroponic system sink into the ground will affect the flow of water and nutrients within the system. It might even lead to flooding or collapsing of the whole system.
The elements of weather
Whether you set up your hydroponic system on an open space or greenhouse, it is important to consider the elements of weather such as wind, rain, storms, temperature, etc. for you to attain the right result. If you intend to locate your hydroponic system outdoors, you need to protect it from the elements. Provide wind barriers for strong winds and check the water level regularly due to the loss of water via evaporation.
Extreme weather conditions may damage the structure, cause plants stress, and poor yield. For instance, strong winds may break the plants and damage their productive systems, extremely low temperatures may freeze the nutrients, and rain can dilute the mineral nutrient in the whole system.
Lighting and shading
Since plants require light (sunshine) to grow and develop well, inadequate amount of sunshine will lead to stunted growth, phototropism, and poor yield. So, choosing a site that allows your plants to receive optimum sunlight per day is very important.
You also need to consider the sun movement (as it moves from east to west) and select a location that uses the sunlight properly. However, if you are sitting your hydroponic system indoor, then you need to add quality lighting systems such as LED or Florescent grow lights.
Fencing, ease of access and other utilities
The hydroponic system relies on several utilities like electricity, and a water reservoir for optimum operation and performance. So, your site should be close to the needed utilities. Moreover, the system should be accessible for routine maintenance and services, and there should be a fence or barricade to keep intruders off.
Step 2 – select the type of hydroponic system that you want to build
There are different types of hydroponic systems, each having some benefits over the other.
- Wick system
- Water culture system
- Ebb and Flow system
- Drip system
- Nutrient Film Technique
While all these systems are effective, I am going to focus more on the water Culture, and the Ebb and Flow system which is suitable for most plants.
Ebb and flow system: This option is also inexpensive but moderately easy to build. Here, your growing bed will be placed above your reservoir and connected to it with tubing. The system uses a water pump to pump the nutrients solution from the reservoir to the growing bed and flood the plant roots. Excess nutrient solution drains back into the reservoir for further use.
Water culture: This option is easy to build and will have your plants floating on water that is mixed with the nutrient solution. It is a low-cost option and is very suitable for lettuce and other water-loving plants.
Step 2 – Get your supplies ready
Below are some of the tool and materials you need to construct your hydroponic system
- Growing bed (otherwise known as a tray or growing chamber)
- Submersible pump
- Spray paint (only required if your reservoir or growing bed is transparent)
- Simple Timer
- Grow light (for indoor locations)
- Air stone and air pump (for water culture)
- Garden hose
- Reservoir or nutrient tank
- Mesh pots (the amount required depends on the crop you want to grow and the size of your growing bed). If you cannot get the mesh pots, you can make your planting pot from disposable plastic cups. Get as many disposable cups pots as required and make a hole at the bottom and on the sides of the cups with a very hot iron.
Ebb and Flow System
Step 1 – Set up your hydroponic growing bed and reservoir
Your hydroponic growing bed and reservoir will hold the water for your hydroponic system. You can buy your growing bed online or make use of a very large container like a bin/bucket, a fish tank, or even build one with wood.
However, wooden materials are degradable, materials made of fiberglass or plastic is a good option. Although the plastic growing bed is a good choice, plastic tends to expand with time and might even lose their shape.
Follow the step below to build a growing bed using wooden material:
- Build a rectangular frame of 1.22 meters wide by 2.43 meters long with treated lumber and line it with a polyethylene sheet to form a leak-proof box. This box should hold about 75 liters of water.
- Ensure that the growing bed is about 8 inches deep to allow for proper root development.
Place your hydroponic growing bed on a support structure such as a couple of sawhorses, make sure it is stable, level, and secure, then place your reservoir under it.
- The type and amount of crop you want to grow as well as the volume of water you intend to use will determine the size of the hydroponic growing bed.
- Your reservoir should have the same dimension or volume as your growing bed.
- Your reservoir and the growing bed should be light proof. If they are translucent, you need to paint it black with spray paint and let it dry. Allowing light into your growing bed and reservoir will encourage the growth of algae which would steal your plant nutrients and oxygen, thus, disrupting the growth of your plants.
Step 2 – Build raft to hold planting pots and ensure that it floats
You need to build a floating platform to ensure that the plants float in water and prevent prolong submergence of the plant roots in water which can lead to root rot. You can make use of Styrofoam of 1 ½ thick, ensure that it is cut according to the size of your hydroponic growing bed opening.
Check the edges of the floating platform and ensure that it can move up and down to the bottom of the flood – table so that your plants can float.
- Note: if your growing bed has a lid (especially if you are using a very large plastic container), then you don’t have to build a floating system using Styrofoam, use the lid of your growing bed instead.
Place your mesh pots or planting pots upside down on the lid of your growing bed or the Styrofoam and line them up. Now use a pencil to trace around each pot and ensure that the lines you’re tracing out do not overlap.
