Hydroponics probably makes you think about the plants growing in your neighbor's teenager's closet. Well let me tell you, those growers have it goin on! They get it. A system that doesn't need your attention everyday, uses very little water and grows like crazy? Please sign this Harvest Trail gal up!
Deciding On A System
We started looking at systems online. We literally spent hours watching videos and cruising through websites trying to find the perfect easy hydroponic system. We knew we wanted something with easy H2O maintenance. We like to travel and want to be able to leave for a few days atr a time. Plus this system means- no weeding! We also wanted something that could be moved into the garage during the winter to keep our salad mix rolling. We found many great examples of hydroponic systems on YouTube, like this one below. However, this bad boy is set in cement and has room for 100 plants (a few too many for what we need right now). Here is a link for the materials needed here. After seeing a few we decided to build our own. [video link="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rj4MzjxjGck" width="95%" height="250px" border="no" type="youtube"]
Little Bit of Hydroponic Gardening History
Would it surprise you to know that hydroponic gardening has been around since 600 B.C.? The Babylonians created lush gardens along the Euphrates River, a dry arid climate, using hydroponic methods. Jump to the 10th and 11th centuries where the Aztecs used hydroponic methods by filling rafts with soil. These floating gardens became a necessity when their marshy lake shores where too hard to farm. On to the 17th century where people in this age liked hydroponics so much they started doing formal research and publications on their hydroponic systems. Move all the way along to a Time Magazine article written in 1938 and you can see how Berkeley University developed the first commercial hydroponics system and created some of the nutrient mixes still used today. Now that you know hydroponics is not just limited to smart pot smoking kids with a green thumb, let's look into the benefits of growing using hydroponics.
4 Big Advantages of Hydroponics
1. Hydroponic gardening uses less space. Hydroponics is a great way to garden using less space -thus the perfect answer to growing in large cities. Hydroponics typically takes up about 20% of the land use compared to most farming methods. Take a look at the photo to the left of hydroponics in an office building in Tokyo. Don't we all wish we could garden in a suit and stay clean? Okay not me, I like being comfortable when I garden, but I could pass on dirty knees.
2. Hydroponic gardens use less water. Hydroponic systems recycle water, in fact most systems can use about 10% of the water used in traditional farming methods. The photo on the right is a hydroponic class being taught in Africa. The system used in the class was donated from a company called American Hydroponics. Please click on the photo for more information on this program.
3. Hydroponic gardening is better for the environment. Hydroponics systems use less pesticides and herbicides -no weeding needed, yippee!
4. Hydroponic gardens are more economical. They allow more cultures to produce "local" products. Locals in communities with less than ideal climates can put the systems in green houses. This gives them control over humidity and other environmental issues necessary for growing numerous crops.
Our Hydroponic Garden Innovation
After hours and hours of research (I might have gotten carried away with the YouTube videos), we decided to combine a few ideas from different systems we came across. One thing we did, not seen on the videos, was hang our system from chains (which proved to be both a headache and a God send). We are hanging the system off our porch on the south facing side of our house instead of digging posts into the ground. We also used tubing to move water from one level to the next instead using PVC elbows (see video above). The 800 lb strength chain allowed us to put a little bit of a slope on each level to make the water flow better. We used a 3.75 drill bit and 4 inch basket nets and they fit perfect. We used dollar store Tupperware lids on one end of the PVC to cause water to build up high creating a reservoir on each level until the young plants have a more developed root system (see pictures below). They are held in place with silicone and are super easy to take out later when needed. We used a $12 tub from the store as a reservoir for the unit as a whole. The color black is best here because algae and other stuff will grow where there is light coming in through a light colored tub.
Nutrients & pH for H2O
The nutrient blend and the pH test kit we use come from General Hydroponics. You can get this on Amazon. We used the setting for seedlings first and moved them up after a week. Most plants like to be in the range of 5.5-6.5 when it comes to pH. If you are only growing one variety of plant in your system then I would suggest looking up the optimum plant pH for basil.
I started some seeds a few weeks ago using a small hydro system made out of a metal cake pan and used a small fish tank aerator for aeration. The seeds where first started in a seed starter container (found at Walmart or Lowes). For time sake I wont got into all that detail here, but I will add it in another post. We got a late start with our seeds so we decided to cheat and use store bought plants this year. We did this by washing away the dirt from the roots and gently adding them along with clay pebbles to the net pots. I am sure that hydroponic purists are scoffing at me now, but that's okay. We have seen a few people start their systems this way and the plants turn out fine. We are experimenting and learning as we go. I will say there are benefits to starting with seeds. The babies start out with very fine white roots, very fast, and a develop healthy root system. This means stronger and faster growing plants. This occurs because they are not navigating dirt looking for nutrients are competing for water. That being said ,you can tell from my pictures, my store bought plants don't look worse for the wear after a week in the system.
Controlling water Flow
The hardest part of our hydroponic system was getting the system lined up right for the water flow. Through this project my boyfriend and I had great communication. We get along pretty well in general as he has one of the easiest going natures to be found. But when you are still "gardening" at 10pm, things can get a little testy. We changed the level of each PVC pipe at least a few times. We originally tried to keep them all level but found sloping them down where the down spout comes out makes for the best water flow. It turns out that picking up 4in PVC with 3 gallons of sloshing water over and over can make someone cranky. We also had to re-size the tubing between the PVC pipes every time we adjusted the height. The other thorn in our side was with the pump. We did not read the directions on the side of the pump that said maximum height 6.5ft. We had to start all over again! Don't make this mistake. Place your pump and lift your hose to see the maximum height. We had also buried our reservoir to keep it more sightly and cool, well that got dug up in order to have the water reach the top level, and in turn messed with our return hose into the reservoir. The water level in the reservoir needs to be lower than the location of the return hose or water will overflow out the 4in holes cut in the PVC. Yet another lesson learned.
The Finished System
All in all, this project was fun and well worth it. We can now travel for days without worrying about water (pH will still be measured thanks to a neighbor friend) and we don't have to worry about weeding or expensive fertilizer. Mostly, we cant wait for our high yield! A few other advantages came about in this Harvest Trail adventure; 1) we didn't take up half the yard to garden 2) we used our old raised garden for wild flowers (attracts more pollinators and makes our bees happy) 3) we utilized more space by planting thyme in the concrete blocks holding the chains down and 4) created a nice division between us and our neighbors. Utilizing our space better is always an added bonus! You can see a video of the finished hydroponic garden system on YouTube here on The Harvest Trail Channel.