Cut holes about the size of the base of your mesh pot at the center of each outlined circles using a saw or razor knife. After cutting away the smaller circles, make some perpendicular relief cuts towards the bigger (outlined) circle. This will help you achieve a better seal and ensure the pots are held tightly by the Styrofoam or your growing bed lid without falling through the holes.
Cut as many holes as required to accommodate all the plants you intend to grow. Ensure that your plant pots fit tightly into these holes and its base does not extend beyond 0.4 cm (1/16’’) beneath the floating platform especially if you are using the Styrofoam.
Step 3 – Install an overflow and pump
The submersible pump will help to send the nutrient solution to the plant’s roots in your growing bed. On the other hand, the Flow pipe will help to drain excess water from the system to avoid the stagnation of water in your hydroponic growing bed which might lead to root rot and a poor result.
To add an overflow to your growing bed, make a hole at the bottom of the bed, install the bulkhead fittings with the filter in the hole, and seal the gaps around the fittings with hot glue or epoxy. Fix the pipe or garden hose on the bulkhead and channel it down into your reservoir. The filter will help to prevent the entry of the growing medium into your reservoir.
If you want to regulate the amount of water available to the plant, you may install drip emitters or a simple timer to control the pump. Drip emitters are available in different drip rates and can be used to reduce the rate at which water flows out of the system. Install the submersible pump the same way you installed the overflow. Connect the hose or tubes and place the pump in your reservoir. Make sure you check for leakages and seal them up.
- Note: your reservoir must have a lid and should always be covered after you add the plant food to prevent the entry of light which will lead to the growth of algae. So, all the fittings should pass through the lid into the reservoir.
Step 4 – Mix the plant food with water in the reservoir
Fill the system with water and add a little bit of chlorine bleach to kill bacteria and other intruders that might be hanging around to hamper the success of the system. Put the planting pots in the growing bed, turn the pump, and run it for 20 minutes. Drain and dump all the water and allow it to dry completely to chuck out the chlorine.
You need to plant food or fertilizer to nourish the plants. Buy plant nutrients or fertilizers that are rich in magnesium, calcium, and other essential nutrients at your local store. Fill the reservoir with water and add the nutrient as directed by the manufacturer. Turn on the pump and run the system for 30 to 40 minutes to allow all the nutrients to mix thoroughly with water.
Step 5 – Add the plants
Prepare your growing medium and pour it into your mesh or planting pots till they are 1/3 full. You can use a part of coco fiber and eight parts of perlite; you can also use peat moss or vermiculite in place of coco fiber.
Select the crop you want to grow in your hydroponic garden. Make sure you select the healthiest sprouted seedlings available and get rid of all the soil in their roots. You can remove the dirt in their roots by immersing their root balls in a bucket of lukewarm water and separating it gently to remove the soil. Make sure you don’t damage the plant root system.
Place the seedling in the mesh or planting pot and fill with the growing medium. Wet the seedlings lightly and place the pots in the holes of the lid or floating platform of the growing bed or flood table.
Step 6 – Turn on the system and monitor it
Check the level of water in the system daily; you may have to check it 2 or 3 times in a day especially if the setup is in a region with low humidity, high temperature, and evaporation. Examine the nutrient levels and pH every few days. You will need to add grow lights to the system especially if your system is in an indoor space and you’ll have to keep the lights on for 15 to 20 hours daily.
Step 1 – Set up your growing bed or tray
Find a large watertight container, fish tank (aquarium) to use as your growing bed. If your growing bed is translucent or transparent, paint it black or construct a shield using aluminum foil or cardboard to block off the light. You can make some part of the light shield removable if you wish to view your plant roots.
Step 2 – Build a floating platform to hold your plants
Cut the Styrofoam according to the size of your growing bed. Make sure the Styrofoam is a little smaller than your growing bed opening so that it can float and without binding up as the level of the water changes.
Cut holes in the Styrofoam to hold the planting pots (or mesh pots) so that the base of the pots hangs beneath the bottom of the Styrofoam float without falling through. Cut as many holes as required (based on the number of plants you want to grow), also cut a small hole to run the airline into the growing chamber. Make sure you space the holes properly so that each plant receives enough light.
Mix the growing medium and pour into the mesh or planting pots and add the plants.
Step 3 – Mix the nutrient and install the air stone
Fill up the growing chamber with water and mix the plant food (nutrient or fertilizer) with water as directed by the nutrient manufacturer. Check the pH of the solution and adjust according to the requirement of the crop you want to grow.
Run the airline through the small hole you made in the Styrofoam and attach it to the air stone. Place the air stone in the growing chamber and attach the airline to the air pump. Plug the air pump into your electrical outlet and check if bubbles are coming up from the air stone.
- DO NOT IMMERSE THE AIR PUMP IN WATER, doing so may result in an electric shock!
Step 4 – Add the plants and run the system
Place the floating platform (Styrofoam) on the nutrient solution, then place the mesh or planting pots in the designated holes in the floating platform and turn on the air pump. Place the system where it can receive enough sunlight otherwise add a grow light.
- Add only water to the solution to bring the level back up when the plants have expended about half of the nutrient solution. You can check and adjust the pH again if necessary. Adding additional nutrients or fertilizer here will increase the nutrient concentration which can harm your plants.
- Drain the growing chamber and mix a fresh nutrient solution when your crops have used up half of the plant nutrient solution for the second time.
Congratulations! You have successfully built your hydroponic system.
Where did the term “hydroponics” originate from?
For you to understand where the term “hydroponic” came from, I will take you back into its ancient history. The history of this system dates back to the 10th and 11th centuries when the Aztecs took their residence on Lake Tenochtitlan and were unable to cultivate crops on its swampy shores. They developed Chinampas or floating hydroponic gardens by building rafts of reeds; the raft floated on the water and allowed the plant roots to descend through it into the lake to absorb the nutrients needed for its growth.
According to an article that was published in Time Magazine, in the year 1938, the research on the uses of hydroponics for commercial purposes was carried out by several scientists at UC, Berkeley. William Gericke, one of the scientists that partook in the research succeeded in using the only mineral nutrient solution to grow tomato vines of 25 ft high in his backyard and called the process “aquaculture.”
He later found that the term “aquaculture” was already in use for aquatic organisms; then he went further to introduce the term “hydroponics” which is a Greek word for water (hydro) and labor (ponos). Gericke left his politically unfavorable academic position and published Complete Guide to Soil-less Gardening in 1940, a book that you can still use today since it has been updated to accommodate the advancement in technology.
The Benefits of Growing Crops Hydroponically
You might be wondering what you stand to gain by ditching the traditional soil and raising crops in your hydroponic garden – well, I would say you are missing a lot by not even trying. One of the most obvious benefits of raising your crops hydroponically is its significant increase in plant growth rate and yield. The growth rate of most hydroponic plants has been proved to be faster by 20 to 50 percent with up to 25 percent more yield than their soil counterpart which was grown under the same environmental conditions. Imagine, raising crops and enjoying greater yields, isn’t that awesome?
Another benefit is the availability of enough oxygen in hydroponic growing mediums, which will help to improve your plant’s root development. In a hydroponic system, the nutrients are in a solution and are made available to your plant’s root system; your plant will not have to struggle to find nutrition and water as they would in the soil. And since plants with enough oxygen in their root system tend to absorb nutrients faster, your plant will absorb the nutrients it needs in a speed of light. It will save the energy needed for your plants to find and breakdown its food and use that energy to focus on growth and fruit production.
The hydroponic system also makes the management of the mineral components and nutrients available to your plant easier. So, you can monitor what goes into your plants and what you take into your body by consuming the plants. Weeds will not invest your garden, so you won’t have to worry about weeding, you won’t even have to buy herbicides to kill the weeds. The use of fewer pesticides than soil gardening will save you the stress and cost of maintaining a garden, and will also translate into safer agricultural produce, so you won’t have to worry about pesticide poisoning.
Hydroponically grown plants are healthier since there are fewer problems with disease, funguses, bug, and pest infestations recorded with this planting system. The system uses less water and does not require as much irrigation as its soil counterparts, thus, allowing you to save more water resources. The erosion of the topsoil is not even an issue since the system uses no topsoil, so there is no need to worry about carrying out some agricultural practices to control erosion – this means lesser stress than soil gardening.
With the hydroponic system, you are no longer limited to crop production by climate, inadequate space, low water availability, or poor agricultural land but only by your own needs. Presently, NASA is employing the knowledge of hydroponics in their experiment with growing food in outer space. This may represent the future where home farmers, urban gardeners, and astronauts grow food with hydroponic systems in a small indoor space under a relatively controlled environment.
Does Hydroponic Gardening Have Its Disadvantages?
Of course, it does! The main disadvantage of this system is the cost of buying one. However, I have shown you how to build these systems which can help you reduce the cost.
Growing plants in a hydroponic system are not that difficult. However, it requires some level of experience which makes it more demanding than raising the same plants in the soil. This is because you have to monitor all the inputs such as light, nutrient water, and every other thing needed by the plants. And if there’s an equipment failure such as a dying pump, or one of the input or element is deficient, then the entire system may be at risk.
How to Care For And Maintain Your Hydroponic Garden
- Follow the instruction provided by your plant nutrient brand while adding and mixing the nutrients with water in your reservoir.
- Fill the reservoir with clean water. Do not use tap water as it contains elements like fluoride that may destroy your plants.
- Keep the nutrient solution moving from the reservoir to the growing bed to prevent bacterial growth and stagnant water.
- Check carefully and regularly to detect diseases and remove the affected plant immediately.
- The ideal temperature of water for this system is 65 to 75⁰ F.
- Clean the system, throw out the nutrient solution in the reservoir, and refill it every two weeks.
- Check the pump; make sure it is properly submerged in the reservoir to prevent damages.
Building your own hydroponic garden is not as difficult as it seems. By simply gathering the required tools and supplies and following the tips and guidelines provided above, you will not only be able to build and maintain your hydroponic garden with ease, but you will also be able to grow crops anywhere you are and anytime you want.